“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 2/20

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART II

Later that evening; Olivia, Cole, the two visitors from New Orleans and the Halliwells appeared at the McNeills’ house for the dinner party hosted by Jack and Gweneth McNeill. No sooner had the guests arrived, they – along with the McNeills – gathered inside the large drawing room and waited for the family manservant to announce dinner.

“I just read the latest copy of THE LUNAR VOICE,” Barbara said to Piper. The blond-haired witch, who was married to Olivia’s older brother, had joined the redhead, Cecile and Piper near the fireplace. “And I saw an ad placed by a P. Halliwell . . . for the position of nanny. Was that . . . Did you place that ad? Is that the reason why Paige was asking me about local Wiccan newspapers?”

Piper sighed. “Yeah. I . . . I’m trying to find a permanent nanny for Wyatt.”

“Why?”

Olivia immediately came to Piper’s defense. “Barbara!”

Her sister-in-law assumed an innocent and confused expression. “What? I simply asking Piper about that ad in THE LUNAR VOICE.”

“Yeah, and with all the subtlety of a Gestapo interrogator. Is there a problem?”

Barbara let out a gust of breath. “No, there isn’t a problem. I’m simply curious, that’s all. I mean . . . this is Wyatt we’re talking about. He’s only nine months old and already he’s had more supernatural activity surrounding him than all of us in a period of three years. And I’m just . . . surprised . . . well, you know what I mean!”

“I understand,” Piper replied. “That’s why Olivia had suggested that I place the ad in ‘certain’ newspapers and shops in the city.”

“Where’s Wyatt right now?”

Olivia pointed to where Paige, Phoebe and her grandmother stood. “Over there, in Gran’s arms.” She said to the other women, “I had also asked Cole’s uncle – Marbus – if he knew of anyone who could baby sit Wyatt.”

“What about Leo?” Barbara asked.

Piper’s face immediately became a cold mask. “What about him?”

“Um . . .” Barbara began. But a quick jab in the side by Olivia cut her short, leaving her to finish lamely, “Never mind. What about that Elf Nanny?”

Piper continued, “Oh, she, uh . . . vowed never to step foot inside the manor, after those two warlocks tried to attack Wyatt. She likes a quiet household. So, I need a new nanny, fast. Like I had told Olivia, I’m having trouble with P3 at the moment. And splitting my time between Wyatt and the club – along with dealing with demons . . . and Leo’s absence . . .” The Charmed One sighed. “I don’t know. It seems like everything is falling apart.”

“In other words, this whole mess started, because Leo decided that being an Elder was a lot more important than his family.” The other women stared at Cecile, who had broken her silence. She stared back. “What?”

Frowning, Olivia commented, “Is it just me, or are you sounding a little bitter right now?”

“I’m not being bitter,” Cecile protested. “Just telling the truth. If Leo had really loved Piper . . . or if she was that important to him, he would have never become an Elder.”

Piper’s eyes cast downward. “I think you might be right,” she muttered.

Triumph gleamed in Cecile’s dark eyes. “See? You really can’t trust a man’s love. First, they’ll move heaven and earth to possess us. Then sooner or later, they end up taking us for granted. We become like background noise to them.” The others continued to stare at her. “Well, am I wrong?” Cecile let out a gust of breath, turned on her heels and walked away.

“Wow,” Barbara murmured. “What’s wrong with her? You don’t think that she and Andre are having troubles, do you?”

A new voice added, “She’s frustrated. Cecile, I mean.” Olivia and the other two women found Phoebe standing behind them. “I could sense Cecile’s frustration.” Annoyed, Olivia bit back a retort.

Piper, on the other hand, made her displeasure known. “Phoebe! Do you mind?”

Looking slightly affronted, Phoebe protested, “What? Cecile is obviously frustrated about something! Probably Andre.”

Her older sister heaved a sigh. “We all know that you’re now an empath, Pheebs. But could you please put a sock in it?”

“I can’t help sensing everyone’s emotions!” Phoebe retorted. “I don’t know how to control this new power. At least not yet.”

Olivia tartly added, “But I’m sure that you can control that tongue of yours. Must you broadcast everyone’s feelings to the world, every time you sense them?”

A deep silence fell between the four women. Phoebe’s face turned pink. “Excuse me,” she said in a stiff voice, before walking away.

Feeling slightly remorseful, Olivia apologized to Piper. “Sorry about that. I guess I had lost my temper.”

“I’m not,” Piper grumbled. “That new power of hers has been driving us crazy. Just over a week ago, Paige had lost her temper and shoved an apple into Phoebe’s mouth.”

The image of Phoebe’s mouth plugged by an apple nearly sent Olivia into a spate of giggles. Nearly. Instead, she kept her mirth to herself and said, “Oh well. At least you can’t deny that Phoebe is right about Cecile. She is frustrated.”

“Do you think it has to do with Andre?”

Olivia responded silently with a slight shrug.

————-

The following morning, Andre and Olivia met the latter’s grandmother outside of an antiquity shop on Union Square. “There you are,” the elderly woman declared. She glanced at her watch. “You’re late.”

“Only by fifteen minutes,” Olivia muttered. She retrieved a key from her purse and used it to unlock the shop’s front door. “Here we go. Welcome to . . .” Her face formed a slight frown. “Well, I haven’t renamed it, yet.” She switched on the lights.

Andre took one sweeping glance around the shop’s interior and whistled.

“My sentiments exactly,” old Mrs. McNeill added. “Goddess! I’ve never seen so many . . . How much is all of this stuff worth, Livy?”

With a sigh, Olivia answered wearily, “You really don’t want to know. Fortunately, Alexis Kostopulos wanted to get rid of the shop so badly that I managed to buy it at a cheaper price.”

“Why?” Andre asked.

“Well, his father had been murdered by someone looking for a medallion that used to be in this shop. Didn’t Cole tell you about the Erebor medallions, and the attack on the Whitelighter Realm?”

The houngan nodded. “Oh yeah.” His eyes fell upon a small, sandalwood box with Druidic symbols carved on the sides. “So, where are the . . . um other pieces that you were talking about?” He picked up the box. “Besides this?”

Olivia replied, “The rest of the items are scattered throughout the shop. Mixed with the other items. Hopefully, you and Gran will be able to identify and separate them from the regular items. While I’m at work.”

“Hmmm.” Mrs. McNeill swept a finger across one of the glass casings. “This looks like a job that might take a week or two.”

Andre added, “That’s no problem for me. Besides . . .” he paused, wondering if he should allow the two women in his confidence.

“Besides what?” Olivia asked.

The houngan sighed. “This trip should give me plenty of time to find . . . a ring. To buy.”

“A ring?” Mrs. McNeill frowned. “What for?”

After a brief hesitation, Andre decided to confess. “Well, I plan to ask Cecile to marry me. I’m looking for an engagement ring.”

The two women reacted with delight. “Oh my God!” Olivia cried. “I can’t believe it! Finally! After all these years!”

“I’m so happy for you,” Mrs. McNeill added. Then she frowned. “But . . . you mean to say you couldn’t find a ring in New Orleans?”

Andre sighed. “Yeah, I did look around for one. But I couldn’t find one that satisfied me. You know, the right one. Maybe I’ll find one, while I’m here in San Francisco.”

Olivia’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Wow! An engagement! I can’t wait for Cecile to find out. Maybe this will get her out of that bad mood of hers.”

A smile illuminated Mrs. McNeill’s lined face. “Oh, I’m sure that it will”

————

Cole and Cecile silently stood side-by-side inside the elevator, as it conveyed them to the spacious boardroom of McNeill Enterprises. The half-daemon tried to think of something to say. He even considered discussing the upcoming business conference, but they had covered that topic more than adequately, in the past few days.

A quick glance at Cecile’s forlorn expression told him that she was not in the mood to talk. Come to think of it, the Vodoun priestess has been in a bleak mood since her arrival, yesterday. Unable to deal with the silent tension any longer, he finally murmured, “Penny for your thoughts.”

“Huh?” Cecile stared at the half-daemon with wide eyes.

Cole continued, “You seemed to be deep in thought. Is there something on your mind? The upcoming meeting?”

Cecile shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I . . .” She sighed. Long and hard. “Have you ever thought that your life might be in a rut, sometimes? That no matter how much you try, everything stays the same?”

Wondering what brought on this rant, Cole stared at her. “Uh . . . well, considering the changes I’ve been through during the past three years . . . not really.”

Another sigh left Cecile’s mouth. “What about those years before that? Before you first met Phoebe? I mean . . . didn’t you feel then that your life was in a rut?”

“What are you getting at?”

“I . . .” The elevator stopped. The doors slid open and Cecile walked out before she could form a coherent answer.

The pair found themselves greeted by a well-dressed young executive. “Ms. Dubois? Mr. Turner? Hello, my name is Milo Kendrick. I’m Mr. McNeill’s assistant. Please follow me.” He led Cole and Cecile into an expensively furnished boardroom, where Harry and Jack McNeill awaited them. Along with other members of the Board. As the door closed behind them, Cole realized that Cecile’s surprising revelation would have to wait for another time.

————

A young man in his late twenties burst into Daley’s herbal shop off Telegraph Road, later that morning. The Vodoun sorceress recognized the newcomer, and rang up her customer’s purchases. No sooner had the latter left; she led the younger man to the stockroom in the back.

“Did you and Jeffrey find out anything about these . . . Charmed Ones?” Daley asked.

The young man, a narrow-faced novice bokor with rich brown skin and handsome features named Marc Beaudine, breathlessly sat down on a nearby stool. He removed a small notebook from his jacket pocket. “Yeah. They’re practically famous in the local Wiccan community.”

“That’s nice,” Daley commented tartly. “The question is . . . why are they famous?”

Marc removed a few sheets of folded paper from his jacket and handed them to Daley. “I got that from the Internet. There’s this tale, or legend or whatever about these three sisters from a long line of witches, who are destined to become the world’s most powerful witches. Called the Charmed Ones. They were destined to kill the leader of some demonic faction. Someone called the Source.”

Daley read the sheet of paper, which had been printed from an Internet website on Wiccan mythology. “I think I had heard about this Source. From a warlock I used to know. Too bad he’s dead.”

“Well, I know this other warlock,” Marc added. “And he told me and Jeffrey that this Source is dead. He had been killed nearly two years ago. By these witches called the Charmed Ones. Wilson – he’s the warlock I had spoken with – told me a lot about them.”

“So, who are they? The Charmed Ones?”

Marc continued, “Like I said, three sisters who happened to be witches. They’re believed to be the most powerful witches ever.”

A frown appeared on Daley’s face. “What do you mean by . . . believed? Aren’t they the most powerful Wiccan witches?”

“Well . . . not really. According to Wilson, they would have been, if it wasn’t for the Aingeal Staff Bearer.”

“Now, I’m confused. The who?”

Sighing, Marc added, “A witch from some Scottish family, who happens to be the bearer of a powerful wizard’s staff. The present bearer is a descendant of this wizard. But no one knows his or her identity. But the Aingeal Staff Bearer is just as powerful as the Charmed Ones. And these sisters are only that strong when they come together as the Power of Three.”

Daley took a deep breath. “And what is the name of this family of witches?”

“Halliwell,” Marc replied. “Right now, the family’s name is Halliwell.”

“That name sounds familiar.”

A sly smile curved Marc’s lips. “It should. Phoebe Halliwell. Of the ‘DEAR PHOEBE’ column of the BAY-MIRROR.”

Daley felt flabbergasted. “Are you kidding me?” The idea of a local celebrity being a powerful witch would have never occurred to her. “Wait a minute. She’s one of the Charmed Ones?”

“Yep! And so is the owner of that nightclub on Fremont. You know . . . P3? Her name is Piper Halliwell. There’s a third sister, but Wilson didn’t get her name. As for Piper, she’s the mother of this powerful child you had told me about. Do you remember that day, over eight months ago, when we weren’t able to perform any magic?”

Nodding, Daley replied, “Yeah. I never did find out what happened that day.”

Marc leaned forward, his brown eyes glittering with intensity. “That was the day Piper Halliwell gave birth to her son. His father is believed to be a whitelighter.”

“A what?”

“Whitelighters. They’re daemons. Only they’re on the side of good. Guardian angels or something like that.”

Daley said, “So, what you’re saying is this child is the son of an extremely powerful witch and a daemon.”

Marc continued, “And he’s also an extremely powerful little baby. He has great magical powers. Stronger than his mother, his aunts, his daddy and everyone else. Other daemons and warlocks have been trying to get their hands on his powers for months.”

The idea of possessing the Halliwell child’s magic struck Daley as very appealing. With such power, she could destroy the leadership of the local Vodoun community. Or any other magical community that opposed her. And protect her little side business, so that it could develop into a multi-billion dollar business. If only she could get her hands on the child.

“By the way,” Marc added, “I’ve discovered something interesting about the Halliwell baby.” He handed Daley a newspaper. “That’s one of the local Wiccan papers. Called THE LUNAR VOICE. Turn to page eight.”

Daley turned to the page as instructed. It was filled with employment ads and notices. “What am I looking for?” she asked.

“The ad near the bottom of the page. In the column, second from the left.”

Sure enough, Daley founded what she was looking for. It was an ad seeking a nanny for a nine month-old baby. It featured a telephone and a person of contact – namely P. Halliwell. The sorceress smiled. This sounded promising. Very promising, indeed.

END OF PART II

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 1/20

 

“THE POWER OF ONE”

RATING: PG-13 Adult language and mild violence.
SUMMARY: A Vodoun sorceress develops an interest in Wyatt’s powers and becomes his new nanny. Set three weeks after “An Afternoon in Babysitting”. AU S6.
FEEDBACK: – Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: The Charmed Ones, Leo Wyatt, Wyatt Halliwell and Cole Turner belong to Constance Burge, Brad Kern and Spelling Productions. The McNeills, Cecile Dubois and Andre Morrell, are thankfully, my creations.


————-

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART I

Piper Halliwell examined last month’s profit sheet one last time and shook her head in despair. “Oh my God! I can’t believe this! I just can’t . . .”

“What’s wrong?” Paige asked. The Charmed Ones sat inside the manor’s Solarium, as they watched television. Actually, Paige and Phoebe watched TV, while Piper focused her attention upon her nightclub’s profit sheets.

Heaving a sigh, Piper continued, “Last month’s profits for P3. They’re . . . Oh my God! Has it really gotten this bad?”

Phoebe glanced away from the TV screen and frowned. “Profits are down?” She continued to gently rock Wyatt, who was fast asleep in her arms.

“That’s the understatement of the year,” Piper muttered. “They’ve been down before. But not like this. By at least twenty-five to thirty percent. I guess I’ve just been too busy with Wyatt.”

The middle Charmed One continued to rock her nephew. “So, what are you going to do about it?”

Her eyes still glued to P3’s account book, Piper answered, “Well, I’m going to fire Everett for starters. He had really let things slide. What in the hell had he been doing . . .?” She broke off with a sigh. “Looks like I’ll have to fix this. At least until I can get a new manager.”

“And Paige and I will take care of Wyatt, while you deal with P3,” Phoebe added, before planting a light kiss on the baby’s forehead.

One of Piper’s brows formed a dubious arch. “During the daytime, as well? While you two are working? And what about when you two are out on dates?”

“Get Leo to baby sit,” Paige declared. “I’m sure that he won’t mind.”

The mention of her soon-to-be former husband brought a grimace on Piper’s lips. “Well that sounds great. I’m sure that Leo had abandoned his family, so that he could baby sit Wyatt, in between Council meetings.”

Paige shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sure that Leo won’t be stuck in Council meetings forever. On the other hand, you can always consider hiring a new nanny or an au pair for Wyatt. Didn’t you once consider hiring one before he was born?”

Piper stared thoughtfully at her youngest sister. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Except . . . how do we find someone willing or capable of dealing with a magically powerful baby? Or deal with demons or warlocks like those two who had tried to snatch Wyatt a few weeks ago? I’d consider rehiring that Elf Nanny, but you saw how she had reacted, after the last attack.” Two warlocks had recently appeared at the manor, disguised as employees from the city’s Publics Works Department, and tried to kidnap Wyatt. Without any help from the Charmed Ones, Piper’s infant son managed to stop the warlocks all on his own.

“Try placing an ad at some local occult shop,” Paige suggested. “I’m sure that Barbara might know which shops you can do that. Or maybe Chris or Leo can ask around in the Whitelighter Realm. Or, you can place an ad in one of the local Wiccan newsletters or newspapers.”

Impressed and a little surprised by her sister’s suggestions, Piper stared at Paige. “Wow! You sure got it all figured out, don’t you?”

“Just remembering some ideas I had the last time you thought about hiring a nanny.” Paige’s gaze returned to the TV screen. “Oh. By the way guys, don’t forget that we’ve been invited to dinner at the McNeills, one week from tonight.”

Phoebe frowned. “Why?”

“Cecile and Andre are coming to San Francisco,” the youngest Charmed One continued. “They’ll be here for at least a week or two.”

