Sunday, September 30, 2007

"EASTERN PROMISES" Review




”EASTERN PROMISES”

Two years ago, I saw the crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg called, ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. Viggo Mortensen had starred in the movie, portraying a happily-married café owner, whose Good Samaritan actions against two thugs led to his disclosure as a former mob enforcer. Both Cronenberg and Mortensen reunited to collaborate on another crime thriller called, ”EASTERN PROMISES”.

Based upon a screenplay written by Steve Knight, ”EASTERN PROMISES” began with a gangland murder and the death of a 14 year-old Russian-born prostitute while giving birth to an infant girl. The two incidents would resonate over the lives of a London hospital midwife of Russian descent named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a Russian mob boss and restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his wastrel son Krill (Vincent Cassel) and the mob boss’ enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen).

The plot is a little too complex for me to explain in this review. Needless to say that it centered around the mob boss’ attempt to recover the dead prostitute’s diary, which found itself in the hands of the hospital midwife. However, I would suggest that one see the movie. No one will be disappointed. I know I found it very interesting. Yes, it has violence, but not as much that was found in ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. But the amount of blood shown in the film – especially in the gangland slaying and the prostitute’s death – seemed to like a metaphor of the story’s theme . . . and the connection between the major characters.
On the surface, ”EASTERN PROMISES” seemed like a typical crime thriller centered around a Russian crime family in London. But the plot – like three of the major characters – turned out to be something quite different than what appears to be on the surface. What seemed like a gang war, turned out to be a lurid family secret that brings down the Russian mobster. As I had earlier pointed out, this theme is also apparent in three of the four major characters:

*Krill –who seemed like a crude and murderous monster on the surface and proves to be more benign
*Semyon – a talented cook and mob boss, whose grandfatherly demeanor hides a darker and more ruthless personality
*Nikolai – the enigmatic chauffeur, whose practical and cynical nature makes him unsuited to merely be the family’s driver. As in the case of Semyon and Krill, he turns out to be someone very different.


And it is through the eyes of the London midwife, Anna that the audience becomes acquainted with the exotic (at least in American and British eyes) world of Russian émigrés mingled with the violence and degeneracy of the Vory v Zakone (Russian Mafia). Thanks to Cronenberg’s direction, the world of the Vory v Zakone seemed so exotic and something never seen before. In fact, it seemed so insular that the usual British atmosphere of London almost seemed miles away, despite the presence of Scotland Yard. One sequence that came to mind is the hand-to-hand fight between Nikolai and two Chechen assassins seeking revenge for the gangland murder in the movie’s opening scene. The sight of a nude Mortensen viciously defending his life against two burly assassins inside a London bathhouse is one that I will never forget. And I suspect that it will become an unforgettable in the minds of moviegoers for years to come.

I was also impressed by the performances in the movie. Despite having the least interesting character, Watts managed – with her usual competency – infused pathos and spirit in the London midwife. And Mueller-Stahl did an excellent job of portraying a brutal and ruthless man who manages to hide these traits under a veneer of warmth and civility. But I feel that Cassel deserves an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the pathetic Krill, who tries to hide his weaknesses (or what he conceives as weakness) with crude and extroverted persona.

Finally, there is Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Nikolai might finally allow the critics to truly appreciate his skills as an actor. Instead of using words or openly expressed emotions, Mortensen manages to reveal his character to the audience through subtle words (in a Russian accent that surprisingly works), body language, costume and especially in his eyes. What makes Mortensen so remarkable as a film actor is that he has no need for big speeches (which he had attempted in ”LORD OF THE RINGS: Return of the King”) or outbursts of emotions to convey to express his characters’ personalities. This certainly seemed true in the scene in which Nikolai has sex with one of the prostitutes, in the whorehouse owned by Krill’s father. Nikolai does not simply have sex with the woman. He IS FORCED to do so . . . on the orders of Krill, who wants Nikolai to prove that he is not a homosexual. The audience was well aware that the prostitute felt violated and exploited. But Mortensen managed to convey through his eyes that Nikolai also felt violated, exploited . . . and disgusted at Krill’s desire to watch him have sex with the prostitute. Good performance by Mortensen.

What else can I say about ”EASTERN PROMISES”? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I feel that it is a fascinating and emotionally complex story that seems different from the usual crime thriller. Unlike ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”, it is not capped by a violence sequence that gives us the last word on the protagonist’s fate. Yet, all the same, I found it very tense and emotional.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"EASTERN PROMISES" Photo Gallery

Below is a gallery featuring photographs from the new David Cronenberg movie, "EASTERN PROMISES". It stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl:


"EASTERN PROMISES" Photo Gallery





































Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"NIP/TUCK" Season Five Gallery

Below is a gallery featuring promotion shots from Season Five of the F/X series, "NIP/TUCK", starring Dylan Walsh, Joely Richardson and Julian McMahon:

"NIP/TUCK - SEASON FIVE"
















Monday, September 24, 2007

"Altered Lives" [PG-13] - Chapter Two




"ALTERED LIVES"

CHAPTER TWO

EXPANSION REGION

The ARC-170 starfighter raced through the dark recesses of the Derra VI system. Inside the cockpit, Romulus fiddled with the ship's communication system in a vain attempt to contact the Jedi Temple on Coruscant.

The clonetroopers on Dallik had taken possession of his and Wo-Chen's Jedi fighters. This action forced Romulus to steal one of the ARC-170 fighters that belonged to a squad of clone pilots. Once he had cleared the Dallik system, Romulus picked up a signal from the Jedi Temple ordering all knights to convene on Coruscant. Unfortunately, the signal went dead somewhere between Koorivia and Bestine, the following day. Romulus had spent the last sixteen hours trying to pick up the signal, again.

