Warnings: Rated ST-17™© for explicit sexual encounters between consenting adults. Violence as consistent with canon, some alcohol use.
Categories: Ship, Femslash, Slash, Drama, Romance, Lower Decks
Pairings: Brooks/Lang, Harrison/Mannick
Characters: Sue Brooks, Deborah Lang, Noah Mannick, Brad Harrison
Spoilers: Caretaker, Parallax, Phage, The Cloud, Eye of the Needle, Prime Factors, The 37's, Maneuvers, Lifesigns, Investigations, Deadlock, Resolutions, Basics, Coda, The Gift, and the novel Pathways by Jeri Taylor.
A/N: Four lowly ensigns struggle to find happiness aboard the lost starship Voyager. Drama/Romance. 20,199 words. If you've enjoyed my fic previously, I encourage you to give this one a try. It's one of my best. Originally written for the seventh Voyager Blue Alert contest, slash division.
Credits: Thanks once again to 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias as well as Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. Research references include The Science of Aliens by Clifford Pickover, The Biology of Star Trek by Susan Jenkins, M.D., and Robert Jenkins, M.D., Ph.D., Life Everywhere by David Darling, Dinosaurs by Michael K. Brett-Surman, The Star Trek Encyclopedia by Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda, and The Voyager Companion by Paul Ruditis. Thank you to Dakota for the beautiful graphics.
Disclaimer: Paramount used to own these characters, but Jeri Taylor said I could have them. God invented sex, and love, and a host of splendid things.
"Some first mission." Ensign Deborah Lang sank into a seat in the mess hall. "How are things in engineering?"
"Busy." Ensign Brad Harrison reached across the table and briefly touched his friend's hand. "We'll make it."
"I know they trained us to be cool under pressure," Deborah said. "But do you have to be so much better at it than I am?"
"I'm not," he said. "I think I'm still in shock."
"Seventy thousand light years," she muttered. "Yeah, shock."
The replicated chicken soup tasted hollow. Something as ordinary as chicken soup didn't belong on the far side of the galaxy. She shouldn't have chosen soup. She should have replicated some of those little finger sandwiches like they always served after funerals. Little tiny ham salad sandwiches to honor the dead. Maybe she could have eaten finger sandwiches.
Deborah pushed away the soup.
"You have to eat," Brad said. "You might not get another chance for a while."
She pulled the bowl closer and forced herself to eat in a steady, rhythmic pace, just like the time she'd eaten meal worms in Nimembeh's survival course at the Academy. The noodles wriggled, but at least they didn't crunch.
"We heard that someone's missing," Brad said.
"The operations officer," Deborah answered. "Harry Kim."
"He graduated with us. Ran the newspaper, didn't he?"
She nodded. "They think he's on the fifth planet. That array thing is transmitting energy pulses to it."
"That's where we're headed?"
"Yes." Deborah finished the soup. "I've got to get back to the bridge."
"I need to get back too," Brad said. "I'll see you later?"
"Of course." She reached out and squeezed his arm. "I'm glad you're here."
"I'm not sure I should thank you for that."
"You know what I mean."
"I do." The grim smile he managed gave her some comfort.
Her family and closest friends, along with most of the human race, were on the other side of the galaxy, but she still had Brad. At least she wasn't completely alone.
Ensign Noah Mannick jogged through the corridors on deck fourteen, the slap of his sneakers echoing off the walls. He didn't see anyone else. Those not on the gamma shift were sound asleep by now. At least those not thinking about the seventy thousand light years between Voyager and Earth.
He turned a corner and crashed into a young woman coming the other way. They both sprawled across the floor. Noah rolled away from her and pressed his face against the deck.
"Sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."
He could feel his face start to burn. If he lifted his head she'd see the hated red smear that advertised his foolishness.
"It's my fault," she said. "I didn't think anyone else would be up."
"Neither did I." He started to climb to his feet. She stood above him and reached down to offer her hand. He rose and covered his embarrassment by shaking her hand. "Noah Mannick."
She smiled. "Sue Brooks. Fitness buff or insomniac?"
"A little of both, tonight," he said. "I really am sorry."
"It takes two careless people to make an accident." She leaned forward and started to stretch her legs. "Besides, no one noticed."
"I won't tell if you don't," he said, stretching his own muscles.
She grinned up at him. "Pinky swear?"
"What? Sure." He awkwardly took her outstretched hand.
"No," she said. "Like this." She wrapped her little finger around his. "I solemnly vow never to tell a soul."
He repeated her words, feeling a little foolish.
"Silly, I know," she said. "My sister and I used to do that when we were kids. Hey, how about a drink?"
Noah shrugged. "Sure."
The mess hall was deserted. They replicated some beverages and chose a table near the viewport.
"I used to love looking at the stars," Sue said. "They always look different from space, but these aren't even the same stars."
"Funny, isn't it?" Noah stared out the viewport. "People spent centuries staring up at the stars and wondering who, if anyone, called each of them home. Then came first contact, and then the early missions, and they knew. Now we've got the chance all over again. No one from Earth has visited these stars. They're fresh and new."
"You sound excited."
"I guess I am," Noah said. "I did join Starfleet for the travel."
Sue stared out the viewport again. "Do you think we'll be out here long enough to see very many of them?"
"It would be a waste to come all this way and not have a look around."
"True. I wasn't happy stuck on a space station, and it's not like I was planning to spend all that much time on Earth anyway. It's just -- well I hope I'll see it again."
"We will," Noah said. "We got here, after all."
Ensign Brad Harrison had two conflicting sets of orders, and didn't know which to follow. Without its chief, Engineering had erupted in chaos. One of the Maquis broke Lieutenant Carey's nose in a dispute over the power grid, and the chain of command became uncertain.
A Bajoran woman that Brad didn't recognize shouted orders at everyone, while a young Vulcan ensign made quiet suggestions. Brad didn't know which of them had the authority to take command. Between learning the specifics of Voyager and working on the repairs following the battle with the Kazon, he hadn't had the time to meet everyone in the department, let alone learn the complete chain of command.
Lunchtime brought a sense of relief as he left the confusion and headed for the mess hall. The replicators were down, so he selected a ration pack and joined Deborah.
"I heard the Maquis tried to start a mutiny," she said.
"No mutiny," he said. "At least, I don't think so. The Klingon, Torres I think? She and Carey had a scuffle about realigning the lateral plasma conduit."
"Quite a scuffle."
"The thing is, she was probably right. Her idea would generate more power, and in a crisis we'll need it."
"Forget a crisis," Deborah said. "I'm for anything that gets the replicators running again."
Ensign Sue Brooks rubbed her bleary eyes and finally gave up on concentrating. Maybe a bite to eat would give her some energy. If she didn't do something, she'd make a mistake. She left Deflector Control in favor of the mess hall.
The place was crowded and she didn't see anyone she knew. Maybe she'd just eat her ration pack at her station. She felt too tired to attempt conversation with strangers.
"There's a seat here." A dark haired man indicated the seat beside him.
"Thanks." She put down her tray.
"I'm Brad," he said. "This is Deborah."
"Sue." She smiled at Brad, an obligatory smile that she hoped didn't cross the line into scary, and turned to the dark haired woman seated across from him.
There wasn't anything frightening about Deborah's smile. The warmth of it poured over her, putting her at ease and even restoring some of her depleted energy. She slid into the empty seat, suddenly finding the possibility of conversation more appealing than her ration pack.
Noah didn't lift his eyes from his PADD as he entered the mess hall. The information that the Ocampan woman, Kes, had provided about her people could keep a dozen Federation scientists busy for years. In the Alpha Quadrant, ensigns like himself and Samantha Wildman would be lucky to earn a footnote in the resulting publications. Out here, they could write the papers themselves. Not that anyone would read them right away, but that seemed a small price to him.
The Ocampans' rapid growth rate didn't seem to stem from a rapid metabolism, as he first suspected. Quite the opposite, in fact. The meals Kes described from her time with the Kazon would barely keep a human alive, and yet she claimed her health hadn't suffered.
Someone behind him cleared their throat, and he looked up. He'd reached the serving table and was now holding up the line. His face burned as he grabbed a ration pack and turned to find a place to sit.
He spotted Sue and hurried to her table, avoiding the eyes of everyone in the room. The red on his cheeks would fade if he ignored it.
He put down his tray and Sue made the introductions. He barely glanced at either woman. Then his eyes connected with the dark, thoughtful gaze of Brad Harrison. The man had perfect chiseled features, like a statue come to life.
Noah snapped his attention back to his tray and took his seat. The flush would never leave his face if he got caught staring like that. He glanced at the women, but they seemed engrossed in a discussion about the Caretaker's array.
"It must have created an artificial wormhole," Sue was saying. "The entity must have targeted the Badlands specifically, and then waited for passing ships. To have taken both from the same region of space would be an impossible coincidence if he could open a wormhole just anywhere."
"The energy requirements would be enormous," the dark haired woman said. "A ship this size could never harness that much power without destroying itself in the process."
Noah realized he had already forgotten the other woman's name. He prayed he wouldn't get caught without that knowledge.
"The ship couldn't produce it," Brad said. "We'd require a separate device to harness that sort of power, one that could be left behind. If it destroyed itself when used, that might actually prove a benefit. I'm sure leaving such a powerful device unguarded would violate the prime directive."
Smart, too, Noah observed. He watched Brad's long fingers as they lifted a bite of rations to his perfect mouth. With a swallow, he forced his eyes back to his own meal and began to eat.
The last thing he needed while on a ship this size was to develop a crush. Those led to nothing but trouble.
Deborah joined her friends for breakfast, at first delighted that ration packs might be a thing of the past. Then she tasted the meal and decided it might not be such a step up.
Noah disagreed. He grinned and declared the Talaxian's cooking to be delightfully exotic. "It'll grow on you," he promised the others. "It's like Bolian food. Many humans don't like that at first, either."
"You said that about ration pack number seven," Brad said. "That didn't get any better the third time we had it."
"The same goes for ration packs one through six," Sue said. "Not that I could tell them apart."
"Try the vegetables," Noah said. "You'll like those."
Deborah had to agree. The vegetables were indeed the best part of the meal. Well, not eating alone was the best part of the meal. "Everyone up for another game of cards tonight?"
"I'm running out of things to play for," Brad said. "We need a pool table. Then I'd clean all of your clocks."
"I bet there's a holodeck program with a pool table," Sue said.
"If we get some holodeck time I'm dying for a game of tennis," Deborah said. "Brad and I played at the academy."
"So did I," Sue said. "I could also go for a game of velocity. I always sleep better after a good match."
Deborah's imagination produced an image of Sue in a Starfleet Academy tennis skirt. Tennis players always had great legs. The pretty redhead would prove no exception.
"We'll have to settle for a late night jog," Noah said. "How are the holodeck repairs coming?"
"Most of the relays are replaced," Brad said. "If this ship manages a few days without a crisis they'll be up and running soon."
"What are the odds of that?" Deborah asked.
As if in answer, the senior officers were immediately called to the bridge.
Brad listened as Lieutenant Torres outlined her plan to convert the auxiliary impulse reactor into a dilithium refinery. He couldn't decide if she was brilliant or crazy.
They didn't get far when a more urgent need arose. "I need your help analyzing a piece of alien technology," Torres said. "Follow me."
When they reached the science station on the bridge, Noah was among those already studying the device. The two men smiled in greeting.
"The captain recovered this device on the planetoid," Lieutenant Tuvok said. "The individual who dropped it may have been Mister Neelix's attacker."
"A weapon of some kind?" Brad asked.
"Further analysis would be indicated before we reach a conclusion," Tuvok replied.
"That's Vulcan for we don't know," Noah whispered.
"Let's start with the power source," Torres said. "What do we know about it so far?"
"We know they have the technology to target specific vital organs and transport them out of the body," Ensign Wildman said. "We don't know what role this device plays in the process, if any."
Brad shuddered when she went on to explain that Neelix was now in sickbay, minus his lungs.
"Are there any components that suggest transporter technology?"
She handed him the device. "You tell me."
He turned it over in his hand, careful not to touch any controls. "This display makes it look more like a tricorder. Can we get a look inside?"
"We were about to scan it," Noah said.
Brad handed the device to him, and their hands touched. He must have imagined the shiver that ran down his spine. With a swallow, he turned to watch Torres and Wildman set up the scan.
Noah stood beside him. He could feel the heat from the other man's body. He tried to focus on what Lieutenant Torres was saying about quantum imaging and microcellular analysis.
