DOTS#10: Vulcans & Other Strangers, Part 2

RATING

R (though probably actually PG13)

SUMMARY

Another in my painfully protracted series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, picking up with “Fair Trade.” Before now, it was just the fates conspiring against them. Somehow, this time it feels a little more…orchestrated. And what in the heck is wrong with Harry? Watch as three best friends learn that getting help from Vulcans can be more trouble than it’s worth.

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

“Fair Trade,” “Alter Ego,” and “Blood Fever” (Missing some background on an episode? Click on the link above to read Jim Wright’s excellent summaries & review.)

CODES

P/T, with guest appearances by everyone else

DISCLAIMER

In my view, Joe Menosky was probably the most talented writer to work for Voyager with the exception of Michael Piller. He wrote “Alter Ego,” on which the majority of this story is based. Aside from our favorite ‘smashing’ scenes, this is an interesting and complex episode about loneliness and the nature of love. So don’t just fast forward to the P/T parts. Watch the whole thing.

Complete writing credits for the above episodes are listed at the end of this story. Suffice it to say, I didn’t write any of them and Paramount owns all things Star Trek. But they don’t own the stuff I’ve written to connect their puny little ‘dots.’ That’s all mine.

NOTE

The Vulcan words used throughout this story were acquired from several internet sites, most of which were not the original sources. My apologies to anyone who created or compiled these names uncredited or anyone who finds them to be inaccurate. I did my best, not being a Vulcan and all…

Text Download: CTDvulcans2


The cell was small and filthy, but at least it was private. Two benches, a grimy sink, and metal bars to keep them confined, just like he’d seen in those old cowboy movies. Appropriate, Tom thought, since this whole space station reminded him of something out of the Wild West. If the analogy proved apt, then he and Chakotay were probably about to get a taste of frontier justice: no legal counsel, no real trial. Just a quick guilty verdict and a swift sentence. Fifty years in cryogenic suspension was the rumor. He tried not to think about it.

On the Paris ‘Scale of Jails’—where the Akritirian prison barge was a one and the Federation rehab colony a ten—this place rated about a five. On the downside, it smelled like a septic wound, the walls seemed to be growing some kind of fungus, and the words ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’ weren’t registering with the universal translator. Oh, yeah, plus the prospect of fifty years in the deep freeze. In its favor: no rodents—other than the bipeds in the cell at the end of the corridor. No need to fight a horde of insane, starving men for a cardboard food bar. And no ‘clamps.’ At least this time he was protected from the other inmates.

It had been less than four months since he and Harry Kim had been trapped in that hellhole of a barge. They’d barely escaped with their lives. And while they never talked about it, Tom suspected Harry’d had the same kinds of nightmares that had plagued his own dreams for weeks after they were rescued. Paris was grateful that his best friend was safe aboard Voyager this time, and not forced to face the memories that were running through his own mind at the moment.

But this place wasn’t as bad as Akritiri. For one thing, Captain Janeway knew exactly where he was and was working to get him freed. To get them freed.

Tom stood up for the fifth time in ten minutes and began pacing the cell. “What time is it, do you think?” he blurted out.

Chakotay looked up at him. “I don’t know. I’d guess a little after 2200 hours. Why? Is there somewhere else you have to be?”

Tom crossed his arms and leaned back against the bars. “Well, actually I’m already over two hours late…” His dinner with B’Elanna. He’d been thinking about it all day. His good suit—already laid out across his bed to save him time after he got off duty—was probably still where he’d left it, untouched. He didn’t know what she had planned—she said she wanted to surprise him—but Tom knew that her request that he dress up for the occasion had to be a good sign. Of course, just like all their other best-laid plans of late, this one hadn’t exactly worked out.

They’d never actually discussed it in those terms, but Tom hoped tonight would have been their first real date, after months—hell, almost a year!—of dancing around each other. ‘Dammit!’ he thought. Why couldn’t he just once catch a break?

“She’ll understand,” Chakotay said out of nowhere, and Paris wondered for a second if it was just a lucky guess. Not that it mattered; he wasn’t about to unload his romantic woes on the man. He knew B’Elanna’s former captain had appointed himself her guardian of sorts and—despite the fact that they’d been getting along pretty well lately, including a rather spirited game of volleyball in the resort the night before—Tom knew he had never been Chakotay’s favorite person. The commander probably would have preferred Harry—or anyone else aboard Voyager, for that matter—as a potential suitor for his ‘kid sister’.