For the first time in nearly forty-eight hours, he allowed his mind to replay the clone troopers' attack upon the Jedi commanders. What had happened? Who had given the clones order to kill both Wo-Chen and himself? Had other Jedi Knights in the field been targeted as well?

Romulus could only think of one person with the power to order the deaths of Jedi Knights - Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Both he and Wo-Chen had occasionally discussed the growing estrangement between the Order and the Republic's leader. One contention had been the fact that the Chancellor had managed to stay in office beyond his term. Wo-Chen once revealed that Master Ki-Mundi-Adi had spoken of an alleged connection between someone in Palpatine's inner circle and a Sith Lord named Sidious. If the Jedi were being targeted by clone troopers, Romulus surmised that the connection to the Sith Lord had to be Palpatine.

For a brief second, Romulus closed his eyes and sighed. He hoped that enough Jedi Knights had survived and gathered at the Temple to form some kind of defense against Palpatine and the clone troopers. Then his thoughts fell upon one knight in particular. Anakin Skywalker was known to be a close friend of the Chancellor's. Had the Chosen One been attacked by clone troopers, as well? Or had his friendship with Palpatine given him immunity? Romulus realized that the answer could only be found in Coruscant.

----------

POLIS MASSA

A young Alderaanian officer approached Senator Bail Organa and whispered a message in his ear. "Thank you, Raymus," the older man replied, before dismissing his cousin-in-law.

Alderaan's senator and prince consort rose from his chair inside the Tantive IV's main cabin and left. He departed from his starship and made his way to the moon's main post. The senator asked one of the exobiologists for Master Yoda's location. Several minutes passed before he found Jedi Master Yoda inside the post's observation dome - meditating.

"Pardon me, Master Yoda," Bail said, interrupting the diminutive Jedi. "Master Kenobi has made contact. He is on his way." The latter grunted slightly and nodded.

Nearly an hour later, a silver Nabooan skiff descended upon the post's main landing platform. Bail inhaled sharply at the sight of Master Kenobi carrying Senator Amidala's unconscious body down the ship's ramp. "What happened to her?" the Alderaanian senator demanded.

"Anakin had attacked her," Kenobi grimly replied. "Using the Force." Aware of the friendship between his colleague and the young Jedi Knight, Kenobi's news took Bail by surprise. Even more surprising was the obvious fact that Padme Amidala was pregnant.

Yoda also noticed Senator Amidala's bulky form. "Hmmmm. Expecting a child, the senator is."

Kenobi added, "Anakin is the father."

"Is?" One of Master Yoda's brows rose questioningly.

A sigh left the younger Jedi's mouth. "I'm afraid that I have failed, Master Yoda. Anakin . . . or Lord Vader still lives. He has escaped."

"Then failed the both of us have." Bail knew that Yoda spoke of his failed attempt to kill the new emperor.

While a pair of medical technicians led the small party toward a medical facility, Bail's mind reeled over the past recent events that left the Republic in tatters. It all seemed a blur. He found it hard to believe that two attempts on Palpatine's life, the Jedi Order's destruction, the end of the war, Palpatine's declaration as the galaxy's new emperor, and his assistance of two fugitive Jedi Knights had all occurred within the last few days. And now it seemed that he and these last two Jedi will have to deal with an unexpected pregnancy. Bail shook his head in disbelief. He had harbored misgivings about the Clone War when it first started. But he had no idea that it would eventually lead to the end of the Republic.

The small party entered the medical facility. The technicians placed Padme on a bed inside one of the operating theaters. A groan escaped from her mouth. The two men and Yoda exchanged grim looks. It appeared that the Nabooan ship's arrival had occurred at a fortuitous time. Not long after she had been situated, Senator Amidala went into labor.

--------

MUSTAFAR

The Imperial shuttle slowly descended into Mustafar's fiery system. Not long after it landed on solid ground, a squad of clone troopers escorted the wizened, cloaked figure down the shuttle's ramp.

Former Supreme Chancellor-now-Emperor Palpatine sharply ordered the troopers to search near the lava banks for his new apprentice. Just recently, he had received a premonition that Lord Vader's life might be in danger.

While the troopers followed his order, Palpatine closed his eyes and inhaled. He saw visions of Lord Vader's confrontation with Senator Amidala and that Jedi scum, Kenobi. He also saw Vader strangle the senator and engage in a lightsaber duel with the Jedi Master. Back on Coruscant, he had foreseen his apprentice struggling to escape the burning lava after being dismembered by Kenobi. But now . . . He took another deep breath. All he saw was the past. For some reason, he could not sense Lord Vader's present state or whereabouts. He could not even sense a heartbeat or sound. It seemed as if the Force had blocked his new apprentice from his senses.

Several minutes passed. When the clone detail failed to report any sign of Vader, Palpatine joined them near the lava bank. "Report!" he sharply ordered the squad's leader.

"Lord Vader is nowhere to be found, Your Highness," the squad leader reported. "We've searched all along the riverbank."

Palpatine snapped back, "Nonsense! He was here. I had sensed him." The squad leader remained silent. Once more, the Sith Lord used the Force in an effort to find his missing apprentice. And once again, he failed. Frustration threatened to overwhelm him, until an image of a dark-haired, young man walking through the ruins of the Jedi Temple appeared before him.

"Call off the search," the new emperor barked. "We will return to Coruscant."

The squad leader nodded. "Yes, Your Highness." He summoned the other clone troopers.

Darth Sidious breathed in and out, as he led his troops back to the shuttle. He regretted losing a powerful and valuable apprentice in Vader. But the Force had shown him a suitable replacement. Hopefully, an apprentice powerful enough to stand by his side, yet malleable enough not to become a wild card - like a certain fair-haired Jedi Knight.

-----------

POLIS MASSA

A low moan escaped from Padme's mouth. She felt the baby ease slowly from her body. Her baby. Hers and Anakin's child. Padme realized that she should feel overjoyed at the idea of becoming a mother. But the feeling refused to come forth. How could she feel any joy? Especially since it had all gone wrong.