Fortunately all she seemed to expect from him was that he hand her the proper tool when she asked. The alien technology was like nothing he had seen at Starfleet Academy, and his roiling emotions had pushed to the forefront of his thoughts.
He couldn't be attracted to a friend, one of the few he had out here, and he certainly couldn't let it distract him while on duty. The alien device made a tricorder look like a mercury thermometer. He focused on making sense of its data collection methods, but Torres had already surpassed the rest of them in her understanding of the thing.
"It's more than a weapon," she said. "It's also a sophisticated medical scanner and a surgical instrument. And see this? It has a neural resonator to stun the victim, and can do a microcellular analysis right down to the DNA sequencing."
Noah reached around Brad to point out a component and ask a question. Brad couldn't even think with the other man's arm brushing against his ribcage.
He moved forward, away from the contact, and tried to think of a question himself, if not a useful contribution. Nothing came to him. Fortunately, the captain returned, and Torres presented her findings.
Brad was free to return to engineering and pull himself together. He could work through lunch, but he needed to have his emotions under control before dinner.
Noah tried not to watch Brad at dinner. The other man seemed to avoid his gaze, like he knew something. Like he sensed Noah's inconvenient attraction.
He'd lost friendships this way before. They always knew. They sensed it, and drifted away to avoid the discomfort. Noah's stomach twisted at the thought of losing Brad the same way. He wanted this friendship.
He needed Brad's friendship more than he needed oxygen to breath, wanted it more than he wanted those long fingers stroking his body. He cursed his own thoughts as he felt his skin flush.
This couldn't happen. They'd all be together on Voyager for years, maybe as many as seventy years, and he couldn't spend them alone, hiding from the humiliation of another spoiled friendship.
"Noah?" Sue's hand waved in front of his face. "Noah, are you even in there?"
He blinked at her. "Sorry, what?"
"Do you think Neelix will make it?"
"Oh." He nodded. "Sam said he'll be fine." He shared what he knew about the Talaxian's condition.
The others listened quietly, sympathy for Neelix and Kes written on their faces. He met Brad's eyes. His friend didn't flinch away, but returned the look. Maybe he'd imagined the tension, or misinterpreted it.
In either case he'd dodged a phaser blast. He'd have to be more careful.
"Who's up for a trip to France?" Deborah asked, grinning when the others stared at her.
"Do we finally have holodecks?" Sue asked.
"Just the one, but there's a new program and it's open to everyone. Ensign Kim said he got a sneak preview." Deborah looked at Brad. "There's even a pool table."
"Sounds perfect," Brad said.
Sue didn't feel comfortable about leaving her quarters out of uniform, but she wanted a more casual look. She settled for letting her strawberry blonde hair out of its customary twist, enjoying the effect as it tumbled down over her shoulders. Just in case, she tucked her hairpins into her pocket. If some crisis arose and she needed to return to duty, she could put it back up.
Her door chimed. "Come." She turned to find Deborah smiling at her. "Where are the guys?"
"Brad's doing his lucky pool player's warm up," she said. "I don't know about Noah."
Sue laughed. "Lucky warm up?"
"He wants revenge for all the hands of poker he's lost," Deborah said. "I think we're all in trouble tonight."
When they reached the holodeck, neither man had yet arrived. They chose a booth and made themselves comfortable. A beautiful woman offered them drinks in an accent that made it impossible to refuse.
"There's something sensual about France," Deborah said. "Doesn't it just make you tingle?"
Sue looked away from the intensity of her friend's gaze and studied their surroundings. "It's nice," she said. "Very authentic."
"I hope he programmed the shoreline, too," Deborah said. "There's nothing like a moonlight stroll along the Mediterranean, your fingers whispering along your lover's spine, the light dancing across the water, your insides melting at the first soft kiss."
Sue shifted in her seat and looked around again. "I wonder what's keeping the guys. Oh, here come the drinks."
Deborah sipped her holographic wine and pretended not to notice Sue's discomfort. Flirting with a woman always gave her a thrill. It was a delicate game. Too much, and she could scare off a friend. On a ship this size, the stakes were even higher.
She didn't want to lose her group of friends, but Sue looked too good to ignore. If there was a chance for something to happen, she wanted to know. You'd never know the answer if you ignored the question.
Satisfied with the reaction she'd provoked, she changed the subject. "Last time Brad played pool, he cleared the table before his opponent even had a chance to play. It's a good thing we were graduating. He was out of pool players to beat."
"Don't give away all my secrets," Brad said. He slid in beside her. "I won't be able to hustle anyone if you do that."
Noah took the seat beside Sue. "I hope you weren't planning to hustle your friends. That wouldn't be sporting." He winked at Sue, who smiled at him.
Deborah watched, wondering if there was something between them, but Noah barely glanced at Sue. If he'd had any interest, he wouldn't have been able to pry his eyes from her, not with her hair down like that, shining in the candlelight.
"I'm anxious to see this spectacle," Sue said. "I'll play you."
Brad rose, eager for the chance to show off his skills. His friends, especially Sue, had shamed him too many times with their card playing abilities over the last few weeks. The pool cue felt good in his hand.
He let Sue break, pleased when she proved a competent player. It wasn't any fun to beat someone if they weren't any good. She missed a shot, and he took over.
His first shot was simple. Sue had just missed the pocket, and he took advantage of the easy setup. The next one proved more difficult. He enjoyed the geometry of it, picturing the angles in his mind's eye, judging the force required, anticipating the rebound of the cue ball and how it would effect his next shot.
"Finally someone worth beating," Lieutenant Paris said as Brad sent the final ball into the corner pocket.
He smiled at the attractive pilot. "Is that a challenge?"
Noah watched Brad's fingers slide up and down the pool cue. He couldn't seem to resist the sight. The man handled the cue with skill, his shots confident and precise. When he bent forward to line up a shot, the intensity of his expression made everything else in the room fade away, and when he smiled after pocketing a ball, he seemed to radiate joy.
He circled the table again, presenting Noah with a different view. His buttocks tensed against black fabric as he bent forward. Noah imagined the expanse of lean muscle concealed by the uniform, and wondered how it would feel under his touch.
The intensity of his crush frightened him. He tried to think of other things, even unpleasant things, to quiet his response to the sight before him. He reminded himself of what he had to lose if he alienated Brad. His mind betrayed him, though, listing off Brad's good points. All of the reasons he valued Brad's friendship were also the reasons for the attraction he felt.
They had so much in common, and shared so many interests. Except for one very important interest, Noah reminded himself, and that would ruin everything if he couldn't keep it to himself.
In the privacy of his own quarters, much later that evening, Noah let himself remember Brad's intense gaze and firm, athletic body. He opened his fly, picturing Brad's long fingers as he stroked himself to completion. Images of Brad in an assortment of poses flickered through his mind, like a dirty movie with the frames out of sequence.
The guilt set in even before his member softened. Not for the act, everyone did that, but for the images he'd used. Men didn't appreciate being the subject of such fantasies. Brad could never know. If his friend somehow discovered his feelings, it would be a long, lonely journey home.
Sue listened as Lieutenant Torres explained the modifications she wanted made to the deflector dish. The energy rich nebula the ship had entered earlier had turned out to be a life form, and for reasons Torres didn't explain they were preparing to go back and bother it some more.
"If we get trapped again, we'll need a way to create an energy pulse without phaser banks or photon torpedoes."
Trapped again? Sue didn't comment. She'd learn the full story later, and right now she had a job to do. At least her department had an assignment more interesting than damage control. Deflector Control rarely had the opportunity to make much difference in a crisis.
As a six week assignment, head of Deflector Control looked good on a resume. It provided some command experience. She hadn't envisioned seventy years of this, however, and hoped she'd get the chance to work in other areas of the ship.
Not that she didn't do the work efficiently, and give it her full attention. A malfunctioning deflector could hobble a ship, limiting its movement to thrusters only. Operating without a working deflector was suicide, even at impulse speeds. And if the deflector went off line at impulse or warp speeds, the resulting hull breech could destroy the ship.
Deflector Control might not be a glamorous assignment, but the work was vital to the safety of the ship and crew. And with a creative chief engineer, it just might turn out interesting after all.
Brad couldn't hold back a smile at Noah's enthusiastic description of the day. The man practically bounced in his seat, his eyes sparkling with excitement. Brad found himself hanging on every word.
"I wrote my senior thesis on space dwelling organisms," Noah said. "I'd never seen one before today, though. Everyone used to think such a thing was impossible, at least before the Enterprise encountered one in the twenty-third century.
"If you go back to the early days of astrobiology, before we'd even explored our own solar system, the very idea was laughable. The funny thing is, every single point they made back then is perfectly valid, and yet we find these things anyhow, despite the impossible odds."
"Noah," Deborah said. "Don't forget to breath."
"That's another thing," Noah said. "Respiration. It should be impossible in such an environment, especially for something that big. We still don't know how these life forms exchange the gases they require for metabolism, or where they find them."
"Too bad we didn't get stuck in the thing," Deborah said. "You could have studied it longer."
"With the data we collected, we might figure out some of the answers even without hanging around," Noah said. "The creature had a high concentration of omicron particles. That could mean -- "
Brad leaned forward, eager to compare the creature's energy use to that of the warp core. He'd never particularly enjoyed xenobiology, but Noah made it interesting.
They kept talking, the feragoit goulash cooling on the table. Deborah and Sue left for the holodeck. Brad barely noticed.
"So," Noah was saying. "If Commander Chakotay was right about the circulatory system, we could have some real insight into some of the major questions."
Brad caught himself staring intently into Noah's eyes, and as the lull settled he looked down uncomfortably. He saw his own hand touching Noah's, idly toying with the other man's fingers. He jerked his hand away.
"Sorry, I -- " His throat closed around words that didn't exist.
Noah's face reddened and he stood swiftly, avoiding Brad's gaze. He obviously wasn't interested in an explanation, even if Brad could have found one.
Alone at the table with two ice cold bowls of feragoit goulash, Brad felt the numbness settle around his heart. He'd just lost a friend.
Deborah was standing behind Harry Kim when she heard him say it. Wormhole. A word that she, like everyone else, had longed to hear, but the suddenness of it knocked the wind from her. She wanted a little more time on Voyager. The Delta Quadrant had grown on her.
She cringed a bit at her relief when the opening proved too small for the ship. Then the probe got itself trapped, and she had too much to do to feel much of anything.
Then, Romulans. With the whole Alpha Quadrant to choose from, fate picked the Romulans to receive Voyager's hail. Deborah stared at the viewscreen with the others, amazed at how the captain seemed to take it all in stride. Did nothing rattle that woman?
Janeway's voice didn't even waver as she ordered the crew to write letters home. Deborah swallowed, wondering for the first time if her parents thought she was dead.
When she was a kid, her mother always used to say she'd be late for her own funeral. Now, it was quite possible that she'd missed it entirely.
Sue could tell that Noah had something on his mind. They hadn't seen him at breakfast, he'd skipped lunch, and now at dinner he'd dropped his spoon three times as they waited for the others.
She'd barely seen him over the last week or so, and she doubted the others had either. She'd assumed he was absorbed in writing his paper on the space dwelling organism, but now she wasn't sure that there wasn't more to it.
Deborah joined them, causing Noah to jump like a spooked horse, his spoon clattering to the table once again.
"Should we tape this to your hand?" Sue handed him the spoon. "You know, a full night's sleep might do you some good."
"You're probably right," he mumbled without looking up.
"So where's Brad?" Deborah asked the moment she arrived. "I know you're all dying to know what happened on the bridge, and I don't want to have to start over half way through."
She started anyway, Sue noticed, and with her usual flare for the dramatic.
"Your impression of Ensign Kim is pretty good, but your Lieutenant Tuvok needs work."
"Indeed," said Deborah.
She laughed. "Yeah, like that. Hey Brad, over here!"
Noah's spoon clattered to the table again.
Brad paused, then approached the table slowly and took the seat beside her. He didn't offer much of a greeting, and immediately started in on the stew.
Sue and Deborah exchanged a glance.
"I have an idea," Deborah said. "Why don't we go back to my quarters and write our letters. It might be easier if we don't have to do it alone."
"I think that's a great idea," Sue said quickly. "I could really use some help. I don't know what to say to my mother under normal circumstances."
Deborah gave Sue the code to access her quarters so that she could keep Brad company while he finished his dinner. "Okay, we're alone. What's up with you and Noah?"
