DOTS#1: Barriers, Part 1

RATING

PG-13 for a few expletives; otherwise, you could probably read this one to your grandmother—if she likes Voyager.

SUMMARY

The first of a series of canon-consistent back-stories for Tom and B’Elanna. Tom Paris has broken through two crucial barriers: Warp 10 and B’Elanna Torres’s contempt. But will their budding friendship survive Tom’s secret mission to uncover the Kazon spy?

TIMELINE

Post “Threshold” through “Investigations”

CODES

P/T, lots of everyone else

SPOILERS

“Threshold,” “Meld,” “Dreadnought,” “Lifesigns,” “Investigations”

DISCLAIMER

All of these characters, the ship they live on, their enemies, even the games they play are the property of Paramount Pictures, a company I would like to personally thank for hiring Scott Bakula for Series V. If they’d hire me, I wouldn’t have to write for free. This story is a speculative expansion of plotlines and dialogue created by the staff writers for Voyager. It is not my intention to take credit for their work.

DEDICATION

To my new Collective. My artistic distinctiveness had been added to your own. Especially to BR and Liz, my Beta Babes. I promise never to call you that again.

Text Download: CTDbarriers


Tom Paris felt like a new man. And in a way, he was. He’d just been through a most remarkable few days, during which he had made an historic test flight, proven a long-held law of physics to be untrue, and added his name to the likes of Orville Wright, Neil Armstrong, and Zephram Cochrane. More remarkable, he’d died, been reborn as a new kind of human being, and had his entire genome resequenced to bring him back to his “normal” self. Even in the Delta Quadrant, this was a week for the books.

 

In the face of such remarkable experiences, he’d also developed a new outlook on his life aboard Voyager. Tom Paris, the perennial underachiever, had become Tom Paris, courageous record-setter. Maybe this whole crazy incident was a new beginning for him. At least that’s how he was deciding to look at it.

He’d spent three days confined to sickbay before the doctor could be satisfied that he was recovered from the huge trauma his body had undergone. Now, on his way back to his quarters, he couldn’t help but replay it all in his head. If this was the first day of his new life, he had a lot of things to think about. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn’t even hear the woman running up behind him.

“Hey, Paris!” He felt a hand on his arm, and turned to see B’Elanna Torres, a little out of breath from her sprint to catch up with him. “So, Hero, are you too important to speak to your friends now? I’ve been calling you since you got off the turbolift!”

Tom was embarrassed. It was bad enough that everyone had made such a big fuss about his breaking the transwarp threshold. Quickly his history-making flight became minor news, however, in comparison with the physical transformation he had endured soon after. Plus, he couldn’t help but wonder what his shipmates had learned about his little side trip with Captain Janeway.  The captain had immediately classified some of the more ‘personal’ details of their evolutionary excursion, but Voyager was a small ship, and everyone seemed to hear everything—eventually. He decided in the moment to say nothing and hope for the best. “Torres, sorry. I didn’t hear you. I guess I just have a lot on my mind.”

Yeah, she thought. I guess so. As they started walking down the corridor toward Tom’s quarters, B’Elanna’s tone softened. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. After what happened to you…well, it was frightening to watch. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through.”

Tom was touched. Torres had never seemed like the compassionate type to him before. Yet he could remember the look on her face when he’d collapsed in the mess hall after his body had started to break down; the way she practically carried him to sickbay herself, and her hand brushing the hair out of his eyes as he lay there dying. He’d seen another side of her that day. A side he hadn’t remembered until now. “Yeah, well, the Doc says I’m fine. I have to take it easy for a few days, but I should be my old self in no time.”

“Too bad,” she said sarcastically. Then her voice moderated. “I was kind of getting to like your ‘new’ self.”

Wow. Where was this coming from? Paris had spent more than a little time with the half-Klingon chief engineer in the past few months, first trapped together in a Vidiian prison, then sharing meals with Harry Kim, and—most recently—collaborating on the Warp 10 project. He had even saved her butt a few times, including flying a dangerous rescue mission when she’d been kidnapped by a robotic race she’d been trying to help. During that time, their relationship had grown from mutual suspicion, to grudging respect, to full-fledged tolerance. So maybe—in B’Elanna’s eyes—the transformation to the ‘new’ Tom Paris had actually begun before the test flight. He hadn’t really considered that, and the thought made him smile.

They reached the door to his quarters before he could think of something to say, and Tom was surprised when B’Elanna followed him in as if that’s where she’d been heading. “Do you want a cup of coffee?” he offered, trying to be a cordial host now that she was standing in his cabin.

She couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t know; the last time I had coffee with you, you ended up passed out on the floor.”

Tom smiled. “Well, at least you’ll be here to rescue me again.” He replicated two cups and handed her one as they took seats at opposite ends of his couch. “Incidentally, B’Elanna, I never did get a chance to thank you for that. Getting me to sickbay so fast, I mean. I owe you one.”

“Yeah, for all the good it did,” she said softly. “I felt pretty helpless, just watching you lying there—not being able to do anything.” Suddenly Torres got a strange look on her face. Paris watched her wrestle with what she was about to say before she finally just blurted it out. “You know, Tom, I heard what you said about me—when you thought you were dying. That I don’t cry. That you don’t trust people who don’t cry. Did you mean that?”

How could she have known? He didn’t remember seeing her in sickbay, and surely neither Kes nor the Doctor would have repeated it. “I was scared, B’Elanna. I was saying all kinds of crazy things.”

She couldn’t let it go that easily. “Tom, did you mean it?”

“Are you asking if I trust you?” Paris paused and looked down into his coffee cup before he answered. “Can I trust you?”

This was a new twist. B’Elanna had never considered that Tom Paris—of all people—might be afraid to trust her. And why was it even an issue? Still, she wanted to know. “Have I ever given you any reason to think you can’t?”

Tom searched for a smart-assed answer. None came. “No.” For some reason, though, he didn’t want to just drop it. “But I’ve wondered sometimes if you would ever look at me as anything other than the drunk you met in the Maquis. I guess I never thought you would ever let yourself trust me.”

B’Elanna began to squirm in her seat. So, this conversation was goingthere. “Paris—”

He cut her off before she could answer. “Torres, how about we make a deal right now: trust me until I give you a reason why you shouldn’t. And I’ll do the same. Who knows, maybe we’ll surprise each other.”

A year ago, she would have been sure that this was some kind of line or angle he was trying to work. But a year ago she’d never have been sitting alone in his quarters, sharing a cup of coffee. She’d come to see another side of this ‘arrogant, self-absorbed pig.’ Working together so closely had taught her a lot about this man she had written off. As a pilot he was as good as his reputation; and for someone who claimed to be a so-so engineer, he had been the one to finally solve the nacelle separation problem that had been frustrating their transwarp test flights. She knew now that there was more to Tom Paris than met the eye.

She’d been flattered, but a little suspicious when Harry asked her to work with them on the transwarp project. Since no one—including the captain—thought their idea would work, the men had been free to create their own team for this improbable pet project. At first she figured they just needed her engineering skills to make the whole thing fly. Harry Kim was her friend, though, and she trusted his motives. Plus, the prospect of being a part of a history-making mission like this had been too tempting to resist, particularly one that might ultimately show them a way home.

And, while she already knew she had a good personal and professional chemistry with Harry, she was amazed at how much better they both were when Paris was added to the mix. When they were working together, the three of them, there was a kind of synergy, a coming together of like minds. Each filled in the gaps in the others’ knowledge, and they seemed to spark a kind of inspiration they lacked individually. She was surprised that it had actually been…fun. And they had done it: proven a theoretical impossibility to be possible. Okay, so it hadn’t turned out exactly like they planned, but still, they had done it. Together.

Now Tom was asking her for some reassurance that her opinion of him had changed, that she saw him as a person she could trust. Against all her better instincts, Torres knew how she would answer. “Deal,” she said firmly, then downed the last of her coffee. “I’ve gotta go,” she said as she stood and walked to the door.

But there was something Tom wanted to know before she left. “B’Elanna,” he called out after her. “Did you mean it?” She was confused, and he could tell. “When you caught up with me in the corridor, you said you were my friend. Did you mean it?”

She barely remembered blurting that out. “Yeah. I guess I did.” She smiled, and paused for a minute before turning back for the door. “Later, Paris,” she called out over her shoulder.

