Paradigm Shift

~~~~ 

The first time she invited him. Whether it was a moment of weakness, atonement, or simple insanity, he couldn’t decide – until she shed the too-pink satin gown before him. She stood a slender white pillar in candlelight reflecting tall against still water and it stopped mattering.

She waited in silence, which was only fair. His emotions were openly involved, so it had to be his call.

There was an instant of cerebral realization that she was only inviting him to be used and use in return, nothing more, but his hesitation was insufficient to salvage any self-respect in the knowledge, probably died in his decisive movement and not before. She had time to reach for him, for her cool fingers to curve around him before they were both in the tub, he still fully dressed. Neither cared to remove more of him from his clothing than they needed to function, and the last thing he caught before bringing her wet, angular hips down on his for the first time was the half-curl of her lips into a sharp, self-satisfied smile. That, he would address later, when he could breathe. The water sloshed as angrily as their bodies did, slapping his thighs as roughly as hers did and she was somehow hotter than the steaming water around his cock until he lifted her clear of his release and used his mouth to bring her to hers moments later.

In the aftermath, the water needed cleansing, the silence was sated if awkward, and he had the barest essence of what he could truly find, be out here in this void of souls they traveled. Then she silently dismissed him to collapse alone into his own bed next door, and even if he wanted to resent the purely physical release between them, he couldn’t.

He spent his frustration with their situation calculating the proper time and distance until they felt safe enough to do it again.

They put the ship at risk for his stolen child, the Kazon triumphed, Tom came through, the baby was Cullah’s and he’d lost a child before Seska died, now Tuvok was ill, and he never got near her for months. In fact, for all the rest of them existed in her eyes except as a means to problem-solving ends, he’d started to think he was dreaming the whole surreal experience to begin with, the sloshing water, the hot, eager depths of her, even the slowly-healing nail-marks in his shoulder blades – until they finally got Tom and Harry back from that alien prison, alive. And then he opened his steamed-up shower door to find her crashing into him, her hands grasping deep into his short wet hair, pulling, her still-furious body taut with visceral need. The leftover adrenaline spilled through her muscles, sinew and flesh, pouring into his mouth when he tasted her skin, second only to the relief on his tongue. Pounding triumph into each other was instinctual, needed. They hadn’t lost anyone, not even each other. 

This time.

After that, she no longer pretended it wasn’t real – at least, not behind closed doors. Mostly. She came when she wanted to, and equally important, so did he. There was no talking. Once, he tried, and promptly found a nipple in place of words, small round breast in place of tone, and when it happened the second time that he found his head buried in eager, pinker flesh, he stopped trying, or caring, how to classify who and what they were becoming. Privately, he agreed knowing wouldn’t change the outcome for the better. Some days their joinings were bliss, some days they felt wrong, inappropriate, unwise, but they always released one hard spring and wound another in turn.

Despite their undeniable chemistry, she made it clear it was strictly physical and that he was free to pursue whatever emotional attachments he might find outside of her bathroom. He tested her with Riley, and she barely blinked. He might’ve thought it cold in another lifetime, but he’d learned this particular lesson before meeting her: the lesson she was using him to teach herself, which was that without flawless compartmentalization, she would crack like weak ice under the burden she’d created for herself.

He didn’t lie to himself, not even when he wanted to. Their meetings were about release with an understanding between them on a communal level. It was about the heaviness of not being able to confess the hideous boils solitary command erupted across the soul. She couldn’t say I’m glad it wasn’t Harry, and he couldn’t say I’m sorry it was one of mine instead. They were sorry it was anyone, but it didn’t erase the humanness of their deepest emotions or make their unheard confessions less oppressive to shoulder.  

He rubbed the hard coating of command from her shoulders; he took real pleasure in smoothing it out of her neck, where it tended to gather and sink, deep, into her soap-softened skin. Determined fingers played as if at flight console, knowledgeable of her particular codes, digging away lines of tension while he was at it, and she alone was something he could make crash and burn without casualty or cost. Every night that she’d allow him, and it wasn’t always, he tongued her slowly, swiftly, insistently, teasingly, whatever-she-needed-and-to-hell-with-what-she-wanted-ly more times than he could count and then he did it again. And again. And then a few haunted weeks later, again. After, she always turned into him, flush, pink, hungry: restored. She invariably returned the favor before kicking him to the proverbial curb, and he was gratified to know that he’d attenuated her transformation even as she sunk to her knees, played with warm lips and tongue at the waterline and worked dutifully to stave off his. But he knew, always believed, that there would come the day when he could no longer get the varnish off.