"Push," she heard the medical droid said. Padme released a series of short breaths, as she followed the droid's order. She could barely sense Obi-Wan's presence inside the operating theater. Then it finally came. The warm flesh eased further out of her body.

Where had it all gone wrong? Was she being punished for wanting too much? For marrying a Jedi Knight in secret? For marrying him in the first place? Perhaps, if she had followed her original instincts and kept her distance, Anakin's loyalty would not have been divided between her and the Jedi Order.

Padme felt pain jolt throughout her body. She winced. Then Obi-Wan grabbed hold of her hand. "Don't give up, Padme," he gently whispered.

Finally, the baby arrived. Faint cries filled the operating theater. "It's a boy," the medical droid announced.

The moment the droid announced the baby's gender, a name popped into Padme's mind. "Luke . . ." she whispered. With great difficulty, she struggled to touch the infant's forehead. She and Anakin were the parents of an infant boy named Luke. If only he were . . .

Another twinge of pain shot through her body. She felt the second child before the medical technician could announce it to the others. She had been carrying twins! Again, the droid ordered her to relax. Between the pain, the humidity that surrounded her and the infant struggling to enter this world, Padme found herself barely hanging on.

Her mind raced back to that day, thirteen years ago, when her presence in the Galactic Senate had spelled the end of Finis Valorum's rule as the Supreme Chancellor. At first, Padme had felt proud of her "no confidence" nomination against the former chancellor. The situation between Naboo and the Trade Federation led her to consider Valorum as an ineffective leader. But his successor proved to be a bigger mistake for the Republic. The latter no longer existed and had become an Empire due to her foolish naivety. Was she being punished for allowing someone like Palpatine a chance to . . .?

The second baby arrived. Finally. The medical droid announced that it was a girl. Another name popped into Padme's head. "Leia."

"You have twins, Padme," Obi-Wan said. She felt her surroundings slowly fade before her eyes. Obi-Wan continued, "Padme? They need you. Hang on."

Hang on? How could she? "I can't," Padme whispered.

She closed her eyes . . . and heard his voice. She heard Anakin. "You need to be strong, Padme. For you and the baby's future. But don't forget . . . I will always love you. Forever."

A gasp left Padme's mouth before she could stop herself. While one of her hands grabbed hold of the japor snippet that hung around her neck, the other one took hold of Obi-Wan's hand. "Save your energy," the Jedi Master gently added.

Padme opened her mouth to speak. "Obi-Wan," she whispered, "there . . ." She paused, as she struggled to remain conscious. "There . . . is good . . . in him. I know there is . . ." Her eyelids grew heavy. Her energy continued to drain from her body. She had to tell him! "There is . . . still . . ." And everything faded to black.

---------

Stunned by Padme's sudden laspe, Obi-Wan regarded her with anxious eyes. "Is she . . .? he began.

The medical droid checked the instruments. "The patient is unconscious. She should recover after sufficient rest."

Relief sagged Obi-Wan's shoulders. He glanced at Master Yoda and Senator Organa and saw that they shared his feelings. He joined them outside the operating theater. "That was close."

"No doubt," Senator Organa replied, shooting a quick glance at his unconscious colleague. "However, I had no idea that she was with child. Is it true that Master Skywalker is the father of her twins?"

Both Obi-Wan and Master Yoda exchanged uneasy looks. "The father, Young Master Skywalker is," Yoda replied with a nod. "Or as he is now known - Lord Vader. Consumed him, the Dark Side has."

Obi-Wan shifted from one foot to the other. He realized with discomfort that he had yet to disclose what really happened on Mustafar. "I'm not quite so sure, Master Yoda."

"Hmmm?"

The older Jedi Master and the Alderaanian senator regarded Obi-Wan with curious yes. He continued, "Something happened on Mustafar. Something . . . unexpected. Before he left, Anakin left this behind." He removed his former apprentice's lightsaber from his robe and displayed it before the other two's astonished eyes.

---------

SLUIS SECTOR

Inside his starfighter's cockpit, Anakin leaned back into his seat and heaved a sigh. Within a space of two or three days, he had managed to ruin his life and the lives of those close to him. And because of this, he now found himself stuck in the middle of the Sluis Sector with no real place to go.

Anakin checked the Jedi fighter's star charts. So far, the closest star system seemed to be Melida/Daan. Over twenty-five years ago, the planet had been the site of a bloody civil war between its two main inhabitants - the Melida and the Daan. He recalled that Obi-Wan had briefly left the Jedi Order to assist a group called the Young in ending the civil war. Eventually, both groups reunited and have managed to rebuild the planet from the war's ravages.

A stopover in Zehara, Melinda/Daan's capital, would provide fuel for the starfighter and a brief respite for him. But Anakin had no plans to remain behind. He decided it would be best to head for one of the systems in the far reaches of the Outer Rim. There was Naboo, but Anakin immediately dismissed it. The planet harbored too many memories of his relationship with Padme. And he suspected that the Chancellor - now the Emperor - might assume he would settle there.

He might also consider Tatooine to be out of the question. At least as a permanent residence. Palpatine knew about his familiarity with the planet. And to be honest, it also held as much disturbing memories as Naboo. But since it rarely registered on the Senate's radar, Anakin decided he could spare a few weeks on his childhood planet. Just long enough to raise credits for a permanent home, elsewhere.

Anakin contemplated spending some time on the Lars' moisture farm. Perhaps he could find a job in nearby Mos Eisley or Anchorhead. On second thought . . . perhaps not. The Lars homestead held very painful memories for him. And he has harbored a lot to last a lifetime. His old hometown, Mos Espa, would have to suffice. Hopefully, his former owner could use his help.

Having made his decision, Anakin allowed himself a brief sigh of relief. He continued to guide his starfighter through space and toward the Melida/Daan system.

