DOTS#1: Barriers, Part 2

With the Dreadnought crisis solved, the captain and Tuvok decided it was time to escalate their plan to its desperate, final stage. Kathryn knew this would up the stakes for them all, particularly for the young officer on whose shoulders their entire mission rested. But every day the spy went undetected was a day when the Kazon gained a tactical advantage. She instructed Tuvok to give the final order.

~~

Ever since he had blown off Chakotay’s dinner invitation, Tom was focused on only one thing: giving a convincing performance to lure their spy out into the open. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on being insubordinate to his first officer and rude to his friends before somebody realized it was all a charade.

What disappointed him the most, however, was how willing everyone seemed to be to accept that he’d so quickly fallen back to his old ways. Even Harry, who’d believed in him when no one else would, couldn’t help but wonder now if the warnings he had been given about becoming friends with Tom Paris were proving true. How low must their expectations have been, Tom now wondered, if after a year of almost model behavior, everyone was so willing to recast him in the role of malcontent?

He’d been at this game almost a month, though, and they seemed no closer to a discovery than they’d been at the beginning. He knew the coming of Act 3 was a foregone conclusion. And, despite what it would mean to his safety, Paris actually found himself looking forward to getting the signal. At least he’d be moving out of this awful limbo.

Sure enough, he had just come back from a quiet, uneventful game of solo pool at Sandrine’s when his combadge sounded. He didn’t need to look at his PADD to see what was next. His brief intermission over, Tom prepared himself for the final act.

~*~*~*~

Even before his little drama began, it had always been a struggle for Paris to make it to his station on time. Every morning was a rush through breakfast and a scramble to the bridge, finding him at the helm with only seconds to spare. Now, when he was deliberately trying to be late, he was barely able to fill the time.

Of course, these days he didn’t have the distraction of a friendly conversation over breakfast. Tom was eating most of his meals alone now. His alienation from the rest of the crew was one of the themes of this last act, and in some ways he was glad. Paris knew there was a good chance he might not come back from this mission alive, and it would be easier for his few remaining friends, Harry, B’Elanna, Neelix, and Kes, if they’d already grown accustomed to his absence.

While they hoped it wouldn’t come to this, from the beginning the captain had prepared him for the possibility that he might actually have to leave the ship—making himself an obvious target for capture by the Kazon—in order to finally discover the identity of the spy among them. The plan for Act 3 was simple: Tom would get fed up with his life on Voyager, his public displays growing in frequency and intensity. Finally, he’d ‘quit’ his provisional job and leave the ship for employment with a Talaxian convoy. If everything went according to plan, their spy would leak news of his departure to the Kazon, who would find one of Voyager’s senior officers too tempting a target to ignore.

But, once the Kazon had taken him, he’d be on his own. There was no guarantee Voyager would be able to rescue him. In fact, it was highly unlikely.

They had anticipated that the setup for this part of the plan would take about two weeks. Two more weeks, Tom thought, to wrap up any lose ends his death might leave. Sadly, considering the current state of his closest relationships, he thought it might take considerably less time.

He took another look at the chronometer: 0810. Time to go.

~*~*~*~*~

He’d been late on alternating days that week, coming up with one outlandish story after another about why he had been delayed. One day it was a radiation leak in his quarters, the next the mysterious disappearance of all of his uniforms. Today, he thought, I’ll be a midwife to the very-pregnant Samantha Wildman. That would be good for a few laughs, Tom imagined—the thought of him delivering a baby.

Of course, none of it was funny. But he was positive today would be the performance to break Chakotay’s patience once and for all. And he was anxious to get on with it.

“Sorry I’m late,” he announced with great fanfare as he stepped off the turbolift, “but I have a very good excuse.” He moved to lean on Harry’s console as if he were telling his sad story to a bartender. “Picture this: I’m just getting ready to leave the mess hall when Ensign Wildman goes into labor. Well, what else could I do but deliver the baby?” He turned around briefly to make sure Chakotay was paying attention. “Oh, you shoudda been there, Harry. There’s nothing like bringing a new life into the world; I think I missed my calling.”

The look in his best friend’s eyes was a plea. Harry grabbed Tom’s arm and pointed out their obviously frustrated commander. No one was buying Paris’s excuse. Nor were they intended to. “What if I told you that the turbolift got stuck on Deck 6?” An even less convincing story from a man whose entire morning journey took him from Deck 4 to Deck 1.

Tom was disappointed that Chakotay’s rebuke was so calm. “This is the third time you’ve been late this week, Mr. Paris.”

“It won’t happen again,” he reassured the first officer half-heartedly as he took the helm. Geez, what did it take to provoke this man?

No sooner had he assumed his station then the sensors picked up a distress call from a small ship in their path. A lone Vidiian woman with faint life signs had been detected inside. Oh, well, Tom thought as he realized his show was over for the day. Maybe tomorrow.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay prided himself on being a patient man. Even as he had once wrestled with his father’s expectations, rejected a heritage full of what had seemed like simplistic and quaint superstitions, then lived with the guilt and shame of his father’s death at the hands of the Cardassians, he had always believed that perseverance would pay off in the end. Perseverance in getting his father to let him live his own life, perseverance in pursuing a Starfleet career which valued science over superstition—perseverance in hunting down and destroying the butchers who had destroyed his colony. But it was a tenacity born of anger and pain. It brought out demons which had once threatened to destroy him.

But after a lifetime of anger and impetuousness, the emotional control he had developed on Voyager with the help of his vision quests brought a kind of peace to his life he never thought he would know.

It also seemed to have earned him the respect and trust of a notoriously by-the-book Starfleet captain.

But in the past thirteen months, some new, more tangible demons had risen to replace those he’d left behind in the Alpha Quadrant. Seska, for one. His former lover was not only a reckless Maquis renegade, she’d turned out to be the enemy among them: a Cardassian physically and genetically altered to pass as a Bajoran. Now she was working for their first Delta Quadrant nemesis, the Kazon, and endangering the lives of everyone on board Voyager. And, courtesy of some stolen genetic material, she might even be carrying Chakotay’s child…

He’d also recently learned that Lon Suder, another of his Maquis crew, was a sociopath who took pleasure in killing for sport. Add to that the commander’s questionable recruitment of Tom Paris a few years earlier, and the discovery that Tuvok had been a Starfleet spy sent to infiltrate his crew, and Chakotay could come up with only one conclusion: he was often a lousy judge of character.

For a while recently, he thought he’d misjudged Paris. The worthless drunk he’d enlisted out of a desperation for pilots seemed to be concealing a troubled yet honorable young man. He’d watched Captain Janeway provide a chance for real redemption to the lieutenant, and the helmsman had seemed to be rising to the occasion. Perhaps rising too quickly, Chakotay now supposed.

After making a heroic yet disastrous flight in a transwarp shuttle he’d helped design, Paris had undergone an almost unbelievable trauma. Yet instead of reinforcing the young officer’s confidence in his potential, the experience seemed to set him back to the worst of his pre-Voyager behavior. Insolent, late for duty, and emotionally distant—even from his closest friends—Tom had become a thorn in the commander’s side, and a real danger to his authority with the rest of the crew. And, for some unknown reason, it seemed personal.

Allowing for the ordeal Paris had just survived, Chakotay tried to be patient and wait it out; maybe the change in Tom’s personality was a side effect of his physical transformation. But it was now going on six weeks; for the sake of the entire ship, something needed to be done.

Reporting on their Vidiian visitor seemed a good excuse to have a private conversation in Janeway’s ready room. He finished his update, then prepared himself for what he was about to say. “Captain…”

She could sense his discomfort. “Is there something wrong?”

He was about to tell Kathryn Janeway that her ‘personal reclamation project’ was failing. And, despite the confidence and trust the captain had shown in her first officer, he knew he could be waking into sensitive territory for a woman who liked to believe the best of her crew. But Chakotay needed to get this off his chest. “I wanted to talk to you about Lieutenant Paris…”

He expressed his concerns as non-judgmentally as possible, considering his antagonistic history with Tom Paris and Janeway’s well-known interest in giving the pilot a chance to make a fresh start. This was also the first time a senior bridge officer was in need of a reprimand, and the commander wanted the approval of his captain before taking any action.

He left with her unqualified support.

Chakotay was now confident of his next steps: he would be more assertive about confronting Paris’s bad behavior, yet he would make sure to reach out first, offering this stray a way back to the fold. He also came away feeling relieved that Captain Janeway had shown such utter and complete trust in his judgment in handling the situation. She could have easily treated him like a Maquis—keeping him at arm’s length, disciplining the Starfleet crew herself. Instead, she’d shown absolute faith in her first officer’s abilities. She trusted him and it was mutual. He liked the feeling.

Standing in her ready room as the doors closed, Kathryn Janeway was heartsick. As she knew he would, Commander Chakotay had confided in her his concerns about Tom Paris’s behavior. She told her first officer she trusted him to handle the situation as he saw fit.

What she hadn’t told him was that Tom was working for her, intentionally provoking a confrontation with the first officer, a man who deserved better treatment, not only from the young lieutenant following her orders, but from his captain. A woman Chakotay thought he could trust.

Yes, the likely offender was Maquis. Yes, there was something unfair about asking the commander to spy on his friends and former crewmen. Yet, down to her toes, Janeway knew that her deception would cost her and this ship the faith of an honorable man. She could only hope that one day he would understand and forgive her.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna would never have believed, when she woke up this morning, exactly how she would be spending her afternoon. An hour after she’d reported for duty, the Doctor called her to sickbay. With characteristic ‘sensitivity,’ he’d had the audacity to ask her to donate a sample of her brain tissue to help treat the disfigured and dying Vidiian woman they found drifting in the damaged shuttle.

Had she known her day would include such an outrageous request, she would have wagered she’d never agree to the procedure. The Vidiians had conducted some torturous experiments on the young engineer only eight months earlier, splitting Torres into two separate beings—one fully human, the other fully Klingon. Her captors had apparently discovered a phage-resistant component to her Klingon physiology, and they’d needed a genetically pure ‘lab rat’ on which to experiment in an attempt to cure the disease that had ravaged their civilization for centuries.

And while, having once been the ‘human’ B’Elanna, the woman who now walked Voyager’s corridors had been spared the worst of the experiments, she had been forced to watch her Klingon counterpart shot and killed, then endured the painful reintegration of that woman’s DNA back into her body. She had known ever since that—were she ever to encounter the Vidiians again—she’d devote herself to their destruction.

Yet, as she shouted her protest to Voyager’s unsympathetic EMH, she’d been greeted by the compassionate and understanding woman her tissues were intended to help. Standing in sickbay, hearing the gentle voice of an innocent victim of an unspeakable illness, Torres could no longer justify taking her rage at her captors out on this woman. Still reluctant, she had agreed to try to help. The procedure had been as simple and painless as the doctor had promised.

Now, as she walked back to her quarters, B’Elanna felt a need to find the one person who might understand the conflicting emotions this experience had raised in her. Tom Paris had been the only other survivor of that doomed away mission. He’d comforted her as they labored in the mines, tried to give her back the strength of will the extraction of her Klingon side had ripped from her. She and Paris had watched the Vidiians take their friend and crewmate, Pete Durst, to his death. And he had stood beside her on Voyager’s transporter pad as she held her dying Klingon counterpart.

It was the first time she’d realized there was a man of compassion, courage, and depth behind the cynical idiot she originally thought him to be. And, despite the distance Paris had forced between them in the last few weeks, B’Elanna knew she needed to talk to him.

“Computer,” she called out. “Locate Lieutenant Paris.”

“Lieutenant Paris is on Deck 4, Section 3C.”

Good. He was in his quarters. She headed to the turbolift, anxious to see her friend.

When she arrived, however, he almost didn’t let her in. “Oh, B’Elanna, I was just on my way to, uh…I’m kind of in the middle of something, so…”

She wasn’t that easily deterred—not today. “Tom, please. I need to talk to you. I promise I won’t stay long.” She watched his mind slip into overdrive. Why was it that every word he spoke these days seemed to pass through a series of filters before it came out of his mouth?

“Look, Torres,” he said with growing agitation, “if Chakotay sent you here to…” The disappointment and hurt must have shown in her eyes, because Paris didn’t even finish the sentence. “B’Elanna, what’s wrong?”

Another lightening-fast personality change, and she was once again face-to-face with her compassionate friend. “Something happened today,” she said softly. I just came from sickbay, and.…”

He was taking her arm now and pulling her to sit with him on the couch. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?” This protectiveness was disorienting from a man who had almost refused to speak with her only a moment earlier.

“I’m fine,” she said with more conviction than she felt. “But I need help sorting something out, and you’re the only one I can talk to about this.”