"It's nothing," Brad said.
"You're not acting like it's nothing."
"I'd rather not talk about it."
"Too bad. Spill it."
"If you must know, I made an ass out of myself and I doubt Noah wants anything to do with me."
"You're not giving him much credit," Deborah said. "This is a small ship. You can't alienate your friends and then just avoid them. Whatever it is, get over it."
"It's not that easy."
Deborah rolled her eyes. "And you call me a drama queen."
Brad flinched. "It's embarrassing, and it's personal. Can't you just leave it alone."
"I will," she said. "On one condition: Whatever it is, work it out with Noah. Now let's go."
Noah didn't want to face Brad, but he didn't have much choice. He just hoped the other man wouldn't tell Sue and Deborah what had happened.
He shuddered again at the memory of Brad's expression when he had looked down and caught Noah holding his hand. The man found him disgusting.
He stared at the blank PADD in his hand and tried to focus on what to say to his mother. The captain needed these letters by morning. He kept his eyes on the PADD, as if he could make the words to appear by sheer force of will.
Brad's voice broke his concentration. "Can we just forget the other night?"
"Yes," Noah said. "Of course. No problem." He couldn't believe that Brad would let it go so easily. "Already forgotten."
"Good," Brad said. "Good."
It wasn't forgotten yet, Noah could see that, but he was happy to pretend if Brad would. "Who's your letter for?"
"My mom, I guess," Brad said. "She's the only one who ever bothers to get the mail anyway. How about you?"
"My mom," Noah said. "I don't have anyone else. My dad died in the Battle of Maxia."
"I'm sorry," Brad said. "Were you close?"
Noah shrugged. "I was just a kid, and he was away a lot before it happened."
"I lost my dad too," Sue said. "I barely remember him."
"How did it happen?" Deborah asked.
"Oh, he's not dead," Sue said. "That's just what my mother tells people. She wouldn't want anyone to know that her husband ran off."
"Ouch." Deborah reached over and laid her hand on Sue's shoulder. "And you don't ever see him?"
"My sister said she saw him once, on a school field trip to Fort Knox. I don't know if she really did, or just imagined it. Okay, so what are we telling our families?"
"That we're safe, I guess," Deborah said.
"Won't Starfleet tell them that?" Sue asked.
"I think we're trying for the personal touch," Brad said. "Something more than 'dear sir or madam, we are pleased to inform you that your son isn't dead.' My father didn't bother with more than that after his accident, and my poor mother just about drove herself crazy waiting for him to come home and give her the full story. Not that he ever did."
Deborah and Sue beamed down to Sikaris together for shore leave. The people welcomed them cheerfully, eager to meet visitors and hear stories of their travels.
"Ensign Campbell mentioned a restaurant that we just have to try," Deborah said. "And did you see that amazing fabric that Lieutenant Nicoletti was showing around?"
Sue nodded. "I'm looking forward to the gardens."
Deborah had thought of little else since she'd seen the fabric. Sue would look amazing dressed in it. After months together on the ship, Deborah had yet to see Sue wear anything but her uniform. That, she decided, would change today.
The clothing shop proved easy to find.
"This would look great on you." Deborah held a dress in front of Sue. "Oh, so would this. You should try these on."
"I'm not sure," Sue said. "I don't really need new clothes."
"It's not about needing clothes," Deborah said. "It's just fun to look. You can pick something for me if you like."
Sue looked uncertain.
"Trust me," Deborah said, her voice low. "You'll look gorgeous." She enjoyed the slow blush that colored Sue's cheeks. "Besides, this fabric will feel amazing on your skin."
A helpful clerk showed them to the changing rooms. Deborah waited while Sue changed. "Well? Do I get to see."
"I don't know," Sue said. "This is pretty skimpy."
"Let me see," Deborah said. "No one else is out here."
Sue emerged from behind the curtain, a vision in the delicate sundress. The exquisitely tailored garment revealed creamy white shoulders, a teasing hint of milky-white cleavage, and the shapely legs of an athlete.
"You're beautiful," Deborah said. "That dress wants you to own it."
Sue didn't comment. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and fidgeted.
"Relax," Deborah said softly. She stepped closer to Sue and pulled the pins from her hair. Then she used her fingers to comb through the wavy red tresses.
Sue's hair felt soft between her fingers, and Deborah heard her friend's breathe catch as she circled behind her, letting her fingers brush against bare skin as she arranged the hair the way she wanted.
Deborah turned Sue to face her, taking the opportunity to pull her hands away from her chest. Sue's fingers felt warm in her grasp. She stroked her thumb across the back of Sue's hand and watched her friend tremble slightly in response.
Her instincts weren't wrong.
"This dress was made for you," she said. "If you don't buy it then I'll be forced to buy it for you."
"It's too much," Sue said. "I couldn't accept -- "
"I'll make you a deal," Deborah said. "I'll buy you this, and you pick something out for me. It'll be fun."
Sue could feel her heart pounding as Deborah fussed with her hair. Her skin tingled where the other woman accidentally touched her. She felt naked in the dress after months in uniform.
Deborah urged her over to the clothing racks. "What should I try on?"
Sue let her fingers trail over the delicate fabric. It did feel nice. She tried to imagine Deborah in the various outfits, holding them up against her companion's body.
"This one," she decided. She liked the way the color brought out Deborah's eyes.
"Good choice." Deborah slipped off to the dressing room.
Sue waited, trying not to tug at the hem of her dress. She knew it wasn't any shorter than her tennis skirt. The light fabric just felt shorter.
"How do I look?" Deborah stood in front of the curtain.
"Great," Sue said. "You really look great." She tried not to let her eye linger inappropriately, but Deborah looked wonderful in the dress.
Sue blushed and tore her eyes away from Deborah's cleavage. She hadn't meant to pick something so revealing, but Deborah certainly had the body to pull it off.
"We'd better buy some shoes, too," Deborah said. "Our boots don't go with these dresses."
They had lunch, and agreed that the restaurant lived up to expectations. Afterwards, they strolled through the gardens. Sue shivered every time Deborah's fingers brushed against her hand.
"I'm glad we got to spend shore leave together," Deborah said.
"It's been lovely day," Sue agreed. "Fresh air, sunshine, good company -- what more could we want?"
"Plenty," Deborah said. "But this was about perfect."
They returned to the ship and went back to Deborah's quarters. Sue took the glass of wine Deborah offered. Their fingers brushed, sending another tingle down Sue's spine.
She looked down and swallowed. She enjoyed Deborah's company. She liked Deborah's smile. That wasn't the same as wanting to -- she wasn't like that. She was normal, the occasional fantasy didn't mean anything. Everyone had thoughts. It didn't matter.
"Have a seat," Deborah said. "Make yourself comfortable."
When Sue sat down, Deborah sat beside her. "We've got to tell Brad and Noah about that restaurant. I'd hate for them to miss it."
"That's the best meal I've had since Deep Space Nine," Sue agreed. "I hope Neelix can trade for some of that -- what was it called?"
"I don't remember," Deborah said. "I'm sure we can find out tomorrow."
"We'd better," Sue said. "I don't want to be eating the same five Talaxian specialties for the next seventy years."
Deborah reached out and caught a strand of Sue's hair, tucking it back behind her ear.
Sue shivered, her eyes closing briefly at the contact. She felt Deborah's fingers tickle her cheek.
"You have such beautiful hair," Deborah said. "I'm jealous."
"You shouldn't be," Sue said. "I love your hair."
Their eyes met. Deborah smiled and trailed her fingers down Sue's chin. "Would it shock you if I told you that I want to kiss you?"
Sue swallowed hard. She couldn't speak or even think. Deborah's thumb traced her lips, and she parted them helplessly. She wanted that touch, and she didn't want to think about it.
Deborah shifted closer, and Sue could feel her hot breath against her ear. "I've wanted to kiss you all day."
Sue's heart thumped wildly and she turned her head, seeking Deborah's lips with her own. Their breath mingled and their lips brushed together with a soft explosion of sensation.
Her whole body tingling, Sue leaned into Deborah and kissed her more fully, her hands rising to slip around the other woman's waist.
Deborah's fingers slid through her hair and they kissed again. Sue shivered and parted her lips, inviting the exploring tongue to taste her.
Their tongues danced. Sue drowned in the sweetness of the kiss, her jumbled thoughts pushed down into the black where they couldn't ruin the moment. She felt warm and alive, and she didn't want this kiss to end.
A fire burned in her belly. Dimly, she felt Deborah's other hand stroking the top of her thigh, feeding that flame. She shifted her thigh, encouraging Deborah to explore further, and slid her own hands up Deborah's back. She wanted to feel more.
Deborah's lips slid along her jaw, kissing, nipping gently, tasting her throat. Sue arched her neck, surrendering to sensation. Her hands slid up to Deborah's bare shoulders, caressing the warm, soft skin she'd admired earlier.
She let Deborah push her onto her back, and she opened her thighs to cradle the other woman's body between them. Needing another kiss, she reached for Deborah again. Their lips met, tongues seeking the contact that made Sue quiver.
Every inch of her skin cried out to be touched. Her hips lifted helplessly, pressing against Deborah, who rose and looked down at her with glittering eyes. She felt naked and exposed under that gaze. She looked away and she started to sit up.
Deborah caught Sue's hand in hers and placed a wet kiss on her palm. "Touch me," she said. She opened the top of her dress and pushed Sue's hand against her breast.
Sue gasped at the feel of the hard nipple pressed against her palm. She watched Deborah's face contort with pleasure as she rubbed softly. She brought her other hand around to cup the other breast, enjoying the soft weight in her hand and the tickle of the nipple against her palm.
She shifted a bit and tried to sit up awkwardly, but Deborah's weight against her thigh kept her from moving. Then she didn't need to move, because Deborah leaned forward into her hands and unbuttoned more of her dress, letting it fall around her waist.
Sue let her hands trail down Deborah's waist as she studied the other woman's breasts, slightly larger than her own, round and pale, with tiny dark nipples standing at attention. She pushed Deborah away so she could sit up and get her lips around one of those tempting nipples.
Deborah groaned, her hands in Sue's hair. Lightheaded and trembling with excitement, she worshipped that breast, teasing it, sucking hungrily, and pressing her agile tongue against the hard peak. She felt Deborah stroking her back, sending little shivers up and down her spine.
Her arousal grew, the ache between her legs demanding attention, her own nipples tightening almost painfully inside the silky soft fabric of her new dress. Deborah's fingers ran up and down her sides, then cupped her small breasts and circled her nipples through the fabric, sending electric jolts of sensation down her body.
She felt so alive, and yet at the same time she was a passenger in her own body. Like during the perfect tennis game, when everything just happened smoothly and she knew she'd win.
Sue let go of Deborah and arched her back, pressing against the contact. She could hardly draw breath. Her eyes closed and she bit her lip. The dress dropped away and she cried out softly as Deborah's warm mouth closed around her nipple.
"A perfect mouthful," Deborah whispered, the vibration of her words causing Sue to shiver.
She felt the tugging of Deborah's lips all the way to her core. Her breath came in shallow pants and she let her hands float up and down Deborah's naked back. She liked the little dip along her spine, and the way Deborah's firm muscles flexed under her dancing fingertips.
Deborah switched to her other breast, her tongue circling the nipple, teasing it to a hard point and chasing away Sue's ability to think. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she gasped, clutching Deborah's back and pressing her breast up against the other woman's mouth.
She let Deborah push her onto her back again, and lay panting under her gaze, all thoughts fading under the glare of her own burning need.
Deborah's hands slid up and down Sue's creamy thighs, teasing them apart. She pushed the soft fabric of the dress upward until it bunched around Sue's slender waist and she got her first glimpse of pale green satin.
With one slender finger, she traced along the edge of the fabric. Sue tensed, her thighs and stomach trembling with the exertion. Deborah smiled and teased the fabric aside so that she could press her fingers against hot flesh.
Sue cried out and her hips jerked upward. Deborah parted her lower lips and traced around her sensitive bud with a finger tip, never quite touching it. She watched the other woman squirm, frantic to press against her exploring hand.
Deborah loved to be teased like this, and she could see that Sue enjoyed it as well. She pressed one long finger inside the other woman, and bit her lip at the clench of strong muscles. She watched Sue's face as she thrust in and out. The other woman begged incoherently, her hands and feet flexing convulsively, and pushed up against her hand.