----------

POLIS MASSA

While Padme remained unconscious, Master Yoda decided it would be wise for all of them to leave Polis Massa. Senator Organa offered the two Jedi Masters passage aboard his star cruiser, the Tantive IV. "After I deliver Senator Amidala and her children to Naboo," the senator said, "my captain will be more than happy to deliver you both to your destinations."

"Use a lifepod, I will," Master Yoda said. "To my new home, it will take me."

Senator Organa turned to the younger knight. "Master Kenobi?"

The younger man smiled politely. "Thank you, Senator, but I hope to use Padme's skiff to take me to the Outer Rim. If she will permit me. If not, I may take up your offer."

"The Outer Rim?" Yoda regarded Obi-Wan with curious eyes. "Within you, I sense a purpose, Obi-Wan. What draws you to the Outer Rim? Your former apprentice's lightsaber, does it concern?"

A sigh left Obi-Wan's mouth. "My feelings tell me that Anakin has not returned to the Emperor. I had sensed remorse from him back on Mustafar. Guilt. Possibly shame. And he did leave his lightsaber behind. Not the actions of one who plans to continue to serve the Sith."

"Hmmmm . . . certain are you, about Lord Vader?"

Obi-Wan hesitated. "Actually . . . no. That is why I want to make a few inquiries into his present whereabouts. I have an idea of where he may have gone."

Doubt crept into Master Yoda's eyes. "Find him, if you must. But do not forget - forever the Dark Side might control his destiny. Now that he has embraced it."

"You don't believe that Anakin may have turned away from the Dark Side?"

A long pause followed before Yoda finally answered. "The answer, you should soon discover."


END OF CHAPTER TWO

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Best Moment in Each Bond Film




"BEST MOMENT IN EACH BOND FILM"

What do you consider to be the best moment in each James Bond film? I had discovered this question on a Bond forum and decided to ask it on my blog. Below is a list of my choices. What are yours?


DR. NO - Professor Dent's death

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE - Grant reveals SPECTRE's plot to Bond (although I do find it to be a little illogical)

GOLDFINGER - Bond's discovery of Jill Masterson's body

THUNDERBALL - Fiona gets the drop on Bond

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE - Tiger Tanaka and his ninjas attack Blofeld's volcano

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE - Bond's escape from Piz Gloria

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER - Bond/Peter Franks fight in Tiffany's apartment building

LIVE AND LET DIE - Boat chase through the bayou

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN - Bond and Goodnight have lunch with Scaramanga

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME - Anya discovers that Bond had killed her lover

MOONRAKER - Bond saves Manuela from Jaws

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY - death of Emile Locque

OCTOPUSSY - Bond/Orlov confrontation at East German railyard

A VIEW TO A KILL - Zorin's men attempt to kill Bond on racetrack

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS - Mujardeen attack on Soviet airbase/Bond confronts Pushkin

LICENSE TO KILL - Fight at Barrelhouse bar

GOLDENEYE - Bond and Natalya escape from General Ourumov

TOMORROW NEVER DIES - Bond/Dr. Kauffman confrontation

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH - Bond confronts Elektra about possible connection to Renard

DIE ANOTHER DAY - Bond and Jinx raise havoc at Cuban clinic

CASINO ROYALE - Bond/Obanno stairwell fight/Torture sequence


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Altered Lives" [PG-13] - Chapter One




"ALTERED LIVES"


CHAPTER ONE

19BBY - AMARATH, DALLIK

"General Puri, a platoon of droid troops has been spotted surrounding a Separatist bunker, forty kilometers east of your position. Sensors tell us that it might be the droids' shield generator for this system." The clone trooper's voice crackled over the two Jedi Knights' comlinks.

Both Romulus Wort and Wo-Chen Puri exchanged hopeful looks. The destruction of the droid army's shield generator could spell victory for the Republic's army here on Dallik. It could also mean the capture of former Republic Senator Perdito Vedlik, now one of the Separatist leaders in this sector. The Jedi Master responded, "Hold your position, Sergeant Minos. Colonel Wort will soon link up with you to initiate an assault on the generator station."

"Roger that, General Puri."

Wo-Chen turned to his former apprentice. "Romulus, I'm sure that you know what to do. As soon as you and Telos knock out the shield generator, contact me. I will move in to arrest Vedlik at the City Administration building."

Romulus responded with a sharp nod. "Right. I should be able to contact, as soon as possible." He turned to face the clone officer nearby. "Captain, bring three platoons and follow me."

Captain Telos crisply replied, "Yes sir." The clone officer turned away to bark orders to his subordinates.

As Romulus prepared to depart, Wo-Chen spoke up. "By the way, Romulus . . ." the young Jedi Knight stared at the older man. "No mad rushes to overwhelm to the enemy. I do not want a repeat of what happened on Koorivar." Romulus' face turned hot. He knew that Master Puri spoke of an impetuous charge he had led against a company of Corporate Alliance troopers in the midst of one of the planet's lush rainforests. He had barely survived.

"I promise to be careful, Master," Romulus replied.

Wo-Chen smiled affectionately. "Good. I would hate for the Order to lose such a promising knight such as yourself."

The comment drew a surprised stare from the young Jedi. "I never realized that you consider me promising, Wo-Chen."

The Jedi Master responded with a warm smile. "Of course I have. Yes, you can be slightly impatient, but that is only indicative of your age. With time and more experience, you can become one of the Order's most highly regarded knights. Now, enough of this. You need to take out that shield generator."

For one long moment, Romulus stared at Master Puri. A disturbing thought came to him that he and his former master might soon be permanently separated. Which seemed ridiculous, as he gave a second thought to the idea. After all, he should have no problem knocking out that shield generator. And Wo-Chen will only be forty kilometers away. Romulus flashed a bright smile at the older man and replied, "Yes, Master." Then he followed Captain Telos and the other clone troopers away from the city's administration building.