Tom replicated coffee for them both, and they settled onto his couch to talk. They spent the next two hours discussing the ethical dilemma B’Elanna had faced, her unresolved feelings of hatred toward the Vidiians, and the powerlessness she had felt as the entire nightmare in the prison unfolded. For the first time, she also told Paris of the argument she’d had with her Klingon ‘self’ as they hid from the guards, the new respect she had found for that side of her nature when viewing it from the outside, and the battle she once again fought as a hybrid child of such different peoples.

Now, instead of a blanket rejection of her Klingon heritage, B’Elanna was feeling conflicted. While she was still ashamed and embarrassed of her sometimes-uncontrollable temper, and even though she’d never love the look of her own face in a mirror, she was trying to at least acknowledge the positive aspects of that part of herself. It was a struggle she assumed would never really end.

She noticed as she spoke that Paris hadn’t said anything for several minutes. He was just looking at her, an almost sad smile on his face. Suddenly, she felt self-conscious. “What?” she asked.

Tom seemed to become aware that he was staring. “I was just thinking that I couldn’t imagine you any other way. And, I hope this doesn’t upset you, but I was glad when I found out the Doc was putting you back the way you were. The human woman I met in those mines wasn’t you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, B’Elanna, I’ll always be grateful to her for trusting me enough to treat me like a friend. Somehow I think she shared some things with me that you never would have. At least not back then. But I would have missed you. And I’ll always be grateful that we got you back.”

Torres was dumbfounded. Until this moment, she never realized that Tom viewed the ‘human’ B’Elanna as a separate person, as less than herself. And, as crazy as it was, she somehow believed that he meant it when he said he preferred her conflicted, hodgepodge, mixed self to the human ‘ideal’ she had always aspired to.

But she had trouble believing that the Tom Paris she’d first left with on that away mission would ever have ‘missed’ her. “You’ve got to be kidding. All we ever did back then was fight!”

Paris smiled. “I know. In those days, you were the only person who would ever call me a jerk to my face. Everyone else always waited until I left the room, or until they thought I was out of earshot. I really respected you for that.”

His comments made her think about a conversation she had overheard that morning in the mess hall. Ashmore and Ayala were talking about how Paris had been late for bridge duty three days in the past week, and that he seemed to be daring his first officer to call him on his bad behavior. About what a ‘jerk’ Tom had become. She thought about Paris’s leering at Sue Nicoletti, the way he’d been avoiding her and Harry, and how he’d almost chewed her head off when she came to talk to him a few hours earlier.

She was suddenly very aware that she wasn’t the only one with a conflicted, dual nature. As much as she wrestled with the two warring women inside herself, B’Elanna now suspected a similar battle had come to consume the man in front of her.

She also realized that—during their entire conversation—the barrier Tom had erected to isolate himself these past few weeks was nowhere in sight. Sitting before her was the kind, gentle man who once comforted her in that prison, who’d welcomed her as a friend and colleague to the transwarp project, who dragged her with a childlike enthusiasm around a carnival midway, and who’d just listened to her struggling to accept her Klingon self, offering only validation and acceptance. What operation had extracted this side of Tom Paris, leaving only the aloof screw up they’d been watching emerge?

Tom seemed to notice that the conversation had turned from B’Elanna’s problems to his own. She could see his expression change; his smile had faded, his eyes held a sad, distant look. Still, he didn’t pull away.

“You know,” she said, “we made a deal a few weeks ago. You’re not keeping up your end of the bargain.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, though he was fairly sure what she meant.

“We promised to trust each other. You can trust me, Tom. Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

Paris knew it was a mistake to have let her in. The longer this game played out the higher the stakes, and he couldn’t risk anyone—particularly a former Maquis who was Chakotay’s best friend—learning what was really going on. The fact that B’Elanna and Harry knew him so well—knew how to get over, under, and around the barriers he constructed to keep people out—dramatically increased his odds of slipping up and revealing the game. Their support and friendship also upped the chances of his saying to hell with the whole mission and backing out of the plan. Putting his life on the line was always so much easier when no one cared if he lived or died. If he didn’t care himself.

But he did care. He did want the life he had earned on this ship. Paris had to keep reminding himself that it was this new life—and more importantly the lives of his friends—he was fighting to protect by ferreting out this spy. Which made what he was about to say only marginally easier to take.

“We didn’t really spend a lot of time together when we were in the Maquis.” Tom knew he wasn’t answering her question. “I always thought it was because Chakotay warned you to stay away from me.”

B’Elanna looked down into her now-empty coffee cup. She didn’t answer, but she didn’t have to.

“You should have listened to him,” Paris said softly. Then he stood up and waited at the door.

Taking his hint that their conversation was now over, B’Elanna sat her coffee cup on his dinner table and walked over to where he stood. “One day you’re going to want to tell someone what’s going on in there,” she said, brushing her hand across his heart. “You know where to find me.”

She knew he wouldn’t answer, so she didn’t bother to stay.

As the doors closed behind her, Tom slumped against the wall and tried to shake her off. One day he would want to tell her what was really going on. He only hoped that—if they both survived to see it—she’d still be willing to listen.

~*~*~*~*~

The rest of his evening had been almost mundane. Something about his heart-to-heart with B’Elanna had muted his enthusiasm for accelerating the plan. Tom indulged his desire to feel ‘normal’ again—if only for a night—and had taken Neelix up on his offer to shoot some pool. He was happy to see that Sandrine’s was almost empty; there were more holocharacters than crewmen as he racked the balls and made the breaking shot.

Neelix was the one friend whose company Tom could still enjoy without complication. Maybe it was the man’s innocent nature—or his job as the ship’s morale officer—but Neelix never chastised Tom, never brought up uncomfortable topics, and seemed to dedicate himself to taking Paris’s mind off his troubles. Tom realized, too, that Neelix wasn’t particularly interested in Starfleet rules and protocols. He took people at face value, and tried to believe the best of them. At least these days.

What now seemed like a lifetime ago, when Tom had believed he was falling in love with Kes, he’d awkwardly tried to avoid spending time in her company. Paris knew that his Ocampan friend was in love with Neelix, and he didn’t want to complicate an already difficult situation by accidentally flirting with her or saying something stupid about his burgeoning feelings. It would be better for them both, he thought, if he just politely avoided her altogether.

Of course, Neelix had misinterpreted Tom’s avoidance as a cover-up of a secret romance; he’d practically challenged Paris to a duel—fought oddly enough with ‘hair-pasta-and-tomato-sauce’ weapons—and declared his disdain for his imagined rival. A failed away mission had given the men a chance to talk things through, to get to know each other better, and had given Tom a chance to point out to Neelix that—despite his own interest in Kes—he’d never pursue her. Not only would it be pointless in light of her devotion to her lover, it would have been disrespectful of Neelix’s feelings. He’d never do that, Paris swore.

It was only then that Neelix admitted to Tom that he’d heard rumors—rumblings from the crew—that Paris was an untrustworthy coward. While it was difficult to hear, it wasn’t a huge surprise. Tom’s reputation was once deserved, he knew. But he promised Neelix—as he’d promised himself—that those days were behind him. Voyagerwas his second chance at making a new life—a chance he had no intention of wasting.

They’d become friends that day, Neelix promising never to believe the things people whispered about Tom; the pilot solidifying his decision to think of Kes only as a friend, and seeing for the first time the sensitive, loyal man hiding beneath those Talaxian whiskers.

Tom wondered what Neelix was hearing about him these days.

To his great relief, his friend said nothing and he didn’t ask.

~*~*~*~*~

Amazingly enough, Neelix didn’t seem to be the only person willing to give Tom the benefit of the doubt.

The next afternoon, sitting alone—as usual these days—grabbing a quick lunch in the mess hall and pretending to be absorbed in a book, Tom looked up to see his executive officer standing at his side.

“Mind if I join you?” Chakotay asked, his voice almost friendly. Paris nodded to the seat next to him, but didn’t answer. He hadn’t been looking for a confrontation, but he needed to be ready to seize any opportunity. “So how are things, Tom?”

“Excuse me?” he asked, summoning as much disdain as he could for a man he actually liked and respected.

“How’ve you been feeling lately? Is something bothering you?” Paris had to laugh. Any other first officer on any other ship would have had him busted down to crewman by this time. Yet here was Chakotay, a man who only a year before would have been thrilled to see him spaced out an airlock, calmly asking if something was wrong. ‘I need to try that vision quest thing if this is what it can do,’ Tom thought to himself.

He was still laughing as he answered. “No offense, Commander, but why this sudden concern for my feelings?”

Chakotay wasn’t taking the bait. “Well, you’ve been moody lately, indifferent to your duties. To be honest, you don’t seem to be taking your job very seriously. If you’ve got a problem, I’d like to know what it is.”

Tom knew this was the moment he had been waiting for. They weren’t on the bridge, he wasn’t on duty, and the commander was almost begging for a fight in front of at least thirty crewmen from all over the ship. This was a moment crying out to be seized. “Yeah, I’ve got a problem. My problem is you.”

Paris proceeded to blame his commanding officer for insulting his intelligence, ignoring his suggestions, and valuing rule-following over initiative. He as much as called the commander a poor leader, raising his voice—and the stakes—as he spoke.

For the first time, Tom could tell he was breaking through Chakotay’s reserve. “I didn’t come here for a lecture from you on how to do my job,” the commander snapped.

Paris could tell they were putting on a good show. He could feel the eyes of everyone in the room—and those who were afraid to look were clearly listening in. It was coup de grace time. “Yeah, well, I know you don’t put much stock in my opinion,” he said, his voice dripping venom. “So, maybe you should talk to some of these people. Because I’m not the only one around here who’s got a problem with you.”

After practically advertising for an alliance with their unknown spy, Tom excused himself and headed for the door. He’d used up any slack his first officer would ever cut him, he was now sure. One more nudge, one more infraction, and Paris knew the curtain would come down on this drama. And his anger—though not at Chakotay—was real. He’d just publicly undermined and humiliated a decent man, Tom knew. He couldn’t find a way to justify what he’d been asked to do. He wondered how the captain justified it to herself.

‘If I ever get back here,’ Tom thought as he stormed out of the room, ‘he’s never gonna forgive me for this.’ The unresolved question: would Paris ever forgive himself.

~*~*~*~*~

He headed to the holodeck and initialized Sandrine’s once again. Tonight, though, there’d be no pool playing, no pretending his life was his own. Tom was alone with his holocharacters, his old haunt, and his guilt.

He needed a drink. Badly. But Act 3 was now playing, and Paris knew he had to keep his wits about him. Instead, he replicated a pot of coffee—real coffee, damn it—knowing he’d finish the whole thing before he left.

He’d barely taken his first sip when he heard very loud, very deliberate footsteps behind him. He knew it was her before he turned around; the unmistakable, intermingled aromas of scented soap and warp plasma were a dead giveaway.

“What in the hell is wrong with you?!”

He wouldn’t insult her intelligence by pretending not to know what she meant. “Hello to you, too, B’Elanna.” He was in no mood for this, yet she had every right to be furious and he knew it. “Let me guess: you just ran into Chakotay.”

He could see her eyes now, and they were blazing. Apparently Torres had embraced her Klingon side just enough to unleash in on anyone who hurt her friends. “No, you idiot, I ran into Mike Jonas, but everyone on this ship is talking about it. Now, what in the hell is wrong with you?!”

‘I should have engaged the privacy lock,’ Paris thought to himself. Anything to have avoided this tonight.

“Stay out of it, B’Elanna,” he said—his frustration very clear in his voice. This was not a night to be pushing him to talk.

“I will not stay out of it. Something is going on, something you’re not telling me. I know you, Tom Paris, and you’re up to something. And I’m not leaving here until you explain what the hell is going on!” She was shouting, hovering near him, pushing him to talk, pushing him to explain, pushing him…over the edge.

“Leave me alone!” he was screaming back at her. “Mind your own damn business! You don’t know me, you can’t help me, and I want you to leave me the hell alone!”

Torres looked like she’d been struck with his fist. As much as she knew she’d provoked him, B’Elanna was totally unprepared to see the accumulated rage now coming her way. For the first time ever, she was seeing firsthand the Tom Paris everyone had warned her about. There was no mask, no sarcasm, no pain disguised as humor. She was face to face with pure rage. And it suddenly all made sense.

This was the real Tom Paris. Everything else she had ever seen had been a carefully rehearsed act. Oh, he was good, she now realized. She’d almost fallen for it. They’d all almost fallen for it. And she was instantly disinterested in any excuses this man might try to give her for his behavior; not that he seemed willing to offer any. A switch had flipped inside her; a massive self-protection circuit breaker had blown. Her voice turned ice cold.

“I’ll leave you alone, Paris. As a matter of fact, I hope I never have to lay eyes on you again.” She was out the door in seconds, but he wouldn’t have tried to stop her.

Tom found himself leaning on the bar for support, his head buried in his hands, his mind swimming at the way his life was playing out. He’d sworn that he wouldn’t take this out on his friends. B’Elanna was only trying to help. What in the hell had he done?