Finally Deborah gave in and rubbed Sue's swollen jewel with her thumb until she exploded, screaming her release, her back arching and hips jerking wildly. Glassy eyed and covered with a sheen of sweat, Sue went limp and struggled to breathe.
She looked beautiful like that, sated and spent, thoroughly loved. Deborah reached up and stroked her hair from her face, then bent and kissed her deeply. Sue didn't respond at first. Deborah reached down and lightly teased her over-stimulated flesh, stroking with the barest of contact. Sue thrust upward again and sucked at Deborah's tongue, scraping it with her teeth.
Deborah caught Sue's hand and guided it between her legs. She was so turned on from teasing Sue that she went over the edge as soon as Sue's exploring fingers pressed against her throbbing nub. She rolled her hips and let out a long sigh of pleasure.
When she caught her breath, she grinned down at Sue. "Now it's been a perfect day."
Sue didn't say anything. Her hands shook as she pulled her dress back up and stood, swaying a bit on trembling legs.
"You're not leaving?" Deborah asked.
"I need some sleep," Sue answered, not meeting her gaze.
Deborah stared after her as she hurried out the door, for once at a loss for words.
Sue hurried to get away from Deborah, rushing blindly to her quarters on legs that threatened to betray her. She threw herself onto her bunk and buried her face in her hands, only to jump up and rush to the bathroom.
She could smell herself, her sweat and her arousal, and she could smell Deborah as well. It took two sonic showers before she felt clean, and even then the scent haunted her.
Sex. With a woman. How had she let that happen? She wasn't like that. She wasn't gay. She was normal. A good student, a good athlete, a good officer, and normal.
Her mind raced, not letting her sleep. She worried that Deborah might tell someone, that people would know. At least this couldn't get back to her mother, or anyone she knew at home.
Sleep refused to come, and by morning her skin vibrated with exhaustion. She skipped breakfast and headed straight for deck ten. At least she wouldn't have to face many people in Deflector Control. There wasn't anything to do there as long as they remained in orbit around Sikaris.
Brad listened to Deborah's enthusiastic description of the planet. "Too bad we couldn't all get shore leave together," he said.
"You and Noah would have gotten bored watching us try on clothes," Deborah said. "The food was amazing, though. Make sure you have a good meal while you have the chance."
"I'm looking forward to it," Noah said. "Coffee only this morning."
"I thought you liked Neelix's cooking," Brad said.
"I do," Noah said. "But I'm not going to miss out on the chance to try something new."
"Just as long as we have time for some real hiking," Brad said. "I could use a good long walk in the fresh air."
"Where's Sue this morning?" Noah asked. "She promised to loan me her holo-imager."
"Probably running late," Deborah said. "She was pretty tired last night."
"Why don't you try to catch up with her," Brad said to Noah. "I've got a couple of things to do, then I'll meet you in the transporter room."
He checked in with Engineering before he changed out of his uniform. The place was practically deserted, but Lieutenant Carey assured him that he wouldn't be needed. "Even B'Elanna's taken some time off. Relax and have fun."
Noah found Sue in Deflector Control. She jumped when he called her name, and didn't turn to face him.
"We missed you at breakfast," Noah said.
"I wasn't hungry." She didn't turn away from the display.
"Sue, are you okay?"
"I didn't sleep well," she said. "Nothing new."
"You said I could borrow a holo-imager?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry. It's in my quarters."
"If something's bothering you -- "
"I'm fine." Her voice sounded too sharp. "Just, could you get the imager yourself? I don't want to leave my station."
"Sure," he said. "I hope you sleep better tonight."
"I will," she said.
He crossed the room to stand behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. He felt her tense. "You can always talk to me," he said. "If something's bothering you, the Delta Quadrant, anything, you don't have to be alone."
"Thanks," she said, her voice betraying her. "But it's just insomnia."
"Then tonight I'll make you a warm milk," he said. He gave her shoulder a squeeze and left her alone.
Deborah paced her quarters. Sue had skipped breakfast before, but not breakfast and lunch on the same day. Again she remembered how Sue had rushed off the night before. She needed to see her.
"Computer, locate Ensign Brooks."
"Ensign Brooks is in Deflector Control."
Still? Deborah glanced at the chronometer. Alpha shift had been over for an hour. She headed for deck ten.
Sue was sitting with her back to the door, watching the unchanging display. The deflector didn't even need to be online while the ship was in orbit. Deborah knew that.
"Leave me alone."
"Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
"Like you don't know?"
"You rushed off so fast last night -- "
"Last night was disgusting," Sue snapped. "I don't want to think about it."
"Disgusting? Making love with you -- "
"Look, I had too much to drink, and things got out of hand. I don't want to talk about it."
"Don't blame the wine, Sue, you had two sips. Now how about the truth. What's really bothering you?"
"I'm normal," Sue yelled, spinning her chair to face Deborah. "I'm not like you. I don't want to be like you."
"You sure liked my breast when it was in your mouth," Deborah said, angry now. "I've got the claw marks on my back to prove it."
"God, you're sick. Leave me alone!"
"I think I will," Deborah snapped. "And I thought I was falling in love with you? What was I thinking? You're nothing but a selfish brat."
"Get out." Sue leaped to her feet. "Get out of here or I'll call security."
"No problem," Deborah said. "I don't want to be around you anyhow."
She ran back to the turbolift, desperately fighting to hold back the tears until she reached the safety of her quarters.
Noah followed Brad along the hiking trail, torn between letting himself enjoy the view, or forcing his eyes to take in the natural beauty around them. It wasn't his fault that Brad had chosen such tight fitting pants for the hike.
"Look at this." Brad turned to him, pointing off the trail to their left. "It's some sort of nest."
Noah moved up beside him and looked. The little creature that emerged didn't seem disturbed by their presence. "It looks like a beipiaosaurus," Noah said. Careful not to move too quickly, he pulled out the holo-imager and snapped its picture.
"A what?" Brad asked.
"A beipiaosaurus," Noah said. "A small dinosaur that lived on Earth in the late Cretaceous period. It had feathers like those, and a beak full of razor-sharp teeth."
"We won't pet it, then," Brad said, laughing. "I hope it doesn't have any larger cousins in the area."
"They would have warned us," Noah said. "Probably."
Brad snorted. "Yeah, that makes me feel better."
Hiking with Noah reminded Brad of the summer he spent with Jon in the Pacific Northwest. It had been the summer after his father's accident, and anything seemed more appealing than staying home to watch his father mope around the house and drink.
For twelve years all he had wanted was a father that stayed home, and didn't have to be off on some far away planet or space station for weeks on end. Then he got his wish. His father retired, and all he wanted was to escape.
Jon was a friend of his mother's from college, and he had a cabin out in the woods. It seemed the perfect adventure for a fourteen year old boy. They'd hiked and fished, even slept out under the stars sometimes. It was like having a father and a best friend all rolled into one.
On one particularly hot day, they had gone swimming in a natural pool near the cabin. Brad had found himself staring at Jon's athletic body more than once, and that night he dreamed about kissing the older man.
After that, he'd worried that Jon would somehow read his thoughts and think he was a pervert or something. Still, he cherished the memory of that summer, although he was very glad that Jon never knew his secret.
Jon never knew, and neither would Noah. It was better that way.
Sue dried her eyes on her sleeve. What if the captain or first officer came down here? Crying on duty wouldn't help her career. She wanted to be alone, and now that she'd chased off her closest friend on board, she'd probably be alone plenty.
She wished she could talk to someone, but she didn't really want to share what had happened. It was too humiliating. Noah had promised to listen. But would he still be her friend if she told him what happened? Maybe. Men got off on that stuff.
That thought made her shudder again. She couldn't talk about sex with Noah.
She turned to find Crewman Foster standing just inside the door. "What?"
"I thought you were off duty," he said. "I have orders to perform routine maintenance on the floor cleaner on this deck. Have you seen it?"
She looked around on the floor, and spotted the device trapped in a corner. "There it is."
"Neelix brought some food up from the planet," Foster said. "You really should get some before it's gone. I can watch your station while I work on this."
"Thanks," she said. "I think I will."
To her relief, the mess hall was almost empty. She took a plate and sat in the corner to eat.
"Mind if I join you?"
She looked up to find Lieutenant Paris smiling down at her.
"Suit yourself," she said.
"So what's a beautiful girl like you doing eating alone?"
She held back a sharp comment. Lieutenant Paris hit on everyone. Apparently her turn had arrived, and taking his head off wouldn't do anyone any good. She let him carry the conversation. It proved remarkably easy to sit quietly and let someone else do all the work.
"So," he said. "How about a drink at Sandrine's? My treat."
She shrugged. Foster would be messing with the guidance system on that floor cleaner for hours, and she didn't much want to return to her empty quarters.
Noah was blissfully spent by the time they returned to Voyager, but after their conversation that morning, he wanted to check on Sue. Returning the holo-imager provided an ideal excuse. When she didn't answer the chime, he asked the computer for her location.
The holodeck. Maybe she was feeling better. He finished transferring his images to his own terminal and headed out to find her.
At first he didn't see her. Then he scanned the room and spotted her in the corner booth with Tom Paris. As Noah watched, Paris leaned in and kissed her, one hand disappearing beneath the table.
Noah decided to allow them some privacy, and returned to his quarters. Good for Sue, he thought. Tom Paris certainly had his charms. He just hoped Sue didn't let him break her heart. He didn't think the helmsman had much of an attention span. Idly, he wondered just how much variety Tom liked in his love life, but he quickly dismissed the thought.
When neither of the women appeared at lunch, Brad started to worry in a vague, non-specific way. With the ship seventy thousand light years from Earth, many of the crew suffered from various degrees of depression. He had selfishly hoped that his own group of friends might be spared.
After dinner, he found Deborah in her quarters, sitting alone in the dark. "Go away."
"I can't do that." He crossed the room and sat beside her.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said.
"Then don't," he said. "I'll just keep you company."
The silence stretched between them. Brad didn't press. She'd tell him, or not, and nothing he could say in the meantime would influence her.
"Ever fall in love with the wrong person?" Deborah asked.
"A couple of times," he answered. He itched to ask her how she'd found time to fall in love recently, but he didn't think she'd appreciate the question.
"I was so sure," Deborah said. "It felt so right. But the things -- I've never been called names like that before. Certainly not by someone I thought I loved."
He reached out and slid her arm around her shoulders. "The right person is out there."
"I really fell hard for . . . this person," Deborah said. "How could I be so stupid?"
"If that makes you stupid, then the whole human race is stupid," Brad said. "Everyone gets hurt. You'll heal, but don't hide from your friends. We're here to -- "
"That's just it," she said. "This person and I, well, I thought we were friends."
"Noah? What did he -- "
"No," Deborah said. "Not Noah." She swallowed hard. "Oh God, Brad, don't hate me. Please don't hate me."
"You're one of my best friends," he said. "I would never hate you. Tell me what's the matter."
"It's Sue," she said softly. "I thought, and we . . . I thought she felt the same."
"Oh," he said. "Oh. I see. So you read her wrong. I'm sure she didn't mean -- "
"She called me sick. She said I was disgusting."
"She had no right to say those things," Brad said. "She might not have meant them, though. People get funny about . . . things. They need time to adjust."
"Yeah," Deborah said. "Funny. She tried to blame the wine, but she'd only had two sips. It's not like I forced her. She was a very active participant."
"So you two -- and then she reacted like that?" He pulled her closer. "Maybe it's not you she called disgusting."
"What do you mean?"
"She might not want to face certain things about herself," Brad said. "How did you feel the first time you realized that you liked women?"
"Strange," Deborah said. "You think she didn't know?"
"Or didn't admit it," Brad said. "Maybe you two should talk again. On top of everything else, she probably feels bad about what she said."
"Maybe," Deborah said. "If she yells at me again -- I just don't think I could take that."
"Give her some time," Brad said. "Maybe she'll come to you. And remember that I'm right here if you need me."
"And you don't think -- I mean, you're not shocked?"
"I didn't know, but it doesn't change anything, if that's what you mean. You're still the same person. A person I like very much, in fact."
"Thanks," she said. "I needed that."
"I brought your holo-imager back," Noah said.
"Thanks," Sue mumbled. She turned away.
"Did you sleep any better last night?"
"I guess," she said. "I don't know."
He followed her into the room. "If you have something on your mind I'd be happy to listen."
"Nothing is always something," he said. "You'll feel better if you talk about it."