“Later, Torres,” he called back to her as she left. In the span of seven days, Tom Paris had disproven two theoretical impossibilities: the Warp 10 barrier could be broken, and B’Elanna Torres could come to think of herself as his friend. He laughed. Maybe anything was possible.

~*~*~*~*~

Kathryn Janeway had a headache. Sitting in her ready room, nursing her fourth cup of coffee, she stared down at the PADD in her hand and listened to her pulse pound out a steady rhythm in her temples. While her body had recently been on an unbelievably wild ride, she suspected the report she’d just read had as much to do with her pain as her recovering metabolism.

When the door sounded, she was tempted not to answer. ‘Isn’t it someone else’s day to be captain?’ she asked herself rhetorically. “Come in,” she said instead.

Normally she was happy to see Tuvok. Even after a year in the Delta Quadrant, she still thought of home when she saw her old friend, the only surviving senior officer from her ‘I-thought-they-were-exciting-but-what-did-I-know?’ pre-Voyager command days. Today, though, she expected that the Vulcan was coming to drive home the point his classified report had tried to make. She wasn’t in the mood. “Yes, Lieutenant?” she said.

“Captain, I was wondering if you have had a chance to read my recommendations.” Well, she couldn’t lie.

“I have.” She acknowledged. “And I can’t say I like what you’re proposing.” Janeway stood and walked to her desk before turning back to him. “I don’t like lying to my senior officers. I particularly hate the thought of keeping this from Commander Chakotay.”

Tuvok knew he had to choose his words carefully. While Captain Janeway was admittedly a friend, and while he knew she considered him her most trusted advisor, her decision to name the Maquis captain as her first officer had been deliberate. There had been no subterfuge on her part, and he suspected she would allow none from him.

Yet, this matter was of the utmost importance, for Tuvok had uncovered a trail of secret subspace transmissions from someone onboard to one of their most deadly enemies: the Kazon-Nistrim.Voyager had a spy among them, or so it seemed, and there was hard evidence of a security breach—a breach Tuvok was certain would lead back to one of the former Maquis.

Not that he intended to implicate Chakotay. To even suggest that the first officer was in any way aware of or involved in the treason would be the best way to lose this particular battle with his captain’s sensibilities. Logic dictated he come up with a more palatable excuse for keeping his plan a secret. “I admit, Captain, that there is some risk in offending the commander once our diversion is unveiled, but I believe we would be placing him in an untenable position to ask him to investigate his former colleagues. Additionally, I believe our plan requires a substantial amount of dramatic tension to be credible. We would risk detection if any member of the crew felt that what we are about to do was staged in any way.”

Janeway was impressed at the argument Tuvok had chosen. “So you’re saying we don’t know if the commander is a good enough actor to fake it?”

Tuvok raised an eyebrow. “I am not a drama critic. But I do believe the performance we are about to unveil will be more convincing if only one of its players is aware of our plan.”

That led Janeway to another uncomfortable realization. “You know, Tuvok, that other ‘player’ literally killed himself to reclaim his reputation on this ship. What you’re suggesting would ask him to undo everything he’s worked for, every relationship he’s been able to build. I have some serious reservations about requiring any member of this crew to make that kind of sacrifice.”

Again, Tuvok had anticipated her hesitation and prepared a thoroughly logical response. “His troubled past is what makes him the perfect ‘actor’ for this role. And, if we are successful, I can think of no better way to reclaim one’s reputation than to have single-handedly uncovered our Kazon spy.”

Unassailable Vulcan logic. But there were some conditions Janeway knew she’d have to set just to be able to live with herself. “Alright, Tuvok. But I’m making this assignment strictly voluntary. If he turns us down, we’ll have to come up with another plan. Understood?”

A tentative victory, but a victory nonetheless. “Understood, Captain. Shall I ask the lieutenant to join us?”

“No,” Janeway instructed. “We’d be too conspicuous. I’ll speak with him about this privately tomorrow morning.” Once again the throbbing in her temples picked up in tempo with her quickening pulse. “Now, if you’ll excuse me Tuvok, I’ll be in sickbay. I need to see if the Doctor can do anything about this headache.”

On the short trip to Deck 5, Janeway remembered the night Tom had begged her to let him make the Warp 10 flight. Obsessed with the early and unfulfilled promise he’d shown as a child, Paris was haunted by the voices of his schoolmates. Of his demanding and hard-to-please father. And of the potential he’d never found a way to achieve. “Some day Tom Paris is going to do something important,” they had predicted. And, with her help, he had. Little did he know, he might get more than just one chance.

~*~*~*~*~

“Paris to Torres.”

She rolled over toward the nightstand at the side of her bed and searched for her combadge. “Torres here. What do you want?!” She hated being woken up from a deep sleep. This had better be good.

“It’s Friday, 2100 hours. Now get your butt up here! Paris out.”

B’Elanna flopped back down on the bed and sighed. She’d just gotten off a double shift in engineering and was exhausted. The last thing she wanted to do was go shoot pool with Tom Paris and his band of Sandrine’s misfits. But, a few weeks after they’d started working together on the transwarp project, she, Harry, and Tom had made a standing date: every Friday night no matter what, they’d meet in the Holodeck for an evening ‘out.’ Tom said it was ‘loser insurance’; that anyone without a date on a Friday night was a loser, so they’d never be losers since they would never be left sitting home alone. This seventh-grade logic had made sense to her when Paris first proposed it—though she suspected it was because of the synthehol she’d been drinking at the time.

“Computer, lights to 60%.” Even dimmed, the sudden illumination stung her eyes. B’Elanna staggered to her wardrobe and pulled out the first thing she could find, a teal blue jumpsuit that laced up the front. She slipped on a pair of comfortable shoes, barely bothering to check if they matched, then ran a brush through her hair. Damn Tom Paris, she thought as she went back for her combadge. Why couldn’t he just let her sleep?

She was surprised when the holodeck doors opened. This wasn’t Marseilles. It looked like…actually, she didn’t know what it looked like. The ground was covered with little hunks of wood, millions of tiny, fragrant chips scattered as far as she could see. Directly in front of her were little shacks with open fronts, each decorated with dozens of blinking lights, stuffed animals, and toys of all shapes and sizes. In the distance, she could see huge machines—also covered in lights—that seemed to have no purpose but to move the human body in one direction or another. She watched for a moment as people walked into these devices—then she heard screaming. Moments later, the same people would emerge, laughing, and queuing up to do it again. What was this place?

“B’Elanna!” Tom was calling to her from one of the little booths a few meters away. “Look what I won for you.”

He was carrying a small stuffed animal, which she immediately recognized as a targ. She could tell from his expression that her new friend was very pleased with himself. “Paris, I thought we were shooting pool. And where’s Harry?”

Tom’s expression fell slightly, but he pretended not to care. “Harry has a real date tonight, believe it or not, so it’s just you and me. Besides, I’ve been working on this carnival program for weeks and I was dying to test it out. Come on. I’ll show you around.” Before she could say anything, he grabbed her hand and pulled her down the midway. “These are games of chance, though I’ll tell you now: they’re all rigged. There’s no way to win.”

“Then how did you end up with your little friend there?” she asked, indicating the stuffed targ now tucked under Tom’s arm.

“Oh, well, I guess I just got lucky. You know, they need to let someone win every now and then to lure in the suckers. It has to at least look like you’ve got a shot at a prize.” Still holding her hand, Tom dragged her further down the path until they were just in front of the huge machines. All around her, B’Elanna could hear the screams of people being twirled, flipped, or tossed by one contraption or the next. She wondered if it were some kind of bizarre torture ritual.

“Do you want to go on the rides?” he asked her, his expression pleading with her to say yes.

“Rides? Is that what you call them? What are they for?” She was on the verge of killing Paris’s fun, she could tell, yet he didn’t seem to want to surrender his enthusiasm just yet.

“They subject your body to various sensations, G forces mostly, and it causes a huge adrenaline rush. It’s really fun, actually.” Typical pilot, she thought, enjoying having his body thrown around just for the fun of it. She never saw the point. B’Elanna flashed back to her super G training at Starfleet Academy. It had done little more than make her nauseous. The thought of volunteering to undergo the same forces for amusement seemed silly. And potentially embarrassing. Of course, Paris wasn’t likely to take no for an answer. “You’re not afraid are you?”

She knew what he was doing: goading her on, trying to shame her into taking up his challenge. Unfortunately, it was an effective way to motivate a half-Klingon. She couldn’t let Tom Paris think she was scared of a simple carnival ride. “Okay, Paris, out of my way. But I get to pick which one.” This time she was pulling him by the hand.