His eyes were closed tightly. He knew if he opened them he’d still be in Sandrine’s—the monument he himself had built to his worthless past—and B’Elanna would still be gone. He cursed Tuvok for coming up with this ridiculous plan and Captain Janeway for agreeing to it. He cursed Chakotay for giving him so many chances, forcing Tom to make a huge scene to finally provoke the man. He cursed the goddamned spy—whoever it was—for evading their investigation. And he cursed himself for resorting to hurting a woman he cared for very deeply when he should have been able to control himself. He stood like that for a long while, trying to think of what to do next.

Then, unexpectedly, his mind cleared, and he realized he was no longer angry. He wasn’t depressed or sad or frustrated. Instead, without touching a drop of liquor, Tom Paris was officially numb.

Up until this very moment, he had carried some doubts about his ability to go through with the plan. One show of support from Harry, one more understanding smile from B’Elanna, one innocent comment around Kes, and he knew he’d let his guard down and ruin everything. But he’d seen the look in B’Elanna’s eyes just now. She wouldn’t be back. And he suspected he’d long-since crossed the line with Harry, too.

There was officially nothing left to lose. Somehow, that thought gave him the courage he needed to see this through.

He’d been sitting alone for over an hour, finishing the last of his coffee, when other crewmen started to arrive. ‘Geez, Paris, don’t the words ‘privacy lock,’ ring a bell?!’ he thought. He considered leaving, but couldn’t bear to spend another moment in his lonely, depressing quarters. Besides, he knew he’d be left alone. No one would dare to be seen talking to him after today. Another job well done.

Well, almost no one. Tom was surprised when the Doctor suddenly approached him.

“Doc! What brings you here? Is somebody sick?” A silly question; what few crewmen were there were clearly fine.

“Actually, Mr. Paris, I was looking for you.”

Strange as it seemed, the Doctor was in need of advice on love. Why he sought that advice from Tom Paris was about to become obvious. “I assume you’ve had a great deal of experience being rejected by women.”

Tonight, of all nights, this should have been salt in his open wound. But he was numb, he reminded himself. You had to feel in order to feel pain. He feigned a wounded look, but it hadn’t hurt him a bit.

Not that the Doctor seemed at all embarrassed at the implication as he continued. “What I’d like to know is: what does one do to overcome the unpleasant symptoms of romantic rejection?”

Sit in a holographic bar, downing a pot of coffee for one thing.

Tom dispassionately focused on the Doctor’s question instead of his own broken heart. “Ah, alright well, let’s see. Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do to get over a woman you really care about.” Tom searched for a memory that wouldn’t be too painful to share. Of a woman he’d actually gotten over. “I remember when Susie Crabtree dumped me back in my first year at the Academy. I broke out in hives, couldn’t get out of bed for a week. I almost failed stellar cartography. I walked around in a daze the rest of that year.” He could have lived without the reminder. Why tonight, of all nights, did the Doctor want to hear about his lost loves? Still, what did it matter? “Of course,” he lied to himself and to the Doctor, “the first one is always the hardest to get over.”

Wrong. Everyone, including Tom Paris, knew that the last one was the hardest by far.

His next words were to reassure himself. “Eventually you start thinking about her less and less, until finally—without realizing it—she’s not on your mind anymore.” I wonder when that starts, he thought.

“So the symptoms do subside over time?” the Doctor asked.

‘I sure as hell hope so,’ Tom mused silently. “For the most part, but every now and then—even years later—something reminds you of her…a certain smell, a few notes of a song…and suddenly you feel just as bad as the day she told you she never wanted to see you again.” Which was about ninety minutes ago, if he’d kept track of the time properly.

This was useless. “If you want the honest truth, Doc, you never completely get over a woman you’ve really cared about.”

Tom didn’t stop to think about the fact that he was now mourning the loss of a woman he’d never allowed himself to want. He’d moved right from friendship into heartbreak without ever stopping at love. At least not consciously. So why did it feel like he’d just been dumped?

The question almost lured him out of his numb funk. Instead, he distracted himself by trying to figure out why the EMH, of all people, would be asking about romantic rejection.

“Wait a minute Doc, we’re not talking about you, are we?”

Paris spent the next half hour hearing the touching tale of holographic love gone wrong. At first, it all seemed absurd, but he soon forgot that the man with the broken heart telling his sad tale was anything other than a man with a broken heart.

It seemed that their chief medical officer had fallen in love with his Vidiian patient. At Kes’s urging, he’d revealed his feelings, blurting out his romantic interest during a medical procedure on the woman’s dying body. She’d rejected the physician almost instantly, breaking the subroutines that stood in for the doctor’s heart.

But Tom wasn’t so sure it was that simple. There was enough wrong with the Doc’s approach to at least consider another explanation. “Sounds to me like she might just be shy,” Paris speculated. “Women like romance. They want men to take an effort; take them someplace special.”

His pupil seemed intrigued. “Where would I take her?”

Paris instantly rejected the first place that came to his mind. Even if he’d never see it again, the carnival was private. Something he had shared only with her. But he had enough other venues in his now pointless bag of tricks. “Come with me, Doc.” He said, heading for the emitter controls. “I’ve got an idea.”

It only took him a moment to transfer the Doctor into Holodeck 1. He then walked down the corridor to join him. Let’s see: there was Risa. Nope, too cliché. New Orleans? Too bawdy for someone who might be shy. Venice? Too ‘third date.’ No, he needed someplace where two tentative lovers could take it slow. Someplace equally innocuous and romantic. Someplace 1950’s. Suddenly, it was so obvious.

Tom hadn’t used the Mars program yet, himself. He’d been saving it for the right woman, someone who was more than just a conquest. Someone he could fall in love with. It was definitely an ‘advance the relationship’ spot. He’d called it up recently—though he wasn’t sure why. For some reason, he’d changed the color of the Chevy from red to a teal blue. The color of a jumpsuit he’d seen her wear once.

He didn’t stop to notice that he refused to think her name.

Paris had put a lot of thought and effort into that program. Back when he imagined he might actually have a life; when he could dream of relationships that lasted longer than a few days. What did it matter now? He’d be gone soon. Someone ought to get some enjoyment out of the damn thing.

When he finally made it back to his quarters, his combadge made a distinctive chirp. Perfect timing, he realized.

Tom retrieved the PADD, totally unsurprised at its brief message. “Exit, stage right,” was all it said.

He didn’t even bother to take off his uniform before throwing himself on his bed. “Computer, play musical selection Paris 1955. Dim the lights.”

The soft, sad song began to play as he forced himself to sleep.

My love must be a kind of blind love. I can’t see anyone but you.
Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright.
I only have eyes for you, dear.
The moon may be high. But I can’t see a thing in the sky.
I only have eyes for you.

The song of a man obsessed, blinded by love. A luxury he couldn’t allow himself. ‘Good luck, Doc,’ Paris thought as he drifted off.~*~*~*~*~

He could stop her from creeping into his thoughts, but his dreams had a mind of their own.

They were back at the carnival, only this time something was different.

She was kissing him, for one thing.

And there was a Ferris Wheel. As a matter of fact, they were stopped at the top of it. She was wearing the same lace-up jumpsuit he now realized was his favorite of her outfits, and his hand was enmeshed in her hair. The car was swaying slightly, both from the warm breeze off the ocean and their movements as they roamed around each other’s lips.

He pulled back to make sure it was real. B’Elanna was smiling at him, the look in her eyes was a mixture of happiness and desire. “Admit it, Tom,” he heard her say. “You planned this all along.” Somehow he still felt very much along for the ride. She kept explaining, “This carnival, these rides, the beach. You made it all for me—for us—didn’t you?”

She was still smiling, yet somehow it felt like an accusation. “I guess I did,” he heard himself admit, without ever consciously realizing it had been true. “Are you sorry?”

Still placid, devoted, her voice and face answered before her words. “Not at all. I love it.” She was reaching into his heart with her eyes.

She leaned over to continue their kiss as the Wheel began to turn once again, gently at first, then gradually picking up in speed. He pulled away; B’Elanna didn’t seem to notice there was a problem. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re going too fast,” he said, now nervously watching the rising and falling ground beneath them. “Something’s not right.”

She seemed to misinterpret his meaning. “I thought you wanted this. I thought you wanted me.”

“No, B’Elanna, that’s not what I mean!” They were now turning so fast he was sure the wheel would break from its housing and send them rolling down the beach into the ocean. Why didn’t she seem to notice? “We’ve got to stop this!”

“Then why did you bring me here?” She was shouting at him now, her eyes full of contempt. She was no longer in the teal jumpsuit, but wore her Maquis leathers and suedes. “I should have listened to Chakotay!” she was screaming at him. “I should have stayed away from you!”

The ride came to a sudden stop, and Tom thought for a moment he would be thrown from the car. Still, B’Elanna didn’t seem to think anything of it. She was focused on him, on his rejection. But he hadn’t meant to reject her at all. “B’Elanna, please, just listen to me!”

“I have been listening, but you’re not saying anything!” She was in her Starfleet uniform now. “You don’t want me, you don’t care about me. You don’t care about anything but yourself. Why don’t you grow up and stop playing these stupid games?!”

He wanted to reach out to her, tell her it wasn’t his game this time. They were at the bottom, now, the ride at a merciful stop. She threw open the restraining bar and stormed away. “B’Elanna! Wait!”

Before he could go after her, the bar slammed shut, and he looked into the smiling face of the ride’s operator: Seska. “Sit back and keep your arms inside the car,” she said, sneering. And he was in motion again. Up and down as the Wheel once again began to pick up speed. He searched the crowd below, but he couldn’t find her. “B’Elanna, wait!” he screamed. “B’Elanna!”

“B’Elanna!” his own voice woke him as he was jolted out of the dream. He was tangled in the blanket, and his breathing was ragged. There was a sudden, sharp pain in his chest.

So much for being numb, he realized. Or asleep.

~*~*~*~*~

What does one have for breakfast on the day they commit professional suicide?

It seemed the answer was, ‘whatever you want.’ Tom couldn’t help but notice that his replicator rations had been tripled while he slept. He recognized Tuvok’s security override—a surprisingly kind gesture from a man who had no ability to empathize with his situation.

Unfortunately, the gift would go unused. Paris couldn’t begin to summon up an appetite.

Besides, the chronometer read 0808. It was show time.

He’d never intended to shove him so hard. It certainly wasn’t a part of the ‘script.’ Yet when Chakotay told Tom he was relieved of duty for once again arriving late to his shift, it was Paris’s job to make a convincing protest. He pretended to ask for Captain Janeway’s help (which he knew she would refuse). But when he turned—and the first officer grabbed his arm—Tom was caught off guard. He was tired and had swallowed almost two months of frustration and loneliness. This unexpected contact was a surprise, and Paris couldn’t control his reaction. He’d only tried to push out of the commander’s grip. Yet the force of his shove threw Chakotay off balance, sending him sprawling to the deck.

Intentional or not, he had just assaulted a senior officer in front of his captain and the entire bridge crew. Relieved to see Chakotay was unhurt, Paris couldn’t help but feel a deeper relief: he’d done it. He’d crossed the line. Finally, it could all come to an end.

Janeway knew the opportunity she’d just been presented. “Mr. Tuvok, please escort Mr. Paris to the brig.”

As he was taken away, Tom noticed Harry Kim, his head bowed in disbelief, not able to make himself watch Paris’s final humiliation.

‘Bye, Harry,’ Tom thought. ‘Sorry you had to see that.’

“Computer, initiate security protocol, authorization Tuvok Omega-2.”

The turbolift came to a halt between decks, and Tom heard the crackle of the dampening field as it activated. “Good work, Lieutenant,” the security chief said as soon as the internal sensors had been blocked. “A thoroughly convincing performance.”

A pretty unusual state of affairs, Tom realized. It was pretty rare to get complimented for knocking your first officer to the deck. “Yeah, well, believe it or not, it really was an accident. I didn’t mean to push him that hard.”

Paris wondered for a moment if some small, suppressed part of Tuvok hadn’t actually enjoyed the battering Chakotay had taken in the past few weeks. He knew there was no love lost between the men; by all rights, the Vulcan could have expected to be named first officer when Cavit was killed. Maybe he resented the former Maquis for winning the position. Was that why Tuvok’s scenario called for Chakotay’s ritual humiliation? The thought began to annoy Tom, but he didn’t have long to think about it.

It hadn’t taken Tuvok long to formulate a plan. “Sensors have located the Talaxian convoy. They can be here within forty-eight hours. I recommend the following scenario: at the end of today’s duty shift, the captain will order you released from the brig and confined to quarters while she makes arrangements for you to leave the ship. Tomorrow morning you should begin preparing for your departure. I have downloaded all of our tactical information about the Kazon into your encrypted datapad. Please use the rest of the day to study it carefully.”

“Understood,” Paris said, unenthusiastically. “What then?”