The half-ruined streets and avenues of Amarath's main business district provided a maze for Romulus and his command. They eventually found Sergeant Minos and a squad of clonetroopers gathered in a small passageway between two buildings along Avenue Caldik. The wide avenue overlooked a once spacious park now slightly damaged by combat. At the park's northwest edge stood a low bunker surrounded by trees and Trade Federation droids.

At first, Romulus wondered how he could take the droids by surprise. Then an idea came to him. He ordered one of the lieutenants from Captain Telos' company to lead a squad back into the city's streets and make their way toward Boulevard Trilak, which bordered the park's northern side. "Lieutenant, you and your squad are to make your way to the hotel over. Once you position yourself, place a few snipers on the roof and take out those droids guarding the bunker." The clone lieutenant acknowledged Romulus' orders and disappeared from view with a squad of troops.

To Romulus' relief, everything went according to plan. Lieutenant Bellon and his squad managed to position themselves at the hotel/casino on Boulevard Trilak. Minutes later, the Jedi Knight used his macrobinoculars to observe the blaster fire that eliminated the bunker's guards. Once the bunker was left vulnerable, more droid troops poured out of its left side. Romulus ordered Telos to lead the remaining company in an all out attack. During the middle of the firefight, the doors to the bunker's main entrance slid open. More droid troops appeared. Romulus lit up his lightsaber. Then he turned to his remaining men and ordered them to follow him.

Romulus took a deep breath and rushed forward. The clone troopers followed. Blaster fire exploded to the left and right of the Jedi Knight. Using his lightsaber, he deflected the droids' blaster fire and sliced several of them in half. Finally, he and Captain Telos met near the bunker's entrance. "All right, Captain," Romulus said, "I want you to prevent the droids out here from following me, while I'll take a squad inside."

"Yes sir," Telos replied with a sharp nod.

With his lightsaber still lit up, Romulus led his contingent deep inside the bunker. There, they found a handful of droid troops and a Neimodian officer, standing in front of generator, armed with blasters. The enemy fired and Romulus deflected most of the shots with his lightsaber. One of his troops ended up struck down. The Neimodian aimed his blaster at Romulus and fired. The Jedi Knight easily deflected the blasts and killed the officer. It did not take long for his command to destroy the rest of the droid troops.

"Sergeant," Romulus began, "have your men place the charges around the generator. Give yourself time to clear out."

The sergeant nodded. "Yes sir." While Romulus strode out of the generator room, Minos barked orders to the remaining troops.

Once outside of the bunker, Romulus contacted Wo-Chen. "Master, we have assumed control of the shield generator. It should be destroyed . . ." He paused, as Sergeant Minos and the other clone troopers rushed out of the bunker. Several explosions consumed the structure.

An anxious-sounding Wo-Chen cried out, "Romulus? What happened?"

From the corner of his eye, Romulus saw the remaining fighting droids come to a standstill. "My troops and I have destroyed the shield generator, Wo-Chen."

"Yes, I see," the Jedi Master commented drily. "Good job. Make sure that all other Separatist troops have been captured."

"Yes, Master."

While flames continued to engulf the bunker, Romulus strode toward Captain Telos. He had not taken five steps, when he dropped his commlink. As he bent over to pick it up, blaster fire zipped over his head. Stunned, Romulus glanced up and saw none other than Captain Telos aiming a blaster rifle . . . at him! What in the blazes? Romulus quickly straighten up and grabbed his lightsaber hilt. And just in time. He lit up his blade and managed to deflect more shots from Telos and the other clone troopers. One of the blasts he had deflected, struck the officer's chest.

More blaster fire came from troopers behind the Jedi Knight. Thankfully, the blasts missed. Romulus tossed them back, using his telekinesis. It finally occurred to the Jedi Knight that Wo-Chen might also be in danger. Using accelerated speed, he zoomed away from the burning bunker and toward the city's center.

By the time Romulus reached the city's Administration Hall, he found his former master battling clone troopers on the building's wide steps. Separatist leader, Perdito Vedlik laid dead beside Wo-Chen. The young Jedi Knight stepped forward to aid his former master, when three clone troopers emerged from the building's entrance and fired upon the Jedi Master. The latter fell forward - dead.

"Wo-Cheeeen!" Rage overwhelmed Romulus, as he lit up his lightsaber. The clone troopers spotted him and began to fire. Romulus deflected their fire with ease, killing several troopers in the process. Eventually, some semblance of common sense broke through his anger and he realized that he could not single-handedly defend himself against an entire battalion. He immediately snapped off his lightsaber and once again, fled from certain death.


--------


MUSTAFAR

Red-hot sparks upward, while two men in Jedi tunics swung back and forth from cables that hung from a metal collector tower that flowed along a river of lava. Despite their situation, the pair managed to continue a deadly lightsaber duel that had begun not long ago on more solid ground.

Anakin Skywalker, now the Sith Lord, Darth Vader, had been sent by his new master to permanently deal with the Separatist leadership. He had arrived on the fiery planet of Mustafar, met with the surviving Separatist leaders and slain every last one of them - including the troublesome Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation. Once he had completed his task, he had been surprised to learn that his very pregnant wife, Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo, had followed him to Mustafar in order to confront him about what really happened at the Jedi Temple back on Coruscant. And he had his former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi to thank. Surprise, however, soon turned to shock and anger when the hated Kenobi appeared on the ramp of Padme's skiff - confirming Anakin's suspicions that Padme and Obi-Wan had betrayed him.

Anakin's anger had led to his attack upon Padme. Obi-Wan stopped him before he had the chance to kill her. But that did not stop the young Sith Lord from demanding that Obi-Wan pledge allegiance to the new Emperor. When his former master refused, a fight ensued.