And when the veneer stopped washing clean but stuck to her shining skin, resilient against sliding sudded hands, mouth, body, he understood. He’d thought he would lament the fleeting optimism, long fearing its imminent departure, yet found himself growing with her evolution instead of against it. And if, only if, he had noticed himself in their rippling reflection instead of devouring hidden angles of her, he would have known that the command stuck to him, too, infusing its way deep into the bottom-most layers of his flesh, working into the lines as the years waged on.

He would have known that she was as addicted to the flavor as he had become.

She liked it in him, grew accustomed to the taste of it against his skin, his faintly salted, water-lapped tissue. The soap, innocuous enough to lick in small sips along his body, enhanced his developing spirituality.

They came together increasingly battered, tensed, destroyed. Generally they met in her tub, which was by far the larger thanks to him, and one or both would be damned near wounded beyond repair. Yet he found he could take more than he’d imagined, lose more than he’d dreamed, and still find residues of strength in her appetite for him. He could use her respect for the fight he’d abandoned for her cause, now their cause, to push back one more time.

He found they could both use it to justify what they were doing, within closed doors and without.

Some days, it was all either of them could do just to hang on for the ride and not break down, shattered, in front of the crew or each other.

Slowly, she hardened in front of him.   

They lost time for exercise, mental energy for upkeep: too many aliens wanted shredded pieces of them, too many malfunctions gouged the soul out of them to tread idyllic waters indefinitely. Sleep became luxury, food the needed glucose for overworked brains more than fuel for their bodies. Neither minded when handfuls of the other softened, molded to weary palm from week to week, or there, trended toward the opposite. The water displacement lines rose, and the tub was a little fuller, maybe, but she rocked so steadily against his sturdier frame and he held up between her soft pale thighs so well that neither noticed a lapse in ability if it developed. He nipped her rounder shoulder hungrily, greedy hands overfull of her soft, responsive breasts, his thumbs incessantly tweaking what to him were fantastically responsive nipples, suckling bubbled suds from her salty throat while her hips chorused encouraging rhythm against his and all without complaint.

They ricocheted off one another, in ways neither saw outside of the water, too: he against her determination to forge onward at any cost and she at his unfailing insistence that life must be worth living in the process.           

They clashed, far more than once, only a few times badly, the last time very badly . He put his foot down, his light burning brighter, hot as that first day, when their attraction first crashed them into opposing orbits, drawing her inexorably into his path, but her stubbornness burned just as tenaciously. The tub was silent, the water still and cold. His hands cramped from working out the lust she built up in him, his releases empty and erotic even in fury, perhaps because of it, and her fingers tired to unsatisfied stillness long before hers was achieved. It notched up the raging bitch factor a few degrees, she was aware, but how much she cared may have paled in comparison to only a year ago. 

The commission plate fell and she couldn’t find herself in its reflection. His touch was the only thing that felt familiar. The rage melted, bent and snapped, a barrier inside of her she hadn’t noticed erecting. It was the only night she went to him, and instead of invading his bath threw herself, white-gowned, face down upon his sofa.

“Hard,” she ordered, breaking her own rule and he knew that she meant it, that they both needed it this way. No foreplay, no lubrication save what they created in their disgraced fervor: dry, fast, furious. After it felt calmer, a little closer, and she picked up her crumpled undershorts, dressed, and left in silence. It was her way of apology, to him and to herself. He knew that, had known it for more than three years now.

After, he heard her running water, and he sat against the wall they shared, sore, outside and in. Mostly in. He gave her twenty minutes before he picked up his clothes, and walked into her living room, straight on into the single-person bath.   

The water was hotter than lava as it sluiced furiously between frenetic bodies. His hand slipped between her thighs, fingers scissoring easily past mock resistance, sliding sweetly into the fluids he’d left, stroking a familiar flare in her lake-blue eyes.

“Hard,” she commanded, and even if she still needed it that way, too bad. His needs conflicted.

“No,” he said, and she’d forgotten his celerity; in a single exhale, he’d sunk deep into the suds, pinned her still against the tub wall, breasts crushed against his chest, and instead took her slow enough to make her choke on the screams.

They were tentatively okay, if beyond the emotional familiarity required to spend extended social time with each other.

The last time, there were two of her, and it wasn’t as much about them as it was their mistakes. There was the cold future at their continued pace in front of them: ruined. Arrogance and shortsightedness run amuck. It was a sloppy attempt to repair what time had already broken, in so many ways.