Now, it was Piper’s turn to frown. “Who?”

“Hel-lo? Cecile Dubois? Olivia’s friend? And her boyfriend, Andre Morrell? Who’s also Cole’s friend? Remember them?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Now Piper remembered. Olivia and Cole’s Vodoun friends. To be honest, she had forgotten about the dinner invitation. Concern over P3’s profits have occupied Piper’s mind during the past several days. And now, she has a new nanny for Wyatt to think about. Speaking of a new nanny . . . “Uh Paige, could you do me a favor and ask Barbara, Olivia or Harry about where I can place an ad for a nanny?”

Paige reassured the older woman that she would do as the latter asked. Satisfied, Piper returned her attention to P3’s account book.

———

Located near the northwest corner of Fredrick and Cole, the Red Pyramid happened to be a popular coffeehouse that also served as an occult shop for past 30 years. Not only did students of the occult frequent the place, but it also counted many of the city’s magic practitioners as regular customers. One of the Red Pyramid’s regular customers happened to be a bokor – or a sorceress named Daley Baker.

A native of nearby Oakland, Daley’s family had emigrated from Alabama to California, back in the mid-1930s to seek financial security during the Depression. At the age of thirteen, Daley had discovered that she possessed a psychic ability – namely, thermo kinesis. And even more importantly, a talent for sorcerery. Her grandmother suggested that she study under an old Vodoun priestess from Baton Rouge, which she did for several years. Although Daley’s skills in magic eventually developed, the spiritual aspect of Vodoun only eluded her. Quite frankly, she never had the desire to use her skills to help others. Only herself.

On one particular afternoon in late October, Daley dropped by the Red Pyramid to purchase some figure candles for her altar and gris-gris bags. She had tried the Botanica Yoruba on Valencia, but that particular shop did not have what she needed. While searching for her items, she overheard two voices from the other side of the one of the store’s shelves.

“. . . is dead,” a female’s voice said. “Can you believe it? Killed by a child.”

Her ears perked with curiosity, Daley held her breath. The woman’s companion replied, “Well, what did you expect? The boy is a child of one of the Charmed Ones.”

The Charmed what? Confused, Daley shook her head. What the hell was a Charmed One?

The woman exclaimed in a soft hiss, “A child of one of the Charmed Ones? You mean the Halliwells? The witches who had vanquished the Source and God know how many other daemons and warlocks? You mean to say . . .?”

“Yes!” the man retorted in exasperation. “I’m saying that the baby is a child of the oldest Charmed One, and her whitelighter. Well, former whitelighter. No one knows what happened to him. As for the child, I hear that he’s extremely powerful. Probably the most powerful magical entity around.”

Daley’s brows rose several millimeters toward her hairline. Hmm, how very interesting.

The man continued, “Which is why Sidney and Dominick didn’t have a chance, when they tried to snatch him.”

“Because of this child?” the woman demanded.

“They wanted the baby’s powers. Who wouldn’t?”

The woman replied, “Not me.” Daley found her answer hard to believe.

Apparently, so did the woman’s companion. “Oh please! Are you serious? You mean to say that you would pass up the chance to acquire all of that power?”

“Yes,” the woman replied. “I’m saying . . . yes, I would. Look Michael, I’m very satisfied with what I am right now. I don’t need the extra powers. Nor do I want it or have to deal with everyone else trying to steal them from me. Personally, I think that Dominick and Sidney were fools to go after that child. They would still be alive if they hadn’t.”

The man conceded, “You’ve got a point. Still . . . could you imagine yourself with all of that power? Frankly, I rather like the idea.”

So would I, Daley silently added. Maybe she should contact Marc Beaudine from Oakland . . . and hire him to search for more information on these Charmed Ones. And the baby.

————

The two men and the woman materialized in the middle of Cole’s penthouse. “Here we are,” the half-daemon declared. “Home sweet home.” He had just teleported Cecile Dubois and Andre Morell from the former’s New Orleans house. “At least, while you’re here in town.”

Cecile glanced around. “Both of us are staying here?”

“No. You’ll be staying at Olivia’s apartment, as usual. In fact,” Cole glanced at his wristwatch, “she should be home in another twenty minutes or so.”

The Vodoun priestess said in a voice that struck Cole as slightly cool, “Could you send me there, anyway? I’m sure that Livy won’t mind.”

Andre stared at his girlfriend. “What’s the big hurry? Frankly, I could use a drink, after all that traveling.”

“Traveling that took us a few seconds,” Cecile retorted. “Besides, I want to get unpacked. Get everything ready for tomorrow’s presentation.” Her dark eyes penetrated Cole’s. “Do you mind?”

With a shrug, the half-daemon waved his hand and sent the priestess and her luggage to Olivia’s apartment. Once Cecile had disappeared, he frowned at Andre. “Is there something wrong with Cecile? She seemed a little . . . I don’t know . . . withdrawn.”

“I think she’s worried about the presentation,” Andre replied, as he sat down in a nearby chair. “Ever since she had approached Olivia’s dad about selling her new computer software program to his company, she’s been . . . well, a little on edge. Anxious.”

Cole went over to the liquor cabinet to prepare a drink for himself and Andre. “Anxious? Hmmm, she seemed more . . . distant to me. Cold. Not anxious.”

“Well, she’s been pretty moody lately. Ever since she began this little project.” Cole handed Andre a glass of whiskey and soda. “Thanks.”

The half-daemon poured himself a glass of bourbon. “I know why Cecile is here – considering I’ll be acting as her legal representative. But what about you? What are you doing here?”

“Didn’t Olivia tell you?” Andre asked. “It’s about her new shop. The one that used to be owned by that guy who ended up killed. She wants me to do a little appraising for her.”

Taking a sip of bourbon, Cole replied, “But Olivia already had that shop appraised. Before it officially became hers.”

A knowing smile appeared on Andre’s lips. “I’m talking about certain . . . items in the shop. Of the supernatural variety. It seemed this Stefan Kostopulos or Whatever, was quite the collector. You mean to say that Olivia didn’t tell you all of this?”

Cole sighed. “She probably did. But I’ve been so busy lately with Cecile . . . becoming her new attorney and helping her set up this deal with Jack McNeill that I must have forgotten.” As he took another sip of bourbon, he noticed Andre staring at something. “What is it?” he asked.

“What’s that?” Andre pointed at a small, folded newspaper on the coffee table.

Cole replied, “Some newspaper or newsletter for local Wiccans. Olivia must have left it.”

Andre placed his drink on the coffee table and snatched up the newspaper. “Hmmm. A friend of mine operates a newsletter at home for Vodoun practioners. But this seems more like a newspaper. The LUNAR VOICE.” He opened the paper and read. “Not bad, he said before turning to another page. “It even has want ads and job positions. I’ve got to tell Bobby about all . . .” Andre broke off, as his eyes narrowed into slits. “What the hell? Say, what’s the name of your ex-wife? Piper or something, right?”

Cole stared at his friend. “It’s Phoebe. Why do you . . .?”

“And isn’t her last name – Halliwell?”

“Yeah.” Cole paused for a brief moment. “Why?”

Andre tossed the newspaper to the half-demon. “Check out page eight. Someone named P. Halliwell, at 415-306-1468, had placed an ad for a nanny.

It was not hard for Cole to find the advertisement. He reeled in shock, as he read the following:

“WANTED – Nanny for nine month-old baby Salary $8.00/hour
Contact P. Halliwell 415-306-146”

“What the hell is the matter with her?” Cole exclaimed. “Is she crazy?”

Andre frowned. “Which sister are you talking about?”

“Piper! Phoebe’s older sister. You know, the one who can freeze time.” Cole stared at the advertisement. “What the hell is she doing, getting a nanny for Wyatt? That kid is too powerful to be placed in the hands of some stranger. Hell, I’ll bet that Leo would agree with me.”

A sly smile appeared on Andre’s face. “Maybe. Of course, she could always get you to baby sit Wyatt, again.” Cole stared at him. “Olivia told me and Cecile about your little babysitting job, last month.”

Cole groaned. “Oh God! Thanks for reminding me! Between Wyatt’s crying, eating my shirt and stealing other people’s stuff, I had one hell of a time dealing with that kid! And Piper expects some stranger to handle him?” He shook his head in disbelief. “What the hell is that woman thinking?”

END OF PART I

“Perils of a Matchmaker” [PG-13] – 2/2

“PERILS OF A MATCHMAKER”

SUMMARY: Tom Paris helps Pablo Baytart win the affections of Sue Nicoletti and endangers his own pursuit of the Chief Engineer in the process. Set during late Season 3.

Part 2

“Where in the hell were you?” Sue Nicoletti demanded, as she glared at Tom inside Voyager’s Engineering Section. “We were supposed to work on your holoprogram, together! Instead, I nearly got electrocuted by that klutz, Baytart!”

In his most persuasive voice, Tom begged forgiveness. “Since it was a training program for pilots, I thought Baytart could take my place. Besides, I didn’t think you would be this upset.”

“Upset? I nearly died!” Sue’s voice nearly rose to a shrill, attracting stares. Looking embarrassed, her face turned pink. Tom’s eyes fell to the floor, avoiding the stares of others.

“For God’s sake, Sue!” Tom hissed through clenched teeth. “You merely suffered a few burns! There’s no need to exaggerate!”

Cold blue eyes stared pointedly at Tom. “If that’s the way you feel Paris, I’m sure you can finish your program all on your own!” Sue turned her back on the pilot and stalked away.

“Sue . . . Sue! Dammit!” Tom rushed after the engineer, ignoring more stares. He followed her to a console on the upper level. “I’m sorry, Sue,” he said, after catching up with her. “Look . . .”

“I have work to do, Lieutenant Paris,” she replied icily. “Do you mind?”

One glance at that haughty expression and Tom knew he was facing defeat. Dammit! Cold Hands, Cold Heart Nicoletti!. He had forgotten how cold and stubborn Nicoletti could be. As far as Tom was concerned, Pablo was on his own.

* * * *

Later that evening in the Mess Hall, Tom broke the news to Baytart. The latter responded with uncharacteristic panic. “You can’t stop! Not now! What am I going to do?”

“Why don’t you take a chance, Pablo?” Tom wearily suggested. Hours of flying Voyager and fielding off curious stares and questions about Sue had left him exhausted. “Ask her out. You don’t need my help.”

Panic filled the ensign’s dark eyes. “I can’t!” he cried. “I can’t face her like that! Please Lieutenant! I can’t do this on my own! Not after what happened in the Hololab.” The young pilot stared at Tom with beseeching eyes.

A long sigh escaped Tom’s mouth. If only Pablo could face Sue at this moment. He would have broken the engineer’s defenses within seconds. “All right,” Tom conceded with great reluctance. “I’ll help you. I still say you should be up front with Sue. But, if you’re that reluctant . . .”

“Thanks a lot, Lieutenant!” Pablo was all smiles. “I won’t forget this.”

A familiar voice asked, “Won’t forget what?”

Both Tom and Baytart glanced up to find two newcomers standing before them. Both Harry and B’Elanna held lunch trays. “What are you two talking about?” Harry continued.

Tom opened to mouth to answer, but Pablo spoke first. “It’s nothing, Ensign Kim. We were talking about a personal matter. Uh, see ya!” The pilot stood up, flashed a quick smile and beat a hasty retreat out of the Mess Hall.

B’Elanna and Harry stared at Tom. Who indicated the two empty chairs, opposite him. “Have a seat,” he said. The pair quickly filled the seats.

“Did Baytart say something about a favor?” Harry asked. He took a sip of his juice. “Has this anything to do with Sue and the Hololab?”

Tom shrugged. “Somewhat. He did a favor for me by working with Sue. So, I’m doing a favor for him in return.”

“Which is?” Harry insisted.

Aware of Pablo’s desire for secrecy, Tom merely replied, “A favor.” Relief appeared in the form of Sue Nicoletti. Who had just entered the Mess Hall. Tom rose to his feet. “Excuse me, guys. I have a personal matter to deal with.” And he headed straight for Sue.

* * * *

Two pairs of dark eyes followed Tom, as he strode toward Nicoletti. B’Elanna struggled to fight back a wave of jealousy. “I guess Tom wants to apologize for what happened in the Hololab,” Harry commented.

B’Elanna gave her friend a pointed look and grumbled, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a lot more to apologize for than Sue getting electrocuted by Baytart.”

“What else could it be? You don’t think Tom would ask Baytart to take his place during a date, would you?”

B’Elanna sighed. “Of course not, Harry. Maybe Tom had hoped it would become a date. I don’t know!” Her last sentence came out in an angry outburst.

Harry’s next question threw B’Elanna into a fix. “Why are you so upset?”

“Wha . . .?” Shock immediately became annoyance. “What are you talking about? I’m not upset! Do I look upset?”

“Well, to be hon . . .”

B’Elanna continued to growl, “Kahless, Harry! If you must know, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anybody’s social life! Including Tom Paris!”

A knowing smile curled Harry’s lips. “Whatever you say, Maquis.”

B’Elanna glared at her friend.

* * * *

“No!” Sue continued eating her pleeka rind casserole.

Tom let out a sigh. “C’mon Sue. How many times do I have to apologize?”

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re wasting your breath,” Sue snapped.

Ignoring the curious eyes around him, Tom fell to his knees. “Look at me, Sue. I’m no my knees. Begging for your forgiveness. Please?” He blasted her with every ounce of emotion his blue eyes could muster.

Not even “Cold Hands, Cold Heart” Nicoletti could resist the pilot’s pleading eyes. She sighed. “All right! I forgive you.” She gave him a slight smile. “When do you want to resume working on the program?”

Tom smiled with relief. “Tonight would be just fine. At 20:00?”

Sue nodded. “Okay, 20:00, the Hololab. But if you’re running late or unable to meet me, just let me know. I don’t need anymore surprises,” she added. “And that includes sending Ensign Baytart in your place.”

Tom’s smile disappeared. He had no intention of repeating his earlier mistake. Yet, Sue’s words hinted that she wanted nothing to do with his second-in-command. Silently, he realized he would have to take the gloves off. Try something a little less subtle. Like the old “stuck-in-the-turbolift” trick.

* * * *

Baytart stared at Tom with confused eyes. “I don’t understand,” he said. The two pilots stood inside the Shuttle Bay, where Tom had just completed a staff meeting for the Conn Division. “You want me to get into Turbolift One on Deck Ten and head for Deck Two?”

“That’s right,” Tom calmly replied. “At 13:03 hours, to be precise. Tomorrow.”

“Why?”

In preparation for his latest scheme, Tom had spent a least a week observing Sue Nicoletti’s daily habits. He explained one particular habit to Pablo. Unless a special project, a battle or any other special situation made it impossible, Sue always left Engineering at 13:00 hours and boarded Turbolift One for the Mess Hall. “Only tomorrow,” he added, “you will join her when the lift reaches Deck Ten. Somewhere between Decks Six and Seven, the turbolift will stop.”

“Stop?” Pablo frowned momentarily, until realization lit up his eyes. “Wait a minute! Is this the old “stuck-in-the-turbolift” routine? Is the best you can do?”

Tom gave him a cool stare. “Well, I had better ideas, but they didn’t exactly work. Gee, I wonder why?”

Baytart had the good grace to blush. “I’ll be in Turbolift One at exactly 13:00 hours, tomorrow.”

“Good,” Tom said, nodding. “Now, if something happens to prevent Sue from leaving Engineering on time, I’ll let you know.” He gave the young pilot a friendly pat on the back. “Don’t worry, Pablo. If everything goes according to plan, you’ll soon have Sue Nicoletti in your arms.”

* * * *

Everything went according to plan. At precisely 13:00 hours, the following afternoon, Lieutenant Nicoletti interrupted work on the magnetic constrictors and left Engineering to have lunch. The minute she headed for the doors, Carl Ashmore contacted Tom.

The Chief Helmsman then alerted Pablo Baytart to head for Turbolift One. The junior pilot followed his chief’s orders. When he stepped inside, he was relieved to find the object of his desire, alone. The dark-haired engineer took one look at Pablo and immediately stiffened. His heart sank at the realization that Lieutenant Paris’ participation in this scheme was easy – getting him and Sue together. He had the more difficult task of wooing the haughty engineer.

Don’t freeze, Pablo, he said to himself. For once in your life, get your thumb out of your ass and talk with the woman. You’ve already done it, twice. Before dumping a plate of dim sum on her lap and electrocuting her. Pablo took a deep breath. Think positive thoughts. Remember, you’re a Starfleet officer, not an idiot.

Pablo turned to the engineer to speak. Before he could open his mouth, he realized that the turbolift had failed to stop between Decks Six and Seven. Instead, it continued on, until it stopped at Deck Two. The doors slid open and Sue Nicoletti stepped out, leaving behind a flabbergasted pilot.

* * * *

Tom watched the entire debacle from his monitor on the Conn Station. Once again, fate, this time in the form of an unstoppable turbolift, came between Pablo Baytart and Sue Nicoletti.