“You don’t know this woman,” Tom tried to cover. “She’s not exactly the patient type.”

Chakotay chuckled, then looked him in the eye. “Oh, I’d say I know her better than most people ever will. And she’s probably spitting fire right now, but she’ll understand that it wasn’t your fault.”

Tom averted his gaze for a moment, then looked back sheepishly. It had been stupid to try and pretend he was talking about anyone other than B’Elanna. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. But I feel sorry for the poor guy who had to tell her.” He took his first officer’s grin as a good sign, and returned it with one of his own before taking a seat on the bench opposite him.

Chakotay was watching him, Tom noticed, as if sizing him up, trying to decide what to say next. “So…what are you late for? Pool at Sandrine’s? Another game of beach volleyball?”

Tom wasn’t sure if the commander was just making conversation or pumping him for information. But it was an opening to have a real conversation—and a way to keep his mind off of their confinement—so he decided to play along. “Actually, I don’t know. Some big surprise she’s been working on for a while now.” Paris decided to turn the tables just a bit. “I don’t suppose you know what’s she’s been up to, locked in her quarters every night for eight weeks…?”

Chakotay chortled. “Sorry, I don’t have any idea. Last night was the first time I had seen her socially in weeks, and she stayed around for, what, twenty minutes?”

“Yeah,” Paris sighed. “She had to get back to finish this secret project of hers. I was hoping she might have clued you in about what she’s been working on.”

The older man shook his head. “I wish B’Elanna and I got to spend more time together. But you and Harry seem to keep her pretty busy when she’s not on duty.”

Tom searched for some hint of anger, some accusation in Chakotay’s tone, but there was none. His voice was perfectly even. Still…

“Does that bother you?” Paris finally asked flatly. “That she spends so much time with us?”

He watched as his first officer got that all too familiar look that said he was choosing his words carefully. “Honestly,” Chakotay started slowly, “there was a time when I worried about it. B’Elanna has always had a hard time getting close to people, and some of the friends she thought she could count on when we came aboard Voyager ended up hurting her pretty badly. I didn’t want to see that happen again.”

Tom knew the ‘friends’ in question were Mike Jonas and Seska, but he didn’t see the point in saying their names out loud. The two Maquis traitors were open wounds for Chakotay. But he wasn’t sure he liked being lumped into that company. “What about now?” Paris wondered.

Chakotay began slowly. “Actually, I’m glad to know she found other people she can count on. And I’ve been amazed at how content she seems to have become with her life these days. As a matter of fact, all three of you seem to have risen to the occasion of this mission better than anyone might have expected considering…” He didn’t finish the thought, but Tom knew what he meant; considering the fact that Harry was bright green, B’Elanna was chronically furious, and Tom was an ex-con screw-up. The man had a point. “Let’s just say you all seem to have been a good influence on each other.”

Paris was now reeling from the fact that this man—who would have killed him as soon as look at him just over two years earlier—was paying him a compliment of sorts. “Well, I think you have Harry to thank for that,” he said, still unsure of where this conversation was headed. “He likes to rescue strays. Don’t ask me why…”

Chakotay laughed, then his expression softened. “Maybe he just sees qualities in some people that others are too quick to judge.”

Tom wondered for a moment if that wasn’t almost an apology.

An instant later he wasn’t so sure. Chakotay’s expression was changing again. “But if you’re asking me if I still worry about B’Elanna getting hurt, then I guess I’d have to say yes. It’s not easy for her to trust people. If she were to get close to someone, only to have that person betray her trust…”

“Then you and I would have to flip a coin to see who got to kick their ass first,” Tom said forcefully. “Because I’m not about to let anyone hurt her.”

Chakotay looked at him for a moment, as if trying to size up his sincerity. It was soon clear from the slight smile on his first officer’s face that Paris’s message was received, loud and clear. “Good,” he said evenly. “It’s a deal.”