"Noah, please," she said. "It's not the sort of thing I can share."
"I don't mean to pry," he said. "Just remember that you have friends if you need them."
She didn't say anything, but he was pretty sure she was crying.
"Sue." He crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder. He could feel her shaking. Uncertain about what to do, he just stood behind her and rubbed her shoulder.
"If my mother knew what I did . . . "
"We've all done things we regret," Noah said.
"Have you? Have you ever done something so completely stupid, so dirty and degrading that you couldn't even look at yourself in the mirror."
"As a matter of fact, yes," Noah said.
"Did you talk about it and then feel all better?"
"Then just leave me alone."
"Fair enough," he said. "Just don't think you're the first person to ever regret a one night stand."
"Oh God, you know?"
"Now I do." He considered breaking Paris's smug nose. "No one's judging you, Sue. You're human. You made a mistake. It'll be okay."
Deborah put off talking to Sue for three days before she finally gathered the courage to approach her, and it took another day before she managed to actually catch up with her.
"You're avoiding me," she said.
Sue didn't look up from her lunch tray.
"When you're ready to be friends again, you know where to find me."
Deborah sighed and sat down across from Sue. She had to fight to keep her voice from shaking. "You'll find me right here."
Brad sat down beside her, reaching under the table to squeeze her hand.
Noah joined them as well, and took a bite of his stew. He started choking. "What is this vegetable?"
"The away team brought it back," Deborah said. "Is it that bad?"
"Just tell me we won't have it again," Noah said.
"Don't worry," Brad said. "How much of any one thing could they possibly have gathered?"
Life on board Voyager proved far from uneventful. Sue almost welcomed each new crisis. She couldn't avoid Deborah completely, but she'd managed to avoid any mention of what had happened between them.
She felt bad about the things she had said, but she couldn't apologize without bringing up all the rest, and she couldn't do that. She didn't even want to think about it. Eventually it faded a bit, like a bad dream.
She and Deborah even ate together, as long as the guys were there to serve as a buffer. Not that she had much choice; if she tried to avoid Deborah, the guys would want to know why. Noah might even guess. She couldn't stand the thought of that.
"You will not believe what we just beamed into the cargo bay." Deborah flopped down into her customary seat.
Sue had to smile. Deborah liked to make an entrance.
"What?" Brad asked. "More leola root?"
"Would you believe a 1936 Ford pickup truck full of horse manure?"
"No," Brad said. "I don't think I would. Try again."
"Go look then," Deborah said. "We found it floating in open space."
"Do you realize the odds against that?" Noah asked.
"Maybe the Caretaker didn't limit himself to abducting spaceships," Deborah said. "I don't know. I just know we found it."
The dispassionate computer voice announced a blue alert.
Brad sighed. "I guess we'd better get to our stations."
"Blue alert?" Noah asked. "Should I know what that means?"
"We're landing the ship." Sue started to get up.
"Geez, let's hope Paris knows how to do that," Deborah said.
Noah smiled at Sue. "If he kills us all I'll break his nose."
Brad crawled through a Jefferies Tube with a spanner between his teeth, almost as excited as Lieutenant Torres about the chance to do some maintenance while the ship was on the ground.
He hardly thought twice about staying on the planet. A human civilization in the Delta Quadrant, while an interesting layover point, wasn't home. Voyager, however, felt more like a home than anywhere else he'd lived. He had friends like Noah and Deborah, he worked under a chief engineer with a sharp, creative mind, and he'd seen things he never imagined.
He found most of Ensign Vorik sticking out of an access panel, and wondered at his urge to see if Vulcans were ticklish. What was it about Vulcans that could make even the most serious humans want to play practical jokes on them?
"Lieutenant Torres asked me to remind you about taking a lunch break," he said.
"I have not reached a logical stopping point," he said. "I expect to finish this task within seventeen minutes, however, and I will eat at that time."
Brad shrugged, then felt foolish because Vorik couldn't see the gesture. "Sounds logical to me." He moved to the next access panel and got to work.
"I have to at least consider it," Sue told Noah. "It might be the only chance any of us get to leave Voyager. We could be out here for seventy years."
"And we might find a wormhole back to Earth in three months," Noah said. "You'd be giving up any chance to get home."
"It does bother me to think I'd never see my sister again, but that might happen anyway."
"What's so bad about Voyager?"
"What's so good about it? My social life's a mess, my career is stuck in a holding pattern -- "
"You're not going to get command of a starship if you stay behind."
"Maybe not, but promotions are frozen on Voyager. There's what, forty-two people ahead of me in the chain of command?"
"You know that?"
"I figured it out one night when I couldn't sleep," she said. "Want to know exactly how long it takes the floor cleaner on deck ten to complete its cycle?"
He ignored that. "As I see it, Voyager is the best thing that could have happened to our careers," he said. "A few years out here, and we'll all have our pick of assignments when we get this ship home in record time."
"I don't want to run Deflector Control for a few years," she said. "Six weeks, sure, but a few years? I need command experience if I'm going to get anywhere in Starfleet. Real command experience, not as head of Deflector Control."
"So talk to the captain," he said. "Tell her you'd like to lead some away missions."
"Maybe, but I don't know. There's still forty-two people -- "
"How much of this is about the chain of command and how much is about your social life? I know you got hurt, but running away isn't the answer."
"Maybe it is," she said. "Maybe a fresh start is what I need."
"Just think about it, Sue. I don't want you to make a decision like this and then regret it."
"I don't think I'll regret it," she said. "I promise I'll at least say goodbye."
Deborah sat on the grass, enjoying the rare chance to feel sunlight on her face.
"Sue's thinking about leaving the ship," Noah said.
Deborah felt a chill run up her spine. "She can't do that."
"I told her she'd be making a mistake," Noah said. "I don't think she listened."
"We have to stop her," Deborah said. "Why would she want to leave?"
"She hasn't told you?"
"Told me what?"
"I can't break a confidence," he said.
"I think this situation is worthy of an exception," Deborah said. "I need to know what she's thinking."
"It's Tom Paris," he said. "Something happened between them a while back. She's been pretty upset about it ever since."
Deborah's stomach lurched. Of all people, Tom Paris.
"I'll go talk to her," she said. "I'm not losing a friend over Tom Paris."
Deborah found Sue in her quarters packing. "You can't be serious."
"Why would you even want me to stay?"
"Because I don't want to lose a friend."
"We haven't been friends in months."
Deborah cringed. She couldn't storm out. If she did she might never see Sue again. "The things you said hurt, I won't deny that, but I forgave you months ago. I was hoping we could get past what happened and be friends again, but we can't do that if you leave."
"Get past it? I can't do that. And this isn't about you anyway."
It took effort to keep her words calm. "Is it about Tom Paris?"
"Tom Pa -- oh. No, it's not about Tom Paris, but if that's what Noah thinks please just let him."
"If that's what you want, fine, but you can't hide forever."
"I don't have anything to hide," Sue said. "I'm not gay."
"Maybe not," Deborah said. "That's not for me to say."
Sue didn't say anything. She didn't stop packing either.
"If you leave the ship I'm coming with you."
"I can't just let you stay here all alone. I can't stand the thought of it."
"For God's sake, I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can. That's really not the point."
Sue glared at her. It was the first direct eye contact they'd had since Sikaris.
"Please don't ruin your life over what happened between us," Deborah said. "I could never forgive myself if you did."
The silence stretched between them. Deborah watched Sue fight against tears. She wanted to hug her. She didn't dare.
"I won't stay behind," Sue said. "But you have to promise you'll never mention what happened again. Not to me, and not to anyone else."
Deborah nodded. "Not a word, ever again." She'd take the blame for Wolf 359 if it kept Sue on the ship. "I never meant to pressure you, and I'm sorry if that's what happened."
"I'm sorry too," Sue said. "For the things I said. Just because I'm not -- that doesn't mean -- well, it's okay for you. So I'm sorry."
"Already forgotten," Deborah said, although in truth the apology gave her a sense of relief. "Let's go find the guys and see if we can get in one last walk on the surface before we leave."
"Let me guess," Captain Janeway said. "You're here to request more command experience."
"Yes, Captain," Sue answered.
"I've had a number of requests lately. Many of them fall ahead of you in rank."
"That doesn't surprise me, Captain. I understand that I'll have to wait my turn."
"I'll see what I can do," the captain said. "I wouldn't have you in charge in Deflector Control if you weren't qualified. I might not be able to hand out promotions to everyone who earns them, but I can make sure you get the field experience you want."
The captain kept her word. Four days later, when Voyager entered orbit around an uninhabited M class planet, Sue was among those assigned to lead a team to the surface.
"Every team should include an individual from the science department and at least one engineer," Janeway said. "I won't object if you choose people that you know socially, and I encourage all of you to enjoy the fresh air, but don't let your guard down. If the Delta Quadrant has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected."
Sue chose Noah, Brad, and Deborah. Her team beamed down with Harry Kim's team, which included Ensigns Campbell, Wildman, and Vorik. The two groups set off in opposite directions.
"Nothing yet." Brad fiddled with his tricorder, searching for any useful mineral deposits in the territory they'd been assigned.
Noah scanned the vegetation, searching for possible foodstuffs, and the two women kept a lookout for possible threats. Sue tried to tell herself she only felt edgy because she'd never been in command on an away mission before, but her gut told her there was more to it. She half expected to find a Kazon behind every shrub. They had a habit of popping up every time the crew found a new source of dilithium or leola root.
"Sue, I'm picking up life signs," Noah said. "About a kilometer to the west."
"Energy signatures from the same direction," Deborah added. "They weren't there a minute ago."
Sue hit her combadge to inform the ship. She got only static in reply. "Okay, we're on our own. Deborah, see if you can get a fix on Ensign Kim's team. Noah, what else can you tell me?"
"They're Kazon," he said. "No sign of Seska, though."
"That might be good," she said. "Deborah?"
"They aren't far from the Kazon," she said. "They could be in trouble."
"Then we're going after them," Sue decided. "Everyone stay sharp."
Deborah barely lifted her eyes from her tricorder, depending on Brad to steer her around any obstacles that appeared in her path. Her fix on the other team's location could disappear at any moment. If the Kazon had them -- she pushed the thought from her mind.
Her hands shook, and she wondered how Sue managed to sound so calm and confident. She hadn't fired a phaser since weapons training at the Academy, well over a year ago. Voyager had faced quite a few hostile species since then, but she hadn't come face to face with any armed Kazon.
"How much farther?" Sue asked, her voice low.
"Just over the next rise," she said with a confidence she didn't feel. "I'm reading three humans and a Vulcan. No signs of trouble yet."
"Phasers on stun." Sue unholstered her weapon and checked the settings. "They aren't moving. There could be a reason."
They all stayed low as they climbed the slope, carefully watching the bushes for concealed enemies. Brad dropped to his belly at the crest of the hill. "They're tied up," he said. "I don't see any Kazon."
"It's a trap," Sue said, ducking down beside him. "Noah, are you still reading Kazon life signs?"
"No," he said. "I'm guessing they've found a way to fool our tricorders."
"I'm guessing you're right," Sue said. "Anyone have a suggestion?"
Brad felt the solid ground pushing up against his body, that was real, but everything else had a fuzzy quality to it. He could see his crewmates tied up just down the slope, and he needed to make sense of his thoughts to save them.
"I could try to draw their fire," Brad said. "We'd get a fix on their location."
"And you'd get yourself killed," Sue said. "Too dangerous. We need to get those tricorders working right. They could be right on top of us."
"It's not our equipment that's the problem." Brad stared down at the device. "The Kazon are masking their life signs somehow."
"Then scan for anything anomalous," Sue said. "There's got to be something."
"Radiation, maybe," Brad said, half to himself.
"Got it," Noah said. "I'm reading thoron emissions just south of our location. And they're moving."
Brad turned to the south and a movement caught his eye. He rolled sideways and fired into a patch of brush. A faint grunt told him he'd hit his mark, but weapons fire erupted from a second patch of foliage which was now approaching rapidly.
He fired again, and heard the others doing the same as they scrambled for what cover they could find. From his awkward position on the ground, he couldn't move and still keep firing. The shrub nearest his position fired again.
Everything went black.
Noah saw Brad fall and had to fight not to go to him immediately. None of them were safe as long as the Kazon were firing. He had to focus on eliminating the threat before he could go to his friend's aid. He tried to pick out a humanoid shape within the moving bit of landscape nearest Brad, searching for a solid target.