“What the hell happened?” a stunned Tom muttered under his breath.

Another voice broke him out of his reverie. “Did you say something, Mister Paris?” Captain Janeway asked.

Tom’s heart nearly leaped out of his chest. He took a few deep breaths and managed to subdue his rapidly beating heart. “Everything’s fine, Captain,” he calmly replied. “Just a little problem with the navigational relays.”

“Oh. Perhaps I should summon someone from Engineering.”

“Don’t bother, Captain. If you don’t mind, I’ll just head down to Engineering, myself. I’m soon due for my lunch break. That way, I can kill two birds with one stone.” He flashed the red-haired captain his most reassuring smile.

Fortunately, Janeway nodded her assent and Tom immediately headed for the turbolift. His first stop – the Mess Hall on Deck Two. Tom popped his head inside the doorway and spotted both Pablo and Sue – sitting yards apart. The young pilot immediately saw the older man and sprang toward the doorway.

“What the hell happened?” Pablo demanded, once the pair retired to the corridor, outside. “The turbolift was supposed to stop between Decks Six and Seven! It didn’t!”

Tom retorted, “I know what the damn thing was suppose to do! Something must have gone wrong the programming.”

“Now what do I do?”

There were times Tom wondered how Baytart ever managed to become a Starfleet officer. Hell! Even Harry Kim has shown more boldness in pursuit of other females. And he was two years younger than Pablo. And less experienced. An impatient sigh left Tom’s mouth. “Why don’t you just ask her out, Pablo? At least try to strike up a conversation. You were doing great at the party and in the Hololab.”

Pablo cried out, “Until I dumped food on her and nearly electrocuted her! I just can’t do it on my own, Lieutenant! I can’t!”

“Then why in the hell did I even bother to plan that little turbolift scheme in the first lace? Surely, you didn’t expect me to hold your hand all the way to Deck Two?”

A little shrug from Pablo’s shoulder reminded Tom of himself at the age of twelve. “I almost said something in the turbolift,” the younger man mumbled. “But it continued on to Deck Two before I could.”

“Look,” Tom said, “I’m heading down to Engineering. Maybe Ashmore can help me find out what went wrong.” He paused. “And hopefully, we can try again.”

Hope brimmed in Pablo’s eyes. “We will?”

Tom reassured the pilot that they would make another attempt to trap Nicoletti in the turbolift. Smiling, Pablo returned to the Mess Hall. And Tom continued on to Deck Eleven. Upon reaching Engineering, he found Ensign Carl Ashmore working at a console on the upper level.

“What happened?” were the pilot’s first words to the engineer, repeating both himself and Baytart.

Ashmore’s light brown face puckered into a frown. “It didn’t work?”

“The damn thing didn’t even stop. What went wrong?” Tom watched as the other man punched in a few codes into the console.

“According to the computer,” Ashmore continued, “there’s nothing wrong with the program. So, it must be . . .” He punched in a few more entries. “Oh, here it is. We’ve been having problems with the computer’s relay circuits.”

A crewman appeared out of the blue, startling the two officers. “Excuse me, Ensign Ashmore?”

Ashmore glanced at the crewman. “Yes, Soltay, what is it?”

Crewman Soltay expressed difficulty with several ESP circuits connected to one of the ship’s gel packs. Ashmore excused himself to help the crewman. He told Tom, “I’ll get to you about this. How about later this evening?”

Tom sighed. All this scheming on Baytart’s behalf has proven to be very exhausting. And distracting him from his own pursuit of B’Elanna. “At the resort,” he said wearily. “Holodeck One, at 20:00 hours.”

Ashmore and Soltay left. Tom glanced at the chronometer. It read 13:53 hours. Realizing that he had an extra seven minutes, along with an hour for his lunch break, he left Engineering and headed for the nearest turbolift. Might as well enjoy every free moment until his return to duty. The moment he stepped into the turbolift, a voice cried out, “Hold the lift!” Was that . . .? Seconds later, B’Elanna Torres dashed into the turbolift. Tom could not believe his luck.

* * * *

The moment the turbolift doors slid shut, B’Elanna barked an order to the computer. “Deck Two.” Slightly winded, she took a deep breath. A familiar scent filled her nostrils. Kahless! Was that . . .?

“On your way to the Mess Hall?” Tom Paris asked in his usual soft voice. B’Elanna closed her eyes momentarily. Of all the people to find herself alone with! Dammit!“Hello? B’Elanna?” Tom continued. “Paris to Torres! Cat caught your tongue? Or is this some new ploy of yours? The silent treatment?”

Her dark eyes flashed with irritation. B’Elanna whirled on the pilot. “Keep it up, Flyboy! And I’ll give you my version of the silent treatment! Only you’ll be the one unable to speak. Especially with a broken jaw.”

“Ah! Nice to see that your tongue hasn’t been paralyzed after all.”

An impatient growl rose from B’Elanna’s throat. “What the hell you want, Paris?”

Tom protested. “Hey! All I did was ask you a question! Like, are you heading for the Mess Hall?”

“I asked for Deck Two!” B’Elanna snapped. “What do you think?”

“Well,” Tom leaned forward and waggled his brows lavisciously, “maybe we can share lunch. Like a bowl of Ktarian pudding?”

Only Tom Paris could make a simple lunch between friends seem suggestive. B’Elanna sighed. What did he have in mind, anyway? Ktarian pudding spread all over her body for him to lick? The idea of Paris’ tongue on her body brought forth erotic visions and feelings that immediately aroused B’Elanna. Even worse, were thoughts of her licking the pudding from his body. She took a deep breath to vanquish the images and Tom’s familiar scent hit her again. Good grief! Couldn’t she stop thinking about the man?

“Hello? Hey, B’Elanna!” Tom’s voice interrupted her forbidden musings. “Why am I having trouble in holding your attention for a few minutes?”

B’Elanna shot him a dark look. “Perhaps you haven’t said anything worth my attention. And as for lunch . . .” The turbolift lurched to a stop, taking the two occupants by surprise. “What the hell? Computer, resume turbolift!”

“Unable to comply,” the computer’s voice droned. “Turbolift One is malfunctioning.”

Irritated, B’Elanna shot back, “Malfunctioning? Where is the turbolift located now?”

“Turbolift One is located between Deck Six and Deck Seven.”

Something like a gasp escaped Tom’s mouth. B’Elanna stared at him. Then she tapped her combadge. “Torres to Engineering, what the hell is going on? I’m stuck in one of the turbolifts.”

A voice responded. It belonged to Carl Ashmore. “Uh, sorry Lieutenant. There seemed to be some problem with the computer’s circuitry. It must have affected the turbolift.”

“Well, do something about it!” B’Elanna barked.

Nervousness tinged Ashmore’s voice. “Uh, yes ma’am. I mean, uh, sir.” A pause followed. Then, “I’ll get to right away. Ashmore out.”

An amused Tom commented, “Poor Carl. After the way you had applied the whip, he’s probably pissing in his pants, by now.”

B’Elanna glared at the pilot. “Never mind about Ashmore,” she retorted. “What do you know about this?”

Blue eyes widened innocently. “What do you mean?”

“I saw the way you reacted when the computer mentioned we were stuck between Decks Six and Seven.” B’Elanna stepped closer, invading Tom’s personal space. “You know something about all this, Tom Paris. And I want the truth.”

A self-deprecating smile touched the pilot’s lips. “Okay. If you must know, I had Carl program the turbolift to stop right here.”

“I knew it!” B’Elanna crowed triumphantly. “I just knew you had something to do with this! What’s your game, Tom? Another half-assed attempt to get me alone? First, I’m going to tear Carl’s limbs apart and feed them to the warp core. But that’s . . .”

Tom interrupted, “Okay, B’Elanna. Before you go off half-cock, let . . .”

“What I’m going to do with Carl is nothing in compare to what I have planned for you! Of all the immature, idiotic . . .”

“WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT THE HELL UP?”

Immobile with shock, B’Elanna stared at the pilot. “What did you just say?” she asked in a deadly whisper. “Did you just tell me to . . .”

“Yes! I told you to shut up and let me explain!” Tom grabbed hold of the engineer’s shoulder, surprising her even further. “Now, are you going to let me talk?”

B’Elanna’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Tom did not realize it, but he was seconds away from a broken jaw. “Okay, explain.”

He took a deep breath. “Like I said, Carl and I had programmed the turbolift to stop her for a good reason.” Tom hoped that Baytart would forgive him for this next bit of indiscretion. But if it meant saving him from pain at the hands of an angry, half-Klingon, too bad. “The reason we programmed the lift to stop was to trap Baytart and Sue Nicoletti inside, for a half-hour or so.”

A small frown creased B’Elanna’s brow. “Wait a minute! Are you saying . . .?”

“Look, this goes no further than you.” Tom paused. “Pablo had asked me to help him win over Sue Nicoletti. He’s in love with her and it seems he is too shy to approach her, himself.” He went on to explain his failed attempts at matchmaking – the dinner party, the Hololab and this latest attempt in the turbolift.

Comprehension hit B’Elanna like a wet rag. “That explains everything,” she murmured. “The little talks with Nicoletti and why you were always . . .” B’Elanna glanced up and became aware of the blue eyes staring at her. “Never mind.”

“Never mind, what?” Tom demanded. “What were you talking about? What talks with Sue?” He eyed B’Elanna questioningly.

Her mouth hung open. “I . . .” A wave of embarrassment washed over her. Kahless! When will she ever learn to think before she opened her mouth?

Tom’s eyes lit up mischievously. He slowly maneuvered B’Elanna against the turbolift’s walls. “You were about to say, Lieutenant?” he whispered in suggestive tones. His mouth hovered inches away from hers.

Keep hold of your emotions, Torres. Don’t let it overwhelm you. B’Elanna’s eyes refused to meet Tom’s. Instead, they focused on his square jaw. That delicious piece of flesh that she felt tempted to sink her teeth into. She took a deep breath. Big mistake! Tom’s scent, again invaded her senses. With great effort, B’Elanna ignored the scent and replied, “Actually, I meant to offer my help.”

“Excuse me?” Tom’s brows quirked upward.

B’Elanna continued, “I want to help. I’ll have a talk with Sue. Let her know that Baytart is interested in her. And suggest that she go on a date with him.”

Tom frowned. “What if she says no? I don’t think Sue is in any mood to give Pablo a chance. Especially after what happened at my party and in the Hololab.”

“Then he’s screwed,” B’Elanna replied bluntly. “And I would suggest he search in greener pastures.”

A sigh left Tom’s mouth. “That’s what I’ve been telling Pablo. Only he can be such a stubborn bastard, sometimes.”

“Sounds like someone I know,” B’Elanna murmured. She ignored the pilot’s pointed stare and tapped her combadge. “Torres to Engineering. How are those repairs coming along?”

Ashmore’s voice replied, “We’re almost finished, Chief. The turbolift should be back on line . . .” Before he could finish, B’Elanna felt a jolt. The turbolift began to move.

“Never mind, Carl. It’s moving. Good work.”

“No problem, Chief. Ashmore out.”

The turbolift resumed its journey. The two occupants rode in silence. Once it reached Deck Two, the doors slid open and the pair strode out and into the corridor. “Like I said,” B’Elanna continued, “I’ll have a talk with Sue. And you can convince Baytart to ask her out. Who knows?” They finally reached their destination. “Maybe something will happen between them.” She flashed Tom a smile and the two entered the Mess Hall. Dammit! Why did she have to smile at him, like that?

* * * *

“Nicoletti! I need to see you in my office, right away!”

The dark-haired woman warily headed for her superior’s office. B’Elanna could see by the set of her shoulders that she would rather keep her distance away from the Chief Engineer.

“Yes, Lieutenant?” Nicoletti answered, once she stepped inside the glass-encased room. “You want something?”

B’Elanna hesitated. She hated getting involved in the affairs of others. On the other hand, she had opened her big mouth and promised Tom to help him with his little matchmaking scheme. “Uh . . . Sue,” she began, “have you been noticing something odd, lately?”

“Odd?” Blue eyes stared at B’Elanna with one of those ‘what-did-I-do-now?’ looks. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I . . .” Again, a hesitation. This felt so embarrassing! Why in the hell did she allow Paris to talk her into this? B’Elanna conveniently forgot that she had volunteered. Dammit! She might as well get this over with now! “Look Sue, have you been encountering Ensign Baytart a lot? Lately?”

Slowly, Nicoletti replied, “Ye-ess-ss.” She paused and blinked. Realization lit up her eyes. “Yeah,” she added in a soft voice. “I wonder why.” B’Elanna told her about Tom’s matchmaking efforts. Nicoletti’s eyes grew wide with disbelief. “What?”

“All those little encounters with Baytart – the dinner party, the Hololab and the turbolift – had all been engineered by Paris. He’s been helping Baytart to get a date with . . .”

Sue angrily cut in. “Get a date with me! So, that’s why Paris has been hounding me all week long! And those damn accidents with Baytart! They were all his fault?”

An uneasy feeling grew inside B’Elanna. She wondered if Nicoletti felt disappointed that Baytart was the interested party and not Tom. “Sue, calm down. Neither Tom or Baytart meant any harm.”

“Any harm?” The other woman’s blue eyes blazed with anger. “How would you like to be the target of some cheap, matchmaking scheme?”

Impatience and her volatile temper finally caught up with B’Elanna. “Kahless, Sue! You act as if Baytart and Tom had played some dirty trick on you! Don’t you get it? Baytart is interested in you! He’s so infatuated that he risked his pride and asked Tom to help him. You asked if I would like to be the target of someone’s matchmaking? A part of me would say no. But another part of me would say . . .” Realizing that she was about to reveal one of her inner feelings, B’Elanna immediately clamped her mouth shut.

Nicoletti stared at the Chief Engineer. “You would say, yes?”

B’Elanna took a deep breath. She had not expected matters to get out of hand, like this. But, Sue deserved an answer. “Yeah,” she murmured. “Maybe.”

The two women fell silent. Then Sue asked, “Do you really think I should go on a date with Pablo?” For the first time, B’Elanna wondered if she and Sue shared a lot of traits – a tendency to become too involved in work, insecurity and a reserved nature.

“Sure. Why not?” B’Elanna replied, with a shrug. “Unless you’re interested in someone else.”

A knowing smile curved Nicoletti’s lips. “You mean, someone like Tom Paris. Hmm.” She paused, as if contemplating a decision. “Well, I have to admit that I wouldn’t be the only female on this ship to consider a date with Paris. Of course, what’s the point in longing for a man who has eyes for someone else?”

“Who are you talk . . .?” B’Elanna paused, suddenly aware of the mischief in Nicoletti’s eyes. She growled, “Never mind!”

“Chief?”

B’Elanna grabbed a PADD from her desk and pretended to be interested in the contents. “If Baytart ever finds the courage to ask you out,” she continued, “will you say yes?”

Nicoletti shrugged. “Maybe. We’ll see.” Which meant, B’Elanna realized, yes.

* * * *

Sheer panic filled Pablo Baytart’s eyes. “You told Lieutenant Torres everything?” he cried out. The two pilots stood inside Tom’s quarters. The latter had just finished his shift on the Bridge. “Why? I thought this was between the two of us!”

“I had to tell her,” Tom insisted. “It was either that or let her beat me to death for causing the turbolift to stop.”

Pablo demanded, “What are you talking about? That damn lift didn’t even stop! Or have you forgotten?”

Tom sighed. “It did stop, Pablo. Only an hour later than it was suppose to. And I ended up trapped with Torres.” He sat down in one of his chairs. Baytart sank onto the sofa. “Once she found out the truth, she offered to help.”

“Help?” Baytart frowned. “How?”

Here comes the tricky part, Tom realized. “Well, B’Elanna had volunteered to have a talk with Sue and convince her to go out on a date with you, if you asked. In fact, I believe they’ve already had their conversation.”

“WHAT?” The young pilot’s voice vibrated around the cabin.

Tom winced from the cry that rang in his ears. “God, Pablo! Not so loud!”

“Are you . . . do you mean to say that Sue knows everything? She’ll never go out with me, now!”

“She won’t if you try to avoid her like some ten year-old who’s frightened of girls!” Tom retorted. He heaved another sigh. “Look, according to B’Elanna, Sue is willing to have a talk with you. Give you a chance. All you have to do is face her and ask for a date.”

Baytart’s face expressed uncertainty. “But, what if . . .?”

“Dammit Pablo! You can’t hide from her, forever! What do you want me to do? Go on the date for you?”

Apparently, the idea did not appeal to Baytart. “N-n-no,” he stammered. He sighed. “I guess not. Maybe I should face her. Do you know where she is at the moment?”

Holding back his glee, Tom shrugged. “Why don’t you check with the computer?”

According to the computer, Lieutenant Nicoletti could be found in Engineering. Just as Tom had expected. “Well?” he said to Pablo.

The younger stood up and flashed an uneasy smile. “Well, wish me luck.” He squared his shoulders and gave Tom a nod. “Thanks for the advice, Lieutenant. And for helping me find my nerve.”