She stopped in front of something called “The Octopus,” a relatively tame looking apparatus with eight cars extended from a center pivot by long, tentacle-like arms. She’d seen this machine in action a few minutes earlier and knew it didn’t turn upside down like some of the others. She could tolerate spinning in a circle for a few minutes. Tom helped her up into the car, smiling the whole time. “What’s so funny?” she asked him as she sat down a comfortable distance from her grinning friend.

“Oh, nothing,” he said with feigned innocence. “You just picked a great ‘date’ ride.”

What the hell did that mean, she wondered?

As soon as they took off, B’Elanna had her answer. The centrifugal force of the spinning car not only disoriented her—it repeatedly threw her into Paris’s lap. No matter how hard she fought to stay to her side of the seat, she was pushed against him time and again. Finally she just surrendered, and she could hear Tom laughing in her ear. She didn’t even notice when his arm slipped from the seatback onto her shoulder. She was too busy plotting her revenge.

By the time they reached the ground she was wide-awake and more than a little dizzy. “I hope you enjoyed that, Paris,” she spat at him over her shoulder. Tom just kept smiling.

“You picked the ride, Torres,” he said as he laughed at her. She took a step and almost fell. “Hey,” he said, taking her arm. “Are you okay?”

Her instinct was to pull away, but she thought letting him catch her was less embarrassing than letting him pick her up off the ground. “Yeah,” she said, leaning against him. “I just haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast, plus all that spinning…”

He put his arm around her shoulder to steady her as they walked. “We can fix that,” he said as he headed toward a concession stand. “Dinner’s on me. We’ve got hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream, or—actually, I know what would hit the spot right about now.” He helped her to a picnic bench, then headed off without her. “I know the perfect thing,” he said as he turned away. “Wait right here.”

The world was gradually beginning to rotate at a normal pace, or so it seemed to B’Elanna’s middle ear. How strange was it, she wondered, to be on a ship in space (where she should have been weightless), augmented with artificial gravity (to make it feel like they were planetside), only to be on a holodeck riding a photonic carnival ride designed to throw off her body’s own inertial dampeners. Weird.

As she regained her balance, she also took a moment to look around. The level of detail in the program was amazing, she had to admit. From where B’Elanna sat, she could see the ocean off to her right, and the lights of a ship far out to sea. So this was more than just a—what had Tom called it?—a carnival. The sky above them was full of stars, and Paris had even gone to the trouble of making them disappear occasionally behind traces of wispy clouds. From the constellations, she could tell they were on Earth, though that had been obvious from the human holocharacters and the setting. She couldn’t place the time period, though. The care and attention he’d put into this showed a depth of programming skill she hadn’t known Paris possessed. She was officially impressed.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Tom said as he sat down across from her.

“Excuse me?” She wasn’t familiar with that expression.

“A penny is an old Earth currency. I was offering to pay you to tell me what you’re thinking.” As he spoke, Tom emptied a tray filled with paper containers. On the plates were triangles of bread covered with some kind of sauce, and there was a huge cup overflowing with stringy yellow things. It smelled wonderful, even if it looked odd.

“Well I was thinking that this is a pretty amazing program,” she said sincerely. “Of course, now I’m thinking you’re crazy if you expect me to eat this.” She indicated the plate in front of her. “What is it?”

Tom smiled. “Pizza. My absolute favorite food. And ‘French fries,’ potato strips deep-fried in hot oil, then smothered in salt. Try it.” He lifted his own slice of pizza and bit off the end. The look on his face was pure ecstasy. “It’s not as good as you can get in Chicago, but for replicated Delta Quadrant carnival pizza, it’s not bad.”

B’Elanna mimicked his grip on the crust and took a bite. She was amazed to discover that something that looked so unappetizing could taste so good. “Pizza, huh? It’s delicious.” This Paris was full of surprises.

They spent the next half-hour sharing French fries, gossiping about their crewmates, and making plans for additions to the program. Tom told her about something called a ‘fun house,’ and they laughed, imagining Harry trying to find his way out of a hall of mirrors. Tom also offered to add some less-disorienting rides, specifically something called a Ferris Wheel.

When they finished their meal, Tom led B’Elanna down the steps onto the beach, where they sat on the sand for another forty minutes. This time the conversation was focused on the sea and the sky. B’Elanna mentioned the long nights she spent on the roof of her Academy dorm, just staring off into these same stars, trying to figure out why she couldn’t seem to fit in no matter how hard she tried. Tom talked about wanting to be a sailor, of his father’s insistence that he join Starfleet instead, and the promise he’d made to himself to return to the ocean one day.

They’d been so engrossed in their conversation that the warning chirp from Tom’s combadge came as a total surprise. Their time was just about up. “I guess we should go,” he said reluctantly before standing up. He took B’Elanna’s hands and pulled her off the sand. As she stepped forward, her foot landed on a seashell, and she stumbled into his arms. He found himself holding her for a moment, and she didn’t pull away.

Suddenly, two people who had been so thoroughly comfortable in each other’s company only moments before now felt incredibly awkward. “Are you okay?” Tom asked as he helped her find her footing.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just stepped on something…” She brushed the sand off of her jumpsuit and searched for her shoes. Suddenly neither of them could think of a single thing to say.

Tom called for the computer to display the exit, and waited until they were in the corridor to deactivate the program. “I’ll walk you home,” he said a little timidly, relieved when she didn’t object.

The trip to Deck 9 was filled with meaningless small talk. “I wonder how Harry’s date went.” Tom was trying to think of something—anything—to say.

“Yeah.” B’Elanna was curious, too. “He misses Libby a lot. I hope he finds someone to help him get over her. It’s going to be a long, lonely trip home if he doesn’t.” She didn’t look at Tom as she spoke.

Suddenly, Paris realized there was something he wanted to know about Harry’s potential love life. “Uh, B’Elanna, have you thought about…you know, uh, you and Harry. I mean, you guys really seem to hit it off and…”

“Me? And ‘Starfleet?’” B’Elanna laughed nervously. “I don’t think so. He’s like my baby brother. Besides, I can’t see myself getting involved with anyone right now.” She blurted it out without thinking, then suddenly felt the need to explain. “I mean, you know, I’m focusing on my engineering responsibilities, and I just don’t think I should have that kind of, um, distraction in my life at this point. You know?”

Tom wasn’t sure why this news suddenly felt like a kick in the gut. He’d been chasing Susan Nicoletti—unsuccessfully—for weeks; he wasn’t interested in Torres. Not in that way. She was his friend, his buddy, like Kes. Like Kes…

His mind instantly went back to another moment only a few months earlier. He was helping Kes run a shuttle simulation when she suddenly stumbled and fell into his arms. Almost immediately, he had begun to think that maybe there was more to his relationship with the Ocampan than just a close friendship. He’d practically convinced himself that he was in love with her. Just as those feelings were finally gone, the same exact thing had just happened with Torres, and he found his thoughts once again jumping past friendship to something more. What did it all mean?

And why was he so disappointed to hear her say she wasn’t looking for a relationship? How could that possibly matter to him? He pushed past his hurt feelings to answer her question. “Yeah. Me too, I think. Relationships are fine for people like Harry who need that kind of security. I like being a free agent, open to whatever comes my way.”

B’Elanna blanched at this last comment. Sure, Tom had a reputation as a skirt-chaser when he first came aboard, and she knew he had pursued several women, from Megan Delaney to Sue Nicoletti. But he didn’t really prefer that kind of superficial life, did he? Of course, the moment she asked herself the question, Torres wondered why she cared. Hadn’t she just said she wasn’t looking to get involved—with anyone, much less with Tom Paris? Still, why did it bother her so much?

They’d reached Deck 9, Section 12 before they knew it, and stopped just outside the door to B’Elanna’s quarters. “Well,” she said with a deep sigh.

“Well,” Tom answered in return. They stood there awkwardly for another few seconds before he continued. “I hope you don’t mind that we didn’t play pool tonight. You were a really good sport about the whole carnival thing.”

B’Elanna found her eyes moving from the wall, to the floor, to the ceiling; anywhere but to Tom’s face. “I had fun. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime. Um, maybe with Harry, too.”

“Maybe we could double-date,” Tom blurted out before he could think. He was relieved when B’Elanna didn’t seem turned off by the idea.