When the return fire ended with a grunt, he lowered his weapon cautiously and scooted across the ground to Brad. His fingers shook as he searched for a pulse. "He's alive."
Deborah crawled up beside him and passed him the medkit. "We've got to get him back to the ship. That burn could be serious."
He heard the static as one of the others tried to contact the ship again.
Sue approached the brush, phaser raised. "They're all unconscious. Noah, stay with Brad. Deborah, you're with me."
The woman headed down the slope to free the other team and disable the device that was blocking transmissions to the ship. Noah sat and watched Brad's chest rise and fall. He felt helpless, unable to do more than administer a hypospray and wait.
Brad woke up in sickbay with a dry throat and a vague ache in his chest. The first face he saw was Noah's.
"He's waking up," Noah said. "Doctor?"
The EMH appeared, medical tricorder in hand. "Glad you could join us, Mister Harrison. I think you need to practice ducking when you're shot at. You gave your friends quite a scare."
"Sorry." He took the water Noah offered.
"Drink that slowly," the Doctor said. "I just had the floors cleaned."
"Don't mind him," Noah whispered. "Sarcasm is his idea of a bedside manner."
"Is everyone okay?"
"Everyone's fine," Noah said. "You were the only one injured."
"Thank goodness for that," Brad said. He must have imagined the catch in Noah's voice. The concern he read in Noah's eyes was just what anyone would feel for a friend. His grogginess and his own wild imagination just made him think otherwise.
"Dinner tonight?" Noah asked. "I'll replicate something. My rations."
"You're offering to spare me from the mess hall? Did I almost die or something?"
Noah looked away briefly. "You got shot. I didn't. So, dinner?"
"Sure. I'm looking forward to it."
"I guess it's just us for dinner," Deborah told Sue. "Noah's cooking for Brad."
"I'm glad he's feeling well enough to eat. A Cardassian disrupter can do a lot of damage."
"You know it's not your fault, right?"
"I was in command."
"And you did everything right." Deborah reached over and gave Sue's hand a gentle squeeze. She jumped back as if burned when her friend stiffened at her touch. "I'm sorry, I didn't -- "
Sue reached over and caught her hand. "No, it's okay." Sue didn't let go. They both stared down at their joined hands. "Let's go get dinner."
Noah kept the menu simple, knowing that Brad might not feel up to anything too spicy. He tried to laugh at his own nerves, but the image of Brad's still form on the planet's surface kept him from relaxing. He didn't want to think about losing Brad like that.
After the meal they settled on the couch in Brad's small quarters. Noah's rattled nerves finally started to calm.
"Now that I know you can cook I'll expect more dinners," Brad said. "Unless I have to get shot to earn them."
"Certainly not." Noah suppressed a shudder. "Next time I'll get a little more creative."
"Just as long as you don't get as creative as Neelix," Brad said. "I never knew it was possible to make Vulcan plomeek soup spicy."
Noah laughed. "I don't think it bore much resemblance to the original, unless you count the color."
"At least it wasn't grey like that stew we had the other day," Brad said. "How did you eat that stuff?"
"It tasted better than it looked," Noah said. "That's the secret to alien food -- don't look at it."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"The summer before I entered Starfleet Academy I worked at this travel agency outside London," Noah said. "After three months of English food I think I can eat anything."
Despite the captain's words of praise and Deborah's kind reassurance, Sue couldn't help but view the day's events with a critical eye. She'd let Brad get shot. She'd chosen her friends for an away mission, and she had put them in danger.
She barely heard Deborah's comments about the food, and only gradually became aware that her friend had reached across the table to touch her hand.
"Sue, you did everything right, and Brad's fine."
"If we'd adjusted those tricorders to search for radiation before climbing that hill, he wouldn't have been shot at all."
"And if Noah had spoken up as soon as he lost them, maybe Brad could have suggested that sooner. Or maybe I should have widened my own scan instead of focusing on the other team."
"Harry Kim let his team get captured," Deborah pointed out. "And he's led away teams before. You did fine."
"Yes, but I could have done better," Sue said. "The captain wouldn't have made that mistake."
"I'm sure she made some back when she was an ensign. By the time you're a captain -- "
"By the time I'm a captain we'll be in our nineties."
"Don't think like that," Deborah said. "I doubt we'll be much past seventy."
Commander Chakotay stole a shuttle, apparently as part of a cunning plan to get himself captured and tortured by Seska. The Doctor enjoyed a brief tryst with a Vidiian rescued from a derelict. Tom Paris defected and returned a hero, his recent insubordination nothing more than an elaborate ruse. So life pretty much continued normally on Voyager.
Deborah found it increasingly difficult to keep her promise to Sue. She wanted to keep it. She didn't want to hurt her friend. She told herself, over and over, that it would be selfish to ignore Sue's wishes. She couldn't risk losing a friend.
Yet she couldn't help remember their night together, and the way Sue had kissed her. Images of Sue's lovely body, sprawled half naked and spent upon her couch, haunted her thoughts.
Her breath quickened when Sue touched her casually, and the sight of the other woman dressed for a game of tennis on the holodeck was enough to fuel a week's supply of erotic dreams.
She collapsed on Brad's couch one evening when Sue was working the beta shift. "How do you fall out of love?"
"I wish I knew," he answered.
She looked at him sharply but he avoided her gaze. "It's not that I think I can stop caring, but it seems that the more I fight the attraction, the stronger it feels."
"Sometimes we want what we can't have," Brad said. "The denial makes our feelings seem even stronger."
"Well it sucks," she said. "The other day at dinner, Sue had this little fleck of ice cream just at the corner of her mouth. I just wanted to lean over and kiss it away. I practically had to bite my lip in two, and I couldn't stop thinking about it all night."
"I've seen her watching you," Brad said. "She might not push you away a second time."
"She made me promise," Deborah said. "I don't want to mess up our friendship now. We just got it back on track."
"Your friendship should be able to handle some honesty. She needs to talk about it eventually, and so do you."
"Just by talking to you I'm going against her wishes. She'll come to me if she changes her mind."
"I hope so, I don't know."
The damage to the ship overwhelmed him. The hull breach spread from deck fifteen upward to fourteen. No less than 632 microfractures covered the hull. All primary systems were offline. Brad didn't know how Lieutenants Torres and Carey managed to sound so calm.
Just follow orders, he told himself. Don't even look at the damage as a whole. He felt better as soon as he focused on his own assignments. He couldn't think of the dozens of crewmembers lying injured in sickbay. He couldn't pause to wonder if any of his friends were among them.
Everyone's survival depended upon swift repairs. Emergency power was limited, and if they lost shields, the compromised hull -- he couldn't think about it.
He worked steadily, ignoring the whispered rumors of death, and stories of evacuating the bridge. He tried to ignore the mention of another Voyager, torn from a parallel dimension, or perhaps a duplicate created by the plasma cloud, also under attack by the Vidiians.
Well, he tried to ignore the whispers, but he couldn't turn off his ears. He heard the theories, even if he wasn't prepared to process them. They invaded his thoughts and made his blood run cold.
The mess hall didn't serve dinner, so Noah returned to his quarters to wolf down some vacuum packed oatmeal and wipe the grime from his face.
He didn't know how his friends had fared. Sickbay was full, and he knew someone had been killed when the hull ruptured on deck fifteen. He needed to see his friends, and headed back out into the corridor to find them.
He turned at the sound of Brad's voice, raw from inhaling smoke. The other man looked exhausted, his face streaked with soot and a dangerous looking burn mark crossing his sleeve. Noah threw his arms around him, shaking at the thought of losing him.
Brad hugged him back, holding him against his solid chest. Noah could feel warm breath on his neck. He felt safe for the first time in hours.
He clung to Brad. "I'm so glad you're safe."
"Same here." Brad said. "We should find Deborah and Sue."
He let Brad go, almost reluctantly. Their eyes met, and for a moment Noah thought he saw something more than concern for a friend in Brad's eyes.
He swallowed down the urge to reach up and wipe away some of the soot, and ignored his desire to kiss the other man right there in the corridor. "Let's go find the girls."
Sue's stomach flipped when Ensign Campbell told her that Deborah was among those injured.
"It's not too serious, but don't have the details," Campbell said. "I'm sure she'd like to see you."
She found Deborah in sickbay, waiting for Kes to treat her broken arm.
"Does it hurt?"
"Only when I think about it," Deborah answered. "It could have been much worse."
Sue followed Deborah's gaze across the room to where Joe Carey lay on a biobed unconscious. The plasma burns looked pretty serious. "I thought the Doctor treated the serious injuries first?"
"They did," Deborah said. "He waited until the crisis ended, then he got injured."
"Polite of him," Sue said.
Deborah smiled. "Probably the only way Torres would let him have a break."
"Do we know if Noah and Brad are okay?"
"I haven't seen them in here, and Kes said we didn't lose anyone. There must have been a few close calls, though, from the look on her face when she said it."
"We're very lucky," Sue said. She couldn't hug Deborah without touching her injured arm, so she settled for gently squeezing her shoulder.
Kes came over with an osteogenic stimulator. "I need you to hold your arm out." She turned to Sue. "Can you help steady her hand for me?"
Sue nodded and took Deborah's hand. Her mind called up an image of these slender fingers sliding over her body months before, and she forced it aside. Now was not the time.
She felt Deborah squeeze her hand as the osteogenic stimulator did its job. Sue was familiar with the feeling the device caused. It wasn't quite pain, more like its itchy cousin. It only lasted a few minutes.
"Okay," Kes said. "You're free to go. You're also off duty. Try to avoid lifting anything heavy in the next twenty four hours."
"There you are," Brad said. He and Noah stood in the doorway. Brad looked like he'd gone three rounds with a dirty chimney. "Are you both alright?"
"We're fine," Deborah said. "Just a broken arm. I feel like I could eat a targ, though."
"I can offer you a ration pack," Sue said. "Then I've got to get back to Deflector Control. I've got the dish online, but a little more creatively than I'd like."
"I'll give you a hand," Deborah said. "I'm officially off duty but under the circumstances that's hardly practical."
"I won't tell if you don't," Sue said. "I'd be grateful for the help."
Hours later, Deflector Control looked like it had the day Voyager had left Deep Space Nine. Deborah ached all over. About the only thing that didn't hurt was her injured arm.
"I think we might be done here," Sue said.
"You think?" Deborah stared at her. "I think we've earned some sleep."
"I'm not going to bed. Alpha shift starts in three hours. By the time I fall asleep it'll be time to get up."
"That's just silly," Deborah said. "A little sleep is better than none."
"Don't call me silly," Sue snapped. "I think I know myself better than you do."
Deborah snorted. "I beg to differ. You can't even process the fact that you -- "
"Don't you dare!" Sue glared at her. "Don't you dare finish that sentence."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Deborah said. "Besides, you've made my point for me, haven't you?"
Sue ran out of Deflector Control, leaving Deborah shaking and sick to her stomach.
Brad dragged himself back to engineering and worked until Lieutenant Torres finally declared the ship spaceworthy, if not battle ready.
"Everyone get at least four hours of sleep," she said. "I'll see you all back here after you're rested and have something to eat."
His quarters felt cold, and despite his exhaustion he couldn't fall asleep. His racing mind wanted to process the events of the day. The fate of the duplicate Voyager, its origin, the deaths of its crew . . . he couldn't stop thinking about what it all meant.
He gave up on sleep and went for a walk. The mess hall was sealed off. The damage there had yet to be repaired. So he wandered the decks, surveying the damage that didn't pose a risk to the ship.
Seeing the ship in this condition only served to remind him of the close call. In some other universe, Voyager hadn't survived the conflict with the Vidiians.
He turned at the sound of Noah's voice, and wished he could take comfort in his arms again. For that brief moment, so many hours ago, everything had felt right.
The other man didn't look any better than he felt. He wanted to ease the tension from Noah's face, offer him some form of comfort.
"How about a game of cards?" Brad asked. "Something to take our minds off of all of this."
"Sure," Noah said. "My quarters weren't damaged. At least not by the Vidiians. Too bad I can't say the same about the laundry gremlins."
"I thought the laundry gremlins stole socks?"
"Not these ones. These ones produce extra socks and scatter them all over the floor."
Brad laughed for the first time in many hours. "I think they've visited my place a time or two."
They sank into the couch cushions and Noah dealt the cards. Neither bothered to look at their hands.