“The Talaxians should be here by the following morning.” Tuvok was cold, matter of fact.

“What will we tell the crew?” Tom wondered. A part of him also imagined the celebration that would take place in Sandrine’s once everyone realized he was gone.

“Nothing,” Tuvok answered. “I’m sure the captain will make some sort of announcement, but it would be best if no one knew of your plans to depart until the last moment. It is likely that some of the crew—some of your friends—would attempt to ‘change your mind.’ I would like to avoid any temptation you might feel to reveal something in an effort to comfort them.”

This comment made Paris livid. “Now wait just a damn minute, Lieutenant! I have done each thing you’ve asked of me, and I haven’t told anyone. I’ve risked everything to make this plan work; I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that now!”

Tuvok turned to him, his eyes showing more compassion than Paris would have expected. “You’ve acted with uncommon courage,” he admitted. “But you have been forced to say and do things that must have been extremely difficult for someone with such deep emotions. My suggestion was intended only to spare you additional pain.”

Tom calmed at the kind words. “Thanks,” he said softly. “But I don’t think you have to worry. I’m pretty sure no one will be beating down my door begging me to stick around.”

Paris turned to face the lift doors, his body language screaming for Tuvok to restart the damn thing and get this whole charade over with once and for all.

“Computer, disengage security lockout and resume.”

~*~*~*~*~

As it turned out, someone did beg him to stay.

After being released from the brig, Paris was packing some clothes in his quarters when the chime sounded. “Come in,” he said without bothering to look over his shoulder. When he finally did turn around, the face he saw looked pained.

“Neelix, how’s it going?” Just as he had with B’Elanna, Tom noticed his friend’s wounded expression and immediately dropped the act. “Not good, it looks like. What’s wrong?”

“I hear you’re leaving the ship.” Wow. This was an unexpected development. Tom wasn’t sure how his friend could have known, though he could guess it was from another Talaxian, probably someone on the convoy.

Now understanding why Neelix looked so glum, Tom went back to his packing. “Good news travels fast, I guess.” He tried to explain to his friend that he was looking for advancement, a new start, and that coming aboard Voyager had been a mistake from the beginning.

With his typically lovable mix of total selflessness and total self-absorption, Neelix’s next question made Paris feel horrible about the effect his mission was having on his friends. “Tom, you and I have had our differences, but I thought we put those behind us. I just hope I haven’t contributed to your decision.”

Why did his friends insist on making this even harder? Tom tried to be reassuring. “Neelix, no! This isn’t about anybody except me. I’ve done this to myself, just like always.” It was true, if not in the way he now implied. “No matter where I go or who I’m with, I make a mess of things. The unmistakable conclusion has to be that—deep down—I don’t want any friends, or a family, or a home. Otherwise I wouldn’t keep sabotaging the possibilities.”

Just stick to the script, Tom told himself. Don’t let any of this get to you. Neelix wasn’t making it easy.

“I thought you’d found those things here.” Paris watched the man struggle to find the right argument, to find the right words to convince Tom to say. Close to—and more than a little anxious for—a resolution to this drawn out melodrama, Tom appreciated the gesture but couldn’t be swayed.

‘Forgive me for lying to you, Neelix,’ he thought as he answered. “I tried. Or maybe I just told myself I was trying. I’m not sure. But either way it’s just not working. Frankly, I’d like to get out before I completely destroy my image. There might actually be one or two people who still have a good opinion of me.” Lying was always easier from a distance; Tom grabbed some clothes from his wardrobe and headed back to the bed.

Neelix was undeterred. “I’m one of them Tom. And I wish you wouldn’t go.”

‘I should have known,’ Tom thought. Once you were Neelix’s friend, you were a friend for life. And, he had to admit to himself, he was glad for one last look at a kind, welcoming face.

“Well, I thank you,” he said sincerely, then slipped back to the lie. “But the truth is, I’ve always considered myself a drifter. You know what that’s like, Neelix. The freedom to do what you want when you want. No rules to follow, nobody depending on you…right?” Truth was, Tom hated the very thought of that kind of lonely, rootless life.

Paris was totally caught of guard as the emotional morale officer suddenly pulled him into a hug, perhaps thinking his gesture might be more effective than his words. Tom was usually uncomfortable with Neelix’s touchy-feely nature, but—after a moment—he returned the embrace. After everything he had done, all the awful things he had said, this kind man wanted him to know he still had a friend.

‘God, I hope I can make this up to them,’ Tom thought to himself.

~*~*~*~*~

By that evening, the rumor was all over the ship. Tom Paris was leaving Voyager.

He wasn’t surprised when no one offered to throw a farewell party. He was a little disappointed, however, when no one came to say goodbye.

That was unfair; Neelix and Kes had offered to stop by for a nice dinner, but Tom had politely declined. He still had to finish reading a large portion of Tuvok’s intelligence file on the Kazon, and—strangely enough—he was looking forward to one last quiet night in his quarters.

But three hours later, after reading, and re-reading, and re-re-reading every known detail of Kazon ship design, engineering protocols, and tactical vulnerability, Paris was as prepared as he would ever be. He deactivated the PADD and went to lie down on his bed.

“Computer, locate Ensign Kim.” Okay, so he had expected Harry.

“Ensign Kim is in Jeffries Tube 11, Section 4.” Well, that made sense. Whether or not he had volunteered for the shift to have an excuse to stay away, at least Harry was still on duty. Tom was sure he would have come by otherwise.

“Locate Lieutenant Torres.” He hadn’t expected to see B’Elanna. Not really. Not after everything he’d said. Still, he found himself wondering where she was, what she was doing on their last night ‘together.’

“Lieutenant Torres is in Jeffries Tube 11, Section 4.”

Tom smiled. Misery loved company. At least his best friends had thrown themselves into their work together. They’d be there for each other, Paris knew, to help each other through his leaving. He was relieved in a way, particularly for Harry, who Tom suspected had taken his entire, mystifying regression the hardest.

In a few days, he supposed, they’d comfort each other through the news that he was missing or dead, and that this entire disgusting chapter of his life had been nothing more than a one-man show; a play written, directed, and performed for the sole purposed of ensuring their safety. Until that time, he wanted them to have something—some tangible proof that the Tom Paris they had known and cared for wasn’t the product of wishful thinking or their imaginations. Some small gesture to prove he really had cared for them both.

Tom moved to his desk and opened his personal database. He created a backup copy of the carnival program and encoded it for upload to B’Elanna, then set a delayed transfer time; it would arrive the following Friday at exactly 2100 hours.

Harry’s gift would be a little more immediate. Tom walked to the replicator and ordered a cold draft beer and a slice of pepperoni pizza with olives. Then he went back to the desk and keyed in another instruction. The rest of Paris’s replicator rations—including some he had collected during his ill-conceived gambling operation, and the extras Tuvok had left him the previous morning—were encoded for credit to Harry’s account, and timed for delivery six hours after his departure. It was a small gesture, but he knew his friend would understand. Eventually.

~*~*~*~*~

Torres couldn’t believe what Harry was suggesting. “You can go if you want to, Starfleet, but leave me out of it.” She was lying on her stomach, a laser welder in one hand and a tricorder in the other. These damned magnetic constrictors—why was it that nothing on this ship ever stayed fixed?

Kim was a meter away, trying to focus on finding the imbalance that was causing their latest engineering headache. This wasn’t his problem; he was off duty four hours earlier. But he’d wanted to find B’Elanna to try and convince her to come with him to say goodbye to Tom. He wasn’t sure he had the courage to go alone. Maybe, if they went together, they could figure out what was wrong with their friend in time to stop him from leaving.

She was adamant about staying away. More importantly, though, she was up to her neck in systems failures. Maybe if he pitched in, Harry thought, he could help her finish faster and make a final plea for one last talk with Tom. “B’Elanna, I can’t believe you’d just let him go without even trying to find out what’s wrong.”

She was on her knees in an instant, and Harry felt a tricorder sail past his head. “Don’t you say that to me! I did try. I was a better friend to him than he deserved after the things he said to Chakotay. And even then, I gave him another chance to explain. He screamed at me and told me to leave him alone and get out of his life.”

Kim hadn’t known. “I’m sorry, B’Elanna.” Yet that only made Harry more convinced he was right. “But I just can’t stop thinking that this all started after the transwarp flight. He must be sick or something. He might not be able to help it.”

She was unimpressed. “Then you should be talking to the doctor, not the chief engineer,” she snarled, instantly regretting taking her anger out on her friend. “Listen, Harry, I wish I knew what happened. I’d actually started thinking that maybe…” there was a reality she wasn’t even willing to admit to herself, much less Harry Kim, “…maybe Tom and I were getting to be friends. But Chakotay was right. There’s a dark side to Tom Paris. Trust me: we’re both better off without him.”

He’d never believe that, B’Elanna knew. She wasn’t sure she did either.

“Now throw me my tricorder so I can get back to work.”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom didn’t hear Neelix’s broadcast, but apparently everyone else on the ship had. It was a touching tribute, he would later learn, that cast Paris as a misunderstood but honorable man. It was a kind gesture from a kind soul.

At 1100 hours, the comlink sounded. The Talaxian convoy had arrived and was waiting for him. Neelix and Kes were at his door in minutes, his escorts for the short walk to the transporter room.

Paris was surprised to see Harry waiting for him inside. “Hey,” Tom said reflexively.

“Hey,” Harry answered in reply. They stood there awkwardly for a moment, neither sure what to say. “B’Elanna wanted to be here,” Kim lied. “But she couldn’t get away.”

Tom smiled. “Sure,” he said, not believing it for a moment. He wanted to reach out to Kim, tell him everything would be okay, tell him this was all a big misunderstanding and that everything would make sense soon. He wanted to thank Harry for being his first and best friend, for being the little brother he’d always wanted but never had. For having the courage to choose his own friends.

“Tom,” Harry interrupted Paris’s silent reassurances. “I just wanted to say…”

“Harry,” Tom cut him off. “I know. But everything’s gonna be alright. Trust me.” An ironic choice of words, he understood.

Paris stepped away and moved to say goodbye to Kes. Somehow, for a man with a reputation for loquaciousness, words suddenly failed him. Instead, he looked deeply into her eyes, trying to reach any small part of her rumored Ocampan telepathy. ‘You’re not wrong about me, Kes,’ he thought as hard as he could. She didn’t seem to ‘hear’ him, or need to. The look in her eyes was already pure acceptance. He hugged her tightly.

Somehow he expected Neelix to hug him again, too. Perhaps the Talaxian was trying to allow him his dignity. A handshake and a smile would do today.

Paris didn’t say anything to Harry, either. What was left to say? He extended his hand, and was surprised when Kim reached out to hug him. It almost broke his resolve.

Tom stepped back and removed his combadge, handing it to Harry before walking onto the transporter pad. For some reason, he couldn’t stop staring at his friend, sending Kim the same telepathic message he had tried to convey to Kes. ‘You weren’t wrong about me, buddy. I’m doing this for you.’

The men’s eyes were still locked as the transporter shimmered Paris away.

~*~*~*~*~

The senior staff briefing had been like a funeral. Even Chakotay, who had every reason to be glad Paris was gone from their lives, was subdued. B’Elanna had chosen a seat close to him, trying desperately to feel connected to someone. It was no use. She knew she would have to reimagine her life, her relationships, and her judgment of character in light of these last few months with Tom Paris. Chakotay was her rock; the only family she’d ever really had. Yet, she knew she could never tell him that—even now, just six hours after Tom had left the ship—she had already begun to miss the man.

Her seat had also given her a perfect view of Harry Kim’s sullen face. B’Elanna wondered then if she’d made a mistake in talking Harry out of visiting Paris the night before. There’d be no closure for her friend now, and she felt a little responsible.

There was only so long she could let this distract her, though. The magnetic constrictors had continued to slip. If she couldn’t find the problem, couldn’t reduce the engine core temperature, the plasma stream could overheat. She had almost been glad when Jonas called her back to engineering—her work would help her forget.

But, of course, things were never that simple in B’Elanna’s life. The problem was growing exponentially; by the time she’d reached engineering, the PTC temperature was through the roof. They were forced to vent plasma to slow the reaction—but not before Jonas, Lang, and Thompson were burned. To top it all off, the plasma had scorched the inner layer of the warp coils. Voyager wouldn’t be traveling faster than light anytime soon.

Once she made sure the ship was out of danger, Torres helped carry the injured to sickbay. Now, as she rode the turbolift to the bridge, she allowed herself to think about a question Harry had raised in the staff meeting: what if Tom changed his mind and decided to come back? Janeway had dismissed the idea, but that was before the accident fried their warp coils. It occurred to B’Elanna that—with the drive offline—they might be stuck in this part of space long enough to catch up with the convoy if Paris had a change of heart.