“Good luck, Pablo,” Tom replied, before Baytart left his quarters. Once alone, Tom raised his eyes heavenward and allowed himself a heartfelt sigh. “Thank God!” he shouted to know one in particular. Now, he finally had the time to return his attentions to other matters. Namely, a certain chief engineer.

* * * *

FOUR DAYS LATER . . .

“I don’t believe it!” Harry declared in a disbelieving tone. “I see it, but I don’t believe it! Is that Pablo Baytart with Sue Nicoletti?” He pointed at a couple, sharing a table on the other side of Sandrine’s, inside Holodeck One.

Both B’Elanna and Tom glanced at the couple. The former allowed herself a satisfied smile. As she had suggested, Sue accepted Pablo’s invitation to a date. She learned from Tom that the pair ended up having dinner together at simulation of a Parisian bistro, created by the Chief Helmsman. Fortunately, the date turned out to be a success.

“I had a great time!” Sue had gushed on the morning, following her first date with the pilot. “The dinner was delicious and the atmosphere, fantastic! Later, Pablo and I took a walk along the Left Bank. Very romantic.” Naturally, B’Elanna had not demand any further details.

Tom chuckled over Harry’s comments. “Well, they look like Pablo and Sue to me. Make a cute couple, don’t they?” His blue eyes danced merrily, sending shivers up B’Elanna’s spine.

“Yeah, I guess,” Harry said reluctantly. His eyes returned to Tom’s face. “What are you grinning about? You look like the cat who just swallowed a canary.” Suspicion gleamed in his dark eyes. “Say, did you have anything to do with . . .?”

Laughter poured out of Tom’s mouth. “Boy, Harry! You do catch on ‘fast’, don’t you?” Harry’s face turned red. “As a matter of fact, I had everything to do with them being together.”

B’Elanna arched an eyebrow and stared at Tom. “Excuse me, Flyboy,” she said caustically. “Only YOU were responsible?”

Embarrassment quickly replaced Tom’s triumphant expression. “Sorry. I meant us. I managed to convince Pablo to get over his shyness and ask Sue for a date. And B’Elanna had convinced her to give him a chance.” He went on to explain the entire situation to Harry.

The Ops officer shook his head after Tom finished. “The pilot and the engineer. Who would have believed it?” His remark caused B’Elanna to nearly choke on her drink. Both Harry and Tom stared at her with concerned eyes. “Are you okay, Maquis?”

“I’m fine,” a slightly hoarse B’Elanna replied. “My scotch went down the wrong way.”

Harry again, contemplated the two newly formed lovebirds. “So Tom, you were helping Baytart set up a date with Sue? That explains all those lunches and dates with Sue in the Hololab. And to think, B’Elanna thought . . .”

The moment he spoke her name, B’Elanna knew what Harry was about to say. She panicked and gave him a swift kick in the shin. Followed by a menacing stare that expressly ordered him to shut up. The younger man winced in pain. But B’Elanna also achieved her goal. Harry quickly clamped his mouth shut.

Tom glanced at his friends with barely concealed amusement. “Are you okay, Harry?”

“Fine,” the Ops officer muttered. “Just a muscle twinge in the calf.”

Feign innocence lit up Tom’s eyes. “Oh. I see. By the way, you also mentioned B’Elanna. What exactly were you about to say?” A smile threatened to quirk his lips.

He knew! Embarrassment filled B’Elanna’s guts. The teasing bastard had obviously guessed what Harry nearly revealed. Dammit! She had to get out of here. In order to make her escape, B’Elanna rose from her chair. “I just remembered. I have an Engineering report to finish,” she gushed. “I’ll see you two, later.”

Tom stood up. “Okay. I’ll walk you home.”

“I don’t need an escort, Paris!” B’Elanna retorted. Couldn’t the man take a hint? “I’m a big girl now.”

An appreciative smile curled Tom’s lips. “All the more reason to walk you back to your quarters.”

B’Elanna speared the pilot with her deadliest glare. His smile grew wider. She sighed in defeat. “All right, you can follow me.”

“Have fun you two,” Harry added. His eyes danced with glee. Both B’Elanna and Tom glared at him, but he ignored their stares and continued drinking.

Once they left Holodeck One, Tom did not follow B’Elanna to Deck Nine. Instead, the pair strolled together, side-by-side, without touching each other. B’Elanna made sure of that. They finally reached her quarters. She punched in the codes to her room and turned to face the pilot. “Well, here we are. Thanks for the uh, escort.” The doors slid open.

To her horror, Tom did not walk away. Instead, he brought up an embarrassing subject she long thought dead. “What exactly did you think about Sue and me?”

B’Elanna’s eyes grew wide. “What?”

“Harry mentioned something about why I was having all those lunches with Sue. Then he said that you thought . . . before everything went blank and he suddenly developed a ‘muscle cramp’.” A smirk touched Tom’s lips.

Again, B’Elanna’s breathing became irregular. “Nothing,” she quickly replied. “It was nothing. I . . .” Her mouth hung open.

Tom leaned closer, his mouth less than a millimeter from hers. “You what?” he whispered. The soft timbre of his voice sent waves of heat throughout B’Elanna’s body.

Dark brown eyes met blue ones. B’Elanna found her resistance to the handsome pilot slipping away. ‘Kiss him’ her mind barked. ‘Just lean forward and press your mouth against those soft, firm . . .’ Voices in the corridor broke B’Elanna out of her trance. She snapped back, growled a quick “good night” and immediately slipped inside her quarters.

Once the doors slid shut, the Chief Engineer leaned against them and sighed. Her body still shook from the memory of her close call with Tom. She felt relieved that she had escaped from becoming Tom Paris’s next conquest. Yet, she could not forget the disappointment that flashed in his blue eyes. Or ignore that same disappointment that refused to leave her heart.

THE END

“Perils of a Matchmaker” [PG-13] – 1/2

 

“PERILS OF A MATCHMAKER”

CODE: P/T, B/N, Kim
RATING: [PG-13]
SUMMARY: Tom Paris helps Pablo Baytart win the affections of Sue Nicoletti and endangers his own pursuit of the Chief Engineer in the process. Set during late Season 3.
FEEDBACK: Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: Tom, B’Elanna and all other characters related to Star Trek Voyager belong to Paramount, Viacom and the usual Trek Powers to Be.

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Part 1

Tom Paris heard footsteps behind him as he walked along the corridor of Deck Six. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant Paris!” a voice cried out. “Lieutenant, may I speak to you?” The voice belonged to Ensign Pablo Baytart, one of the pilots under the Chief Helmsman’s command.

“Can I help you, Pablo?” Tom paused to face the younger man.

Breathing heavily, Baytart replied, “Yeah, I . . .” He paused momentarily. “I need to speak with you. About a private matter.”

Private matter meant Baytart wanted to conduct this conversation somewhere other than in the middle of the corridor. Tom nodded. “I’m heading for Holodeck One. For the resort. Why don’t you join me?”

“Well, I . . .” Hesitation loomed in Baytart’s eyes. “Can we go somewhere a little more private?”

Tom sighed and promised to initiate the privacy lock on the holodeck. The two pilots reached Holodeck One and entered. Although Neelix’s resort program was running, no one seemed to be inside. Much to Baytart’s obvious relief. After Tom ordered the computer to initiate the lock, he turned to the junior pilot. “Okay Pablo, we’re alone. Now what’s the problem?”

It all came tumbling out of Baytart’s mouth. In a nutshell, the young pilot was in love with Lieutenant Sue Nicoletti, from Engineering. And he required Tom’s help to play matchmaker. The older man gave Baytart a blank look. “Matchmaker? Why me?”

“I . . . uh . . .” Baytart blushed. “Well, I heard how you helped Culhane with Jenna Carlson in Exobiology, a couple of months ago. And I wondered if you could . . .” The pilot’s face now turned deep red. “You see, it’s Sue. I heard she can be difficult to pursue.”

The understatement of the century, Tom thought wryly. He recalled his own six-month long efforts to pursue Sue Nicoletti, last year. Efforts that eventually ended in failure. Not that Tom felt any bitterness over the matter, despite the “cold hands, cold heart” comment he once made to Harry Kim about the engineer. He had never felt anything more than lust for the dark-haired Sue. Something he wished he could say about his present goal – namely Sue’s commanding officer – a certain half-Klingon, half-Human chief engineer. Images of the recent events on Sakari IV flashed through Tom’s mind. Along with memories of a conversation inside a turbolift. “Careful of what you wish for, Lieutenant.” With a sigh, Tom realized he may have taken on a more impossible goal.

“Lieutenant?” Baytart’s voice interrupted Tom’s thoughts.

The older man shook his head. “Sorry. My mind was elsewhere. Uh, as for the elusive Lieutenant Nicoletti, I’ll see what I can do.”

A bright smile lit up Pablo’s face. “Thanks, Lieutenant.”

“Don’t get too excited, Pablo. This is Sue Nicoletti we’re dealing with.” Cold hands, cold heart. “It might take a while before we achieve success.”

Still smiling, Pablo stood up. “I’m sure you’ll get the job done, Lieutenant. I’ll see you later. And again, thanks.” He left the holodeck.

“Yeah, sure,” Tom murmured under his breath. He realized, to his regret, that he might have to put his pursuit of B’Elanna Torres on hold.

* * * *

Sable eyes watched the doors to Engineering slide open. Watched a sandy blond-haired figure in Command black-and-red, stroll inside. Those same eyes quickly glanced away the moment Voyager’s Chief Pilot walked toward the Chief Engineer’s private office. B’Elanna Torres’s heart began to beat rapidly.

Breathe Torres. Calm down. Tom Paris is no one to get excited over. What happened on Sakari IV had been a mere fluke. An unfortunate incident caused by a chemical imbalance forced upon her by a Vulcan in . . .

“Hey B’Elanna.” Tom Paris’s soft, masculine voice filled her ears. The same voice that told her over two months ago that he would like to see more of her Klingon side. Tom entered her office, his scent pervading her senses. B’Elanna struggled not to breathe deeply. He tossed a PADD on her desk. “The navigation reports. Just as you had requested.”

B’Elanna snatched the PADD from the desk. “Thanks,” she said, giving Tom a curt nod. She did not even bother to look at him. The last thing she wanted was to look deeply into the pilot’s blue eyes. Unfortunately for B’Elanna, once she received the report, Tom refused to move. Another sigh left her mouth. He possessed a stubborn streak that rivaled any Klingon’s. “Is there something else you wanted, Paris?” She glanced up and frowned. It helped that her eyes focused upon his forehead.

“Paris?” One of Tom’s sandy brows quirked upward. “I thought we had put surnames behind us a long time ago.” Over a year, to be exact.

B’Elanna growled. “What do you want, Tom?”

A slow smile curled the pilot’s lips. B’Elanna forced herself to ignore the electric currents shooting up her spine. “Well, I was thinking of holding this party,” Tom replied, “and I thought you would like . . .”

“I’ll be busy,” B’Elanna shot back, interrupting him.

Tom frowned. “Oh? When? I don’t recall mentioning a specific date.”

Idiot! B’Elanna mentally castigated herself. She should have kept her mouth shut, until he finished. Now, how in the hell was she going to get out of this mess?

B’Elanna eventually asked herself why she would want to avoid an evening with Tom. She could no longer deny her interest in the pilot. At least, privately. Publicly admitting her interest seemed another matter. A little voice inside her mind – one that she labeled “FEAR” – told her that it would be a matter of time before Tom Paris grew weary of her Klingon side. And that in the end, he would reject her.

Heaving a sigh, B’Elanna deliberately examined the PADD in her hand. “Look Tom,” she commented in her usual gruff manner, “I’m sure that your party will be a lot of fun, but I don’t know when I’ll have time to enjoy it. Between our encounter with that Borg cube and the Doctor’s foray into homicidal schizophrenia, I don’t know when.”

“Oh.” Tom’s voice permeated with disappointment. At least that was how it sounded to B’Elanna. “Well . . . uh, hopefully you’ll be free, sooner than you think.”

“Hopefully.”

Another moment passed before Tom murmured a quick good day. And then he left. Only his scent lingered inside the office. The half-Klingon kept her eyes fixed on the report. At least, she tried to concentrate. The moment she felt safe enough to do so, she glanced up to watch Tom leave Engineering. Only, he did not leave. Instead, he made his way toward one of her engineers working at a console near the warp core. Sue Nicoletti. B’Elanna’s eyes narrowed.

* * * *

“Say that again?” Sue Nicoletti demanded. “You’re inviting me to where?” Her voice rang throughout Engineering, drawing stares.

There were times Tom wished the engineer would learn to keep her voice at a moderate level. Ignoring the curious stares, Tom repeated his question. “I asked if you would like to join me in my quarters, tomorrow evening.”

Sue shot an uneasy glance at the Chief Engineer’s office. “Uh, just us alone?”

“Huh?” Tom realized that he had misinterpreted his intent. The last thing he wanted was to give Sue the idea that he had renewed his interest in her. “Oh! Uh . . . damn! No, it’s not what you think.” He exhaled a gust of breath. “I’m holding a little sociable, tomorrow night. You know, food, drinks, music and perhaps a little game of poker.”

Disbelief replaced the wariness in Sue’s blue eyes. “This is new. You haven’t asked me to a friendly get-together in months. Ten months, to be exact.”

Tom shrugged. “Considering the number of times you’ve turned me down in the past, can you blame me?”

“Uh-huh.”

A nervous laugh escaped Tom’s mouth. “Look Sue, it’s not what you think. I’m not interested in romance. Just a little get together with people I consider to be my friends.”

“I don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted,” Sue commented wryly. Again, she shot a glance toward B’Elanna’s office. “Will Lieutenant Torres be there?”

Tom quickly squelched the disappointment he felt over B’Elanna’s recent rejection. “It seems she’ll be busy for a while. I’m only surprised that you aren’t.”

“Busy doing what?”

Of course. Tom realized he should have known that B’Elanna’s excuses for turning down his invitation were mere smoke screens. Either she had no desire to spend her off-duty hours with him. Or she was afraid. Tom hoped it was the latter.

Sue repeated her question. “Well? Busy doing what?”

“Nothing,” Tom responded with a sigh. “Forget what I said. All I want to know is will you be able to show up at my quarters, tomorrow night. Say, 20:00 hours?”

“I’ll be there.”

Tom smiled. “Good. Now be sure . . .”

“Nicoletti!” a throaty female’s voice cried out. “Haven’t you finished recalibrating those specs, yet?” Tom and Sue stared at the glass-encased office. B’Elanna stood in the doorway, hands on hips. Glaring.

Sue threw Tom a long-suffering glance. One that pleaded with him to leave before either of them piss off the Chief Engineer any further. Tom quickly got the message and left Engineering before he could further inflame B’Elanna’s wrath.

* * * *

Around 19:45, the following night, Tom glanced around his quarters. His guests were due to arrive any minute. And sure enough, the first one arrived three minutes later. Pablo Baytart. Harry Kim arrived with both Delaney sisters, two minutes after Pablo. Before 20:00, the rest of Tom’s guests arrived, with the exception of Sue Nicoletti. The engineer showed up fifteen minutes late.

Soft jazz music filled the pilot’s cabin. A tempting array of Earth and Bajoran dishes stretched across a table, set up against a bare wall. The food had been replicated, thanks to additional credits provided by Baytart and Harry.

The party seemed to proceed smoothly. Talk focused on topics other than survival in the Delta Quadrant. Everyone seemed to enjoy the food. Tom did not blame them. He had to keep the party a secret from Voyager’s Talaxian cook – who would have undoubtedly volunteered to prepare the food. And to Tom’s delight, Pablo and Sue managed to strike up a conversation on famous jazz musicians. If everything went according to plan, the engineer and the pilot will drift from acquaintance to friendship, and eventually toward romance. Then disaster struck.

Pablo volunteered to fetch a plate of dim sum for Sue. Eager to please the engineer, he set out on his task. As he headed back toward Sue, Pablo failed to notice Mike Ayala’s protruding foot. He tripped over the latter and the plate of dim sum with soy sauce, sailed out of his hands and landed on Sue’s lap.

The engineer cried out with dismay. Pablo laid sprawled on the floor, wearing a horrified expression. Tom closed his eyes and sighed. Getting Pablo and Sue together, he realized, might proved to be more elusive than him winning the hand of one B’Elanna Torres.

* * * *

“Hey, Starfleet!”

Harry glanced up from his breakfast and found the Chief Engineer standing beside his table inside the Mess Hall. “Hey, Maquis. Have a seat.” He gestured toward the empty chair, opposite him.

Once B’Elanna eased into a chair, she began poking at her food. Either she was not hungry or like Harry, found Neelix’s idea of Eggs Benedict, unappetizing. “Doesn’t look that hot, does it?” Harry commented.

B’Elanna smiled wryly. “Not really. I would have replicated something, but I’m low on credits, right now.”