~~

B’Elanna stormed into her quarters, ripped off her commbadge and threw it full force against the wall. Who in the hell did Harry think he was, kicking her off the bridge like that? So what if the captain had left him in charge. So what if she’d been pacing around like a cat. ‘You’re making me nervous,’ her friend had said to her. Well, how in the hell did he think she felt?!

It was almost 0200 hours and there had been no word from the captain about Chakotay and Tom all night. Now they were picking up com traffic that said there’d been a plasma explosion somewhere on the station. Janeway had called to say that she and Tuvok were fine and that they were checking it out, but no one had heard from her since. What the hell was going on over there?

Her door chime sounded, startling B’Elanna back into the moment. The ship was on yellow alert. Who in the hell would be dropping by her quarters? “Come in,” she barked.

The doors parted and Kes took a step inside. “I just wanted to see if you were all right,” the young woman said softly. “I heard about Tom and Chakotay.”

B’Elanna was grateful for the gesture, but she really wasn’t in the mood for a long heart to heart. Ever since Kes and Neelix had ended their romantic relationship, Torres had felt uncomfortable around the young woman. It was obvious to everyone that ending the couple’s long affair had been Kes’s idea—and she also knew that Kes and Tom were close friends. Almost more than that. Tom once thought he was in love with their pretty Ocampan medic, Harry had told her a long time ago. Feelings like that didn’t just go away. Did they?

Still, B’Elanna didn’t want to be rude. “Thank you, Kes. But I’m fine. Really. As a matter of fact, I think I’d like to be alone for…”

Kes interrupted her. “I had a feeling a little while ago—about Tom. I got this sense that he and Chakotay are all right. I know that might sound silly, but ever since…well, for the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Tuvok to develop my telepathy. I’ve never had this kind of thing happen before. But I thought you might like to know.”

Oh, great. Now Kes was getting some kind of psychic signals from Tom. If it were true, it would be reassuring to know that he was okay—and more than a little unsettling to think he’d been sending telepathic messages to another woman. “Well,” B’Elanna said carefully, “I hope you’re right. But why are you telling me this?”

Kes walked over to the spot on the floor where Torres’s discarded commbadge now lay. She stooped down to pick it up and handed it back to B’Elanna. “Because I got the sense that he was thinking about you. He seemed worried that he’d disappointed you somehow. Wishing that he could tell you that they were fine and not to worry. I thought maybe you’d want to know.”

Before B’Elanna could answer, they heard the EMH’s voice over the com. “Doctor to Kes. I need you in sickbay right away. There’s been an explosion on the station and we’re about to be sent several casualties.”

“On my way, Doctor,” Kes said before heading for the door.

“Wait for me,” B’Elanna shouted as she put her commbadge back in place and darted into the hall. Casualties. The captain and Tuvok had checked in to say they were okay. That only left two other crewman on the station. It suddenly looked as if Kes’s ‘sense’ may have been wrong…

They burst through the sickbay doors—and found the Doctor in the surgical bay standing over a badly-burned Neelix. Another Talaxian, his friend Wix, was resting on a biobed nearby. B’Elanna was ashamed at how relieved she felt to see that the wounded didn’t include Tom and Chakotay. Especially since Neelix’s injuries looked so serious.

“Dermal regenerator,” the Doctor was calling out to Samantha Wildman as they entered. “Kes, see to the other patient. His injuries aren’t as severe but he needs immediate treatment.”

B’Elanna watched as Kes stopped for a moment to look at her ex-lover’s scarred face. “Neelix… Will he…?”

“He has third degree plasma burns, but the captain got him here quickly. His injuries aren’t life-threatening.” Torres noticed that the EMH stopped what he was doing for a moment to look at his assistant. “He’ll be fine, Kes. I promise you.” B’Elanna had never seen the Doctor so concerned about someone’s feelings before.

The young medic immediately composed herself and headed to the biobed where Neelix’s friend Wix was waiting for treatment. B’Elanna knew it must be difficult for Kes to keep her professional detachment when her ex-lover was lying just a few feet away, gravely injured. Somehow, it made Torres embarrassed at the childish way she’d behaved on the bridge just a few hours earlier.

She knew it was just accumulated stress—not only from learning that Tom and Chakotay had been arrested on murder charges, but also from her own disappointment at having missed out on an evening she’d planned so carefully for so long.