‘What are you thinking?’ she shouted at herself. ‘You do not want him back here.’ Yet her mind kept working the math. ‘The convoy travels at warp 2. We’re at impulse. If the warp drive is back on line in four days, we would still be able to rendezvous with them in…’

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna’s hopes for any quick reunion were shattered an hour later.

Neelix had just helped them locate a nearby system with the raw minerals necessary to rebuild the burned warp coils, a yellow dwarf star called Hemikek. They’d find what they needed on the fourth planet.

B’Elanna was about to head back to engineering when the call came in. The Kazon had attacked the Talaxian convoy. The only thing they had taken: Tom Paris.

Torres noticed the look that flashed between the captain and Lieutenant Tuvok. She assumed they’d be planning a rescue attempt. Harry seemed to have the same idea. “Captain, we’ve got to go after him,” Kim was shouting.

Janeway’s face reminded them before she spoke. “Without warp engines, we’ll never catch them.” She turned toward her ready room, talking as she walked. “Mr. Baytart, set a course for Hemikek. Full impulse. Mr. Tuvok, you’re with me.”

B’Elanna turned to look into Harry’s panicked eyes. Damn it, in a way this was her fault: her engines were keeping them from going after Tom. If she’d been able to bring the constrictors into alignment, they’d be on their way to rescue him right now. There had to be something she could do.

She headed for engineering without a word to anyone. They’d need to make these repairs in record time if they had any chance of getting Tom back alive.

“Damn you, Tom Paris. Why the hell did you have to leave?!”

~*~*~*~*~

Voyager’s rumor mill was in high gear. Neelix wasn’t the only one to wonder how the Kazon knew Paris was aboard that convoy. He wasn’t the first to wonder if someone aboard Voyager had somehow let them know. He was the first to go digging into the subspace transmission logs, however, in his newfound role as the ship’s official investigative reporter.

B’Elanna was too busy to help him solve the mystery. Her energies were focused on only one thing: getting Voyager’s warp engines on line and going after her missing friend. She’d worked around the clock for the past two days, and was so busy that she missed Neelix’s transmission implicating Paris in his own disappearance. Nor was she aware that Voyager’s answer to Lois Lane had been immediately called into a meeting with the captain, who’d cleared Tom’s name and revealed the details of their secret mission to uncover the real spy. It was news not only to Neelix, but also to Commander Chakotay.

“Are you saying Paris’s insulting behavior, the gambling, being late for duty, mouthing off at me was all a ruse?” The first officer couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Only days before he had congratulated himself on finally earning the captain’s trust and respect. Clearly it was all a lie.

Tuvok tried to take responsibility for the decision, but everyone knew where the ultimate authority lay. Janeway’s excuse was even more insulting, “The simple fact is we needed a good performance. I’m afraid we used you to help Tom provide it. And you did a damn good job.”

Used was a good way to put it; it’s exactly how Chakotay felt. Used, and mistrusted.

But there was a more immediate problem than the first officer’s hurt feelings. There was a spy on board and they still didn’t know who it was. Neelix volunteered to help correct his blunder by letting it slip to the crew that he’d been wrong about Tom’s involvement, that the evidence against Paris had been planted. They hoped the real traitor would become nervous, perhaps to the point of finally revealing himself.

What could have been a dangerous detour seemed to have turned itself into an opportunity. Neelix and Tuvok left to put the next phase of the plan in motion.

Chakotay lingered in the ready room until the others had gone.

The captain had moved to sit at her desk, perhaps needing the reassurance of her own authority that it provided. Janeway knew why he was waiting. “Commander, I know how this must seem…”

“Captain,” he interrupted, “would you like to reconsider your decision to make me Voyager’s first officer?” he was looking her dead in the eye, his tone flat—all business.

No matter how much she knew she’d been within her rights to keep the commander out of the loop, Janeway also knew it was a decision she’d have to pay for now. “Chakotay, no. This wasn’t a matter of trust…”

“Of course it was! Because, you see, Captain, I’m not sure now that I can trust you or Lieutenant Tuvok to give me the information necessary to do my job. And I told you a year ago: I’m not interested in being your token Maquis. Either you think of me, and B’Elanna, and the others as members of your crew—your Starfleet crew—or you might just as well put us all off on that Talaxian convoy. This uniform has to mean something, or I’m not interested in wearing it.”

He was leaning over her desk now, his eyes searching hers for the answer he needed. “If I’m going to be your first officer, I have to know that there are no secrets between us. And I certainly can’t function thinking that my captain and her security chief are conspiring behind my back.”

“That’s enough, Commander.” She knew he was angry; even agreed with his reasons. But there were limits to how much she was willing to be accused of. Maybe because it rang of the truth. She stood and moved to face him. “I do trust you, Chakotay. And you’re right. It was a mistake not to include you.”

His eyes softened at her admission as she continued. “But it’s clear that not all of the former Maquis have earned that same trust. So I overreacted. I’m sorry.” She reached out and touched his arm. “And you have my word: it’s the last time this captain will exclude her first officer from a key decision. I promise you.”

“It would be easier for me to believe that promise if you hadn’t just spent the last two months misleading me,” he said flatly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Captain.” He turned and headed for the bridge.

“Chakotay…,” she called to him, but the doors had already closed. Facing the very real possibility that this spy had cost her Voyager’s helmsman, Janeway couldn’t help but wonder if she might have just lost its first officer as well.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris was having an action-packed couple of days. He’d barely had time to drop his duffle in his new quarters and get oriented to the Talaxian cargo ship when the Kazon came calling. Six hours later, and he was trading insults with a very-pregnant Seska as she tried to recruit him to her cause. Another three hours and one overloaded phase inducer later, and he had not only learned the identity ofVoyager’s traitor, he’d uncovered a secret plan to sabotage and ambush the ship on a planet called Hemikek IV.

Now, with no way to know how close his friends were to walking into a trap, Paris was speeding home on a ‘borrowed’ Kazon shuttle, with Seska and the warship in close pursuit. He used every piloting trick he had to evade their fire—not only to save his own neck, but to get within hailing range of Voyager. He had to find a way to warn them off. To warn them about Michael Jonas.

Tom was stunned by the identity of Voyager’s traitor. Jonas had been one of the few Maquis to treat Paris decently during his time on theLiberty, and he knew B’Elanna had always considered the man a friend. Soft-spoken almost to the point of meekness, Jonas had always seemed like a follower, not someone to mastermind a covert operation—and certainly not someone who would sell out the lives of his friends. The whole idea made Paris wonder if you could ever really and truly know someone.

Probably how his friends had been feeling about him, he now realized. But that was about to end. For the first time in a month, Paris actually began to believe he might survive this crazy mission, might finally get the chance to explain everything to the people he’d hurt. To restore Harry’s belief in him, to validate the unwavering faith of Neelix and Kes, and to explain his angry outburst to B’Elanna.

Torres would be rocked by the news about Jonas. She’d probably worry how this reflected on the other Maquis—and on her, his friend and direct supervisor. She’d be angry and hurt that Paris hadn’t confided in anyone—not just her but Harry and Chakotay. Tom would have to think of a way to make it up to her, to get her to see how hard it had been for him to be near her without being able to reveal the details of his mission. Maybe this could be a new beginning for their friendship. If she’d ever even speak to him again.

His fantasy of a reunion was interrupted by a disruptor blast off his aft shields. He’d have plenty of time to think of what he would say to his friends. But first he’d have to outrun this damned warship…

~*~*~*~*~

It was Harry who noticed it first. “Captain. Long-range sensors are picking up a Kazon shuttle heading this way. One lifesign. It’s human! Captain, it could be Tom!” For the next five seconds, Harry’s gut bounced back and forth from joy to fear. There were only two possibilities: either Paris had found a way to escape from his captors and was heading home, or Neelix was right about Tom’s collusion with the Kazon, and this was some kind of trap. In his heart, Harry knew it was the former. But Captain Janeway would have a decision to make. He prayed she knew Paris well enough to trust that this wasn’t an ambush.

His answer came quickly as he heard her call out instructions. “Bridge to engineering. I need you to increase transporter range. Shunt all available power to Transporter Room 2. We have an incoming shuttle and we’ve identified human lifesigns. It may be Tom Paris.”

Harry was a little disappointed to hear Mike Jonas acknowledge the order instead of B’Elanna. Not only was he anxious for Torres to hear that their friend was alive and coming home, he knew B’Elanna’s unique engineering talent might be necessary to bring Tom in safely. Kim considered signaling her when a voice over the com distracted him.

“Paris to Voyager! Change your course immediately!” He heard Tom’s frantic explanation: Kazon ships and troops were waiting for them on Hemikek. It was a trap. Paris was frantically yelling for the captain to take Voyager out of danger. Kim was relieved when she refused to go until Tom was safely aboard. “I can take care of myself,” Paris protested. “Just get Voyager to safety!” The sounds of explosions inside his shuttle seemed to tell a different story.

Where the hell was that extra transporter power?! Harry wouldn’t take his eyes off the indicator. He’d be ready to beam Tom out of there as soon as he could. His concentration was almost broken by Paris’s next words. “Captain, the spy: it’s Michael Jonas! He’s the one who sabotaged the ship.”

The explanation for the missing transporter power was now obvious. How Tom knew the ship had been sabotaged was less so.

Harry was stunned as he heard Janeway order a security detail. “Tuvok, get to engineering. It’s Michael Jonas!” As if she’d known all along that there was a spy on board. As if she’d just been waiting for Tom to tell her who it was…

Kim’s sensors detected it as he heard his friend say the words, “The shuttle hull is starting to breech. Might not make it, Captain…” Harry could see the gap closing. A few more seconds, and….

“We’re in transporter range, Captain.” Kim’s fingers were making the lock and energizing as he spoke. The acknowledgement from the transporter room came quickly: they had Tom and he was alive. On his transporter control read-out, Harry could see the chief initiate a site-to-site transport to sickbay. Alive but injured?

There was no time to ask. Another display and another problem: the phaser arrays were down now. Gee, what a surprise—someone in engineering had disabled them. As he attempted to bypass the disruption, Harry’s mind popped back to the last voice he’d heard from engineering: Michael Jonas. A Kazon spy. Suddenly it all made sense. Tom couldn’t know about Neelix’s discovery of the secret subspace transmissions—the discovery that had revealed the espionage. He must have known there was a traitor on board before he left. And the captain acted like she was waiting for Paris’s report. This was a set-up, Harry now knew. A plot to flush out the spy, which Tom had clearly been a part of.

The implications were overwhelming. Tom’s behavior over the past two months—it was all an act. Harry didn’t misjudge his best friend after all. Well, actually, he did: he had clearly underestimated Tom Paris. They all had.

But it wouldn’t matter much unless the weapons came back online soon. The Kazon warship that had destroyed Tom’s shuttle was now bearing down on Voyager. Where the hell was Tuvok? For that matter, where the hell was B’Elanna?

She’d been working in the engineering computer core, trying frantically to prepare for the refit of the coils. The distraction of Paris’s kidnapping—and the speculation she had overheard that it hadn’t been a kidnapping at all—weren’t making it easy for B’Elanna to focus on the huge job at hand. Her fatigue wasn’t helping, either. Since the accident, she’d been working pretty much around the clock. If she’d had four hours sleep in the past two days, she could barely remember it. As chief engineer, she knew it was starting to affect her performance; she just couldn’t make herself care.

Hogan had just arrived from engineering with the electrodynamic load specs when the red alert sounded. “Stations, everyone,” Torres said to her crew as she headed for the door. She almost walked into it when it didn’t open. “What’s going on?”

Kyoto was already at the display. “We’re under security lockdown, Lieutenant. Code Black.”

Great, B’Elanna thought. A Code Black lockdown meant there were intruders on board; the central core was automatically secured to prevent someone from tampering with key propulsion systems during a hostile takeover of the ship. “Torres to bridge,” she said as she hit her combadge. There was no answer.

Hogan had moved to the main engineering readouts. “Lieutenant, we’ve been locked out of communications—there’s a dampening field around this room. And the Code Black was initiated from Main Engineering.”

This didn’t make any sense. “Hogan, who was still in engineering when you left?”

“Neelix and Mike Jonas.” B’Elanna shook her head. It made even less sense, now.

“What was Neelix doing there?” she asked.

“He wanted our help again with the subspace logs. He said the signal correlation traces that had implicated Paris were added after the fact to make it look like Tom had sent the messages. He was trying to figure out who might have done it and why. But I told him we were too busy getting ready for the rebuild. When I left, he was using the engineering diagnostic panel to do some more research. Mike just asked him to stay out of the way.”

Kyoto joined their conversation. “Is there a chance that Neelix could have accidentally engaged the security lockout?”

B’Elanna had another theory. “I don’t think so. He’d need bridge or engineering clearance to initiate a Code Black.” Her mind was frantically reviewing Hogan’s words: if the logs had been altered to make Tom look like a traitor, that meant Paris was innocent. He hadn’t betrayed them after all. Just as important, it meant that someone still aboard Voyager was the real spy. Someone with enough engineering talent to fake those correlation traces. It was all coming together now.