“That would be fun.” She punched the access code for her quarters and watched as the doors slid open. “Well, goodnight.” She started to take a step inside before Tom stopped her.

“B’Elanna!” She turned back to him, only to find herself face-to-face with the stuffed targ Tom had been carrying around absentmindedly all night. “You forgot this. I mean, I did win it for you, after all.” She took the ugly little creature from his hands and found the courage to look Paris in the eye for the first time since the beach. She was thrown by what she saw there. His expression was almost childlike, hopeful, and a little embarrassed. She smiled.

“Thanks, Paris.” She took her new ‘pet’ from his outstretched arm. “Pleasant dreams,” she said as she stepped inside, letting the doors close behind her.

“Pleasant dreams, Torres,” he replied to the closed doors. Somehow, tonight, he suspected they would be.

~*~*~*~*~

While Saturday was part of the traditional “weekend” on Earth, it was just another workday on the starship Voyager. So Tom was surprised to find himself pulled from the next day’s duty roster when he’d returned from his ‘date’ with B’Elanna. Instead, he found a message in his personal database telling him to report to sickbay at 0800 hours. He felt fine, and couldn’t help but wonder what this was about.

His confusion grew when he walked into the medical bay the following morning. Instead of the Emergency Medical Hologram, he found his captain sitting on a biobed, the physician nowhere to be found. “Captain, are you feeling alright? Where’s the doctor?”

Janeway motioned for him to sit on the bed across from her. “Computer,” she said. “Initiate security protocol, Janeway Delta 3.” Paris started to speak, but she indicated for him to wait. Only a second later, a forcefield surrounded the two beds. Finally, the captain could explain.

“It’s just a dampening field to keep our conversation from being picked up by the internal sensors. Sorry, Tom, but it’s important that no one hear what I’m about to say to you. Also, if anyone comes within five meters of the door, the field will disburse and the EMH will be activated. We’ll just say that we were both feeling a little run down, and we wanted to make sure there were no aftereffects from the doctor’s treatment. Understood?”

Paris’s head was spinning. “Understood, Captain. But what in the heck is going on?”

For the next fifteen minutes, Janeway carefully laid out Tuvok’s findings: someone was piggybacking a subspace message onto their normal energy emissions. While they couldn’t tell who was behind the encoded communications, it was clear that the intended recipients were the Kazon—and, most likely, Seska, a Cardassian spy who had infiltrated Chakotay’s Maquis cell before being pulled along with his crew into the Delta Quadrant. She had been caught providing stolen Federation technology to the Kazon before revealing her true identity and escaping to the enemy ship. Seska had also kidnapped and assaulted the commander, extracting a sample of his DNA. When they last saw her, she claimed she had used the sample to impregnate herself, and was now carrying the Chakotay’s child.

If Tuvok was correct, and a Voyager crewmember had been sending secret messages to the Kazon, all of their lives were in danger.

Paris was fascinated and disturbed by what he heard. But he still couldn’t figure out what it all had to do with him. “Tom, Lieutenant Tuvok thinks the only way we’ll uncover this spy is to make him think he has an ally. If he believes there’s someone else aboard—someone who chafes at Starfleet protocols, someone who hasn’t been above breaking the law on occasion—he might take that person into his confidence. And, even if we can’t lure the spy out into the open, if word reaches the Kazon that a senior officer with access to confidential strategic information has suddenly become disgruntled—maybe to the point of leaving Voyager—well, we think the opportunity to recruit that person might be too tempting for the Kazon to resist.”

Gee, Tom wondered, who could she be referring to? How many lawbreaking senior officers did Voyager have? Okay, well, three actually, but only one of them was sitting in sickbay getting a secret briefing from their commanding officer. “Captain, are you suggesting that I…?”

“Pretend the last year never happened? Yes. We both know the reputation you had before you came aboard this ship. Not just with the Starfleet crew, but with the Maquis. I also know how hard you’ve worked to turn that reputation around. And you’ve done it, Tom. You’re not the same man I met in Auckland. But right now the ‘old’ Tom Paris is in a unique position to help out this ship. Maybe even save the lives of everyone aboard. I know the incredible sacrifice I’d be asking you to make. But you’re our best chance to unmask this spy before too much more damage is done.” She paused a moment to let it all sink in.

“Who would know?” Tom asked. “That it was an act, that I wasn’t really…”

“Just the three of us. We can’t let anyone else in on Tuvok’s plan. We can’t risk being detected, and—frankly—we don’t know how many people are involved. It would be a ‘need to know’ mission only.”

Here was one giant cosmic irony, Tom thought. So sure was the captain that he could be trusted that she was asking him to exploit his reputation for being a liar to help her uncover the real traitor. But hewould have to lie: to all of his friends and, apparently, to his own first officer. “Does that include Commander Chakotay?”

Janeway sighed. “Yes. Everyone knows the two of you have had your…disagreements in the past. Tuvok feels it would be more convincing if Chakotay and the others don’t know that your bad behavior is just an act.”

Paris struggled to take it all in. Somehow, he knew that providing a credible performance was a flimsy reason to lie to the second in command. There had to be more to it than that, but he trusted the captain’s judgment and didn’t press the issue. Frankly he was more disturbed at the thought of lying to his friends—to Harry, Neelix, and Kes. To B’Elanna. They had helped him reclaim his reputation with both the Starfleet and Maquis crews. If he were to suddenly appear to betray the faith they had placed in him, he wasn’t sure he could live with that.

Yet, no one had done more to rescue Tom Paris than the woman sitting across from him now. He hated to think of what his life would be like if Janeway hadn’t brought him along on this mission. He owed her everything. How could he refuse her such an important request?

She seemed to sense his hesitation. “I know what I’m asking of you, Tom. And I won’t order you to do it. But you’re the only person who can pull this off. Besides, if we’re successful, everyone will ultimately know it was all an act, and that you did it to protect them. What better way to prove to everyone who Tom Paris really is?”

Despite himself, Tom knew he would do as he’d been asked. “Alright. So what do I have to do?”

Janeway smiled. Not that she’d doubted that Paris would go along with her plan. Still, she was relieved to find out he was truly worthy of the faith she had just placed in him. “Actually, Tom, there are parts of this you might enjoy…”

~*~*~*~*~

While the big-picture part of the plan had been Tuvok’s, Tom was left to improvise his own role in the drama that was about to unfold. His only instruction: make it believable. Whatever it said about him, it wasn’t too hard for Tom Paris to think of ways to screw up. The skill was in choosing his targets. And the most obvious had a bull’s-eye in the form of a tattoo painted on his forehead.

But it couldn’t be a direct assault, Tom knew. And he’d have to start small. The idea came to him instantly. “Paris to Kim,” he called from his quarters. It only took Harry a moment to respond. “I’m bored,” Tom said to his friend over the comlink, “How about a few games of pool at Sandrine’s?”

Just like that it had begun.

Tom didn’t need Gaunt Gary or any other Sandrine’s pool hustler to show him how to run a con. Scamming Academy cadets out of their credits had been one of his favorite pastimes after getting booted out of Starfleet, so much so that the Marseilles campus had issued an alert to its students about the risks of sampling the ‘local color.’ No, Paris was a pro. What he didn’t like was the patsy he was forced to choose for this particular hustle.

Harry Kim was Tom’s best friend, and had been since the day they stepped foot on Voyager a year earlier. This squeaky-clean ensign, fresh from graduation, had actually stuck his neck out—put his own reputation at risk—to become Tom’s friend, even though—at the time, Kim was a newly-installed bridge officer and Paris a rank-less Starfleet ‘observer.’ Always thrown by unexpected acts of kindness, Tom had made a promise to himself very early in their adventure: to try and live up to the faith Harry Kim had placed in him. And, up until now, he thought he’d done a decent job. Other than the occasional exaggeration, he had never even lied to Harry. He was very careful that this not be the first time.

And it wasn’t exactly a lie. But, letting Harry win at pool would be only the first step. He’d have to lure him into a false sense of security, then suggest ‘making it a little more interesting’ with a wager. This wouldn’t be the standard-issue one-on-one replicator ration pool hustle, though. That was too small, and—frankly—too common on Voyager already. No, he would invite his best friend and the rest of the crowd into a more tempting scheme: a daily numbers game to guess the ship’s radiogenic particle density. Tom would act as the ‘house,’ tracking the rations wagered, paying out any winners, and—of course—keeping a small percentage as his ‘fee.’ As was true for time eternal, the lure of a big jackpot (and the freedom from Neelix’s cooking that the extra rations would mean) tempted even his most by-the-book colleagues to join the game. It was just a little harmless fun, right?