“Yeah, so am I. Tom managed to win most of my credits during a pool game, day before yesterday.” Harry scooped up a forkful of orange-colored eggs. “He must have used them for that party in his quarters, last night.” The moment he mentioned Tom’s party, he saw B’Elanna’s mouth tightened into a grim line. “What’s wrong?”

Her mouth quickly relaxed. Dark eyes widened in innocence. “What do you mean?”

“Is there something wrong?” Harry continued. “You looked upset for a moment. When I mentioned Tom’s party.” He deliberately paused. “Were you upset over that?”

B’Elanna’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “Of course not! Why should I be upset? Tom had invited me. I just didn’t . . . I mean, I was busy, last night.” She began to attack her food.

“Busy?” Harry frowned. “Doing what? Most of the major repairs were finished three days ago.”

An exasperated sigh escaped B’Elanna’s mouth. “There were minor repairs to deal with,” she replied through gritted teeth.

“Which could have been done by your staff. After all, you are the Chief Engineer.”

“What’s your point, Harry?”

The Operations Chief realized that he was about to tread through dangerous waters. But he also remembered that he was a Starfleet officer. Not only was weird part of the job, but also danger. Harry took a deep breath. “It sounds as if you had turned down Tom’s invitation. To avoid Tom.”

B’Elanna rolled her eyes. “Kahless, Harry! The world does not revolve around Thomas Paris!” The moment she spoke his name, the Mess Hall doors slid open and in strode the object of their conversation. Harry glanced at B’Elanna, whose cheeks immediately turned red. A smile tugged at his lips.

“Hey Harry!” Tom greeted in his usual gregarious manner. He joined the two friends at their table. His eyes slid toward the Chief Engineer. “B’Elanna.” The latter responded with a murmur.

Harry smiled at his friend. “Hey, Tom. Where’s your breakfast?”

“I ate some of the leftovers from last night’s party. You should taken some yourself, Harry.” Tom shot a withering glance at the orange eggs. “And maybe spare yourself from Neelix’s latest sample of Delta Quadrant cuisine.”

Harry dismally poked his eggs with his fork. “Oh God, please don’t remind me!”

Tom turned to face B’Elanna. “Say B’Elanna, you miss one hell of a party, last night. We had a great time. Right, Har?”

“I have to admit that I did enjoy myself, last night,” Harry conceded, recalling the festivities. “Tom’s right, B’Elanna. It’s a shame that you missed it.”

Mischief sparkled in Tom’s blue eyes. “Well, B’Elanna was busy last night, Harry,” he drawled. “With repairs. Of course that does seem odd, since all of the major repairs were finished three days ago.”

B’Elanna gave Harry an accusing stare. “You told!”

“What are you talking about?” a bewildered Harry protested. “I didn’t say a word!”

“Then who . . .?” B’Elanna’s gaze pierced the Chief Helmsman. “All right, Flyboy! Who told you?”

Projecting an air of innocence, Tom shrugged. “Told me what?”

“Tom!”

Chuckling, Tom finally gave in. “All right, all right. It was Sue Nicoletti. I asked her about the repairs, last night.”

Sable eyes slitted dangerously. Harry prepared to calm down B’Elanna. Before he could do so, the doors slid open again and Sue Nicoletti entered. As she strode toward the galley’s counter, Tom rose from his chair. “Excuse me for a minute.” His eyes focused on the dark-haired engineer. “I have some business to attend to.” The pilot walked toward Sue, leaving behind two speechless friends.

B’Elanna finally spoke out. “What the hell does he want with her?” she growled.

Harry noticed the grim expression on his friend’s face. And the envy in her dark eyes. Interesting, he thought. B’Elanna was jealous. Harry glanced at his other friend. And what exactly did Tom want with Sue Nicoletti?

* * * *

Tom approached the engineer, flashing his trademark effervescent grin. “Sue!”

Nicoletti eyed the helmsman with a wary eye. “Tom. What can I do for you?” She picked up a breakfast tray and began to examine the dishes on the counter.

“Just wanted to know if you enjoyed last night’s party.” From the corner of his eye, Tom noticed the perked interest on Neelix’s face.

Sue quietly made her breakfast selections. “I enjoyed it,” she coolly replied replied, “aside from getting a plate full of dim sum and soy sauce on one of my best dresses.”

Tom winced at her answer. It seemed Pablo’s clumsy act had failed to fade from Sue’s memory. “Yeah, I’m real sorry about that. Mike should really learn to keep his feet tucked in.”

“And Baytart should learn to watch where he steps,” Sue retorted. Oh, oh! Things did not look promising. Once Neelix filled her plate with food, Sue carried it over to the nearest empty table. Tom followed. She eased into a chair with a sigh. “Okay, Tom. What do you want, now?”

Tom sat down in a chair, opposite her. “I have a favor to ask.” He paused.

“What favor?”

In a breathless rush, Tom informed Sue of his plans (phony ones, at that) to develop a training simulation holoprogram for the pilots in his division. “Holoprogram?” Sue took a bite of her Eggs Benedict and grimaced. Then she chewed her food and swallowed. “What do you need me for? You’re one of the best holoprogrammers on the ship.”

It amazed Tom how a compliment could sound so cold. What on earth did Baytart see in this woman? Better yet, what on earth made him pursue her for six months? The challenge? Tom gathered all of his patience and replied, “It’s not your programming skills I need, Sue. It’s your memory. Of Geminian Prime. I understand that your last assignment before Voyager was the Hiriku. And that it was the first starship to chart the Geminian Prime system.”

“So what? I’m an engineer, not a astrophysicist.”

Tom sighed. Patience, Tommy boy, patience. Hell, you’ve been practicing it long enough with B’Elanna. His lips still fixed in a smile, Tom continued, “That may be true, but I heard you were part of the original survey team. To study the geological and metallurgical details of several of the planets. I need to provide me some details of the system.”

Sue warily speared a piece of Ragealan sausage. “You can find all the information you need in the ship’s database.”

“The database cannot provide those little details that make a program exciting. C’mon Sue! Please?” Tom gave the engineer the full blast of his blue eyes.

A sigh left Sue’s mouth. “Okay,” she said, surprising Tom. “I’ll help you. I may not remember much, but I’ll help. When do we start?”

So much for Cold Hands/Cold Hearts Nicoletti, Tom decided. Maybe he should have tried begging, when he had pursued her a year ago. “How about tomorrow evening? Around 1900 hours? I’ll meet you outside the Hololab.”

“It’s a date,” Sue replied. Unfortunately, she had spoken loud enough to draw stares from nearby diners.

Tom decided it was time to leave before a false rumor could start. He bid Sue a quick good-bye and returned to Harry’s table. However, one person seemed to be missing. Tom’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s B’Elanna?” he asked. Harry did not say a word and instead, responded with a sardonic smirk.

* * * *

Somewhere on Deck 8, B’Elanna crawled through Jeffries tube 26, lugging her toolkit with her. Several of the EPS conduits had malfunctioned and for some reason, the two engineers she assigned to make repairs seemed capable of completing the task. A firm believer in the old adage – “If you want something done, do it yourself” – B’Elanna decided to deal with the repairs, personally.

She came upon a console, located a few feet away from one of the tube’s opened doors. After removing the console’s panel, B’Elanna’s dark eyes examined the circuitry. Obviously, Ensigns Mulcahey and Ballard’s repairs had failed to solve the problem. In fact, their work only seemed to have made matters worse. How in Kahless’s name did Starfleet allow such incompetents on their starships?

A sigh left the Chief Engineer’s mouth. She picked up a hydro-spanner and set about making repairs. B’Elanna hoped that a little work would help her forget that scene she had witnessed in the Mess Hall. Unfortunately, no sooner had she begun repairs, her hopes quickly dashed. The circuits before her, soon transformed into the unwelcome vision of Tom Paris and Susan Nicoletti, engaged in an intimate conversation.

What in the hell made Tom rush to Sue’s side, the moment she entered the Mess Hall? Did he have an innocent matter to discuss? Or did he invite her to another one of his private parties? B’Elanna began to wonder if Tom’s romantic interest in the dark-haired woman had revived, after his failure to woo the Chief Engineer. The latter longed to know. And yet, a part of her had no desire to concern herself with the notorious Chief Helmsman. Ah, conflict! Her constant companion in life.

“. . . has to be,” a voice beyond the tube’s door, was saying. “How else can you explain it?”

Another voice sighed. “Explain what?” B’Elanna recognized that soft, sarcastic voice anywhere. It belonged to her second-in-command, Joe Carey. “Pat, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ensign Patrick Mulcahey snorted. “Of course, I do! I was sitting at the table next to them, inside the Mess Hall . . .”

B’Elanna’s hands paused over the console. She placed the spanner on the floor and quietly crept toward the door. When Mulcahey mentioned the words, “Mess Hall”, she realized that he and Joe were discussing Paris and Nicoletti. At that moment, B’Elanna refused to even think of the Chief Pilot as Tom.

“You mean to say,” Carey sarcastically continued, “that you and Lindsay overheard the entire conversation?”

Mulcahey retorted, “We heard enough.” He paused, causing B’Elanna to mentally scream for the man to continue. “Paris asked Sue to help him with a holodeck program.”

“And?”

B’Elanna’s heart lurched at the news. Since when did Tom Paris need help with a holoprogram?

“Tom Paris, asking for help with a holoprogram?” Mulcahey cried out, repeating B’Elanna’s thoughts. “He’s one of the best programmers on the ship! Probably the best! What the hell does he need Sue’s help for?”

A sigh from Carey. “What are you leading to, Pat?”

“I think Paris is interested in Sue, again. C’mon Joe! What else can it be? He invites her to a party inside his quarters . . .”

Joe shot back, “I was there!” I could have been, B’Elanna added silently. “There were at least ten to fifteen people at that party.”

Mulcahey continued, “And what about this morning? Paris seeking help for his new holoprogram?”

Silence followed. B’Elanna immediately knew the answer to Mulcahey’s suggestion. Tom Paris wanted Sue Nicoletti. Quite simple. He had apparently grown weary of pursuing B’Elanna and now focused his attention upon another woman. Surely, Joe could see that?

Seconds later, B’Elanna had her answer. “I guess Paris finally got tired of chasing the Chief after Sakaris IV,” Joe finally said. “Too bad.”

“Too bad?” Mulcahey’s voice rang with disbelief. “Are you kidding me? Can you imagine the Chief and Playboy Paris as a couple? It would never work! She’s too intense for a guy like that!” Intense could only mean one thing – too Klingon in Mulcahey’s eyes. He did not realize it, but he had just earned another black mark in the Chief Engineer’s book.

Carey responded, “I don’t know. Personally, I thought they had something. Like I said, too bad.” He almost sounded mournful. But not as much as B’Elanna felt.

* * * *

Tom strode along Deck Six’s corridor in his usual, easygoing manner. He was on his way to Pablo Baytart’s quarters, located right next door to Harry. Upon reaching his destination, he rang the announciator. Several times. After six weeks of accumulating extra flying time, Baytart managed to get two days off for his troubles. Today was the first of his off-duty time. A groggy voice from inside cried out, “Wha . . . Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Pablo! Paris! I have something for you.” Seconds passed before the door opened, allowing Tom to enter.

Tom’s eyes glanced around the immaculate cabin. There were a few facts about Pablo Baytart. He was an excellent pilot, a good juggler, a friendly soul, he constantly complained about Harry’s clarinet and he also happened to be a neat freak. Tom barely saw an object out of place or a piece of clothing scattered about. Amazing.

“Lieutenant,” Baytart greeted his superior, while tugging at his robe. “Can I help you?”

Tom replied, “Not really. Actually, I’m here to help you. Here,” he tossed a PADD at the ensign. “Read that. You’re going to be helping Sue with a holoprogram, tomorrow. Nineteen hundred hours. Be there.” He turned on his heels and started toward the door.

“Wait!” Pablo cried out. He ran a hand through his dark hair. “What do I need this PADD for?”

“I told Sue that I needed help with a pilot training program. It’s all there on the PADD. She’ll be expecting me, but you’ll show up, instead. Tell her . . .” Tom’s mind raced for a plausible explanation. “Tell her that I was called unexpectedly by Ensign Kim, regarding an Operations matter.” He slapped the younger man’s back. “After that, it’s up to you.”

Before Tom could leave, Pablo thanked him. “I really appreciate this, Lieutenant.” The Chief Pilot responded with a quick grin and left.

* * * *

At precisely 19:00 hours, the following evening, Tom deliberately failed to meet Lieutenant Nicoletti in the Hololab. Instead, he turned on his computer inside his quarters and watched Ensign Baytart make the appointment in his place, by activating the lab’s video monitor.

The expression on Sue’s face expressed annoyance at Tom’s failure to meet her. However, the engineer seemed willing to work with Pablo. Within twenty minutes, Tom could see that his plan was going smoothly. Both Sue and Pablo worked well, together. And unlike the party from a few days ago, there seemed to be no mishaps.

No sooner had those words entered Tom’s thoughts, Pablo punched in a few entries on his console, his eyes fixed upon Sue with unabashed admiration. Sparks immediately lit up the engineer’s workstation. Sue cried out in pain, before she fell to the floor, unconscious.

Tom lowered his head into his hand and let out a heavy sigh. He realized, with a touch of despair that his efforts to help Baytart win Nicoletti’s affections had just risen from difficult to near impossible.

* * * *

“One last item on the agenda, this morning,” Captain Janeway declared, “is Lieutenant Nicoletti’s injuries.” The auburn-haired captain and her senior officers sat around the large table, inside Voyager’s Conference Room. “Doctor, can you give us the details on this matter?”

Due to his possession of a 29th century holoemitter four-and-a-half months ago, the Chief Medical Officer had been able to appear outside Sick Bay and the holodecks. And finally even make personal appearances at senior staff meetings. Much to Tom’s annoyance. The latter preferred the good old days when they communicated with the EMH via a computer monitor. Which meant anyone could switch off the ponderous hologram whenever he became annoying.

The Doctor gave a slight cough. “Lieutenant Nicoletti had suffered minor burns and electric shock from an outage in her console in the Hololab. She healed quite nicely, following a minor surgery and a few hours of rest.”

“How on earth did that happened?” the Captain demanded. She turned to B’Elanna with concerned eyes. “Lieutenant, was there something wrong with one of the Hololab’s computer terminals?”

The Chief Engineer’s mouth formed a grim line. Tom almost smiled. She looked very Klingon at that moment. And quite gorgeous. “There was nothing wrong, Captain,” B’Elanna grumbled. “It seemed Ensign Baytart had accidentally caused a surge in the console Sue was working from.”

A puzzled frown appeared on Chakotay’s face. “I’m surprised those two were working together. Neither really struck me as being exceptional holoprogrammers.”

Tom spoke out. “It was my idea.” All eyes fell upon him. “I needed Sue’s help on a particular program, but I had to bow out at the last moment. So I asked Ensign Baytart to take my place.”

“Why?” Janeway asked.

Tom shrugged. “It’s nothing. I’m creating a new training program for the Conn Division.”

“Is that what you two were talking about in the Mess Hall?” Harry blurted out.

The question took Tom off guard. He had no idea that his little conversation with Sue had generated so much speculation. “Well . . . yeah,” he replied slowly. “What did you think?” He stared at his best friend, whose face turned red. Even more surprisingly, so did B’Elanna’s.

Before Harry could answer, Neelix had a question of his own. “Why would you need Lieutenant Nicoletti’s help with a holoprogram?” His question reflected in the eyes of the others.

“There’s a certain system in the . . .” Tom paused. Why on earth was everyone interested in him and Sue Nicoletti? “Look, it’s a private matter,” he quickly explained. “Excuse me, but isn’t this suppose to be a staff meeting and not gossip time in the Mess Hall?”

The majority of the staff glanced away, looking embarrassed. Except for the Captain, who let out a small cough. “You’re right, Mister Paris. This is turning into a gossip session. However, you cannot blame us for being a little curious.” She gave Tom a small smile. “If there is nothing more to discuss, everyone is dismissed.”

The rest of the staff filed out, one by one. Tom started toward B’Elanna, but she walked past the door and toward the turbolift, before he could stop her. Damn! And he thought he had problems with Pablo and Sue.

* * * *

Two hours later, B’Elanna paused outside the doors to Engineering and took a deep breath. Disappointment threatened to overwhelm her. Disappointment that Tom Paris had found someone new to pursue. Or to be more accurate, someone he had pursued before. Namely, Sue Nicoletti. After the senior staff meeting, there was no doubt in B’Elanna’s mind.

So many regrets filled her thoughts and heart. Regret that she had resisted Tom’s overtures for a date. Or that he had resisted her pon farr-induced overtures on Sakaris IV. And that Vorik had interrupted when she and Tom were finally about to have sex. After receiving rejection after rejection, Tom had finally lost interest in her.

“Going in, Chief?”

B’Elanna snapped out of her funk and stared at the figure next to her. Carl Ashmore. She gave the engineer a tight smile. “After you, Ensign.” She indicated the door with a wave and followed him inside Engineering.