She needed to check out her theory. “Hogan, start working on this dampening field. I need to find out what the hell is going on. Kyoto, get that door open. I don’t care if you have to cut through the bulkhead; we need to get out of here. In the meantime, I’m going to take a look at those subspace logs.”

Suddenly, adrenaline and the theory Torres was now formulating were more than enough to compensate for her lack of sleep. If her new suspicions were correct, she’d be able to prove once and for all that Tom Paris was innocent. ‘Please,’ she thought. ‘Let me be right.’

Kim wasn’t sure what had happened, but suddenly the weapons were back online. “Fire at will,” Janeway ordered. ‘It would be my pleasure,’ Harry thought.

A few precise shots, and the Kazon ship was adrift and burning. Seska and her friends were in no condition to follow Voyager. Kim heard the captain order Baytart to head away from the Hemikek system at maximum impulse. For the moment, the crisis had passed.

“Bridge to Tuvok,” the captain called. “I’m standing down red alert.” It took the security chief a moment to respond.

“Aye, Captain. We have secured Main Engineering.”

Janeway smiled as she answered, “Good work, Lieutenant.”

“Actually,” they heard Tuvok say, “the credit goes to Mr. Neelix. Not only did he repair the sabotage to the phaser array, he was able to subdue Mr. Jonas before I arrived.”

The captain and operations officer shared a glance, both officially impressed. “Good. Take Jonas to the brig. I’ll meet you…”

“Uh, Captain,” they heard Neelix’s voice. “I’m afraid a plasma conduit burst while he and I were struggling, and…Jonas fell into the plasma stream. He’s dead.”

This was a blow to their investigation; if Jonas had accomplices, they might never be discovered now. Still, a large part of this mystery was solved. Harry saw the disappointment in his captain’s eyes, however. “Yes, well. I’m sure there was nothing you could do, Mr. Neelix. I think your first undercover mission was a success. Now, speaking of undercover missions, if you’ll all excuse me, I’d like to check on Mr. Paris.”

“Uh, Captain!” Harry blurted out. “If you don’t mind…”

Janeway nodded. Of course: they’d both earned this reunion. “Would you like to join me, Mr. Kim?”

“Yes, ma’am!” he said, with a Parisian twang, before running to meet his captain at the turbolift. His best friend was in sickbay. She couldn’t have kept him away.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna had reached Main Engineering just in time to hear Neelix explain Jonas’s fate. As it turned out, the rupture that had killedVoyager’s spy had also disrupted the security lockout in the engineering computer core, setting them all free. Not before B’Elanna had confirmed her suspicions that Michael Jonas had been their traitor, however.

Torres also thought she heard the captain say something about checking on Tom. “Tuvok,” she asked, “Tom Paris…”

He seemed to intuit her question. “…is in sickbay,” he answered. “I do not believe his condition is life threatening.”

She was surprised at the wave of relief she felt, even if—unlike Harry—B’Elanna had too little information to piece together the true story of Paris’s undercover mission. As far as she knew, Tom was still the jerk who had left her two days ago. Left Voyager, she meant. But she hadn’t wished him any harm—at least none she didn’t inflict herself. And she was glad he was home.

Her question seemed to remind Neelix of something. “I think I’m going to drop in on our hero and make sure he’s alright. If you’ll excuse me.”

As she watched him leave, B’Elanna was puzzled by Neelix’s comments. “Our hero?” she asked Tuvok.

“I’m not certain I’m at liberty to discuss it,” the Vulcan said dispassionately. “However, I think the term is accurately applied.”

While the thought raised fifteen or twenty questions in her mind, Torres was quickly deluged with more pressing questions from her staff. Questions not about Tom Paris’s heroic status, but about everything from the revised plan for the rebuild to the gaping hole now visible in the deck where the plasma conduit had ruptured.

Besides, B’Elanna knew all she need to know for now: Tom Paris was alive, in Voyager’s sickbay, and was—by Neelix and Tuvok’s estimation—some kind of hero. The rest her questions would have to wait.

~*~*~*~*~

Harry Kim’s initial excitement at seeing his best friend had been tempered by a sudden realization: he’d been pretty cold to Tom over these past few weeks. He’d had no way to know Paris’s bad behavior was just an act—yet somehow he felt he should have known. He should have been able to realize that the Tom Paris he knew would never act that way.

Yet Harry couldn’t help but think of another Tom Paris: a man he’d met in San Francisco in an alternate timeline where neither man had become a part of Voyager’s crew. That Paris had been a drunk, a jerk, and was wasting his life as a pool hustler in the real Sandrine’s. That was the same Tom, too, and he was capable of every stupid thing Harry had watched his friend do the past few weeks.

It hadn’t occurred to Harry until now that, even the ‘alternate’ Tom Paris—when given the smallest chance for redemption—had sacrificed himself to save Kim’s life. ‘I should have known,’ Harry repeated to himself. ‘I should have known.’

As he and the captain reached sickbay, Harry almost considered waiting outside. But his excitement and his better judgment both prevailed in the end.

They walked in to find Tom in the middle of a full-body hug with Kes, the Ocampan medic’s feet almost a foot off the deck. Voyager’s physician was looking particularly annoyed.

“Tom!” the captain said, with such affection that Harry thought she might actually embrace the pilot herself. “Welcome home!”

Paris shook her hand instead. “It’s great to be back, Captain. In more ways than one.”

Janeway’s excitement quickly turned to concern. “How extensive were his injuries,” she asked the doctor.

“Mr. Paris was fortunate: the only wounds were to his head. It seems to be his least vulnerable spot.” The doctor’s sarcasm was a good sign, Harry knew. “The lieutenant sustained a rather severe concussion and a few lacerations, but I was able to repair the damage rather easily. Now, if my patient would lie down and allow me to finish his treatment, I might see fit to release him to you in an hour or so.”

The captain smiled. “I’ll need to debrief you as soon as you’re finished here, Tom. Good job.” With that, she headed for the door, stopping just long enough to put her hand on Harry’s arm. She seemed to sense Kim’s hesitation, silently urging him to do what he’d come to do.

Tom’s eyes followed his captain’s steps toward the door, and he was now face to face with his best friend for the first time since his mission was revealed. As she touched Harry’s arm, Janeway turned back to look at Paris. She smiled, then headed back to the bridge. Kes took the captain’s cue, and pulled the doctor into the medical lab, giving the friends some privacy.

“Hey,” Tom said, searching Harry’s face for signs of recognition or forgiveness.

“Hey,” Kim echoed back. It was becoming their standard ‘I don’t know what to say to you’ greeting.

After a second, Tom tried to break the ice. “I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Harry smiled. “I know,” he said quietly. “You shouldn’t have had to tell me. I should have known you would never do those things.” The look in his eyes almost broke Tom’s heart.

“Actually,” Paris said, “I’m glad you didn’t figure it out. Then I would have needed to act like an even bigger jerk to convince you. Just ask Chakotay: it wasn’t pretty.” They both laughed, and—as Tom had intended—it broke the tension.

“Well,” Harry said, smiling, “I’ll remember this little performance of yours the next time we’re playing poker. Somehow, I think I’ll be keeping more of my replicator rations from now on!”

His friend’s comment sparked a memory in Paris. “That reminds, me, Harry…I think I might have left something of mine in your database…”

Before Tom could ask for his rations back, he was interrupted by the com.

“Torres to Kim.”

Harry and Tom just looked at each other for a minute. Somehow, neither man suspected B’Elanna would be quite so understanding of Paris’s little deception. Tom was quiet as his friend acknowledged the call. “Kim here, B’Elanna. What’s up?”

“Harry, this ruptured plasma conduit is causing failures in about a dozen secondary systems. I could really use your help down here.” In the background, they could hear the beeping of multiple alarms and a hissing noise that sounded like static. More importantly, they could hear the exhaustion and frustration in the chief engineer’s voice.

“On my way.” Harry answered before turning back to Tom. “Sounds like she’s had a bad day.” Always the master of the understatement, that Harry.

“Yeah,” Tom said. “I know how she feels. Would you tell her that I….” He stopped himself. “Nevermind. I should probably tell her myself.”

Harry nodded. There was no way he was getting in the middle of thatconversation. “Breakfast tomorrow?” he asked.

“Great,” Tom said, looking forward to doing something that felt normal for a change.

The men looked at each other for another second, before Harry closed the distance between them and gave his friend a bone-crushing hug. “Welcome back, Tom,” he said.

“Thanks, Harry,” Paris answered, more choked-up that he would have cared to admit. “It’s good to be home.”

~*~*~*~*~

As they sat in the captain’s ready room, Paris couldn’t help but notice that the first officer was looking at him with the same death glare Tom had last seen thirteen months earlier as he rescued his old Maquis captain from a collapsing Ocampan staircase. Back then it had really angered Chakotay that Tom Paris—of all people—would be the one to save his life. He didn’t want to admit that there might be a decent human being buried inside the insolent pilot. Yet, the men had come to an uneasy truce a few days later, when it was clear they’d be serving together—perhaps for the rest of their lives. Tom wasn’t so sure Chakotay would be as quick to forgive him this time.

He also knew that parts of his report would be difficult for the commander to hear. “Seska sends her regards,” he was saying to the captain and Tuvok. “She does appear to be pregnant, and said her baby is due in another month. It was pretty clear that she knew everything that had happened on Voyager—including the details of my ‘performance’ and the fact that the ship’s warp coils had been intentionally damaged.”

Paris could see the worried look on his captain’s face, and guessed at the reason. “Based on the transmissions I found, Captain, I’m pretty sure Jonas was acting alone. He was the only one I saw in the communication logs, and it sounded like Seska had been manipulating him for quite a while. Neither one of them ever made any reference to an accomplice.”

Tom found himself stifling a yawn as he tried to continue. It had been over twenty-four hours since he’d last slept, and the nights before that hadn’t been particularly restful.

His captain noticed and took pity. “I think we’re done here, Mr. Paris. Why don’t you get some sleep and we can finish up tomorrow.” Janeway was walking from behind her desk, and put her hand on the pilot’s shoulder as he stood. “We owe you a lot, Tom. Now go get some rest.”

“Thanks, Captain,” he said, genuinely grateful for the chance to end this day. As he turned for the door, Paris caught the look on Chakotay’s face and decided that it wasn’t the time or place for any truce-making. The commander was still too angry and Tom was just too tired. He was imagining his head hitting the pillow before the ready room doors had even closed behind him.

Janeway turned back to her second and third in command. “That is a pretty amazing young man,” she said, genuinely impressed with Paris’s performance. “I keep thinking that it’s a shame his father can’t see him like this.” She was walking toward the replicator as she spoke. “Coffee, black.”

She was answered with silence.

“The replicators are all out above deck three,” Chakotay reminded her. It was the most he had said to her since discovering her deception.

“Tuvok, go down and see if B’Elanna can use your help. I won’t make it though to tomorrow without coffee.” She knew her security officer had more important concerns than the status of his captain’s replicator, but she wanted a few moments alone with her first officer.

She let the doors close before she spoke. “Have you decided?” she asked cryptically.

“Decided?” Chakotay answered, his face expressionless.

“If you’re going to forgive me today or wait until tomorrow.” My, she was sure of herself.

“Tomorrow,” he answered, trying not to smile. She hadn’t earned this kind of banter with him yet, but he couldn’t seem to resist when she turned on the charm.

“Well, then,” Kathryn said as she headed for the bridge. “Let’s get this day over with so we can move on.” With that, she was out the door and halfway to the turbolift.

As he left the ready room, Chakotay considered following her right into the lift and heading back to his quarters. He needed some time to calm down, to work through his feelings about everything that had happened. But Voyager was in the middle of a security crisis, their warp engines were useless, and there was still too much work to be done. This was no time for the first officer to go nurse his wounded pride.

When time finally allowed, he would also have to figure out why he was so willing to take Kathryn Janeway at her word, to overlook the ways in which she wounded him, to trust her even when his better judgment, self-respect, and past experience told him not to. Somehow—even after what she had done—Chakotay knew he would follow her over a cliff, if she asked.

Despite himself, by the time he took his seat on the bridge, he knew he had already forgiven her.

~*~*~*~*~

As soon as Harry arrived in engineering, B’Elanna put him to work on the secondary systems damaged by the plasma conduit: auxiliary control circuits, replicators, redundant primary systems, and sonic showers—in that order. Torres took the lead in uncovering the depth of Jonas’s damage.

Had she known there was a saboteur on board—particular a former Maquis—these weeks of systems failures would have made more sense. She knew Jonas’s book of tricks—hell, she’d written half of it—but she’d never dreamed one of her own staff would put those same tricks to work undermining their own ship, so she didn’t think to look for them. In retrospect, it all seemed so obvious.