After a few days of collecting his ‘commission’ only to have no winner in the sweepstakes, Tom was enjoying one of the only upsides to his new mission: extra replicator rations. A small, though agreeable, reward for ruining his reputation and risking his life. After all, wasn’t a condemned man entitled to a last meal? Or two? Of course, the downside was right on its tail: Harry and the other suckers took only a few days to realize that the only one winning in this little scheme was Tom.

He hadn’t fixed the game, any of the players might have actually won, but truth was he didn’t need to. The odds of someone making the right guess were infinitesimal; it was surprising the engineers in the bunch hadn’t figured that out on their own. Still, it benefited Tom’s plan that his victims were now turning on him. It wouldn’t be long, he knew, before someone ratted him out. In fact, come Friday morning, Paris was pretty sure this would be the night.

He wouldn’t have to make an excuse to be in Sandrine’s. It was ‘date night,’ and everyone knew the Three Musketeers would be there promptly at 2100 hours. Thinking of their standing date made him remember something else: B’Elanna would be a witness to his undoing. The thought made him uncomfortable, but he wasn’t sure why.

It had been a week since their ‘date’ at the carnival, the night before he was given this undercover mission by Captain Janeway. He’d only seen Torres twice since then: once at a senior staff briefing, and later at lunch with Harry. It had been a stressful week in engineering, Tom knew. Lon Suder, one of Chakotay’s Maquis crew, had murdered another crewman for no real reason. Not only had B’Elanna been the one to find the body, she was now faced with the knowledge that one of her staff had committed such a horrendous crime. On top of everything, there were suddenly mysterious and unexplained problems with several key engine systems.

Tom also knew B’Elanna had been pulling a lot of double-shifts, and was probably really looking forward to a night off with her friends. But for some reason, he worried that he’d back out of the plan if she were there. For a few minutes, he considered telling Tuvok to keep her busy and out of Sandrine’s.

The captain had arranged for a secure com channel that the three could use for necessary communication about their plan. Paris knew it was for emergencies only, but he also knew he could make specific requests that would be understood as necessary parts of his mission. He pulled out the encoded PADD and entered a four-word message to Tuvok: “Keep Torres busy tonight.”

As he looked at what he had written, however, he realized that he couldn’t go through with it. If he were going to keep his promise to Captain Janeway, he couldn’t be selective about who he alienated. He cleared the message without sending it and re-encrypted the PADD, shoving it under his mattress before heading to Holodeck 2. Tonight his fall from grace would officially begin.

As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. The warp core was off line—again—and Torres wouldn’t be leaving engineering anytime soon.

At this rate, it would be quicker to walk to the Alpha Quadrant, or so it seemed to Voyager’s chief engineer. Her once brand-spanking-new ship was having a difficult adolescence. Just over a year into their trip back, the unexplained systems failures were becoming a daily occurrence. Were the gods trying to sabotage Voyager’s chances of getting home?

In actuality, while sabotage was at the heart of their problems, the gods had nothing to do with it. B’Elanna couldn’t know that one of her oldest friends from the Maquis, Michael Jonas, a man who now stood at her side ‘helping’ to diagnose the latest system failure, was himself the cause of her troubles.

She also couldn’t know that, five decks above her, one of her newest friends was about to put that friendship, his reputation, and his life on the line to uncover the traitor she now stood next to.

As Tom suspected, his numbers game was about to come to a quick conclusion. And, just like most of the past week, there would be no winners tonight.

Chakotay’s sudden appearance and blanket reprimand were a shock to everyone except Tom. When the first officer confiscated the ration pot, the groans and death glares shot at Paris were only the first of the evening’s humiliations. “Thanks a lot!” Harry growled at him. Tom tried hard to look like he didn’t care.

“You’re on report,” Chakotay warned. The commander was clearly furious at catching Paris in the act, yet Tom marveled at the man’s ability to keep that fury in check. During their Maquis days, Chakotay would have decked him for such insubordination without giving it a second thought. But they were playing under Starfleet rules now, and the senior officer was the model of restraint. And, while much of the crew had marveled at Paris’s own transformation, Tom knew that Chakotay had come just as far from being the angry Maquis captain who had first recruited him to the rebellion. Paris had really begun to respect the first officer. Which made what he was about to do even harder.

“Now there’s a tough job,” Tom said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Filling out reports. But somebody’s got to do it…” He could barely believe it when Chakotay just turned and walked away.

As he stood alone in Sandrine’s Tom Paris couldn’t help but think about the ironies of his life: a week ago he was a hero enjoying a carefree night with B’Elanna. Seven days later he was on report, had gotten his best friend in trouble, and had verbally kneecapped an officer whose respect he had come to want almost as badly as the captain’s. Something about it seemed very unfair.

He walked to the bar and ordered a drink, which—for the first time in quite a while—he really needed. As he stood with his back to the room, Paris felt a hand run up his back and slip gently around his neck. The characteristic lack of body heat told him it was Ricky, his holographic lover and a recurring feature of all of Tom’s holoprograms. At least until recently.

Ricky was Tom’s type: a slender brunette with big eyes, smart as a whip and with a sharp and ironic sense of humor. He had based her on a real woman, Rochelle Lauer, who had summarily rejected him during his first semester in Marseilles. But the holographic Ricky never rejected him; in fact, she spent most of her time draped around his neck, ready to provide kisses and affirmation at Tom’s whim. It had been no surprise to anyone that a letch like Paris would have to program a woman willing to be seen with him.

But as Tom made real friends on Voyager, Ricky had become a bit of an embarrassment. These days, it was rare for Tom to activate her subroutine. And since the institution of ‘date night,’ she seemed to be permanently relegated to the holographic database. But Paris had reactivated her the night his numbers scheme started. He wasn’t sure why, but perhaps he sensed that his flesh and blood friends might become scarce once his self-destruction began.

Tonight, however, she was just another reminder that the ‘old’ Tom Paris had risen from the dead, and he’d been reminded enough already for one evening. Without looking at his holographic girlfriend, Tom downed his drink, turned, and headed for the doors.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay needed to work off some steam. The past six days had been a challenge to his composure and there was nothing like a game of hoverball to put a constructive spin on his aggression.

B’Elanna owed him a rematch. It had been several weeks since their last game; he had been losing 19-7 when Seska and the Kazon interrupted their fun. Tonight, however, he was winning 7-4.

“Your game improves when you’re mad,” she said to him as they rested between sets. “What’s bothering you?”

He hesitated to answer her. One of the biggest downsides to beingVoyager’s first officer was the inability to have an honest conversation about another crewman with his best friend. Chakotay was B’Elanna’s senior officer, and talking about private personnel matters—particularly about another member of the senior staff—was off limits.

“Is this about what happened with Tom Paris?” she asked. “I heard you two had an argument in Sandrine’s last Friday night.”

Of course, another downside to being aboard Voyager was the inevitable rumor mill on a small ship trapped so far from home. “I can’t talk about it B’Elanna,” he said honestly. “Crew discipline is confidential.”

She picked up a towel from her gym bag and ran it over her face and neck. “You’ve got to be kidding; there must have been twenty crewmen in there who saw the whole thing. Anyway, what’s the big deal about someone gambling in Sandrine’s; half the crew owes the other half replicator rations. If it isn’t about who wins at pool, then it’s who’s dating who. This crew will bet on anything. You know that.”

He couldn’t believe B’Elanna was defending Tom Paris. “Personal one-on-one wagers are one thing. Having a senior officer running a gambling ring and skimming off the profits is something else.”

B’Elanna hadn’t realized. What the hell was Paris thinking? Just when he’d finally seemed to get his life back on track, why would he do something so stupid? Still, she thought she’d gotten to know Tom recently, and this just didn’t make sense. “Well, there’s got to be something more to this,” she said. “It just doesn’t sound like Tom.”

Her friend was agitated. “Well, you didn’t know him the way I did back in the Maquis. Sure, he’s been on good behavior this past year, but there’s a dark side to him, B’Elanna.” Chakotay was crossing a line, but he needed to talk this through with someone he trusted. “I wonder if this whole Warp 10 experience hasn’t made him a little cocky, complacent. Maybe he thinks he’s a big hero now and he doesn’t have to try anymore. I don’t know.”