The moment she stepped inside, B’Elanna froze in her tracks. Just ahead stood both Sue and Tom, their heads together in deep conversation. And judging by the animated expressions on their faces, Tom may have finally succeeded in his pursuit of the dark-haired engineer. A surge of anger flared briefly inside B’Elanna, followed by jealousy and despair. Life was so damn unfair!

END OF PART 1

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Seven

ordmantell

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER SEVEN

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Han guided the Javian Hawk through Ord Mantell’s heavy atmosphere and toward the planet’s busy capital. Within minutes, he landed the starship on a landing platform at the Worlport Spaceport, before guiding it into a hangar already occupied by another starship. “Here we are,” he declared. “Ord Mantell.”

Both Anakin and Han left the cockpit and joined their passengers in another section of the ship. “We’re here,” Anakin announced to the two women. “I will have to report the Hawk’s arrival to the local port master. Han, Chewie and I can rendezvous with you two ladies at your hotel. Which brings me to my question – what is the name?”

Senator Dahlma stood up with her usual regal manner. “We’ll be staying at the Hotel Grand,” she announced. “And I had made reservations for us all, before leaving Maldare. Which means your room will be next to the suite that Igraine and I will occupy. As for Mr. Chewbacca,” she glanced at the Hawk’s newest crew member, “I do not know if the hotel . . .”

“They will allow him to stay,” Anakin reassured the senator. “This is Ord Mantell, Senator. Not Coruscant.”

“Well . . . I suppose the matter has been settled.” Senator Dahlma glanced pointedly at the two men and then at her luggage.

Anakin knew what she wanted – someone to carry her luggage. He directed his gaze at Han. Who sighed. “Great! I should have known I’d end up being some glorified baggage handler. Where’s a good droid when you need one? C’mon Chewie, time to carry the ladies’ luggage.”

Han and Chewbacca gathered the Maldarian women’s luggage and started down the ship’s boarding ramp. Senator Dahlma followed. Miss Colbert hesitated and turned to Anakin. “Please forgive the senator,” she said in that soft, husky voice that Anakin found appealing. “She is a decent woman and has a good heart. But she also comes from a wealthy and influential family. Sometimes, her background tends to reflect in a rather . . . well, haughty manner.”

With a smile, Anakin replied, “I understand. It hasn’t been that long since the old days of the Republic. I’ve met her kind on Coruscant, before. Good people, but . . . like you had said, a little haughty.”

“Is that where you are from?” Miss Colbert asked. “Coruscant?”

Anakin hesitated. Should he tell her the truth? He finally decided. “Actually, I’m from one of the Outer Rim territories. But I have spent some considerable time on Coruscant. Before the Empire.”

“You seem old enough to have witnessed the Clone Wars,” Miss Colbert added. “Were you a veteran?”

“More like a pilot.” The former Jedi Knight offered his arm to the senator’s aide. “May I escort you off the ship, Milady?”

Miss Colbert smiled and linked her arm with Anakin’s. “I would be honored. And you can call me Igraine.”

“I’m . . . Set.” Anakin exchanged another smile with the Maldarian woman and escorted her off the Javian Hawk.

——-

Three hours later, Zoebeida Dahlma sat back into her chair, feeling relaxed for the first time since she learned about this conference several days ago. As she sipped her Mandalorian wine, Bail Organa continued his opening address to those attending the conference.

“. . . many of you. But we are all here for one reason – namely freedom throughout this galaxy.”

While the Alderaanian continued his speech, Zoebeida observed those who sat inside the Hotel Grand’s Jewel Conference Room. Naturally, Mon Mothma sat on one side of Organa and the former senator from Corellia, Garm Bel Iblis, sat on Bail’s other side. All three were seen as the Great Triumvirate – the founders of this new Rebel Alliance. Zoebeida felt surprised that former senators Padme Amidala and Solipo Yeb had not also participated in the alliance’s formation, considering their opposition against Palpatine during the last days of the Republic.

Speaking of Solipo Yeb, Zoebedia spotted the former Andalian senator seated at a table just left of Bail’s. Despite being a fugitive from the Empire, Solipo had managed to develop connections to several rebellious cells in the Vivenda Sector. Next to him sat Jan Dodonna, the lanky and bearded former Imperial general who had joined the Alliance after the Emperor Palpatine had ordered his assassination. Apparently, the Emperor considered the retired general from Dodonna as a danger to the Empire.

“Organization is the key,” Organa continued. “As an organized force, we can eventually bring an end to the Empire’s grip upon this galaxy. And eventually, restore the Republic.”

Applause followed. Zoebeida noticed that some of the attendees looked skeptical at Organa’s last words. Including Padme Amidala. Zoebeida had last seen the former Nabooan senator at a brief meeting with Organa and Iblis on Averam, four years ago. Like the former Corellian senator, Amidala had faked her death in order to avoid being hunted down by the Empire. Only Zoebeida could not fathom why the Empire would be interested in the former Queen of Naboo. Or why the latter would resort to such drastic steps to ensure anonymity. Perhaps she will learn the reason sometime during the conference.

Returning her attention to her Alderaanian colleague, Zoebeida realized that he seemed to be near the end of his speech. “. . . realize that by attending this conference, we have pledged our lives to returning freedom to this galaxy. I thank you.” More applause followed. When it died down, Organa added, “Please feel free to mingle. Since we plan to work together for years to come, I feel that we might as well get to know one another a lot better.”

The moment the attendees began to mingle, Zoebeida stood up and slowly made her way toward Padme Amidala’s table. By the time she reached it, she discovered that the former senator had been joined by Garm Bel Iblis and Solipo Yeb. She smiled at the other three. “How are we enjoying this evening?”

Yeb replied, “Surprisingly, quite well. I had expected to encounter a lot of squabbling.”

“Wait until tomorrow,” Garm shot back. “When we begin discussing the possibility of organization. The worms will certainly be coming out of the woodwork.”

Zoebeida shook her head in mock despair. “You’re such a cynic, Garm. You need to have more faith in your fellow sentient beings.”

Rolling his eyes in contempt, the Corellian shot back, “I have faith. I’m part of this alliance, aren’t I?”

A sigh left Zoebeida’s mouth. Sometimes, she wondered if the loss of his family at the hands of Imperial troopers had mentally affected Garm’s personality. “If you say so,” Zoebeida wearily replied.

“I can understand Garm’s position,” Solipo Yeb added. “The past ten to fourteen years have been difficult for us all. The war, the loss of the Republic, the Empire and many of us losing our homes or being forced to find new homes. You’re lucky, Zoebeida. You have not experienced any true upheavals in your life. At least, not yet.”

The Maldarian senator frowned. “What do you mean . . . not yet?”

Solipo continued, “Well, you haven’t experienced any loss, have you? Garm, Padme and I can no longer serve the Senate because we’re all fugitives. Well, I’m a fugitive. Garm and Padme are believed to be dead. And none of us can no longer reside on our homeworlds.”

Zoebeida pressed her lips together. When she had made the decision to approach Amidala’s table, she had never considered that she would end up feeling like an outsider. But Solipo’s words also gave her an opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about the former Nabooan senator. “If you do not mind my asking, Senator Amidala,” Zoebeida began, “why are you avoiding the Imperials?”

The younger woman’s eyes blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Garm had opposed many of Palpatine’s decisions and policies for years,” Zoebeida continued. “Which finally put him in danger when Palpatine finally became Emperor. Solipo had provided sanctuary to a Jedi Knight and now, his homeworld is under direct Imperial occupation. But Naboo is not under any such danger. So, why did you fake your death in order to avoid detection by the Empire?”

The Nabooan woman stiffened slightly. Zoebeida wondered if she had gone too far. “It’s . . .” A sigh left Amidala’s mouth. “The Petition of 2000,” she finally answered. “I had helped draft the Petition of 2000, which demanded Palpatine’s resignation once the Clone Wars ended. Unlike many other senators,” Amidala shot a pointed look at Zoebeida, “I had refused to withdraw my name from the petition. In fact, I was the one who had delivered the petition to him.”

A shaft of guilt struck Zoebeida. She perfectly understood Amidala’s comment about those senators who had withdrawn their signatures from the petition. Zoebeida had been one of them. And she did it to preserve her career in the Senate. Oh well. At least she now knew the reason behind Amidala’s fugitive status. She only hoped that she would never face a similar fate.

——-

“Well if I live and breath!” a female’s voice cut through the noise inside one of the Lady Fate Casino’s nightclubs. “Set Horus?”

With the Brin band’s music filling his ears, Anakin glanced away from the Twi’lek dancer on the stage and found himself staring into a pair of familiar green eyes. “Voranda Sen? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

The tall, red-haired woman smiled, as she settled in one of the empty chairs at Anakin’s table. “I suppose . . . if you consider two years as ages. What are you doing here on Ord Mantell?”

“Providing transportation for a client,” Anakin replied. “And you?”

Voranda shrugged. “The same.”

The two pilots had first met, while taking part of a convoy delivering equipment and supplies to a mining colony on Bespin, six years ago. From the moment they first met, Anakin found Voranda to be an attractive woman – despite her being at least over a decade older than him. But as with Vi’dal Mira, his relationship with Voranda had developed into nothing more than friendship.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Anakin continued. “Han and I had ran into Corsac Best and Lin Tsai at one of the Casino’s restaurants, earlier this evening. And now, I find you here. In fact, I’ve been seeing a good number of familiar faces at my hotel.”

Another shrug lifted Voranda’s elegant shoulders. “Well, this is a favorite spot for many smugglers and freighter pilots.”

“Yeah, but the pilots I’ve encountered usually hang out on Nar Shaada or Abregado-rae. Not Ord Mantell.” Anakin returned his gaze to the Twi’lek dancer. “Something is going on, here.”

A long pause followed. The Twi’lek dancer finally finished her routine amidst fervent applause. Then Vornada said, “She reminds you of Vi’dal, doesn’t she? She even has he same skin color. I’ve always wondered why you and she never became more than friends.”

“Because we’re not in love,” Anakin coolly replied. A waitress appeared at the table. He ordered a tall glass of Corellian ale.

Voranda shot back, “So what?” She dismissed the waitress with a wave of her hand. “We live in perilous times, Captain Horus. A person should grab a little happiness when the opportunity arises.”

“I’ll think about that.”

“On the other hand,” Voranda continued, “women like Vi’dal aren’t exactly your type. I suspect that you prefer those with a lot more class. A true lady.”

More class? Anakin automatically found himself thinking of Padme. Only briefly. What seemed the point of brooding over someone whom you could never see again? Who was gone . . . forever? A harsh laugh escaped his mouth. “Voranda, I come from a backwater planet in the Outer Rim Territories. From the lowest class in society. No . . . lady would be interested in me.”

“I don’t know about that.” Voranda’s remark drew a stare from Anakin. “I know a woman – a friend – who is here in Worlport. She strikes me as the type who might be interested in a good-looking and intelligent man like you. She’s a lady from the tips of her fingers to her toes. And privileged or not, she’s intelligent enough to probably view you as someone worthy.”

Anakin responded with a derisive snort. “Aside from your friend’s questionable taste in men, what’s the catch?”

“Huh?”

“What’s wrong with her? Something must be, if you think she might be interested in someone like me.”

Voranda glared at Anakin. “There is nothing wrong with her! She happens to be a charming and beautiful woman. And very intelligent.” Anakin regarded his fellow pilot through narrowed eyes, until she added quietly, “She’s also a widow with two young children.”

Two young children? Anakin stared at Voranda with disbelief.

——-

MALAG, MALDARE

A furious Darth Rasche glared at the quivering, dark-haired Imperial agent that faced him. “Say that again?” he growled.

The Imperial agent, a pale and intense young man named Bauer Suron, inhaled deeply. Then he repeated his message to the Sith Lord. “Senator Dahlma is missing. She is no where to be found. And her aide is missing, as well.”

“I thought you had her under observation for the past several days!”

Suron hesitated. “Well . . . yes.” Rasche’s eyes narrowed and the agent grew considerably nervous. “My Lord, I did request additional agents to assist me in observing . . .”

“I am not interested in your excuses, Agent Suron!” Rasche bellowed.

A deafening silence filled the small conference room located inside Malag’s Imperial Liaison Office. Suron gulped. Loudly. “Yes, my Lord,” he murmured.

Rasche continued, “What have you learned of the senator’s activities?”

The agent replied, “As you know, Senator Dahlma never did visit her family’s estate near Dalmar, as she had intended.”

“Yes, I know,” the Sith Lord added imperiously. “She was last seen at her private home, here in Malag.”

Suron paused. “Actually, she was last seen at the Lumati Hotel, last night. Both she and her aide had checked into a suite.”

Suspicion gnawed at the back of Rasche’s mind. “Why?”

“I have no idea, my Lord,” Suron answered. “But I believe that her manservant, Chattal Rahm, might be able to shed some light.” The agent cleared his throat nervously. “Rahm had been seen by various hotel employees escorting various people to the senator’s suite. One employee described them as spacers.”

Rasche contemplated the agent’s information. Why would a prominent senator check into a hotel suite, when she had her own private home in this city? And why would she need some disreputable pilot to fly her off of Maldare? Obviously, Senator Dahlma planned to visit some place special and for a very private reason. But what?

“I want you to gather descriptions of all the pilots who were seen approaching the senator’s suite,” Rasche instructed. “And find this Chattal Rahm. You shall have the local security and a platoon of stormtroopers to assist you.”

Suron nodded with deference. “Yes, my Lord.” He started to turn away.

“And Suron,” Rasche added in a threatening voice. The agent paused. “I only tolerate failure once. Fail me again . . .” He left the threat unfinished. Judging from the fear that flared in Suron’s eyes, Rasche realized that the other man had received the message.

END OF CHAPTER SEVEN

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Six

datacrons_tatooine

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER SIX

ANCHORHEAD, TATOOINE

The burly man strode casually along one of Anchorhead’s dusty streets, accompanied by two children. The golden protocol droid followed closely behind, filling their ears with incessant chatter.

“I really do not see why Miss Padme had left me behind and taken Artoo,” the droid complained. “As a protocol droid, I have knowledge of over six million forms of communication in my programming. Surely, I could have serve as interpreter for Miss Pad . . .”

“Not now, Threepio!” Luke barked. “Now is not the time for you to be complaining about being left behind. Mother has made her decision.”

The protocol droid sounded affronted by his young charge’s outburst. “Well really, Master Luke! I did not realize . . .”

“One other thing, Threepio,” Owen added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be bandying Miss Padme’s name out loud. There might be Imperial ears listening.”

“Yes, Master Owen.”

The group finally reached a poundstone store that sold power converters at the street’s south end. Uncle Owen turned to Luke and Leia. “I want you two to wait here. Threepio and I will be right back.”

“You need me, Master Owen?” the droid asked.

With a sigh, the moisture farmer replied, “Yes, Threepio. I need you to translate the binary language for the moisture vaporators.” He nodded at Luke and Leia. “And you two, stay close.” Then he and Threepio entered the shop.

The twins settled on a small bench outside of the shop. Nearly ten minutes passed before Leia heaved a loud sigh. “I’m bored,” she muttered darkly. “I thought that Anchorhead would be more exciting than this.”

Luke rolled his eyes. His sister could be quite a grouch at times. “Then you should have stayed at the farm.”

“And spend hours in the company of two women barely able to conduct a conversation with each other?” Leia snorted. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Another three minutes passed. Leia opened her mouth for another complaint, but Luke spotted a familiar figure. “Hey! It’s Biggs!” Then he cried out, “Biggs!” A dark-haired boy around the twins’ ages stared at them. A smile lit up this thin face, before he waved. Luke waved back and stood up.

“Luke, where are you going?” Leia demanded. “Uncle Owen told us to stay here.” The fair-haired boy ignored his sister and rushed toward his best friend. “Luke!”

The two boys met in the middle of the street and slapped each other on the backs. “Hey Luke!” Biggs Darklighter greeted. “What are you doing here on Tatooine? Your family usually don’t visit until another two months from now.” Biggs happened to be the son of a wealthy land magnate . . . and Luke’s best friend for the past six years.

Luke shrugged. “Leia and I are staying with our uncle, while Mother is on a business trip. Are you with your father?”

Biggs pointed at the Weary Traveler Tavern. “He’s in there, getting a drink. I saw you and Leia. Where’s your uncle?”

“Buying a new moisture vaporator,” Luke answered.

Biggs nodded. “Maybe your uncle can allow you to visit our home before you leave. Dad just bought me a new skyhopper. A suborbital T-12 model.” A wide grin appeared on his face. “The wings’ span are this wide, and . . .” As he threw out his arms, his left hand knocked against a burlap sack held by a passing pedestrian. Bottles of liquor fell out of the sack and crashed upon the ground. Luke detected the strong odor of alcohol.

Tall, burly and grizzled, the pedestrian cast an intimidating glare at the Biggs. “Clumsy brat!” he growled. “Look at what you’ve done! I had paid a good amount of wupiupi for those bottles of ale.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” a slightly frightened Biggs pleaded. “It was an accident.”