"Any thoughts on the duplicate ship?" Brad asked.
Noah shook his head. "Just that it's an excellent example of why I chose to major in xenobiology and not physics."
By mutual unspoken agreement, Sue and Deborah didn't mention the argument they'd had in Deflector Control. Sue didn't even let herself think about it. Fortunately life in the Delta Quadrant generously provided no small number of distractions.
Members of the senior staff took turns risking life and limb on alien planets, and for a while it even looked like Voyager would lose both the captain and first officer to an insect bite.
The celebration upon their return proved short lived. Seska and her Kazon friends finally got the better of them all and lured the ship into a trap.
Sue stood beside Deborah on the surface of Hanon IV, a hot, dusty planet devoid of resources, and watched Voyager disappear, perhaps forever.
She felt Deborah clutching her hand, holding on so tightly that the small bones in her hand ground together.
"We'll make it," Sue said.
The crew hiked miles across the barren landscape. They managed to find water, shelter, and some exciting new enemies who after a bit of drama decided against killing them.
When Tom Paris returned with the ship Sue broke down crying with relief. Deborah wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and that just made her cry harder.
"Sorry," she whispered.
"You don't have to be sorry."
She looked up at Deborah and saw the moisture on her friend's face. Together they boarded the ship.
After the repairs were finished, they held memorial services for Hogan and Suder. Neelix threw a party in the mess hall the night after that.
Sue wore her hair down, something she rarely did, and for the first time since Sikaris she put on the dress Deborah had picked out for her on shore leave.
"Great minds think alike." Deborah met her in the corridor, also wearing a dress from Sikaris. She looked stunning in it.
Every man in the place turned to stare when they joined the party. Sue watched how their eyes were drawn to Deborah's firm, athletic body. Lieutenant Ayala smiled and pulled out a chair, offering Deborah a seat.
"Sorry, Mike, but we're meeting friends." Sue took her by the arm. "Noah and Brad are right over there."
Deborah's heart pounded at the sight of Sue in that dress, and her hopes rose just the slightest bit. Then Sue practically dragged her away from Ayala, holding her arm almost possessively.
She smiled. If Sue wanted to act jealous she didn't mind a bit.
Keeping her eyes off of Sue took every bit of effort she could muster. She wasn't the only one with that trouble. More than once she felt Sue's lingering stare.
Tom Paris dimmed the lights, and an area was cleared for dancing. Deborah wished she dared lure Sue out onto the floor. Soft music, soft lighting, couples swaying together. She imagined what it would be like to hold Sue like that, to smell her hair and feel the warmth of her body.
A soft hand landed on her arm. "Let's go back to my place."
She nodded and let Sue lead her to the turbolift. Everything seemed out of focus except Sue's hand in hers, and the way Sue's hair brushed her bare white shoulders. This had to be another dream. That couldn't be Sue's thumb stroking the back of her hand.
As soon as the door to Sue's quarters closed behind them, safely locking out the rest of the ship, her friend turned to her and stepped closer.
"I . . . a few weeks ago when . . . I mean, I . . . oh Hell." Sue stretched up and kissed Deborah softly.
Deborah's knees melted. She felt Sue's body pressed against her and she slid her hands around her slender waist, holding her close. It felt like she'd waited her whole life for this one kiss.
Slow, she told herself. Don't push. She let Sue take the lead, shivering at the soft kisses. When Sue's tongue came out to gently trace her lips she almost groaned.
Sue's hands slid into her hair, pulling her closer. She parted her lips and let Sue's exploring tongue draw hers into a sensual dance. All the longing she felt bubbled to the surface as they tasted each other.
They broke apart, panting slightly, foreheads touching.
"I've been hiding," Sue said, her voice soft. "Help me stop hiding."
"Are you sure?" Deborah ran her fingers up and down Sue's spine. "I don't want you to regret this later. I don't want to lose you."
"Yes," Sue gasped, her eyes drifting shut.
"Open your eyes," Deborah said. Her hand didn't stop moving up and down Sue's back. "Look at me and tell me you won't regret this."
Sue met her gaze. "I won't regret this."
"Good." Deborah drew Sue closer and kissed her deeply. "I love you, and I want you. I don't want to do anything to make you run away from me again." She led Sue over to the couch, watching the desire in her eyes, and the nervousness too. "Tell me what you want."
"You," Sue said. "I want you."
"Do you love me?"
"I do," Sue said, her soft voice shaking. "I tried not to -- I tried not to feel like this. It would be easier, but . . . I'm in love with you."
Deborah smiled. "It was hard for me, when I first realized how I felt. You'll get used to it, and trust me, it's worth it."
Sue laughed, a soft nervous laugh, and Deborah drew her close, holding her and stroking her back.
"I'll never do anything you don't want," she promised. "I don't want to push you."
"I know," Sue said. "You've been so patient, even when I called you names. I'm so sorry -- "
"That was over a year ago," Deborah said. "It's forgotten."
They kissed again, softly at first, then with more passion. Deborah stroked Sue's back and ran her fingers through her hair, but she didn't touch her more intimately. They wouldn't do more unless Sue made the next move. But oh how she hoped for that next move.
She felt Sue's hands gently stroking her waist and sliding up her back into her hair. Her arousal grew, setting her heart pounding. The woman she loved was kissing her, touching her, loving her. All the tension of the past year slid from her shoulders and settled lower, creating an urgent need.
Sue's hand slid around to stroke the side of her breast, and she gasped at the contact.
"Too much?" Sue asked.
"Never," Deborah answered. "I'm yours. Do as you like."
Sue unbuttoned the dress and let it fall away, exposing Deborah's painfully hard nipples. "I've wanted to do this all night."
Deborah hissed in pleasure as Sue's mouth descended. She fell back against the couch, drawing Sue after her. Divine sensation rippled through her, filling her with joy and a burning need for more.
She felt Sue's hand gliding up her thigh and she shifted, inviting further exploration. Her body ached for that touch.
"I want to see you," Sue whispered.
Deborah stood and let the dress fall to her feet. With her eyes locked on Sue's face, she hooked her thumbs into her underwear and slowly lowered them.
"You're beautiful," Sue said softly.
Deborah felt beautiful under that gaze. She reached down to pull Sue to her feet and kissed her deeply. "I want to make love to you. Are you ready for that?"
"Yes," Sue said. "Oh yes."
"Tell me," Deborah said. "Look at me and say it."
"I want you to make love to me." Sue whispered the words, her gaze locked with Deborah's.
Deborah smiled. "Then come to bed."
She led Sue to her own bed and slowly unbuttoned her dress to let it pool at her feet. She walked around behind her, slipping her arms around Sue's waist and stroking the soft skin of her belly.
She could feel Sue trembling, her breath coming faster, and she slid her hands up to cup her breasts.
"These are beautiful," she said as Sue's nipples hardened against her palms. "I can't wait to taste them."
She brushed Sue's hair aside and kissed her neck. She could feel the gentle thunder of Sue's pulse under her lips.
The sound of Sue's breathing filled the small room. Deborah circled her, stroking her shoulder, kissing the hollow above her delicate collarbone. They kissed deeply and Deborah pushed Sue down on the bed before tumbling down beside her.
Deborah let her hand rest on Sue's belly while she sucked each rosy nipple in turn. Her desire built as Sue arched her back and moaned with pleasure.
She lifted her head to study Sue's face. She'd never seen her look so beautiful.
"Open your eyes, love." She slid the hand on Sue's belly lower, letting her fingertips rest just short of her goal.
Sue stared up at her, eyes black with passion. Her lips parted and her breath came in shallow pants. Deborah slid her fingers lower, under fabric and over soft curls.
Her fingers parted tender flesh, drawing a cry from Sue's throat.
"You're wet for me," Deborah said. "Say it."
"I'm wet for you," Sue gasped. "I want you."
"Look at me and say that."
"I want you."
Deborah began to trace gentle circles around Sue's hard bud. She watched as her face contorted with pleasure and her hips bucked upward off the bed.
"You're going to come for me," Deborah said. "Watch my face while you come for me."
Their eyes locked.
Deborah moved her finger slowly, watching the pleasure build in Sue's eyes. She felt the growing storm herself, shivering as Sue cried out and tumbled over the edge, her eyes rolling back in her head as her body shuddered.
"Are you sorry we did that?"
"No," she gasped. "That felt incredible."
"Show me," Deborah said, laying back and parting her thighs.
Sue grinned, a feral look in her eyes. "Look at me when I make you come."
Sue stood in her small bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. She didn't look any different. A little mussed, perhaps. She brushed her teeth, combed her hair, and washed her face, just like she did every night.
Then she went back to her bed, and to Deborah. Life was different now, but she was still the same person.
"I'm not perfect any more," she said. "Not that I ever was."
Deborah propped herself up on one elbow and stared at her. "What the Hell are you talking about?"
"My mother. At least with Voyager out here she'll never know."
"Never know what? That you like women? Or that you had sex?"
Sue shrugged. "Either. Both. It would cause a scandal."
"A scandal? Where did you grow up, a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel?"
"You're laughing at me."
"No, not at you." Deborah reached out and stroked her hair. "I wouldn't do that. I can understand that you've felt conflicted. But a scandal?"
"That's how my mother would see it. She's still not over the fact that I went to Starfleet Academy and not to Vassar like Beth Anne Whitney's daughter."
"My mother's idol." Sue rolled her eyes. "Perfect hair. Perfect clothes. Perfect family. President of the DAR."
"President of what?"
Brad looked up as Deborah slipped into her seat. "You look happy."
Deborah grinned and held a finger to her lips.
"Ah." He smiled widely. "That's wonderful. Congratulations."
"Don't say anything," Deborah said. "I don't think she's ready to -- "
"Good morning Sue," Brad said.
"So," Noah said, joining them. "Has everyone heard what happened after the party last night?"
The others shook their heads.
"Apparently Freddy Bristow had too much of Dalby's homebrew and went running through the corridors on Deck Nine stark naked."
Noah nodded. "Last anyone saw he was passed out cold in airponics."
Brad watched Deborah. She was glowing. For a moment he wished he would have a chance for happiness. He glanced at Noah.
Some things just weren't possible. At least he had good friends, and as long as he was on Voyager that would have to be enough.
"A talent show?" Noah shook his head. "Count me out. Brad, do you have any hidden talents?"
"He plays piano," Deborah said.
"Yeah," he said. "Badly. I'm certainly not playing for an audience."
"I've heard you play," Deborah argued. "You're not bad at all."
"I can usually find the right notes," he said. "I don't think that's enough."
"Oh come on," Deborah said. "It'll be fun."
Brad shook his head. "In prep school I tried out for the spring concert, and the conductor told me that I played like I was typing a report on warp field mechanics."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sue asked.
"I don't know," Brad answered. "But it can't be good."
"Sue could sing," Deborah said. "You could accompany her."
"Is Neelix paying you a commission?" Sue asked.
Deborah shrugged. "I just thought it sounded like fun."
"Do we get to see your special talent?" Noah asked.
An evil grin formed on her face. "I don't think that's something I can do in public."
"Do these eggs taste funny to anyone?" Sue asked. "Where does Neelix find these spices?"
"You know I'm not ready to tell anyone," Sue said. "You promised -- "
"Sue, it's been months," Deborah said. "We can't hide forever."
"It's not something you just announce -- "
"I wasn't suggesting engraved announcements and a debutante ball. I'd just tired of walking on eggshells in front of our friends."
"I'm not asking you to walk on eggshells."
"But you leap out of your skin if I touch your hand. I'm tired of it."
"Just a little longer -- "
"Are you ashamed of me? Dammit, Sue, it's not like your mother is here on the ship!"
"I'm not ashamed -- "
"You sure act like it. It hurts."
"Deborah -- "
She brushed Sue's hand off of her shoulder. "Don't touch me. Someone might see."
"Isn't that what you're so afraid of, every time you flinch away from me?"
"Then we can tell Brad and Noah?"
"No, not yet. Just give me a little more time."
"You know what, Sue, maybe I'll give you a lot more time. Let me know when you've gotten over yourself."
Neelix, dressed in what appeared to be purple sequins, beamed at the audience. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the starship Voyager is pleased to present the First Annual Delta Quadrant Talent Night."
Deborah sat with Brad. She wasn't speaking to Sue. She wasn't even certain if Sue planned to show up. Deborah would have stayed in herself, but Noah was singing and she felt obligated to support the friends she still had.