At first he resisted, unsure of the rightness of Kathryn’s whispered entreaty until the other Kathryn had blinked at him – only blinked. It was the bleak flicker of the woman he’d tried to save from day one, and he could not turn away while it died out slowly, standing alone in brute starlight. They drew her into the water, and it was a tight fit and an overflowed floor but he learned the hardness that supported beauty, drowned in paradoxes of her for hours that wordless night. White hair smoothed with shorter strands of red, hard steely grey smacked against stripped blue. They took turns kissing her, stroking and riding her, pleasure wrapped in pain because, in their positions, soft was brutally unkind. He rammed hard against one rounded backside and then dove between the thighs of the other, racing to mournful release, and pieces of him opened and parts of him were split. The water was cold before it stilled, the lack of speech palpably defining. He wanted both of them and couldn’t save one for the other.

He felt her loss, maybe more than she did. He felt their collective failure to save her, before or now.

He told himself that was why she turned away and didn’t notice that he had, as well.

When it came, home was bittersweet, too final and far too swift. It was like crashing into their own reflection, rising dazed and bleeding from the broken glass. In a heartbeat, it seemed, the ship was gone, archived in some museum along with their only link together, the tub, and he knew their occult link was severed with it.

She would have laughed if she could hear his thoughts, the frank symbolism implied. True, not all of their meetings had begun in the bathtub’s circumscribed depths but the nature of their connection was forged inside of those planks of sanded wood and before that, inside the metal bulkheads of Voyager; their altered circumstances dissolved the unspoken need for either the handcrafted tub or their clandestine meetings. They were free. Free to roam, to explore, and to evolve – apart. He didn’t have to speak to her to know that she would need time to decide if he was what she wanted in a continuous, normal life – if either of them even knew the meaning of such a thing anymore – they both would need time, but his thinking hadn’t taken him nearly as long as he’d expected. Rather, it was probably the failure of trying to live any other way that decided for him.

It didn’t seem to matter how easy he found his choice. Her answer came in uncommunicated promotions and months on months of spacious silence. He respected her distance, dated loosely when colleagues set him up or women hit on him but his heart wasn’t in it. Had it ever been? Once.

Eventually, he’d have to move. Soon. Either he risked his face and soul and went after something he wanted or he accepted the loss and closed that door. The future was coming and he was wasting the now unfairly to both of them by giving her so much time.  

His fancy new bi-level apartment was dark and empty. Halfhearted thoughts of another solitary replicated dinner distracted him so that he didn’t bother calling for lights as he passed through the narrow hall. Consequently, he almost broke his foot striking it on the misplaced object obstructing forward progress in the middle of his living room.

“Lights,” he cursed, reaching for the phaser that wasn’t at his side only to freeze at what was illuminated before his eyes.

Wrapped in the largest pink satin ribbon he’d never conspired to imagine was a huge, gutted, hard whirlpool the size of a small moon. Its gleaming presence registered fleetingly, along with the angry throb in his toe, but it was what reclined lazily inside of the square tub, chuckling, arms draped over its glistening sides that was the key – to a lot of things, really.

 “I was starting to think you’d never come home.”

“So was I,” he barely managed.

The scent of her was all over the place, filling his senses. He should have known the second he keyed in his code and opened the door. She rose and her slinky long black dress drew his full attention down to the depths of the deep tub. He couldn’t be blamed for his next choked thought.

“’This thing work?”

“I’m afraid some assembly to your housewarming gift is still required.” Her shallow half shrug betrayed her chagrin. “I’m no better with tubs, it seems, than I am with replicators.”

“Shame.” Shock slowly melted into pleasured surprise. Warm hands encircling her hips, he braced and lifted her cleanly out of the ceramic to stand beside him on the carpeted floor. He did not release her, nor did he step back from their close proximity as he looked her over in one long, slow sweep that missed no recent change to her curvature. “Looks pretty functional to me,” he declared. “But then again, it’s been a while.”

She scowled, thumping his chest. “Speaking of which, you could have called.”

He suddenly couldn’t believe he’d assumed she hadn’t wanted him to. And considering the fact that he hadn’t, the bravery of her unannounced foray into his living room was almost as inspiring as it was frightening. Was it even worth asking how in hell she’d bypassed security, or how she knew he’d be alone when he came in?

But he was so focused on the dress, and the feel of her form so close to his, that the obvious questions fled into a dim, “I thought you needed time.”

“And when have you ever known me to be shy about asking for what I need?”

Pooling satin sliding down her legs to the bathroom floor. His throat went dry, remembering the wet heat her presence offered. “That depends on your definition of ‘ask’,” he recalled.