The brutal duel, which had begun just meters away from the Nabooan skiff, now continued on the metal tower collector, as it floated on the lava river. Anakin felt oblivious to his tenuous situation. His attention remained focused upon the bearded man, who seemed determined to end this duel with a fatal blow, as much as he did. Then a loud snap caught the young Sith Lord's attention. He glanced up. The collector's metal had begun to break apart. More snaps followed, along with a few loud groans. Not only was the contraption in danger of breaking apart, it seemed to be heading straight toward a lava fall. Anakin glanced at Obi-Wan. Apparently, the latter had also noticed the danger. The older man did a double-back flip and landed squarely on a platform floating along the river.

Panic briefly struck Anakin. He realized that not only lack a structure to land safely upon, he was in danger of sinking into the lava river, along with this tower. Then he spotted a solution to his problem. Construction droids. Anakin took a deep breath and swung back to the tower's main column. Then he climbed up the tower, made a running leap and landed on top of a chattering construction droid.

Without pressure from the two men's combined weight, the giant collector tower moved swifter along the lava's current, until it eventually disappeared over the falls. Meanwhile, both Anakin's droid and Obi-Wan's platform floated toward the lava river's bank. The moment Anakin's droid reached the platform, the young Sith Lord and the Jedi Master resumed their duel.

Balanced precariously on the droid and the platform, the two men battled away with fury. But their situation made it impossible to deliver any meaningful blows. To Anakin's surprise, Obi-Wan paused and stared at him with eyes that illuminated with disappointment and regret. "I have failed you, Anakin! I was never able to teach you to think."

The Jedi Master's words inflamed Anakin's rage. "I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over!" he cried.

"From the Sith! Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!"

"From the Jedi point of view!" Anakin retorted. "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!"

Disbelief now dominated Obi-Wan's eyes. "Well, then you are lost!"

But Anakin did not hear his former master's last words. Instead, he declared, "This is the end for you, my Master. I wish it were otherwise." He flipped onto Obi-Wan's platform and the fighting resumed.

As the platform eased closer toward the riverbank, Obi-Wan surprised Anakin for the second time and jumped to the safety of the lava bank's black sand. "It's over, Anakin! I have the high ground!"

Anakin's eyes scanned the lava bank. Sure enough, Obi-Wan stood on a high bank that sloped upward from the river of lava. But the younger man refused to give up. He felt certain that he could overcome his former master's advantage. "You underestimate my power!" he growled.

Obi-Wan shot back, "Don't try it!"

Before he could spring off the platform, disturbing images filled Anakin's mind. He saw himself leap from the platform in order to attack Obi-Wan. He saw the latter cut off his legs at the knees and his left arm. More disturbing images followed - his torso engulfed in flames, his body encased in a monstrous black suit, him strangling Padme with the Force and her dead body being carried throughout the streets of Theed. Anakin blinked several times. Memories of his past deeds and what laid in store for him filled him with horror. The red haze that had gripped his mind, slowly disappeared.

"Anakin?" Obi-Wan cried out.

The young Sith Lord's gaze fell downward. He saw that the platform was in danger of melting into the lava. Using the Force, Anakin levitated toward the sandy bank, opposite Obi-Wan. He turned off his lightsaber. "You're right, Obi-Wan. It's over." He sighed and shook his head. "What have I done?" he muttered to himself. Feeling a sense of failure and utter despair, Anakin turned away.

Again, Obi-Wan cried out, "Anakin!"

"You've won, my Master. Let it go."

But in another one of those rare moments, Anakin saw that even Obi-Wan had difficulty in letting go. "Let it go?" the Jedi Master exclaimed angrily. "You were the Chosen One! It was said that you who would bring balance to the Force! Not leave it in Darkness!"

Anakin opened his mouth to speak. But words failed to spill out. How could he deny Obi-Wan's accusations? Because of him, the Jedi Order no longer existed. He took a deep breath, silently shook his head and started to walk away.

Obi-Wan bellowed ominously, "Anakin! Where do you think you are going?"

The younger man murmured, "Honestly, I do not know. But definitely away from here."

"We are not finished . . ." Obi-Wan continued. But Anakin spotted a well-sized rock in the black sand. With the Force, he used it to strike Obi-Wan's left temple. The older man immediately fell to the ground, unconscious.

Anakin regarded his former master with pain and regret. Then he stared at the lightsaber in his hand and tossed it at Obi-Wan's prone body. He quickly made his way back to Padme's skiff, where he found Threepio and Artoo attempting to carry his unconscious body inside the vehicle. More waves of guilt washed over Anakin, as he again recalled his attack upon Padme.

"Threepio, I'll take her." Anakin stepped forward and the protocol droid placed Padme into his arms. He carried her aboard the ship, ignoring Threepio's chatter and Artoo's beeps. Once inside the skiff, Anakin gently placed his wife upon a narrow bunk. He leaned down and placed a light kiss on her forehead. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Padme," he murmured in a wavering voice. "I've ruined everything. I can't . . . I can no longer be with you." He inhaled deeply. "I don't deserve to be with you. You and the baby will never be safe with me. You need to be strong, Padme. For you and the baby's future. But don't forget . . . I will always love you. Forever." Then he kissed her forehead again. "May the Force be with you."

Anakin strode down the skiff's ramp with Threepio close at his heels. "Master Anakin," the droid cried, "where are you going?"

"I'm leaving, Threepio." Anakin headed toward his fighter. "Don't worry. Master Kenobi should soon join you. Meanwhile, I need you to take care of the senator."

Threepio refused to be deterred. "But sir, what shall I tell Mistress Padme? Where are you going?"

The protocol droid's question led Anakin to pause beside his fighter. He heaved a loud sigh. "Tell her . . . tell her that I love her." Then he patted the droid's golden forearm. "Good-bye Threepio. Take care of your mistress and the baby."