The man retorted, “Sorry doesn’t mean anything! I’m out of 200 wupiupi and some good Spiced Ale!” He grabbed Biggs by the latter’s tunic. “It’s gonna take more than an apology to make up for my loss, boy!”

Luke decided to help Biggs escape the man’s grip. “Hey! Let go of my friend! He said that he was sorry!” Then Luke tried to pry the man’s fingers from Biggs’ tunic. His efforts ended in vain, when the man shoved Luke aside with a free hand. The eleven year-old’s rump landed on the ground.

“Luke!” Leia rushed forward and helped her brother to his feet. She then rounded furiously on the man. “You bully! I suppose you consider yourself brave for picking on boys half your age!”

Sensing the man’s growing ire, Luke grabbed his sister’s shoulders and drew her back. “No! Leia! Don’t!” he hissed.

But Leia’s temper had passed the point of no return. “Why don’t you let our friend go? What can you possibly achieve by bullying a twelve year-old boy?”

With Biggs still in his grip, the man leaned down and sneered at Leia. “Mighty fine words coming out of the mouth of a little girl. Your friend just cost me 200 wupiupi. One way or the other, I’m getting payback!”

“By bullying a child?”

“Is there a problem?” another masculine voice asked. The three children and the pedestrian stared at the robed figure that had materialized before them. Luke immediately recognized the mysterious man who had joined Mother, Uncle Bail and another man at Mos Eisley. “You seemed to have that young man in a rather tight grip, Mister . . .?”

The man snarled, “The name is Oswald Rankin and this matter is none of your concern!”

“What has the boy done to you?”

Looking slightly annoyed, Rankin retorted, “He had cost me two hundred wupiupi, when he broke my bottles of very expensive Corellian Spiced Ale!”

The robed stranger smiled. “Really? And did the boy break your bottles of ale on . . . purpose?”

“Look here, old man! I suggest that you leave now! Like I said, this is none of your concern.”

Luke glanced up at the robed man’s face and noticed that his blue eyes glittered mysteriously. “This boy has not harmed you in any way.”

Rankin stared hard at the robed stranger. It seemed to Luke as if the former had suddenly become mesmerized, as he released Biggs. “You’re right,” Rankin murmured. “The boy did not harm me.”

The robed stranger murmured, “He did not mean to break your bottles.”

With a nod, Rankin added, “Yes, you’re right. He did not mean to break them.”

“Perhaps it is best that the ale is gone,” the stranger added. “You do not need to consume all that alcohol.”

His eyes still glazed, Rankin said, “No . . . I don’t.”

“You will forget this incident and go home.”

Rankin frowned momentarily. Then he said to the stranger, “What incident?” He stared at the three children. “What’s going on?”

“It is nothing, sir,” the stranger answered with a smile. “You seemed a bit out of sorts. We were all trying to assist you.”

“Well, I’m fine.” Rankin regarded the others with confusion. “Um . . . thanks. Excuse me.” He nodded curtly and walked away.

Luke and his two companions stared at the robed stranger. “How did you do that?” he demanded. “How did you manipulate his thoughts like that?”

The robed man merely smiled in a mysterious fashion. “I’m afraid that your Mr. Rankin might be an easily suggestive person.” He regarded the three children with concern. “And you . . . are you three unharmed? Has he . . .?”

“I’m fine,” Biggs replied. “Other than he nearly scared me senseless.”

Luke added, “No harm . . . except for my pride and backside.” He thrust out his hand to the stranger. “Thanks for your help. I’m Luke Sk . . . uh, Organa, by the way. And this is my sister, Leia and my friend, Biggs Darklighter.”

The man shook Luke’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

“And exactly who are you?” Leia demanded. “You look familiar.”

The man’s smile widened. “My name is Ben. Ben Kenobi.”

————

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Once the Alberforce penetrated Ord Mantell’s thick outer cometary cloud, it made its way toward the planet’s glittering capital, Worlport. A heavy sheet of rain greeted the starship’s passengers and crew as it finally settled upon one of the spaceport’s landing platforms.

The starship rolled into an empty hangar and came to a halt. Several minutes later, Padme and R2-D2 followed Bail, Captain Sen and their Jedi protector down the Alberforce’s boarding ramp. “I need to report my arrival to the portmaster,” Voranda declared. “I will meet all you at the hotel, later.” She hesitated. “What names will you be using to check in? In case I need to contact you.”

Bail replied, “I will be using the name, Tam Avner. As for Senator Amidala, she will . . .”

“My name will be Rhiannon,” Padme added. “Rhiannon Chir.”

Voranda nodded. “Good. I will check with you, later tonight.” She walked away from the others.

Bail led the others outside of the hangar. Then he hailed a shuttle taxi to convey them to the Hotel Grand. Dominated by skyscrapers and red-domed topped buildings, Worlport’s skyline reminded Padme of a heady mixture of Coruscant and Naboo’s capital, Theed. To her surprise, Master Olin expressed a similar opinion, out loud.

“I must say that this is a very lovely city,” he commented, while glancing out of a shuttle window. “I cannot tell whether it reminds me of Coruscant or Theed.”

Padme stared at the former Jedi. “You’ve been to Naboo?”

“Yes, Milady.” Unease briefly shadowed his eyes. “Nine years ago, to be exact.”

“Around the time of Queen Apaliana’s death,” Padme murmured quietly. “And the death of my grandmother.”

The former Jedi remained silent, while Bail continued, “It is hard to believe that this place is now a smuggler’s haven. Especially since it was originally settled by Corellian farmers.”

“A Jedi master named Pablo-Jill had managed to bring peace to this planet about fourteen or fifteen years ago. Just before the Clone Wars.”

“You must be very proud.” The words came out more sardonic than Padme had originally intended. Master Olin stiffened, while Bail focused his attention to the view beyond his window.

Padme glanced out of the window beside her and spotted the words – HOTEL GRAND – in bright lights that illuminated through the heavy rain and gray skies. The shuttle soon descended upon one of the hotel’s landing platforms. Upon reaching the hotel lobby, Bail and Padme checked into their rooms under their aliases. Bail managed to acquire a suite with adjoining bedrooms for himself and Master Olin. Padme acquired a room next door to theirs. The trio and R2-D2 then set out for the hotel’s turbolifts. Upon entering one, they encountered none other than the senator from Chandrila, Mon Mothma. She was a tall, slender woman woman with red hair and intense blue eyes.

“I see that you’ve all finally made it,” the Chadrilian senator greeted.

Bail asked, “Are we the last to arrive?”

“No. One other is still missing.” Mon shot an uneasy glance at Olin. “Who is your friend?”

Bail made the introductions. “This is our protector, Master Ferus Olin. He is a former Jedi.”

Mon continued to eye the younger man uneasily. “Really?” Then her gaze narrowed. “Have you ever been on Coruscant? In recent years, I mean.”

“I’m afraid that it has been quite a while, Milady,” Olin calmly answered.

The turbolift arrived on the hotel’s tenth floor. All of the occupants stepped out. “Your room is on this floor?” Padme asked.

The Chandrilian senator smiled. “I have ensured that all of us have rooms on this floor. The conference room is located here, as well.” After shooting another curious glance at Olin, Mon added, “Well, I should prepare for supper.”

“Who hasn’t arrived, yet?” Bail asked.

“Zoebeida,” Mon replied. “She has yet to arrive.” Padme realized that Mon had referred to Zoebeida Dalhma of Maldare.

They came upon Padme’s room. “Well, here we are,” she announced. “When will the first meeting . . .?”

“A dinner for us has been scheduled to begin in about five hours,” Mon replied. “Just down the corridor, in the Jewel Room. I will see you then.”

Padme nodded. “I only hope that Zoebeida arrives in time, as well.” She and R2 entered her room. As the door shut behind her, Padme heaved a sigh. Between the upcoming Alliance meetings, having a former Jedi in her midst and being separated from her children, the next two days might prove to be strenuous.

———–

ANCHORHEAD, TATOOINE

Owen and CP-30 stepped out of the junk shop and noticed something very alarming – Luke and Leia seemed to be missing. Contrary to his instructions, they had left the bench in front of the shop.

“Oh Master Owen!” Threepio wailed. “Something terrible must have happened to them!”

The moisture farmer rolled his eyes. Threepio could be ridiculously melodramatic at times. Like now. On the other hand, there was a possibility that the twins might be in danger.

“Uncle Owen!”

Owen glanced to his left and saw both Leia, Luke and Biggs Darklighter rush toward him. A man in a hooded robe accompanied them. Alarm bells rang in Owen’s mind, when the man threw back his hood. Obi-Wan Kenobi beamed at him. Owen realized that Padme would have his hide if she knew that her children had met the former Jedi Master.

Luke reached the moisture farmer first. “Uncle Owen, guess who we ran into? Mother and Uncle Bail’s friend from Mos Eisley, Mister Ken . . . uh . . .”

The former Jedi paused before the moisture farmer. “Kenobi. Ben Kenobi. Good day to you, Master Lars.” He held out his hand.

Owen reluctantly grabbed Kenobi’s hand and shook it. “Good day.” He frowned at the twins. “What did I tell you two about not wandering off?”

Leia calmly explained, “We saw Biggs and left the bench to say hello. Only we had trouble with this common . . . thug, who bullied Biggs for accidentally breaking his liquor bottles. Fortunately, Mister Kenobi,” she nodded at the former Jedi Master, “came to our rescue. I think we should repay Mister Kenobi’s assistance with an invitation to dinner. He does not live that far from the farm. In the Jundland Wasteland.”

The moisture farmer found himself unable to respond. If Kenobi had been someone else, he would have accepted Leia’s suggestion. But this was Anakin’s former Jedi master. Owen knew that Padme would disapprove of her children having any contact with the man. “Well, I . . .” he began.

Kenobi spoke up. “Thank you, Miss Organa. But I’m afraid that I might have to decline your kind invitation. I have . . . uh, pressing matters, tonight.”

“What about tomorrow night?” Leia demanded.

Both Owen and Kenobi stared at each other and blinked. How could they explain the truth to the twins without revealing the tumultuous history of their parents? Owen said, “I don’t think . . .”

“You have pressing matters tomorrow night, as well, Mr. Kenobi?” Luke asked. “You sure have a lot of business, lately.”

Kenobi heaved a sigh. At that moment, Owen knew that he and Beru would have a dinner guest, tomorrow evening. “I suppose I could join you for supper, tomorrow,” Kenobi finally said, much to Owen’s consternation. He turned to the farmer. “If that is fine with you?”

Owen realized that he had been trapped by Leia’s sense of courtesy and Kenobi’s eagerness to become acquainted with the twins. He sighed. “I’m sure that . . . Beru would not mind preparing for a guest tomorrow night.”

The children and Kenobi became all smiles and excited chatter. Owen hoped and prayed that Padme would never learn of this encounter with the former Jedi Master. But he suspected that his hopes would prove to be futile in the end.

END OF CHAPTER SIX

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Five

jundlandwastes

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER FIVE

JUNDLAND WASTES, TATOOINE

The former Jedi Master and former padawan emerged from the cave hovel that served as Obi-Wan’s home. The cave certainly did not seem like home to Ferus. He could not help but wonder how the older man had endured living in this desert wasteland for the past decade. Roaming the galaxy from one end to the other would seem more preferable than one year on this desolate planet.

“How can you stand it?” Ferus asked, as he regarded the craggy scenery with distaste.

The older man stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“Living here. How can you stand it?”

With a sigh, Obi-Wan calmly replied, “One learns to . . . adjust.” He met Ferus’ gaze. “I did not say this earlier, but I am truly sorry about what happened to your friends.”

“They’re not dead,” Ferus tersely replied.

“Oh! I did not . . .” Obi-Wan hesitated. “Pardon my mistake, but you did not exactly go into details about what happened to your friends.”

Memories of the last time he saw Trevor and Roan filled Ferus’ mind. He especially recalled the bitter tone in Trevor’s voice, while he tried to explain his decision regarding the Emperor. “If you don’t mind, Obi-Wan,” Ferus finally said, “I would rather not speak of the matter. At least not now.”

“You sound . . . bitter,” Obi-Wan commented. “Ferus, one day you will have to discuss the matter. With someone.” When Ferus did not bother to respond, the former Jedi Master continued, “So, when will Senator Organa come for you?”

Ferus’ gaze focused upon Tatooine’s rising twin suns. “Any minute now. I had assumed we would leave yesterday, but Senator Amidala wanted to spend one last evening with her children and the Larses before she left.” He paused. “You know, I do not recall her ever being married. And what is the history between you two?”

A long, silent pause followed. Ferus could almost feel the heat burning through the older man’s eyes. “There is no . . . history between myself and Senator Amidala,” Obi-Wan replied coolly. “At least nothing for you to suggest otherwise . . .”

“Forgive me, Obi-Wan,” Ferus hurriedly injected. “I did not mean to imply anything . . . intimate between you and the senator. But the children . . . and you had not seem particularly surprised that she was still alive.”

A sigh left Obi-Wan’s mouth. “That is because Master Yoda, Senator Organa and I had helped her evade the Emperor during the last days of the Clone Wars. In fact, we were the ones who faked her death. Senator Amidala . . . had been at the forefront of an attempt to drive the Palpatine out of office before he became the emperor. The senator and I have shared previous experiences together. My old master, Qui-Gon Jinn and I had assisted her during the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. I’m sure that you remembered that particular incident, although you were a child at the time. Both the senator and I were also among those who had fought at the Battle of Geonosis.”

“I see.” Ferus did not understand, but something else puzzled him. “But if you and Master Yoda had done all that to help her, why had she seemed so . . . cold toward you? And hostile?”

Obi-Wan’s stare became suspicious. “Why are you so interested in the state of my relationship with Pa . . . Senator Amidala?” From the moment Obi-Wan had appeared at that Mos Eisley inn, Ferus had detected great emotion between the former senator and the Jedi Master. Negative emotions that hinted anger, hostility, guilt and resentment. It seemed so unlike Master Kenobi to harbor such feelings toward any living soul, save a Sith Lord. Before Ferus could respond to the other man’s question, Obi-Wan added, “Has this something to do with Queen Apiliana’s death?”

“Pardon me?” Ferus blinked.

At that moment, a starship descended from the skies above. It turned out to be Captain Sen’s skiff, the Alberforce. Once it gracefully landed on the flat desert, a boarding ramp eased to the ground. “I believe your ride has arrived,” Obi-Wan coolly declared.

Captain Sen and Senator Organa descended from the skiff. “Good morning Ferus,” the senator greeted. “Master Kenobi.”

Obi-Wan bowed at the Alderaanian senator and prince. “Good morning to you, Senator Organa. I trust you had a restful night.” He bowed at the red-haired woman. “Captain.”

Captain Sen returned Obi-Wan’s nod before she turned her attention to Ferus. “Master Olin, I believe it is time for us to leave.”

Ferus faced Obi-Wan one last time. “I hope that we will be able to continue this conversation upon my return, Master Kenobi. Until then, good day.”

The older man’s eyes momentarily reflected reluctance at the idea of another conversation. Then Obi-Wan broke into a quick smile and said, “Of course. Do take care of Senator Organa and Senator Amidala. Along with yourself. May the Force be with you.” He nodded at Organa. “Senator, have a safe trip.” Then he turned away and strode back inside his hovel.

Both Ferus and Senator Organa followed the red-haired captain into the ship. Minutes passed before the Alberforce rose from the ground and zoomed into Tatooine’s atmosphere.

——–

MALAG, MALDARE

Mako checked his data chip after his client, Sekka Verdu, handed it back to him. “There you are,” the Quarren declared cheerfully. “Thirty-three thousand credits each.”

A wry Han commented, “You mean thirty-four thousand each for all three of us.”

Verdu nodded at Han and Horus’ new companion. “And the Wookie?”

Mako shot an uneasy glance at the Javian Hawk’s new crewman. “He’s not part of the deal,” he replied curtly. “Will there be anything else, Mr. Verdu?”

The Quarren’s squid-like tentacles wiggled slightly. “I don’t think so, Captain Spince. Our business is over until next time. Gentlemen.” He nodded at the four smugglers and strode toward a shuttle parked near Mako’s freighter.

As Verdu’s shuttle rose above landing pad, Mako turned to his companions. “Pardon my confusion, but I thought this Wookie was supposed to be in chains!” he retorted. “Exactly when did he become part of your crew?”

Horus coolly replied, “From the moment Han escorted him aboard the Hawk. Why? Is he a problem for you?”

Ignoring the other pedestrians’ stares, Mako shot back, “If Captain Skafte had the slightest hint that you were planning to free that . . .”

The Wookie growled, causing the hairs on the back of Mako’s neck to stand.

“Say Mako, if you were about to call him a thing,” Han began, “I better warn you that Chewie might take it personally.”

“Chewie?”

After a pause, Han said, “Chewbacca. That’s his name.”

“I don’t care what his name is,” Mako retorted. “Both of you could have gotten us into a lot of trouble with that stunt.”