Maintaining her sulk proved difficult when the captain flounced onto the stage in a tutu and performed the dance of the dying swan.
Brad poked her in the ribs and nodded towards the senior staff. "Chakotay's drooling."
"So am I," Deborah whispered back. "Damn."
Two acts later Tuvok read some Vulcan poetry.
Deborah leaned into Brad. "Pass me the tri-ox."
When he finished, the stage faded into blackness. The lights came back up to reveal Sue in a slinky black gown, with her hair tumbling down over her shoulders.
Deborah gasped. She looked incredible. Then she started to sing. The lyrics filled Deborah's eyes with tears. She felt like the only person in the room.
"I'd like to dedicate that to someone very special," Sue said, a quiver in her voice. "Deborah, I love you, and I want the whole ship to know it."
Deborah stood, and Sue came down the aisle to kiss her. Around them, the crew applauded.
"We'll be taking a short break," Neelix said. "Don't go far, the second half of the show is coming right up."
Deborah watched Sue's face as crewmembers congratulated them. She slipped an arm around her waist. "Thank you," she said during a lull. "That was the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me."
Sue leaned into her. "I love you. I want to make you happy."
"You did," Deborah said. "I hope you're happy too?"
"I am," Sue said. "It feels good not to hide any more."
"No one's all that scandalized, either," Deborah whispered. "Although I suppose we could try." She pulled Sue close for a scorching kiss.
Brad watched the two women settle into their seats with their arms around each other. He was glad they were happy, but he couldn't help be a little jealous.
On a ship of only one hundred and fifty, what were the odds he'd find another man with similar inclinations, let alone a man he'd find compatible. He certainly wouldn't be as lucky as Deborah.
Maybe he hadn't seen Noah date many women, or any women for that matter, but if he thought that meant anything he was deluding himself.
Lightning didn't strike twice.
Noah walked out on stage and Brad felt his insides turn to pudding. If the man looked tasty in a uniform, he looked downright edible in a tuxedo. And his singing voice -- Brad felt it all the way to his core.
That was what his piano playing lacked. Passion. Star quality. Noah had it.
Noah had everything he wanted in a partner. If only he dared ask the question. But the risk of straining a friendship would keep him silent.
"I need to talk," Brad said. "Are you alone?"
Deborah nodded. "Have a seat."
"There's something I haven't told any of you." He swallowed hard. He had to say it now, quickly, or he wouldn't. "I'm -- I'm gay."
"I thought you might be," Deborah said.
He looked at her sharply. "How?"
"I've known you for what, five years? I've never seen you date, or flirt, or even look at a woman."
"That could mean I'm shy." He wondered why he was arguing with her.
"Yes," Deborah said. "I considered that. Like I said, I didn't know for sure, it had just crossed my mind is all. So what's the problem? Or can I guess?"
"I have feelings, for someone, and they aren't going away."
"And you're afraid to tell him?"
"Just tell Noah that you're gay. Get his reaction to that. You don't have to say more."
"I didn't say it was Noah."
Deborah rolled her eyes. "I assume it's not Vorik."
"But what if he's shocked, if he doesn't want to have anything to do with me?"
"Give him some credit, Brad, you've been friends for almost three years. Besides, have you ever seen him date?"
"No, but there are a number of men on board who don't date. Harren. Chapman. Ayala. Chakotay. Carey."
"Harren doesn't leave his cubicle, let alone talk to people. Chapman's afraid of women. Ayala and Carey are married. And Chakotay's just hopeless."
Brad let his hopes rise just a few centimeters. "Do you think there's a chance Noah might be . . . "
"I do, and you'll never know the answer unless you ask the question. Go talk to him."
Every night before he showered, Noah did one hundred sit ups. Tonight was no exception, and he'd already thrown his shirt in the laundry when the door chimed.
"Come in." He looked around for something else to wear.
"There's something I need to tell you," Brad said.
Noah froze at the seriousness in Brad's voice. He sank down onto the couch and watched Brad do the same.
"We've been friends for three years now," Brad said. "I think we know each other pretty well. I don't think we should keep secrets from each other, not any more."
Oh God. "I didn't mean -- "
"No, please let me finish." Brad swallowed hard. Glanced at Noah. Stared at the carpet. "Noah, I hope this doesn't make you uncomfortable, but you should know . . . I'm gay. I like other men."
Noah's head spun free and floated upward to bump softly against the ceiling like a child's balloon. He wanted to cheer, but his voice stuck in his throat.
"I'll understand if that makes you uncomfortable, and if you need some time to adjust, that's okay, but I hope it won't change our friendship." Brad started to stand up.
Noah reached out and grabbed his wrist. "Don't go." He stared at those long fingers he'd admired for so long, and let his own fingers slide from Brad's wrist to squeeze them softly. He raised his eyes to Brad's face. "I want you to stay."
Brad sank back down onto the couch. "You're okay with this?"
"I'm not just okay," Noah said. "I'm happy for you, and I'm hoping this means there's a chance for us?"
"Us?" Brad said. "You mean . . . "
"Yes. I'm the same way." Noah swallowed hard and watched Brad's face. "I'm hoping -- "
"Oh yes," Brad said. "There's a chance, more than a chance. I'm in love with you."
"I love you too," Noah said, his voice barely a whisper. He wondered if Brad even heard him.
Then Brad leaned forward and took his face in both hands, his thumbs caressing his cheeks. Their gazes met, and he gasped at the passion in the other man's eyes. His heart pounded as Brad moved closer still and kissed him softly.
Noah opened his mouth helplessly and returned the kiss. Brad's tongue filled his mouth, probing, exploring, turning him into a quivering mass of need even while feeding his deepest longing.
He wanted this kiss to continue forever, this hungry swirling kiss that filled him with warmth and sensation. He'd never been kissed like this, and in all his fantasies he'd never imagined it could really feel this good.
In all of his fantasies he'd never felt such joy. In all his fantasies he'd never imagined he'd actually find someone to love, and who loved him as well.
Brad kissed Noah, dizzy at his good fortune. He wrapped his arms around the other man, stroking his naked back, savoring the feel of hard muscle and hot skin.
He felt Noah's hands in his hair, massaging his scalp. Tongues explored, lips working, and they melted together.
His growing erection strained to escape the confines of his uniform, and as he shifted against Noah the electric pleasure flickered through him.
Noah loved him.
Actually loved him.
They broke apart, gasping, needing oxygen. Noah had tears on his face, and Brad realized that he did as well when Noah reached to wipe them away.
"How could I be so lucky?" Noah asked.
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Brad answered. "This must be a gift from God."
Their lips met again, a joyful reunion, and Brad pressed Noah back against the couch so he could trace his fingers over his muscular chest.
His lips followed his fingertips, trailing soft kisses across Noah's skin. The other man shuddered, his fingers digging into his back, and tugged at his shirt.
He sat up and stripped off the shirt, eager to feel Noah's touch in more intimate contact.
"You're like a statue," Noah said, his fingertips sliding down Brad's chest. "You could have been carved from marble."
"Rather hairy marble," Brad said.
They both laughed, and couldn't resist another slow kiss.
"We could take this slowly," Brad said. "Wait a bit before we take it any further."
"If you want, but I hope you're just saying that to be a gentleman," Noah said. "I'd like you to stay."
Brad grinned. "I'm not sorry to hear you say that."
He kissed Noah again, and slid his hand down to palm Noah's hard cock through his pants. He could feel it, hard and pulsing, straining the fabric. Noah groaned and threw his head back, his breath coming in rapid pants.
Brad opened the other man's pants and freed his throbbing member. It stood erect, the purple head glistening. He traced a vein with his fingertip and enjoyed the resulting gasp of pleasure.
He sank to his knees and lowered his head to lick the escaping moisture. The salty taste fueled his excitement, and he circled with his tongue, encouraged by Noah's sounds of pleasure.
Brad tugged at Noah's pants, pulling the other man half off the edge of the couch before Noah finally kicked them free.
He ran his hands up Noah's muscular thighs, enjoying the texture of the sparse blond hair. Brad felt Noah tense when his fingertip pressed against his entrance.
"Are you ready for this?"
"God yes," Noah gasped. "Don't stop."
He traced the puckered hole again as he took Noah's throbbing member into his mouth once more. He sucked hard, with a steady rhythm, and held the other man's bucking hips as he shouted his release, the joy in Noah's voice filling Brad with more happiness than he'd thought possible.
Still, he wanted more. His body ached to feel the tight clench of muscle, to reach his own climax as he possessed this man fully. He pressed a long finger past the resisting ring of muscle.
Brad's penis twitched at the sound. He struggled to contain his impatience as he opened the other man with his fingers. "Still okay?"
Noah panted incoherently, beyond speech, but he nodded when Brad paused and looked into his glassy eyes.
"I don't want to hurt you," Brad said. "Do you have something we can use as lubricant?"
"Replicate something," Noah said. "Don't take too long."
Brad stood and quickly shed his painfully tight pants before going to the replicator. For a moment he acutely felt his nakedness, but then he looked back at Noah and all he felt was desire.
"I think we'd be more comfortable on the bed," Brad said.
"It's not made," Noah answered. "I haven't changed the sheets in weeks."
"I'm not really in a mood to care," Brad answered.
They found the bed and tumbled into it side by side, hungry tongues dueling until Brad's desire reached the point of pain. He pushed Noah onto his back, and looked down into the face of his friend. His wildest fantasy had come true. The man he loved wanted him. "It'll hurt at first."
"I know," Noah answered. "I just want you inside me. I've wanted that for so long."
Brad pressed forward, joining their bodies. When he slid inside the tight, hot passage and had to bite his lip to keep control.
"That feels so good," Noah said. "You feel so good inside me."
"You feel incredible," he answered. He began to thrust steadily, beads of sweat falling from his chest. With wonder, he watched as Noah's face contorted with pleasure. His climax approached rapidly, testing his control, then his rhythm faltered and he went over the edge.
He collapsed, momentarily spent. He struggled for breath, his face against Noah's shoulder, and felt himself softening within his lover's body.
Noah stroked his back and kissed him. "I love you."
"I love you too," he said, pulling out and rolling away. He looked over at the man he had just so thoroughly loved.
Noah was hard again. "I want to come inside you."
"I want you to," Brad said. "Just as soon as I can breathe again."
Noah propped himself up on one elbow so he could gaze at Brad's naked body, a body he was free to explore. He reached out and teased a nipple, then bent his head to suck it hungrily.
He worked his way down between Brad's legs, leaving a trail of wet kisses in his wake. "Turn over," he said. "I want to rub your back."
He remembered the day in Sandrine's when he had first imagined what Brad's naked back might look like. He hadn't done it justice. Brad had broad, well-developed shoulders and a muscular back, and also the best ass on the entire ship.
He stroked those firm muscles for long minutes, then moved lower to those beautiful buttocks. His cock twitched again at the sight, and he leaned down to press his lips to Brad's shoulder.
They came together again, the storm of passion wiping away months of fear and doubt. Noah's heart felt like it might burst. The lonely nights and guilty glances were over -- he just kept moving closer to Brad.
They lay side by side, breathing heavily.
"So," Brad said. "Think it's time to change the sheets?"
Noah laughed. "We could always just go mess up yours."
Brad pulled him close. "That would require getting up, and I'm far too happy to move."
"Me too," Noah said. "You know, it's sort of ironic."
"In my work, we question everything and consider all of the possibilities, no matter how remote. We ask questions about even the tiniest detail, in case it might lead to some new understanding. But in three years, I never asked the one question that really mattered."
"And what's that?"
"I've been in love with you all of this time, and yet never once did I think to wonder if you might actually be gay; if we might even have a chance. I didn't even look for clues. I was too busy being afraid of what you'd think of me if somehow you found out how I felt."
"I'm right there with you," Brad said. "I wouldn't be here now if Deborah hadn't talked me into it."
"Remind me to thank Deborah."
"You're okay with telling people?"
"I'd make a shipwide announcement if I could," Noah said. "You're a real catch."
"So are you," Brad said, kissing him. "I'd better get a ring on your finger before you get away."
"If you're asking that question, there's only one possible answer."
"In that case, think it's safe to wake the captain up?"
This transformative work constitutes a fair use of any copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Star Trek™©, Star Trek: The Next Generation™©, Star Trek: Voyager™© and related properties are Registered Trademarks of Paramount Pictures. No copyright infringement intended. No profits made here. © Spiletta42, June 2004.