That there had been a spy among them was unnerving. That it had been an old friend was almost too much to bear. She was relieved that Tom’s name had been cleared, though. As troubled as Paris had become these last few months, she would never have believed he’d do anything to endanger Voyager. In a bizarre way, she thought, maybe Jonas did them all a favor: Tom might still be on that Talaxian convoy—with Voyager heading at warp speed in the opposite direction—if Mike hadn’t damaged the warp coils and tipped off the Kazon to the pilot’s departure. Of course, she supposed there was a chance Paris would just leave again once his injuries had healed…

She’d wanted to talk to Harry, find out what he knew, all afternoon. But the engineering messes they’d both had to solve kept them running in opposite directions the whole day. Finally—with Joe Carey threatening to pick her up and carry her out of engineering if she didn’t get something to eat and some rest—she ordered Ensign Vorik take over for Kim so her friend could join her for a quick dinner.

The mess hall would be crowded and seemed too public for the questions she wanted answered, so B’Elanna invited Harry to her quarters. “Hungry, Starfleet?” she asked as she walked to her replicator.

“Here,” Harry offered. “Dinner’s on me. For some reason my account is screwed up and I have all these extra rations.” He punched his code into her replicator and ordered a chicken salad for B’Elanna and a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk for himself.

“That’s your dinner?” she asked, sounding more judgmental than she’d intended.

“Don’t tell mom,” Harry kidded to his surrogate big sister.

As they sat down at her dining table, B’Elanna tried hard to think of a way to sound casual with her questions. “So, I guess you heard that Tom Paris is back.”

Kim nodded. “Actually, I beamed him aboard myself, and it was a really close call. His shuttle’s hull was breeching; another few seconds and he wouldn’t have made it.”

B’Elanna realized there was a much longer story here, and she’d ask about it in a minute. For now, she had a more pressing concern. “I heard he was in sickbay. Is he alright?”

“He’s fine,” Harry reassured her. “The doctor probably already released him.” Thank god, she thought. His injuries must not have been serious. But, if he was released from sickbay, Tom might be well enough to leave Voyager—if he still wanted to. Not that she wished for Paris to be more seriously hurt; just some small part of her hoped there’d be a reason to keep him aboard long enough for Harry—or someone—to talk him out of leaving again.

“So,” she was almost afraid to ask, “do you think he’ll stay? I mean, you don’t think he’ll want to go back with the Talaxians after everything that happened?”

Harry put down his fork and started to chuckle. “My god, B’Elanna—nobody told you. This whole thing with Tom: his being late for duty, the fight with Chakotay, the gambling—quitting to work on that convoy—it was all an act. The captain wanted the Kazon to kidnap Tom so he could find out who was sending the subspace messages. He was undercover trying to help the captain catch the spy. They’ve apparently been planning this whole thing for weeks.”

“Whoa,” Torres said, shaking her head, “what are you talking about? Did you know about this?”

“No,” Harry admitted, once again feeling ashamed that he hadn’t been able to figure it out. “I don’t think anybody but the command officers were in on it. Tom never even gave me a hint. But I guess he really couldn’t. I still don’t know all the details.”

Her mind was reeling. Yet somehow it all made sense now. “Are you saying that he lied to us, let us think he didn’t care, that he was never coming back? I can’t believe this!”

“B’Elanna,” Harry put his hand on her arm. “He wasn’t allowed to tell us. I think that’s why he started making excuses to stay away from us. I think he was afraid he’d let it slip out. I just can’t believe I fell for it. I should have realized he’d never do those things—not after everything he’s done to turn his life around.”

Torres felt her heart flipping from relief to anger to joy to pain. She didn’t know what to think: Paris was a traitor who betrayed the Maquis. Paris was a hero who saved Chakotay’s life. Paris was a jerk who chased every woman on board. Paris was her friend who tried to help her accept her Klingon side. Paris was a jerk who screamed at her to get out of his life. Now Paris was some kind of hero who saved them all from the Kazon. She began to have serious doubts about which of these Tom Paris’s—any or all of them—were real.

All she knew was that she was angry: angry with the captain for asking Paris to risk his life, and with Chakotay for keeping her in the dark. Angry with Jonas and Seska for betraying them and for making this whole charade necessary. Angry with Tom for…

She wasn’t quite sure why she was angry with Tom. Maybe for almost getting himself killed trying to save them all. Seemed like a pretty flimsy reason. All she knew was that she hated feeling this out of control—feeling so unsure of what was true in her own life. Mike Jonas was a traitor and Tom Paris was a hero. Reality kept shifting like sand beneath her feet.

“Carey to Torres.” Speaking of reality. “Chief, we’ve got problems.”

“I’m on my way, Lieutenant,” she answered without asking for details. She’d barely taken a bite of her dinner. “Come on, Harry.”

As she headed back to engineering, B’Elanna couldn’t help feeling confused and frustrated by everything she’d learned. But mostly, she felt relieved. Tom was home for good. Everything else could be figured out in time.

~*~*~*~*~

The following morning’s “Briefing with Neelix,” was a must-see episode, even considering the short history of the program. The morale officer’s only guest: Voyager’s returning hero, Lieutenant Thomas Eugene Paris.

Tom explained the details of his undercover mission. “…and fortunately I was able to steal one of the Kazon shuttles and escape.”

Neelix was normally ebullient, but being proven right about his friend’s true nature had made him almost giddy. “An amazing story! Amazing!”

Tom knew he had more explaining to do, however. “I’d like to say something more if I might. I know I’ve that been acting like a jerk for the last couple of months. Unfortunately, I had to behave that way if the spy was going to believe that I really wanted to leave the ship. So I’d like to apologize to anyone I might have offended. Especially Commander Chakotay. I gave him a pretty hard time.” So far, so good. “Not that it wasn’t a certain amount of fun, mind you.”

A lifetime of using humor as a safety valve for uncomfortable emotions made some things as reflexive for Paris as breathing the air. Tom hoped the commander would take his joke in the spirit in which it was intended.

“Idiot!” Chakotay thought to himself. That was Paris’s idea of an apology—admitting to the whole crew that he had enjoyed playing his first officer for a fool?

He hit the button to shut off the display, just in time to see B’Elanna Torres come storming through his door.

“Most people ask before walking into a private office,” he scolded. Didn’t anybody on this ship respect his authority?

“So Harry tells me that this whole business with Tom Paris was some kind of set-up,” she said, not even bothering to acknowledge her friend’s reproach. “You know, I gave Paris hell for the way he was treating you. Why didn’t you tell me it was just an act?!”

The commander grabbed his coffee cup and moved from his desk to the sofa. “Well, for one thing a secret mission only works if it’s a secret.” B’Elanna started to interrupt, but he cut her off. “And, for another thing…I didn’t know about it myself.”

Torres was stunned. It never occurred to her that the first officer hadn’t been a part of the plan from the beginning. How in the hell was that possible?

Chakotay could sense her question. “No one knew, B’Elanna. Only the captain, Tuvok, and Paris. They didn’t tell anyone else.”

Her jaw was still on the floor. This didn’t make any sense. “You’re the first officer, Chakotay. What kind of message does it send to the crew if they think the captain didn’t trust you enough to include you in this?!”

“They suspected the spy was a Maquis. They didn’t want to put me in the position of having to investigate someone I’d commanded,” he said flatly, repeating Tuvok’s official—and totally ridiculous—excuse. “I guess in their eyes I’m still Maquis first and Starfleet second.”

“You’re the last person I’d expect to hear that from. We wereMaquis. And I’m not ashamed of that. But we’ve been officers on this ship for over a year. Is that ever going to mean anything? Was Janeway’s ‘one Starfleet crew’ speech just a lie?!” She couldn’t believe Chakotay was defending the captain after what had just happened.

“Think about the past year, B’Elanna: Seska turns out to be a Cardassian spy, Chell and the others are chronic discipline problems, we find out that Suder likes to kill people for sport, and on top of all this, they find someone sending secret messages to the Kazon. This is the captain’s experience with the Maquis. It’s amazing you and I still have jobs.”

“Their behavior doesn’t reflect on either one of us!”

“Of course it does, B’Elanna! I recruited them all. I trusted them all. So did you. Hell, Seska was my lover and your best friend. And admit it—before yesterday, would you have ever believed that Michael Jonas was spying for the Kazon?”

She couldn’t deny it. “No.”

“Face up to it. The Maquis have been one security nightmare after another. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think there was ever a question in the captain’s mind about whether you or I could be trusted. The question was: who did we trust that we shouldn’t have.”

Maybe he was right, Torres realized. Certainly, she wouldn’t want her own actions in the past two months used to prove her skills in judging character. Still, she was worried. “We’re all going to pay for this, you know. I guess you and I, Hogan, Ayala—hell, even Chell who can be a real jerk but who’s still a decent guy. I guess we’re going to have a hard time living down Seska, and Suder, and now Jonas. It seems unfair.”

Chakotay put his hand on his friend’s arm. “For what it’s worth, B’Elanna, I don’t think the captain has a single regret about making this ‘one Starfleet crew.’ I think she does trust us—despite herself. Don’t spend too much time worrying about this. I trust her not to hold us responsible for anyone’s actions except our own.”

Torres had a moment of déjà vu, remembering Chakotay telling her that they were all about to be drafted into Kathryn Janeway’s crew just after the captain had stranded them 70,000 light years from home. ‘I trust her,’ he’d said back then. And, despite herself, B’Elanna trusted the captain, too. Still, she was surprised her friend had recovered so quickly from what must have been a pretty painful realization. “So explain something to me,” she asked him. “How is it you can be so forgiving of Captain Janeway and still so mad at Tom Paris?”

“What makes you think I’m mad at Tom Paris?” he asked, disingenuously.

“Wasn’t that you screaming the word ‘idiot’ at him on the viewscreen when I walked in?” She’d clearly seen more than her friend realized.

Torres watched Chakotay’s blood pressure rise. “Well, I don’t recall the captain doing her best to humiliate me in front of the entire crew, and then brushing it off like it was all some big joke.”

“He was only following her orders.” B’Elanna wasn’t sure why she was defending Paris. She was still angry with Tom for lying to her, for pushing her and Harry away. Maybe in trying to convince Chakotay, she was trying to convince herself. The commander wasn’t interested in her excuses, however.

“Since when did you become Tom Paris’s official apologist?!” he snapped.

“I don’t need one, actually,” they heard Tom say as he walked through the door. “That’s a job I’d like to do myself.”

It was the first time she’d seen him face to face since he’d come home. B’Elanna couldn’t help but notice the spit polish on Tom’s boots, the crisp look of his uniform, and his new regulation hair cut. He looked good. Like he’d been relieved of a huge burden. He had clearly come to talk to Chakotay, yet Paris couldn’t seem to take his eyes from hers.

‘I’m mad at him,’ she reminded herself. Her heart told her a slightly different story.

“B’Elanna, would you excuse us for a minute,” Tom asked. Chakotay nodded his permission and she started for the door.

“I’ll be in engineering if you want to talk,” she said to Chakotay. Or to Tom. She wasn’t sure which.

Chakotay decided to move back to his desk. Any discussion with Tom Paris was going to be an official one for the foreseeable future. He didn’t even invite the lieutenant to sit. This conversation wouldn’t last that long, and he had no interest in making the man more comfortable.

“What can I do for you, Lieutenant?” His eyes were cold.

“Commander,” Paris took his cue from his first officer’s tone. “I owe you an apology.”

“For what?” There was no way Chakotay was going to make this easy.

“For the things I did and said to you these past few months. For my appalling behavior. For not being able to tell you what was actually going on. I’m really sorry. I wanted you to hear it from me.” Tom was trying to be sincere; apparently the commander misinterpreted his tone for condescension.

“Oh, really? Rumor is that you found it ‘a certain amount of fun.’” Chakotay couldn’t help but throw Paris’s own words back at him.

“So you saw Neelix’s program…” Tom said sheepishly, now having something else to regret. “Well, I’m sorry for that, too. I guess that’s what I do—make things I have trouble saying into a joke. It was a stupid comment. I didn’t mean it that way.”

The commander stood up, and was now nose-to-nose with the lieutenant. Chakotay was furious, but he was damned if he’d let Tom see it. “Well, frankly Paris, I’m not interested in your apologies. You were following the captain’s orders; I accept that. I don’t really give a damn if you had some fun at my expense. I guess it was all just part of the show.”

Tom hadn’t realized his careless comment could be so easily misinterpreted. “You really think I enjoyed this?” He was on the verge of shouting at the man he had come to apologize to. “Intentionally ruining my own reputation, hurting my best friends, provoking an officer whose respect I practically killed myself to earn, almost getting blown up in that damn shuttle? Maybe you have a twisted idea of what’s fun!”