The first officer couldn’t forget the denigrating way the lieutenant had spoken to him after being put on report. Paris was in Janeway’s good graces now, Chakotay knew. Maybe this was some kind of power play. But, for the first time since Tom had saved his life a year before, Chakotay flashed back to the anger and disgust he’d once felt for the man.

Unlike that time, however, Chakotay knew he’d have to reach out to Paris, help him find a way back to the good officer he’d become. Not only was it his duty as the man’s commander, it was an obligation to the rest of the crew: Voyager needed Tom’s skill as a pilot.

Even though she found Chakotay’s charges damning, B’Elanna still believed there had to be something more going on. Besides, she’d made a promise to trust Tom Paris, and she wanted very much to keep it. “You know,” she said, formulating an idea as she spoke, “I could talk to him; find out what’s going on. If you’d like me to.”

Chakotay looked at her quizzically. “Why do you think he’d confide in you?”

She was uncomfortable with what she was about to admit, considering her best friend’s history with the unpredictable pilot. “I’ve gotten to know him pretty well,” she allowed. “He and Harry and I have been spending a lot of time together. I think he might tell me if something is bothering him.”

Chakotay took a moment before he answered. “B’Elanna, I know I’ve said this to you before, but I think you should keep your distance from him. He’s a lose cannon, and I don’t want to see you getting hurt.”

Funny, she thought, I remember getting this same lecture in the Maquis almost three years ago. ‘Stay away from Tom Paris.’ “We’re just friends, Chakotay. I have no intention of getting involved with him or anyone else on this ship.” She meant that, didn’t she? “Now put down that towel and let me finish beating you.”

He smiled. “You’ll have to catch up to me first.”

~*~*~*~*~

Ever since her conversation with Chakotay, B’Elanna had been thinking about Tom Paris. During those two weeks, she’d only caught a few meals together with him and Harry Kim, and she could sense an unusual tension between the men. She figured Harry was still mad about losing so many rations when their wager had been discovered, but she never heard them talk about it.

When they were together, just the three of them, B’Elanna was sure the incident between Tom and Chakotay had been just a fluke. Tom was every bit the ‘new man’ she had come to consider a friend. He did seem a little down, maybe a bit distant, but he was definitely not agitated or angry.

But when they were in a crowd, he turned into another person: sullen, distant, and his sarcasm took on darker overtones. She wondered if he was embarrassed at getting publicly dressed down in front of his shipmates; or maybe he felt guilty about getting them all into trouble.

Still, if she were going to get him to open up to her, she’d have to just ignore this little duality she’d found in Paris recently. Besides, it was Friday night—and this week she’d be off duty in time for their ‘date.’ She timed her lunch break around Tom and Harry’s and headed to the mess hall to make plans for the evening. Just the thought made her smile as she rode the turbolift to Deck 2.

Her mood was broken when the doors to the mess hall opened, revealing Tom at a table for two in the corner with Susan Nicoletti, and Harry nowhere in sight. It took B’Elanna a moment to realize she was staring at them, her mouth open as if in the middle of a sentence. Paris was leaning over the table with that look in his eyes—a look she’d once seen him give just about every woman onboard. Except her. It was a feral look—raw appetite—and for a change Nicoletti seemed to be enjoying it.

“B’Elanna.” She spun around, startled, at the sound of her name. “I guess it’s just the two of us.”

Harry couldn’t hide the mixture of disappointment and anger in his voice as he watched his best friend ignore them. “Tom seems to be avoiding me these days. Or maybe I’m avoiding him. Whatever.” His tone softened as he looked back at Torres. “Let’s see what’s for lunch.”

After they’d gotten their trays and sat down—on the far side of the room from their normal lunch partner—Harry took the opportunity to confide something in B’Elanna he would never have said to anyone else. “Sometimes I think I don’t know Tom anymore.” There was real pain in her friend’s eyes. “I’ve been thinking…this all started after the Warp 10 trip. Maybe the Doc wasn’t really able to fix all the damage it did to him.”

B’Elanna didn’t buy it. She’d spent a lot of time with Tom right after he was released from sickbay, and he not only seemed back to normal, he was even a little happier, more comfortable in his own skin. Like some weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Whatever was going on with Tom Paris, she doubted the transwarp experiment had anything to do with it.

“He’s just been under a lot of stress lately,” she said to Harry, trying to reassure herself, too. “And I bet he feels bad for getting you in trouble with Chakotay. Give it time.”

She decided to distract Harry from his worries and changed the subject. “So, are we on for tonight?”

Kim smiled despite his bad mood. “I haven’t talked to Tom, but I guess so. Though I could do without Sandrine’s right now after everything that’s happened.”

His comment gave B’Elanna an idea. “Me, too,” she agreed. “Besides, Tom’s been working on a new program. It’s really a lot of fun—but I don’t want to ruin the surprise. I bet he’d run it tonight if I asked him.” She and Paris had discussed taking Harry to the carnival the last time they were there. She was sure it would be just the thing to snap her two friends out of the mutual funk they’d seemed to slip into over the last two weeks.

Emboldened by her excitement, she stood up from their table and marched confidently over to the corner where Paris and Nicoletti sat. “Hi, Tom,” she said evenly. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

He looked a little odd, she thought; as if his brain were having a conversation with itself totally separate from what his mouth was about to say. “B’Elanna. What’s up?”

She decided to just spit it out. “I wanted to make sure we’re on for tonight. I was telling Harry about your new holoprogram and he seems really anxious to try it out.” So she was stretching the truth a bit in the name of mending a friendship.

Tom seemed to hesitate for a moment before he answered. “Gee…I’m sorry, but I have a ‘real’ date tonight.” She felt her face fall. “Maybe next week.”

The deep breath B’Elanna drew in pulled her up to her full height. She tried not to let her disappointment come through in her voice. “Oh…well. Have fun, then.” She couldn’t help shooting Nicoletti a glare as she turned to walk back to her table.

As he watched her walk away, Tom felt an uncomfortable combination of sick, angry, and depressed. The silence while he thought about what he’d done gave Nicoletti a chance to ask a question of her own.

“So,” she said with her own hint of disappointment, “who’s your hot date with?”

Tom looked back to her and forced himself to turn on the charm one more time. “No one you know, Sue,” he said cryptically. Then he stepped back into character and continued the tragicomedy that had become his life.

Harry could tell it hadn’t gone well. “Let me guess: he’s busy.”

B’Elanna was almost pouting. “Harry, would you mind if we just skipped the ‘date’ tonight?” That was all the answer he needed.

“No problem,” he agreed. Torres grabbed her half-finished lunch and headed for the recycler.

“B’Elanna,” Harry grabbed her arm and turned her back to face him. “This isn’t just my imagination, is it?”

She smiled sadly. For the first time, she thought Chakotay and Harry might be right. “I don’t think so,” she answered softly. Then she headed back to engineering, significantly less happy than she’d been when she left.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom’s ‘hot date’ turned out to be with a holocomputer. Ever since he’d begun his mission to ruin his own reputation, he found it difficult to be around Harry and B’Elanna. Not only was he afraid that they’d see right through his little act, he didn’t like being put in a position where he might have to lie to them.

Still, turning down B’Elanna’s invitation to go back to the carnival had been difficult. Making her think he was seeing someone else had been more so. To make himself feel better, he decided to spend the night alone in his quarters, working on the enhancements he had promised to make to the program. The first priority: a ride B’Elanna might actually enjoy.

He’d originally considered including a Ferris Wheel, but the slow-moving ride seemed too boring for a fun evening out with a few friends. It wasn’t until he was showing the carnival to a beautiful woman that he realized the romantic possibilities of being trapped alone, high above the crowds, in a place that was quiet and private enough to have a good conversation. Or something more.

Not that Tom would ever have used the words ‘romantic possibilities’ and ‘B’Elanna Torres’ in the same sentence. She was his friend, his buddy. One of the ‘guys.’ Besides, she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested in a relationship with him or anyone else.

So why couldn’t he stop thinking about her?

He had just saved the changes he’d made to the midway when his combadge made an unusually distinctive chirp. It was a signal that a message had been transmitted to the encrypted data PADD he used to communicate with Captain Janeway and Tuvok. He dug the device out from under his mattress and called up the message.

‘Places for Act 2,’ was all it said.