Han opened his mouth to reply, but his partner spoke first. “I really don’t see why you’re so upset, Spince. Had a little trouble with Wookies in the past?”

Mako felt a flash of guilt, as recalled a pair of Wookies he had sold to a Trandoshan trader. “Of course not!” he replied hotly. “I just . . .”

Horus continued, “You just what? Thanks to you, we had ended up on a route heavily patrolled by Imperial ships. If you had chosen another route, we would have never encountered the Dreadnought . . . or met Chewbacca. Since it all ended well, neither of us have anything to complain about. Do we?”

Mako dared not stare into Horus’ eyes. Quite frankly, the older man frightened him. He sometimes had the feeling that Set Horus possessed a ruthlessness that could make the galaxy tremble with fear. And he did not want to be the one to unleash that fury. “Fine,” he grumbled. “You’ve made your point.”

A cold smile curled Horus’ lips. “Good! Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need some sleep. Someone please lead me to the nearest hotel or inn.”

“There’s the Lumati Hotel,” Han suggested.

Mako added, “Yeah, they have a great bar. I know I’m going to need it.”

The three men and the Wookie left the city’s spaceport and made their way toward a nine-story hotel located in one of Malag’s more pleasant districts. Mako had expected the hotel’s clerk to reject the Wookie. To his surprise, the clerk did not raise a fuss.

Feeling like the odd man out, Mako curtly excused himself and headed toward his room. He washed himself and changed into clean clothes before returning downstairs . . . and heading straight toward the hotel’s bar, the Twilight Star. Once settled upon an empty stool, he ordered Corellian ale. “A whole pitcher,” the smuggler added.

After the bartender returned with a pitcher of Corellian ale and a glass mug, Mako poured himself a drink. He had taken a few sips, when a stranger approached him. “Pardon me sir, but are you a . . . spacer?”

Mako glanced to his right and found a short and stocky man with curly black hair, standing next to his stool. He sighed. “Yes, I am. Why? You need a pilot?”

The man hesitated. “Actually, my employer does require one. This is an important job that will pay at least one thousand credits.”

With a shrug, Mako grumbled, “I’ve just finished a job that earned me thirty-four thousand credits. Why would I need another one?” He took another swig of ale.

“Greed?”

Slowly, Mako placed his mug on the bar and turned to stare at the stranger. A long moment passed before he mouth slowly stretched into a wide grin. “You know me well, do you, Mister?” Then he took another swallow of ale. “You’ve got a deal. When do we leave?”

The man coughed nervously. “Um . . . you’re not exactly hired. The best I can offer is an interview.”

Mako frowned. “A what?”

“My employer . . . will offer the job. But only after an interview.” The man paused. “In Suite 60-A.”

The Corellian rolled his eyes in disgust. He considered himself a smuggler, not an employee of the Tagge Corporation. But his sense of greed could not dismiss the idea of an extra one thousand credits. Especially since he had originally expected to earn at least fifty thousand. “All right,” he said with a sigh, “I’ll meet your employer in Room . . .”

“Suite 60-A,” the man corrected. “Please be there within an hour.” He gave a quick nod and walked away.

Mako finished the ale in his mug. He dared not drink another serving. Not if wanted that extra thousand credits.

——–

Within a small room inside one of the Lumati Hotel’s suites, Zoebeida Dahlma observed her aide and manservant interview another candidate for the Ord Mantell job via a holo projector. She had to admit that the bearded young man looked very handsome. He also seemed to project a charm that would appeal to many women. Yet, Igraine seemed immune to the pilot. Zoebeida shared her aide’s sentiments. Despite his physical appeal, he harbored a predatory air that she found distasteful.

The pilot’s surname had certainly come as a surprise. Zoebeida found herself wondering if this Mako Spince was anyway related to Senator Spince of Corellia. She hoped not. The idea of this disreputable pilot being part of the distinguished Spince line seemed like a crime.

The interview finally ended. Igraine stood up and headed toward the room where Zoebeida awaited. “Milady,” she declared upon entering the room. “What do you think of Captain Spince? He seems like a competent pilot, but . . .”

“Let him go,” Zoebeida ordered. The younger woman arched a questionable eyebrow before the former added, “I don’t trust him. I realize that most . . . smugglers are disreputable, but there is something about him that I dislike. My feelings tell me that he would sell us to the Imperials without hesitation . . . if it meant saving his skin. Thank him kindly for his time and let him go.”

Igraine seemed relieved by Zoebeida’s decision. “If you wish, Milady.” She bowed and left the bedroom.

The Maldarian woman leaned back into her chair and sighed. It occurred to her that if she did not find a pilot soon, she might be forced to choose the first one in her thoughts. And unfortunately, Mako Spince seemed to be the only one in her mind, at the moment.

——-

“This is nice.” Han settled back into his chair inside the Lumati Hotel’s only outdoor café. “Isn’t this nice? I mean, I love that waterfall near the waiter’s station. And the drinks – really fancy. A guy could dine here for the rest of his life.”

Anakin heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Han, I don’t want to sound like a grouch, but could you please shut up?”

“What?”

“I know that you don’t want to be here,” Anakin continued.

Han grunted and took a sip of his Corellian ale. “Then why are we here?”

Anakin grabbed his glass of Juma juice. “I . . . am here because this restaurant makes the best Kommerken steak in this part of the galaxy. You knew this when you suggested that we stay here, in the first place. You also had a chance to accompany our new friend, Chewbacca, to one of the local taverns. But you didn’t.”

“Listen, watching a Wookie eat a side of raw meat does not do wonders for my appetite,” Han retorted. “Sharing the dinner table with Dewlanna – rest her poor soul – had already added plenty of trauma to my childhood.”

Anakin murmured, “Hmmm. Poor Chewbacca spends his first meal as part of our crew . . . alone, because you can’t stand to watch Wookies eat. I’ll be sure to remind him.”

“Wait a minute!” Han paused, as an anxious expression appeared on his face. “You’re not serious, are you?”

A teasing smile curled Anakin’s lips. “Maybe.” Before Han could protest any further, the waiter returned with their meals.

The Kommerken steak proved to be excellent, as usual. Upon the completion of their dinner, the pair left the café and strolled across the lobby. Just as they were about to contact their new companion, a short man with dark and curly hair approached them. “Pardon me gentlemen, but I was told that you were pilots. Is this true?”

Anakin regarded the man with narrowed eyes. “And who told you this?”

“The hotel clerk,” the man answered. “If this is true, I have a proposition for a job. One that is at least worth one thousand credits. If you’re interested, please meet me in Suite 60-A.”

“Wait a minute,” Anakin began. “What exactly is this . . .?”

Han interjected, “A thousand credits, huh? We’ll be there.”

The man nodded. “Good. Don’t forget . . . Suite 60-A.” He walked away.

An irritated Anakin rounded on his younger partner. “Do you mind telling me why you had accepted that man’s offer?”

Han shrugged. “I thought we might need the extra money. To compensate for the credits we had lost, buying Chewie.”

“As I recall, buying Chewbacca from the Imperials was supposed to be an act of compassion.”

Han shot back, “Well . . . being compassionate can also be a little expensive. And besides, we’ve just been given a chance to make up for our loss. Why ignore it?”

Anakin sighed. Heavily. “All right. You have a point. But remember . . . you’ve just accepted an offer we don’t know anything about. I only hope that we don’t end up regretting this.”

——–

THE BRAK SECTOR

Padme sat quietly in her seat, as she glanced out of one of the starship’s windows. Small, bright lights glittered in the dark space, prompting her to sigh.

“Miss the children already?” Bail’s voice asked, interrupting her thoughts.

“Hmmm?” Padme glanced away and found her fellow passenger staring at her.

Bail continued, “You seemed to be deep in thought.”

“I suppose I am thinking of the children,” Padme commented. “Especially Leia. She is . . . not very fond of Tatooine. Mind you, she loves Owen and Beru, but the planet is not exactly to her taste. She prefers Bakura . . . and Alderaan.”

Master Olin spoke up. “I cannot say that I blame her, Milady. Tatooine strikes me as rather desolate. Nor can I understand why Master Kenobi had chosen it as his home.”

“Tatooine is not exactly the place that is bound to attract Imperial attention, Master Olin,” Bail explained. “I believe that Master Kenobi has made the perfect choice.”

Padme added caustically, “I suppose that Tatooine must fit Obi-Wan’s sense of martyrdom. As I recall, he did not care much for it when we first landed there, twenty-four years ago.”

A long silence followed. Padme realized that her current hostility toward her husband’s former Jedi master might have been revealed. Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she turned away and resumed staring out of the window.

“Excuse me,” Bail said, unfastening his seat strap. “I believe I should check with Captain Sen about supper.” He stood up and made his way toward the cockpit.

Padme found herself enduring another long stretch of silence. Eventually, Master Olin broke it when he asked, “How long have you known Obi . . . Master Kenobi?”

“For at least twenty-four years,” Padme replied. “When he and Qui-Gon Jinn had rescued me from the Trade Federation. That’s when I first saw Tatooine.” And met Anakin, she added silently. Padme continued out loud, “I had also fought beside Obi-Wan and . . . his padawan during the first battle of the Clone Wars, on Geonosis.”

A bewildered looking Ferus Olin shook his head. “I don’t understand. If you two have such a long history together, why . . . Why did I sense hostility between you two on Tatooine? Or when I first mentioned him a few minutes ago?”

Padme sighed. “Obi-Wan and I had a . . . disagreement during those last days of the war. When he, Master Yoda and Bail helped me evade the Empire. It’s . . . a private matter.”

“I see.” Ferus paused. Padme wondered what he was thinking. Then he said, “Your children seemed very attractive and intelligent. Your son . . . he . . . Pardon me, but he reminds me of someone I knew.” Padme felt a lump in her throat, as Olin continued, “In fact, he reminds me of Obi-Wan’s former padawan.”

The lump in Padme’s throat grew larger. “Really? I have never considered such a thing. But I suppose that it has been a while since I last saw . . . Master Skywalker.” Padme wondered if Olin had sensed her emotional turmoil at the mention of Anakin’s name. She glanced at the former Jedi padawan, who wore a calm expression. If he had, he gave no indication.

Bail reappeared in the skiff’s passenger section. “I found Captain Sen in the galley, not the cockpit. It seems that supper is ready.” He stood before Padme. “Milady?”

With a faint smile, Padme rose to her feet. She nodded at Bail, who linked his arm with hers and drew her into the ship’s narrow passageway. Master Ferus rose to his feet and followed closely behind them.

———–

MALAG, MALDARE

The moment he walked inside the hotel suite, Igraine’s heart skipped a beat. She could not keep her eyes off him. The newcomer and his companion gave her a slight nod before they sat down on the suite’s wide sofa.

Igraine struggled to keep herself from staring at the older man. What woman could ignore the lean and muscular quality of his tall frame? Or his dark blond close-cropped hair that framed his handsome, yet hard-edged face? How could any woman not notice the intense blue eyes that seemed to sear into one’s soul? And no one could fail to notice the light scar around his right eye that gave him an extra dangerous aura that rarely surrounded a man of his age. Igraine figured that he must be at least thirty. Or slightly older.

“Nice place!” the man’s companion exclaimed. “A night in this suite could cost a spacer at least two jobs.” Igraine directed her attention at the younger man. There seemed to be no doubt that he was handsome and possessed a scruffy air that women might find appealing. Although affable, his brown eyes had an edge of one who may have seen too much of life for one so young.

Igraine fixed a polite smile on her face. “Good evening, gentlemen. Would you care for a drink?” Both men politely turned down her offer. Then she added, “May I have your names?”

“May we have yours?” the older man countered. His deep voice produced a wave of heat throughout Igraine’s body.

Her smile widened. “For the moment, I wish to remain anonymous.” She paused, taking note of the pair’s questioning stares. “This job is one that requires anonymity. Especially for . . . me. But as my man had told you, it does pay one thousand credits.”

The two pilots exchanged meaningful looks before the older one sighed. “If you wish, Milady. My name is Captain Set Horus. And this is my companion, Han Solo.”

“Captain Solo,” the younger man added.

Igraine continued to stare at the older man. “Does your starship provide space for passengers?” She noticed how his eyes swept over her in an appreciative manner.

Captain Solo replied, “For at least four passengers. And the Hawk is one of the fastest ships in this galaxy. Trust me.”

Still aware of Captain Horus’ stare, a mesmerized Igraine continued, “Well, that’s um . . . I believe . . .” She broke off, as Senator Dahlma’s manservant, Chattal Rahm, whispered a message in her ear. She smiled at the two men. “Excuse me.” Then she rushed into the suite’s bedroom, where she found the older woman pacing back and fourth. “Is there something you wish to tell me, Milady? Will these two pilots do?”

The senator, who regarded Igraine with an amused expression, replied, “Apparently they will . . . for you. Captain Horus is a very handsome man.”

“So is Captain Solo,” Igraine quickly added. Then she blinked, realizing that Senator Dahlma had seen through her little charade. “Um . . . if you’re not comfortable . . .”

Senator Dahlma quickly interjected, “They will do. Tell them I will be ready to leave, tomorrow morning.”

Igraine responded with a slight nod. “Yes, Milady. Pardon me.” And she left the bedroom. The Maldarian woman found the two pilots staring out of a window, talking. “Gentlemen,” she announced, drawing their attention, “I am happy to tell you that you’re hired. We will meet you at the city’s . . .”

“We?” Captain Horus asked, with a raised brow.

A wave of heat flushed over Igraine’s face. “Yes, um . . . there will be a second passenger. As I was saying, we’ll meet you at the city’s spaceport, tomorrow morning. Where, uh . . .?”

“Our hangar is located on Vox Avenue,” Solo added. “We’ll see you around eight in the morning.” He glanced at Captain Horus. “Is that about right?”

The older man nodded. “That would be fine.” He gently took hold of Igraine’s hand and bowed over it. “Until tomorrow morning, Milady.”

A breathless Igraine replied, “Captain Horus.” Remembering the other man, she nodded at him. “And Captain Solo. Good evening to you both.”

The two men bowed – the older one with more ease – and left the suite. With Captain Horus’ departure, Igraine felt a personal sense of bereft . . . something she had not experienced since the death of her former fiancé. And it frightened her.

——–

The following morning, the Javian Hawk’s three crewmen stood near the bottom of the ramp, inside the Vox Avenue hangar. “It’s almost eight,” Han complained. “Where are they?”

“They have another eight minutes,” Anakin replied. “Give them time.” He paused before adding, “Are all systems in order?”

Chewbacca growled, which Han took as an affirmative.

“I wonder why our employers didn’t just give us her name,” Han speculated. “This trip must be very special.”

Anakin replied, “Perhaps she doesn’t want the Empire to know about this trip. And she’s not our employer.”

Han frowned. “How do you know?”

“Let’s just say that I had sensed another presence inside our employer’s suite.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Han struggled to keep from expressing contempt at Anakin’s reference to the Force.

Another growl emitted from Chewbacca. Han translated. “Here they come.” Two cloaked females entered the hangar. The older woman looked slightly familiar to Han, who murmured to Anakin, “Looks like you were right about a second person.”

The two women paused before the Javian Hawk’s crew. “Good morning Captain Horus, Captain Solo,” the older woman greeted. Her dark eyes settled upon Chewbacca. “A Wookie! Well!” She nodded at the latter. “Good morning to you, sir.” Chewie responded with a polite growl.

Anakin bowed before the women. “Good morning, Senator Dahlma.” The older woman’s eyes widened with shock. “Yes, I had recognized you from a half-torn campaign poster on a wall, nearby.”

Grudging respect dawned in the senator’s eyes. “So much for anonymity,” she murmured. Then she turned to her younger companion. “I believe you have already met my aide, last night. Igraine Colbert.”

Anakin’s gaze met the petite woman’s vivid green eyes. He bowed. “Milady.”

“Captain,” Miss Colbert murmured. Red spots began to form on her cheeks. Anakin wondered if she felt just as attracted to him, as he did toward her. A part of him hoped so. Another part felt reluctance at the idea. Aside from a mere physical longing for Vi’dal, Anakin had never felt so drawn toward any woman after Padme. He doubted that his feelings for Miss Colbert matched his intense love for his wife. But he felt more than simple lust for the young Maldarian woman.

Being his usual pragmatic self, Han asked, “Where are we going?”

The senator hesitated. “Worlport, on Ord Mantell.”

Anakin recalled the former military station located in the Bright Jewel System. It had possessed a weapons storage facility and a series of barracks for the clone troopers during the Clone Wars. “Ord Mantell? That’s at least a day’s journey from here,” he said. “But it should take us less than a day if we jump to hyperspace. The trip should not be any problem.”

“Good,” Senator Dahlma replied. “Shall we go?”

Nearly fifteen minutes later, Anakin guided the Javian Hawk out of the Vox Avenue hangar. Just before the starship could lift off, he spotted a man hovering near the hangar’s entrance. Now what was Mako Spince doing there this early in the morning?

END OF CHAPTER FIVE