Threepio merely stared, as Anakin began to climb into the cockpit. A series of whistles and beeps revealed Artoo rushing toward the starfighter. Anakin waved him away. "No, Artoo. You stay with Padme. She will need you a lot more than I will."

Low whistles emitted from Artoo, indicating the droid's displeasure. Anakin settled inside the cockpit. As he glanced down at the two droids, he realized with a pang that he might never see them or his beloved wife, again. Even worse, he would never have a chance to know his child - thanks to his blind arrogance and selfishness. Anakin closed his eyes and heaved one last sigh. After donning his headset, he closed the cockpit and started the engines. Before long, his old Jedi fighter finally zoomed out of Mustafar's smoky atmosphere and into deep space.

--------

An uncomfortable, burning sensation tingled the surface of Obi-Wan's right cheek. His eyes flickered open and he realized that he lay sprawled on the black, steaming sand. Then it all came back to him - stowing aboard Padme's ship, confronting Anakin, the duel and the sensation of pain striking his left temple. Anakin.

The Jedi Master struggled to his feet. He spotted his lightsaber on the ground and picked it up. Then he saw the other object - Anakin's lightsaber. Obi-Wan regarded it with a frown. His former padawan must have tossed it aside. But why? What had led Anakin to end the duel, let alone give up his weapon? An anxious thought came to the Jedi Master. Padme. Anakin may have taken both her and the droids away from Mustafar. Hopefully, not back Coruscant . . . and Sidious.

Fighting back a sense of panic, Obi-Wan picked up the other lightsaber and rushed back to Padme and her starship. To his relief, he found the Nabooan skiff still there, along with the Skywalkers' two droids.

"Master Kenobi!" Threepio's voice rang with relief. "Oh, I am so glad to see you!"

Obi-Wan nodded curtly. "Where is Anakin? Is he with the senator?"

Threepio replied, "Oh no, Master Kenobi. Master Anakin has left. But Miss Padme is aboard the ship. He had carried her aboard before leaving."

Anakin had left? Obi-Wan glanced to his right. Sure enough, the yellow Jedi fighter had disappeared. An unexpected pang struck the Jedi Master beneath his chest. He felt as if a part of his life had suddenly been erased. Obi-Wan had not experienced such a feeling since Qui-Gon Jinn's death.

With a sigh, he ordered Threepio and Artoo to board the skiff. After he followed the pair aboard, Obi-Wan ordered the protocol droid to take off. Meanwhile, he followed Artoo to one of the bunks, where he found a semi-conscious Padme mumbling incoherently.

The senator's dark eyes fluttered open. "Obi-Wan?" Breathing heavily, she added, "Is Anakin . . . all right?"

Obi-Wan began to answer, "Yes, he . . ." Then he found himself unable to speak.

"He spoke . . . to me," Padme continued to whisper. "But he's go . . ." She broke off and became unconscious.

A heavy sadness welled within Obi-Wan's heart, as he brushed tendrils of Padme's hair from her forehead. Poor thing. He left Artoo with the unconscious senator, while he joined Threepio in the cockpit.

The protocol droid asked, "Pardon me sir, but where are we going?"

Lacking an answer, Obi-Wan merely stared ahead in pensive silence.


END OF CHAPTER ONE

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Altered Lives" [PG-13] - Prologue



This is the first in a series of five stories set between ROTS and ANH. Also, this particular story is more or less an Alternate Universe version of the last half-hour of "Revenge of the Sith".


"ALTERED LIVES"

RATING: PG-13 - Violence
SUMMARY: The lives of Anakin, Padme and many others take an alternate course during Anakin's duel with Obi-Wan on Mustafar.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: All characters and things STAR WARS belong to Lucasfilm. All non-original dialogue in this story is credited to "Revenge of the Sith", which is based upon the story and screenplay by George Lucas. The characters, Romulus Wort and Wo-Chen Puri, are my creation.





PROLOGUE

27BBY - Coruscant

Inside the Jedi Temple's great training hall, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, his padawan and other members of the Order watched two padawans engage in a practice lightsaber duel. Although the two combatants happened to be adolescents, both moved with the skill and speed of an experienced adult swordsman.

Obi-Wan felt impressed by one particular combatant - a tall and muscular fifteen year-old named Romulus Wort. The Jedi Knight could not help but admire how the young, dark-haired Wort managed to utilize his footwork and speed to keep his opponent on the defense. He turned to the padawan's Jedi mentor and said, "Master Puri, I cannot help but feel that the Force is truly strong with your padawan."

A hint of a smile touched the lips of the stocky, bronze-skinned Belascan who stood next to Obi-Wan. "Yes, Romulus has become quite skilled with the lightsaber." The smile disappeared, as he sighed. "Unfortunately, being strong with the Force does not automatically make one the perfect Jedi. I am afraid that my young padawan needs work in other areas - like his impatience and temper."

Obi-Wan shot a quick glance at his apprentice. The lanky, fourteen year-old regarded the fighters through narrowed eyes. "Yes," Obi-Wan said, "those are traits that many of us needed to be mindful of when we were of Romulus' age. But I am surprised that you would say such a thing about your own padawan. He has always struck me being nearly ideal. Along with Ferus Olin." There had been times when Obi-Wan had longed for the less troublesome Romulus Wort or the near perfect Ferus Olin as his padawan.

"Oh come, Master Kenobi." Puri regarded the younger Knight with slight amusement. "I have yet to meet the ideal Jedi Knight. Although, I do believe there are many within the Order who might consider themselves . . . ideal."

The younger Knight felt his face turn hot with embarrassment. Somehow, Puri's words had cut Obi-Wan to the quick. He did not view himself ideal or perfect, but he liked to believe that the Jedi Order did consider him loyal and dependable. Would anyone consider such a viewpoint as arrogant?