Tom placed his thumb in the spot for identity verification and keyed in the code to transmit. Once he’d acknowledged his orders, he sat on his bed for a moment and thought about what he was about to do. Act 2 was his signal to up the stakes on his bad behavior, to become more obvious in his dissatisfaction with life aboard Voyager. It also meant distancing himself even more from those who might know him well enough to see through his performance.

Somehow, he now wished he’d taken B’Elanna up on her invitation to spend the evening with her and Harry. Tom knew that, once Act 2 was in full swing, the chances of anyone volunteering to spend time with him would be slim. It would have been nice to have one last chance for an uncomplicated night with the two people he felt closest to. Maybe it wasn’t too late to join them wherever they’d gone—though he hoped it wasn’t Sandrine’s.

“Computer,” he called out. “Locate Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Kim.”

“Lieutenant Torres is in her quarters. Ensign Kim is in stellar cartography.” Tom checked the chronometer; it was 2200 hours. Why weren’t they in one of the holodecks—or at least in the mess hall? Then he remembered B’Elanna’s face when he told her he had a ‘real’ date. It seemed he’d ruined more than just his own evening.

Just as well, he thought, moving back to his desk. It might have only made things harder.

Tom reopened the carnival parameters file and sat there staring at the display. He’d planned to add a few more rides, maybe a Fun House and an antique carrousel. Somehow, now, there didn’t seem to be a point. After ten minutes, lost in his thoughts, Paris turned off the screen and went to bed.

~*~*~*~*~

By Wednesday afternoon, Act 2 was well underway. Unlike Act 1, where his acting out was limited to his off-duty hours, Tom was now bringing his bad behavior to work. First, he’d deliberately suggested a dangerous course through a nebula in their path, knowing that Chakotay would be forced to countermand him. Then he’d shown up late for his duty shift the next day. And while his official logs would be as precise and accurate as ever, he did decide that they didn’t need to follow prescribed Starfleet reporting format. This last choice had led to a public shouting match with the ship’s recording officer, Lieutenant Rollins.

There were some limits on what he was willing to do, however. He stayed alert and attentive at the helm; his flying was a point of pride he didn’t see a reason to surrender to this mission. And he was careful not to do anything to jeopardize the safety of the ship. When a crisis arose, Tom Paris was all business. And, this being Voyager, a crisis was inevitable.

Tom was the first to notice the debris field; it looked like the remains of a small shuttle, though Harry could find no traces of organic matter. Whatever it was, it had been unmanned. The captain ordered a piece of the wreckage beamed to engineering for analysis just as Tom was about to go off duty.

Over four hours later, he’d fallen asleep on the couch in his quarters when the message from Chakotay came. “Senior staff briefing at 2100 hours.” That gave him thirty minutes to change out of his now-dirty and wrinkled uniform and grab a shower before he had to report for the unscheduled meeting. He had the clean uniform in his hand when he recognized the opportunity he’d just been handed. Paris moved back to his couch and lay down. Well, he’d been told to escalate the plan, and that was what he was about to do.

When he walked into the briefing—fifteen minutes late, his hair a mess, and looking like he’d slept in his uniform—B’Elanna was in the middle of explaining that the weapon which had destroyed the unmanned probe was a Cardassian renegade from the Alpha Quadrant. “I recognized its signature because I know this weapon very well…”

Apparently, B’Elanna and Chakotay had turned a misfiring Cardassian ‘smart-bomb’ into a Maquis secret weapon, reprogramming it to destroy its creator’s own fuel depot. Somehow—before reaching its target—the machine, nicknamed ‘Dreadnought’ had been pulled into the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker, just like Voyager.

B’Elanna seemed confident that she could disarm the device if they could find it. The captain ordered Tom to help Torres modify the navigational sensors and the meeting was adjourned.

Chakotay intercepted Paris before he could reach the door. “Lieutenant, I expect everyone to show up for meetings on time and properly dressed.”

Looking down at the mess he had intentionally made of himself, Tom considered making a scene, but there were now too few spectators around to see and talk about it with the rest of the crew. He knew his job was to put on a show, not just anger and disappoint his first officer. Instead, he took a deep breath and acknowledged the reprimand, “Yes, sir.”

And he wondered again why no one was letting Chakotay in on the secret…

By the time Paris got to engineering, Torres had already begun scanning for Dreadnought’s distinctive ion trail. She looked angry and distracted, and for a moment Tom forgot about the role he was playing. He hadn’t really spoken to B’Elanna since he’d turned down her offer in the mess hall the previous Friday. But now she really looked like she could use a friend.

He moved to the navigational sensor display and began checking the scans of the region. “There’s still a lot of distortion in the upper frequencies,” he told her. B’Elanna made an adjustment to the scanners, which seemed to help. “Better. Now let’s try filtering out the ion radiation.”

She just stood there, lost in thought. And, while he knew it was dangerous for him to let down his guard, Paris couldn’t just watch her wrestling with this and not try to help. “B’Elanna,” he called her name to bring her back to attention. She made a half-hearted attempt to recover her composure, then smacked the console with her hand. Tom took a few steps closer and tried to draw her out. “You must be really worried about catching this thing.”

For a moment, she looked like she might not answer him. “Chakotay wasn’t telling the whole truth. We didn’t send Dreadnought on a mission against the Cardassians. I was the one who sent it—without asking him.” Torres confided that she’d made the alterations to the missile without Chakotay’s help or approval. She’d been afraid to tell him; afraid he’d stop her. But, when he’d discovered what she had done, her Maquis captain had made it clear that she had disappointed him by going behind his back.

B’Elanna’s voice was soft as she replayed their conversation for Tom. “He said that I had hurt him. That he thought he’d earned my trust and loyalty.” Now Voyager had to clean up a dangerous mess she had made.

She couldn’t know it, but B’Elanna’s words struck Paris like a club. He’d seen that same look of disappointment on the first officer’s face only a few minutes earlier. Was Chakotay now hurt and disappointed, thinking the same things about Tom? And, despite their long and acrimonious history, the commander had earned Paris’s loyalty. But the decision to keep him out of the loop had been the captain’s. Tom had to play the part he’d been handed.

For the hundredth time in three weeks, Tom swallowed his conflicted feelings and tried to concentrate on what B’Elanna was saying.

“If anything happens here because of Dreadnought, it’s my fault. No one else’s.”

Paris thought back to his own days as a Maquis, short though they were. The rebels had a ‘win at any cost’ mentality; probably necessary as the underdogs in a contest with two powers that had them outgunned, outmanned, and outmaneuvered. Being an effective Maquis meant sometimes making your own rules. He tried to help her see that. “You took a risk; you were thinking like a Maquis. That was a different time.”

“Tell me about it…” her voice trailed off. A different time. A different life.

Tom had almost forgotten how much of an outsider B’Elanna had been when she came aboard Voyager. With only a year and a half of Academy training, Torres had spent her adult life rejecting Starfleet discipline, then fighting against it as a Maquis. Now, she was a by-the-book chief engineer, who had earned the respect of the entire staff—including a few Starfleet officers who had every right to resent her promotion. She had made an incredible effort to redeem herself—one Tom could really relate to. And here she was, being reminded of a side of herself she had long since tried to forget. More than he could tell her, he knew exactly how she felt.

“You know, I’ve been surprised at how well you’ve been able to fit in here,” he said sincerely. He meant it in the best possible way. “A little envious, too.” Paris looked at her sadly for a moment before turning away.

He hadn’t intended to give her an opening. In fact, he’d just gotten caught up in feeling sorry for himself, and blurted it out. But B’Elanna wasn’t going to let it go at that. “Tom, what’s been going on with you lately?”

He knew he’d have to choose his words carefully. “Going on? How?”

She knew he’d be reluctant to talk about it. For whatever reason, Tom was isolating himself, especially from the people who cared about him, like Harry. Like her. At least she had started to care about him—as a friend. Maybe pushing a button would get him to confide in her. “People are starting to talk…”

As she suspected, her observation made him angry. “Are they? People like who? Chakotay?”

Boy, he was really getting paranoid. “No, I mean people, like me. Like today: look at yourself.” She indicated his disheveled appearance, suddenly making Tom a little self-conscious. “And coming to a briefing late.” The tone in her voice turned conspiratorial. “And is it that true you had a fight with Lieutenant Rollins?”

Paris knew there was no love lost between Voyager’s chief engineer and its records officer. They’d clashed on more than one occasion. For a second, he almost laughed at the way B’Elanna actually seemed to be enjoying his bad-boy behavior. “The lieutenant was unhappy that my conn reports weren’t punctuated properly, according to ‘Starfleet protocol.’ I didn’t like his attitude.”