Only their mutual commitment to their lives as Starfleet officers kept them from coming to blows. There was a moment where each wondered who would make the next move—verbally or physically.

Paris realized that, in light of everything that happened, it was his responsibility. He averted his eyes, letting Chakotay win the staring match they’d begun.

“Anyway,” he said as he took a step back. “I wanted to return something to you.” A confusing statement from a man whose hands were empty. “Last year when I hauled your butt off that stairway in the Ocampan tunnels, I said your life was mine. The way I figure it, you saved my life yesterday. I guess that makes us even.”

Chakotay was surprised by the gesture. “Actually, Paris,” he said with a touch of sly humor, “the captain and Harry are the ones who rescued you. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Tom smiled, “You didn’t stop them, though. I think that’s close enough.”

The commander understood. Tom was asking for his life back. Not his physical safety, but his good name, his reputation. He wanted Chakotay’s respect and forgiveness. And he was willing to swap a life for a life to get it.

“Agreed,” Chakotay consented after a moment, not sure why he was accepting Paris’s terms. “Now, if that’s all, Lieutenant,” the commander said as he sat back down in his chair. “I’ll expect to see you on the bridge tomorrow morning. At 0800 sharp.”

Paris smiled. “Aye, aye, sir,” he said with all sincerely. “And thanks.”

‘Will there ever come a day when Tom Paris doesn’t surprise me,’ Chakotay thought to himself, a little worried that he’d fallen victim to the lieutenant’s legendary charm. Still, he’d be watching the chronometer closely for the next few weeks. And Paris had better be at the helm every day before 0800 came and went.

~*~*~*~*~

While Tom was back home safe and sound, it would still take a few days before anything about his life would feel normal. For one thing, almost everything he owned was left behind on that Talaxian freighter. Luckily, the captain had made arrangements to rendezvous with the convoy—Neelix’s associates earning their reputation for kindness by offering to supply the minerals necessary to rebuildVoyager’s warp coils. They’d return his belongings at the same time.

The damaged coils were just one of the major systems needing attention. According to Harry, as B’Elanna and her staff worked, they found more and more ways in which Jonas had undermined key systems. Voyager’s troublesome adolescence apparently was the result of some carefully disguised sabotage.

Paris had seen the chief engineer only twice since their brief meeting in Chakotay’s office; both times at senior staff briefings, both times on the run with no time to talk. Whether because she was so busy or because she was avoiding him, B’Elanna hadn’t joined Tom and Harry for breakfast or lunch all week. The longer time went on without his having a chance to apologize or explain, the more uncomfortable Paris became at the thought of seeing her at all.

Maybe the opportunity—maybe their friendship—had come and gone.

Paris was especially melancholy as soon as it occurred to him: it was Friday night. ‘Date night.’ God, that seemed like a lifetime ago. Well, it had hardly survived long enough to become an engrained tradition, he realized, but Tom knew he would miss being able to count on that time with B’Elanna.

Still, a year ago she’d called him a pig in front of the captain and the rest of the senior staff. It had only taken him most of that same year to get her to think of him as a friend. He’d redeemed himself in her eyes once. Maybe—even if it took another year—he’d be able to do it again.

Just as well, Tom thought. It was a brutal week and he was exhausted. He barely had enough energy to remember his own name. Even though it was only 2100 hours, he changed into a t-shirt and shorts and climbed into bed. He took with him a vague feeling that there was something he’d meant to do.

Besides, maybe—if he couldn’t meet her on the holodeck—he could find her again in his dreams.

~*~*~*~*~

After the life she’d led, B’Elanna was hesitant to call any week the worst week of her life. She feared she’d be tempting fate to prove her wrong. Still, these last seven days had come damn close.

Staggering into her cabin at 2300 hours, she was just about to head for the sonic shower when she saw the flashing display. ‘Please god, not another problem,’ she thought to herself as she retrieved the message. When she saw Tom Paris’s face, she couldn’t resist slipping into her desk chair. This ought to be good.

“B’Elanna,” his eyes were sunken, and he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. “By now you probably know that the way I’ve been acting lately…well, you probably know what’s really been going on and why.”

Probably? She’d seen him yesterday morning in a staff briefing where they’d discussed it for ninety minutes. “It’s also possible that—by the time you see this—I’ll be missing or dead.”

Only then did she realize that the message had been recorded before Tom left the ship. It continued playing as the implications sank in.

“I realize it will be hard for you to understand why I said and did such awful things before I left. But I want you to know that it meant a lot that you kept trying to help me through it. I hope you understand now why I couldn’t take you up on your offer, and why I was avoiding you. The more time I spent with you and Harry, the more lies I had to tell, and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that. I’m just sorry I wasted the last few weeks we had together.

“This is probably going to be hardest for Harry. He and I have kind of protected each other—watched each other’s backs—this past year. I hope you’ll do that for him now that I’m gone. But don’t let him take himself too seriously; make sure he has some fun. There’s more to life than work, you know. Someone needs to keep reminding you both of that.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Clearly Tom had thought he’d never come back from this mission alive. B’Elanna was listening to a dead man’s last requests—it made her blood run cold.

She also realized that Tom had faced the prospect of his own death alone, without being able to share his feelings or fears with the people who could have comforted him. That must have been awful. Yet, here he was—about to leave on an incredibly dangerous mission—asking her to look out for Harry. Trying to look out for her. Not acting at all like the self-centered jerk she’d accused him of being.

She tried to stay focused on the recording:

“You know, you could stand to have a little more fun yourself. So, I’m sending something along with this message. It’s just a little reminder of one of the best nights of my life. I hope it has good memories for you, too. I know it needs work. I hope you and Harry will finish it together. And when you do, I hope you’ll think of me.”

She could see from the look on his face that Tom was wrestling with what he would say next. Maybe it was the bravery that came from last chances, but he took a deep breath and went on.

“You probably won’t believe me, but I’ve never met anyone like you before. I wish we’d had more time together. We have a lot more in common than I think either of us would like to admit.” He was looking downright wistful, she noticed. “You know, after that night on the beach, I started thinking that maybe you and me…” He was butchering the syntax, but she couldn’t have cared any less. “That maybe one day we’d make it a real date. Just the two of us.”

She saw big, embarrassed smile cross his face. “You know, if I do get back here I’ve got to remember to delete this thing before it autotransmits…” Clearly, something he’d forgotten to do. “But if I don’t come home,” his face was now somber again, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to miss you, B’Elanna. And even though I know you’ll think I’m an arrogant pig for wishing this, I hope you’ll miss me, too.”

She saw him sit there for a moment, lost in his thoughts. Then he reached over to stop the recording and was gone.

From the transmission logs, she saw that Tom had recorded it the night before he left the ship. The night she had talked Harry out of going to visit him to say goodbye. Instantly, B’Elanna felt very, very small.

As she stared absentmindedly at the screen, she noticed a marker for an attached data file. The ‘something’ Paris had sent along with the message. It was a holoprogram named ‘Carnival Date.’

She closed her eyes for a moment and remembered spinning until she was too dizzy to stand, eating pizza for the first time, and a long talk on the beach under the stars. She remembered tripping, ending up in his arms—and the sudden feeling that the world had changed in that one moment.

‘One of the best nights of his life?’ she thought, suddenly equally excited and terrified. Had he really felt that way, too?

Then she remembered the face of the sad, lonely man in the recording. And she remembered other things: screaming at him while he was risking his life to save hers, keeping his best friend from going to him as he was about to walk into a deadly trap, telling him she never wanted to see him again. Oh god, what had she done?

Even after he got back and she knew everything he’d been through, she’d never thanked him—or even admitted that he’d done anything worth noting. She’d been busy—unbelievably busy—in that time, but couldn’t she have taken a minute to tell him she understood that he had to do what he’d done? That she forgave him for lying to her and acting like such a jerk? Days had passed and she had barely acknowledged his presence. How could she ever face him again?

She wasn’t sure if it even mattered. Thinking you’re about to die can cause you to romanticize your feelings, she knew. He probably didn’t even mean most of what he’d said in that recording. After all, if he’d spent more than a second thinking about her since he got back, he would have remembered the message and deleted it. Right?

Still, B’Elanna couldn’t help but wonder if an opportunity hadn’t just passed her by. And the thought made her even more worn out than she already felt.

Suddenly, she didn’t have the energy for the shower anymore. Instead, she shut off her computer, dumped her uniform in the refresher, and pulled her nightclothes from her wardrobe. As she was about to close the drawer, she saw him—crammed in the back, his face distorted from the pounding she had given him a week earlier. That stupid, ugly stuffed targ Tom had ‘won’ for her at the carnival.

Part of her wished she had the energy to cry.

Instead, she rescued the furry face from his exile and tried to refluff his misshapen head. When he looked reasonably close to normal, she put him back where he had lived during the first five weeks of their acquaintance: on her desk, next to her computer display.

Now emotionally as well as physically exhausted, B’Elanna pulled on her pajamas and fell into bed. “Computer, dim the lights.”

For a moment, she thought her racing mind might keep her from drifting off. Instead, it led her right into a very familiar dream.

~*~*~*~*~

The breeze off the beach was almost cold, and she found herself rubbing her arms to try and keep warm. She probably should have suggested moving someplace warmer, but they’d been having such a good time sitting in the sand and staring at the stars. She didn’t want to break the mood.

He must have noticed the goosebumps rising on her skin. “Come here,” he said, pulling her toward him. He was sitting behind her now, his arms covering hers, pulling her tightly against him. He was keeping her warm and she was suddenly glad she’d forgotten her jacket.

“I’ve missed you, Tom” she said as she leaned her back against him. She felt his arms tighten around her.

“I’ve been right here the whole time,” he said. For a reason she couldn’t place, she knew it was true.

She felt his face against her hair as it slid down to her shoulder. He was kissing her neck now, and she tilted her head to give him better access…

~*~*~*~*~

They were on a beach somewhere–he wondered why he couldn’t remember where… She was in that same sleeveless jumpsuit he loved so much. But she was cold, he could tell. He knew he should offer to take her someplace warmer, but they’d been having such a great time looking out over the ocean. He didn’t want their night together to end.

“Come here,” he said, slipping behind her. She felt so tiny against his chest, like he could wrap himself around her like a blanket. He wished he could see her face, though. There was something he needed to say, and somehow he wanted to look into her eyes as he said it. But she was warm and comfortable now, and that would have to be enough.

“I’ve missed you, B’Elanna,” he said as she leaned back against his chest. He tightened his grip on her arms as he spoke.

“I knew you’d come back for me,” she said over her shoulder. Then she sat up just enough to turn her body to face him. She was running her hand across his face, then tucked it behind his neck. She was pulling him toward her and he met her kiss half way…

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna woke up flushed and a little embarrassed. She’d been having variations on this dream for almost two months. At first, she’d dismissed it as her loneliness run amok. She’d had similar dreams about other male friends—including Chakotay. They didn’t really mean anything. Just her subconscious’s way of reminding her that she needed to get out more.

But for some reason, these dreams about Tom stayed with her. And they seemed to be more than just a sexual outlet. Unlike the ones she’d had in the past, these always involved some deeper feeling—of an emotional as well as physical connection. In her dreams, being with Tom was like finding a part of herself she’d jettisoned—or that she never knew was missing. Like slipping into a comfortable sweater.

She was projecting all of these feelings onto him, she realized. They barely knew each other, and—of all the men on Voyager—Paris was the least likely candidate to be Torres’s soulmate. Still, there was something…she searched for a word that meant both comforting and terrifying. Nothing came to mind.

But, what the hell. The dreams were always pleasant, and she allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of peace that always followed them. Even if they were absolutely ridiculous.

~~

Tom could never remember the details the next morning: where they’d been, what she’d been wearing. But he could always remember the look on her face, the crazy mixture of exhilaration and terror he felt when touching her, and the way he finally felt accepted and needed when in her arms.

In the past, the dreams had left him hopeful—he’d spent some time trying to figure out how to make them real. But now he knew that his fantasies would stay fantasies: B’Elanna barely seemed to know he was alive these days. His hard-fought attempts to push her out of his life seemed to have finally worked. Too bad he hadn’t realized he might be coming back to this life. Things might have ended up differently.

Tom knew it was just a matter of time before a different woman found her way into his dreams and into his heart. He worried, though, if he’d ever look at another woman without viewing her through the prism of his memories of B’Elanna. In time, maybe. Until then, she’d be there—in his dreams. And that would have to do for now.

~*~*~*~*~

THE END

CREDITS:

“Threshold” teleplay by Brandon Braga, story by Michael DeLuca
(actually, perhaps BLAME is a better choice than CREDIT for this one)
“Meld” teleplay by Michael Piller, story by Michael Sussman
“Dreadnought” teleplay by Jeri Taylor, story by Jeff Schnaufer & Ed Bond
“Lifesigns” written by Kenneth (Santa Claus) Biller
“Investigations” written by Gary Holland

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