“Hmm,” she hummed, as if struck by the same memory of pooling satin sliding down her thighs the way her questing hands were doing along his chest now. “It might, at that.”

“This is a really nice dress,” he stated rather obtusely, unable to stop staring or touching. His fingers limned lightly along the line of her thigh, learning the material. He couldn’t recall seeing her in anything like it in the past. It had to be newly replicated. “I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be. I wore it for someone else.”

That tension was quite a bit different, now. He swallowed, aware of the additional pressure his fingers applied as they slid up the curve of her hip. “And where’s the lucky man now?” I might have to injure him went classily unsaid.

“Let’s see. I’ve been here for about half an hour now, so…” Her gaze flitted to the ceiling briefly, as if she were visualizing a scene. “Right about now, I’d say he’s standing in an overpriced restaurant looking like a million credits and reading an uncharacteristically cowardly Dear John letter, if I had to guess.”

His reaction to that image was surprisingly feral and satisfied. “If it were me, I’d come after you.”

“You haven’t yet,” she murmured, palm to his chest still and serious.

“I was working up to it.”

“Mmm. Were you?”

The atmosphere was nothing like any of their previous encounters. Particularly, the difference in his reaction to the idea that she has been casually dating on terra firma to anything he’d felt in space was radically edged: a sharp slice into the reality which surrounded them.

It took a moment of lust-thickened thought to work out why.

Someone was going to get all of her. Someone deserved all of him. Now that full commitment was an option, the stakes were significantly altered.  

“You know we have no idea how to do this in the real world.” It didn’t stop his body from going painfully hard at the way she’d begun rubbing suggestively against him in the silky dress.

“You know, you’re right,” she agreed, arching into the hand that snaked up and cupped her breast, and especially into the sliding thumb that stroked her left nipple to pert, full attention, melting her nerves all the way down her belly to multiply, tingling, between her legs. “We could fail astonishingly.”

“I’m serious.” He pinched lightly, knowing how well she responded to slight pressure and unsurprised when her warm hand cupped him directly in return. “What we had out there wasn’t exactly a textbook healthy relationship.”

“I’m not sure it ever could have been. But, when I look back on it, I shudder to think what it would have been like inside my head without it.”

If her words failed to summarize clearly, her deep, open-mouthed kiss told him what she hesitated to voice. You were needed. You were appreciated. You were crucial. His tongue tried to tell her what he couldn’t ever seem to find the words to say, what still might not be safe enough to say. You kept me whole, and dragged me out back from the brink more than once. Even when I didn’t think I deserved it.

“If this is happening, we’ll need to negotiate terms,” was the wisest thing he could bring himself to voice, considering the thoroughly distracting way she was palming his stone-hard erection through the access port she’d made of his zipper.

Her motion paused teasingly, and she leant back from his lips so that he could appreciate her wolfish smile. “Well you’ve come to the right person for that: I love negotiating.”

“I know.” His grin melted her insides as effectively as his stroking fingers did before his lips found her neck. “But you forget, I have the advantage.” His words rumbled low thunder across her nerves. “I’m fairly familiar with all of your tactics already.”

That raised brow as she shoved a little away from him was probably one of the sexiest things about her. Not that he’d mention it because it wasn’t usually what she was going for with it and she warned, “Maybe not all of them.” She slid to her knees in front of him, the long hem of the dress raising enough as she bent for him to appreciate the heeled shoes she must’ve chosen for the arch that was doing such wonderful things for her already insanely-shapely calves.

As she yanked his eager erection out of his pants, he almost did the stupidest thing of the evening and mentioned that he already knew this particular tactic very well – but that would have distracted her and that was just bad form, wasn’t it? There was no need to point out that it was his favorite ploy, and effective as hell, especially because it was her, and especially when his knees buckled like that, to hell with his throbbing toe.

“There’s already a bathtub upstairs,” he gritted, trying to do the improbable and separate her from her task, much less keep her from accomplishing it so soon. “It’s tiny, but last I checked, it was functioning.”

It probably said something crucial that after all of the star systems, anomalies and planets he’d encountered, he could think of nothing more exhilarating than exploring the tiny confines of a stationary room with her.

She tortured him for a long, sweet moment more before showing mercy and allowing him to drag her up to her feet. “Actually, I was thinking about trying the bed this time,” she imparted breathlessly.

“You’ll like it,” he predicted, and they managed two full sideways steps in the right direction with his hands cupping her ass and her leg sliding up to hook around his waist. “It’s firm. Very supportive.”

And it was, and would have been, if they’d made it that far.

 

The first time, he took her on the stairs.