A lightsaber's hum broke Obi-Wan out of his thoughts. He looked up in time to see Romulus aggressively attack the other padawan before knocking the latter's lightsaber to the floor. Many of the onlookers clapped or cheered. Including Obi-Wan. "Good job!" he declared enthusiastically. "Good job!"

Puri nodded approvingly at his padawan. "I agree. But I wonder how he will do against young Skywalker, here." He smiled reassuringly at Anakin. "Whom I am certain is just as skilled."

Anakin Skywalker's blue eyes lit up with gratitude, before he smiled at the older Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan felt a brief flash of jealousy. He could not recall his padawan ever regarding him with such open gratitude during their five years together.

The time finally arrived for the last practice duel for the day. Both Anakin and Romulus warily approached each other in the center of the hall. All of the onlookers fell silent. Obi-Wan understood why. The two padawans - along with Ferus Olin - were considered amongst the finest swordsmen of their generation. Yet, neither Anakin or Romulus had ever fought each other until today. The combatants lit up their lightsabers and the duel commenced.

Both padawans seemed to be evenly matched. As blue and green lightsabers clashed, Anakin and Romulus exhibited speed, excellent footwork and aggressive maneuvers. Despite Obi-Wan's efforts to indoctrinate Anakin into the more defensive Sonsei fighting style, his apprentice had adopted the more aggressive and bolder Djem So style. Apparently, so had Romulus Wort. And this surprised Obi-Wan. Puri's padawan had never struck him as the type who would adopt such an unorthodox fighting style.

The duel seemed to go on forever. Obi-Wan began to wonder if Anakin had finally met his match. But Wo-Chen viewed the duel with different eyes. "Master Kenobi, your padawan is very skilled. And very clever."

Obi-Wan frowned. "I'm sorry?"

"Haven't you noticed? Young Skywalker is wearing down my padawan," Puri continued. "Although both are using the Djem So style, your Anakin is not being as aggressive as he could be. Instead, he is merely deflecting Romulus' attacks, causing the latter to exert more effort."

"And wearing down your padawan in the process," Obi-Wan declared in astonished tones. He noticed how Romulus Wort's strikes have become more desperate and forced. Strange - he had never noticed that his apprentice was exploiting Romulus' impatience. Nor did he realize that Anakin was capable of such strategy.

Puri added in a whisper, "And now I'm afraid that poor Romulus will make a final, desperate move . . . and fail to reach his target. This will probably give Anakin the opportunity he needs." Sure enough, the dark-haired padawan's blade made a wide, sweeping arc in an attempt to knock Anakin's lightsaber from the latter's hands. And failed. His failure left him open to Anakin's attack. In several swift moves, the younger padawan tapped both of Romulus' hands, forcing the latter to cry out in pain and drop his lightsaber.

A hushed tone filled the wide hall before Jedi Master Plo Koon began to clap. Other onlookers did the same. Anakin seemed uplifted by the adulation.

"Good job," Wo-Chen declared the moment Anakin and Romulus rejoined their masters. "Both of you. Excellent match."

Romulus looked slightly embarrassed. "I'm sorry that I lost, Master. I should have concentrated more."

Puri sighed. "Or perhaps you have been more patient and mindful of your surroundings, my young padawan." Romulus' pale face turned red. "However, I am still pleased by the skills you have displayed. You're improving faster than I had imagined." The padawan managed a wan smile, but Obi-Wan could see that the minor criticism had stung. Then Wo-Chen faced Anakin with an approving smile. "As for you, young Skywalker, well done. Well done! I cannot recall any member of the Order utilizing such strategy in a long time."

Anakin bowed. "Thank you, Master Puri. I . . ." For a brief second, he became speechless. Then, "Thank you."

Again, Wo-Chen smiled. Then he led his padawan toward the hall's exit. As Anakin turned to face Obi-Wan, the latter saw Romulus shoot a resentful glare at the younger padawan. Very disturbing.

"How well do you know Wo-Chen Puri, Master?" Anakin asked. "There is something about him that seems very familiar. He almost reminds me of Master Qui-Gon."

Obi-Wan's heart briefly lurched at the mention of his former master's name. "Yes, well that is not surprising. Qui-Gon and Wo-Chen were old friends," Obi-Wan explained. "And both . . . well, they both placed great emphasis on the Living Force. Especially Qui-Gon."

"Oh."

A deafening silence fell between master and apprentice. Realizing that he had not commented about the lightsaber match, Obi-Wan added, "By the way Anakin, good job with your match against Romulus."

"Thank you, Master."

Again, more silence followed. Obi-Wan felt perplexed. He could not understand why he seemed to be having so much trouble communicating with his padawan, right now. Could it be that he felt envious of Wo-Chen Puri's easy interactions with Anakin? He hoped not. "Well," he continued, "shall we get something to eat? It is time for supper and I'm starving."

"Yes, Master."

With a nod, Obi-Wan led his padawan toward the hall's double doors. As they passed into the wide corridor, he recalled the resentful expression on Romulus Wort's face. And the fact that it seemed to be directed toward Anakin. He wondered if today's match had initiated a rivalry between the two padawans. Anakin already seemed to be in the middle of one with Ferus Olin. He did not require another. Even worse, a rivalry of any kind could lead a path to the Dark Side.

End of Prologue

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pre-Code Hollywood Gallery



The following is a gallery featuring movie and publicity stills from the era known as "Pre-Code Hollywood":


"PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD" Gallery


Ann Dvorak:



Clara Bow:



Norma Shearer:



Adolphe Menjou and Gary Cooper:



Jean Harlow:



John Gilbert and unknown actress:



Elissa Landi and Joyzelle Joyner:



Warner Bros. dancers:



Joan Blondell and Warren William:



Clark Gable and Joan Crawford:

Monday, September 10, 2007

"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! 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. Off all the people to find herself alone with! Dammit! "Hello? B'Elanna?" Tom continued. "Voyager 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