He was surprised when B’Elanna’s tone turned serious again, “Was he right about your reports?”

Paris slipped back into the act effortlessly. “We’re in the Delta Quadrant, nowhere near Starfleet! What difference…”

Tom stopped himself. If he went on any more, he’d be forced to lie to B’Elanna, and that was something he had promised himself he wouldn’t do. Instead, he turned to face her. “Yeah, he was right. I’m the one who’s been wrong. Wrong about a lot of things…”

The pain on his face was obvious. They looked at each other for a moment, Tom trying to stop himself from telling her the whole truth; B’Elanna trying desperately to figure out what had suddenly gone so wrong with her friend. He could see that she was about to say something, about to probe again for what was causing his sudden change of attitude. He couldn’t let that conversation happen. Instead, he moved past her and back to the console. “Why don’t we try running a multiphasic sweep,” he said, effectively ending their discussion.

They performed the rest of their duties in silence.

~*~*~*~*~

The next two days were an ongoing battle with B’Elanna’s renegade missile, and at first they thought they’d succeeded. But the situation had quickly grown from troubling to dangerous, with Dreadnought now once again targeting a defenseless, highly-populated planet. Understanding that this was no time to cause a distraction, Paris put his charade on hold and tried not to attract attention. By noon on Friday morning, the stakes had risen dramatically.

Harry had finally found a way to transport B’Elanna back to the weapon’s control room. She was confident that she could find a way to disarm the thing if given enough time. But, when an hour had passed with no success, the captain was ready to pull her out.

Then the comlink and transporter lock were severed. They had no way to get B’Elanna back.

Left with no options, the captain had retreated to her ready room to consider her next move. When she returned to the bridge, the look of determination in her eyes told Tom she had a plan. After a whispered conversation with Chakotay and Tuvok, Paris heard the first officer give the order, “Everyone except senior officers with me.”

Before Tom could stop to think what this might mean, the captain moved to stand behind him. “Computer, initiate the self-destruct sequence, authorization Janeway Pi-1-1-0. Set it at twenty minutes.” Suddenly he knew: she was going to blow up the ship to detonate the warhead.

But first, she’d try and rescue her missing chief engineer. She put Harry to work trying to break through the interference. Nine minutes later, he was successful. They heard B’Elanna’s voice over the com in a matter of seconds.

“I may be able to detonate the warhead from here by breeching the containment field.” As Torres explained her plans, they could hear her gasping to catch her breath. Janeway immediately asked what Tom and Harry were now both wondering.

“Are you alright B’Elanna?”

“Fine,” he could tell she was lying. “The air’s just a little thin in here.” Tom suspected Torres was minimizing the danger to keep the captain from beaming her out. It worked. Janeway agreed to give her more time.

But time was something they were rapidly running out of. Tom heard the captain order Harry to transfer control of the ship’s systems to the conn and head for the escape pod. It took him a moment to realize that Janeway intended to fight the rest of this battle alone.

“Mr. Paris, I’m relieving you.” He knew instantly that he’d refuse to go. “Now!” she ordered. Reluctantly, Tom stood up and allowed the captain to take his seat.

He couldn’t make his feet move. Why wasn’t she letting him stay? He stalled while he tried to think of some way to change her mind. “The starboard thrusters are a little sluggish,” he warned, doing anything to delay the inevitable. “Ease into them.”

“Understood,” she said, not giving an inch. Tom decided to make one last plea to get her to let him help.

“Captain,” he said with more authority than he felt. When she turned to look at him, Paris could see he would only be making things worse by fighting her. Instead, he’d take one final chance to let her know how grateful he was for the chance she had given him to reclaim his life. He tried to say as much with his eyes as with his words. “Thanks for everything.”

Then he joined Harry in the turbolift and headed for Deck 4.

They were waiting inside the last escape pod just down the corridor from the transporter room. The captain would give B’Elanna two more minutes, then transport her back to Voyager. They’d have another two minutes to get her onto the pod and clear the ship before Voyager’s warp core would breech.

Tom couldn’t believe it was all ending like this. Not just with the destruction of their ship and the almost certain death of their captain, but with all of his friends thinking he had let them down. His secret mission would have accomplished nothing but alienating those he was closest to. It also occurred to him that—with Tuvok staying behind with Janeway—there’d be no one who could verify that he’d only been following orders.

The thought made him feel foolish and selfish. Of course, his reputation was the least of their concerns. “Come on, B’Elanna!” he heard Harry say under his breath. “Where is she?!”

Tom checked the chronometer. They were running out of time. Just as Paris was about to open the door and head for the transporter room, he felt Tuvok initiate the pod’s launch sequence from the bridge. As the tiny craft begin to move, Harry jumped from his seat and headed for the hatch, “No! We can’t leave her!”

Tom grabbed the younger man’s arm. “It’s too late, Harry,” he said softly. “There’s nothing we can do.”

As Tom tried to comfort his best friend, he couldn’t help but remember the last conversation he’d had with B’Elanna. She had reached out to him, tried to find out why he was acting so strangely. And he had rebuffed her.

A minute later, through the tiny viewport of their escape pod, Harry and Tom watched Dreadnought explode, just before reaching its target. B’Elanna had been successful. They also saw Voyager bank hard to port, the ship now out of danger.

Tom put his hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “Maybe they got her out,” he said softly. Harry could only look at him blankly. Tom took the controls and began a slow return to Voyager. ‘Be there when we get back, B’Elanna,’ he said to himself.

~*~*~*~*~

As it turned out, Torres would be fine. Singed, oxygen-deprived, and mentally and physically exhausted, she was alive nonetheless, and the Doctor was sure she would make a full recovery.

Harry and Tom had wanted to head for sickbay as soon as their escape pod docked, but—as the last to leave Voyager—they were now the first to return, and the captain needed their assistance on the bridge. It was almost six hours later before they’d be off duty and have a chance to check up on their injured friend.

As they headed to Deck 5, Tom realized it was almost 2100 on Friday evening: not exactly the kind of ‘date night’ any of them would have preferred.

When they reached sickbay, B’Elanna was sleeping on the biobed just inside the door. While Harry went to find the doctor to check on her condition, Paris moved to stand next to her bed. A lock of hair had fallen across her face as she slept, and Tom gently moved it aside with his fingers. As he did, he couldn’t help but brush across her forehead ridges, and he thought about something Torres had told him almost eight months earlier: they’d been trapped in a Vidiian mining prison, B’Elanna split into her component Klingon and human selves. As he’d tried to comfort the human B’Elanna, she’d told him how much she hated those same ridges, how they made her feel ugly and different as a child, and how she had tried to cover them with hats and scarves. Now, watching her sleep, gently running his fingers across her brow, he couldn’t imagine how she could see them as anything but another beautiful feature on an incredibly beautiful face.

‘Thank god, you’re alive,’ he said to himself, not even thinking about how glad he was to see her.

With that, Tom heard the doors behind him open, and he turned to see his first officer looking more than a little surprised to see him standing by B’Elanna’s bedside. “Paris,” Chakotay said. “Where’s the Doctor?”

Tom nodded his head in the direction of the medical lab, where he could see Harry pumping the physician for details on B’Elanna’s recovery. Tom suddenly realized his hand was still resting in her hair and he moved to step away from the bed.

“Harry wanted to check on Torres,” he said. This was no time to look like he had a heart, Tom realized. “I’m just waiting for him to finish so we can have dinner.”

Chakotay looked at him silently for a few minutes, still trying to figure out the ever-changing man who was Tom Paris. But his real concern now was for B’Elanna. “How is she?” he asked.

“She’ll be fine,” they heard the Doctor say as he walked into the room. “As long as she stops being pestered by the likes of you three. Now why don’t you all do my patient a favor and let her get some rest.”

Chakotay knew that a crisis situation could often snap a wayward crewman back into shape, and he decided at that moment to make another attempt to reach out to Paris. “Well,” he said to the young officers, “since the Doctor is kicking us out, how about if I join you for that dinner.”

Now reassured of B’Elanna’s safety, Tom knew he’d have to get back to the play. “No thanks,” he said, his tone positively dripping with sarcasm, “I think I just lost my appetite.” With that, he turned and left, leaving his best friend and his commanding officer to wonder once again what the hell had just happened.

~*~*~*~*~

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