She’d spent the better part of two months working on a surprise holodeck program for Tom—only to watch helplessly as a malfunctioning subroutine begin to decompile the whole thing line by line. It was almost totally destroyed by the time she found the problem. There was nothing she could do to fix it.

Of course, that was about the same time she’d learned of Tom’s arrest, along with Chakotay, as they’d completed a trade agreement on the space station. B’Elanna had been pacing the floor like a maniac ever since. Now it was the middle of the night, and there was still no news about Voyager’s two imprisoned officers. Her feelings of anger and helplessness were threatening to overwhelm her once again.

Then she looked at Kes, working with efficiency and professionalism as Neelix was treated for grievous injuries less than two meters away. For a woman who knew and felt things so deeply, Kes was unbelievably composed. B’Elanna decided in that moment that she needed to be, too. Without saying a word, she left the sickbay and decided to get back to work.

As she got into the turbolift, B’Elanna thought about Kes’s visit and the message the young woman thought she’d received from Tom. She hoped it was true.

“Bridge,” she called out.

When the doors to the lift opened, Harry was in the captain’s chair talking to someone over the commlink. “Understood. Kim out.”

B’Elanna walked to stand in front of him. “Permission to take my station,” she said formally. “And I’m sorry about before. I’m fine. Let me get back to work.”

Her friend stood up and met her gaze. “Request denied,” he said before breaking into a grin. “That was the captain. Tom and Chakotay have been cleared of the charges against them. They should be beaming back in about fifteen minutes. I thought maybe the three of us could grab a late dinner—or an early breakfast—and we could find out what the hell happened down there.”

B’Elanna closed her eyes for just a second and let herself enjoy the feeling of relief in knowing that her friends were about to be released. “Good,” she then said to Kim. “And thanks, Harry.”

He smiled at her. “Why don’t you head down to the transporter room and do the honors. I’ll meet you guys in the mess hall as soon as the captain relieves me.”

“Aye, sir,” she said with an intentional formality. “See you there.”

As she walked back to the turbolift, B’Elanna let herself breathe deeply for the first time in hours. Once more, Tom Paris had stumbled into some crazy misunderstanding, ended up in a prisoner of some alien culture, and then managed to find his way out the other side. She couldn’t figure out anymore if he was cursed or blessed. All she knew was that—once again—he’d defied the odds and was coming home. And this time, she’d be there to meet him.

~~

It would take only a few minutes for the constable to process their official release, but to Tom it was feeling like hours. He was anxious to get off this filthy hellhole and back to Voyager. Somehow, he had the feeling that he’d dodged another bullet, and he didn’t want to hang around long enough for something else to go wrong.

So he paced the small room, jumping at any sound he thought might be the captain and Tuvok coming to set them free. Somehow, his nervousness seemed to be amusing his first officer. “You’re going to wear a hole in the floor,” Chakotay said, smiling. “The hard part is over. Try to relax.”

Before Tom could answer, they heard the clang of a metal door, and saw two familiar faces coming toward them, along with the smelly guard who had escorted them to their cell when this whole mess started. “Gentlemen,” Janeway said as she reached them. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Paris said with more enthusiasm than he’d intended.

She didn’t seem to notice. He realized in that moment that his captain’s complete attention was fixed on his cellmate. “Commander,” she said softly. “How are you?”

“We’re fine,” Chakotay said reassuringly, as if she’d been asking about both of her imprisoned officers. Nice save, Tom thought, as he watched the two of them together.

They walked to the unshielded outer chamber, then waited while the captain called for their ‘ride.’ “Janeway to Voyager,” she said as she tapped her commbadge, “four to beam over.”

Tom was happy to see the grimy walls of the jail slowly morph into the spotless bulkheads of Voyager’s transporter room. He was even happier to see who was standing behind the console. “Welcome back,” B’Elanna said as she stepped off the control platform and walked toward them.

Tom let his three senior officers go ahead of him before he stepped down off the pad to join her. “Hey,” he said softly. “Sorry about dinner.” He was reining in the impulse to pull B’Elanna into his arms and hug her, since somehow—this time—it felt strangely like he was coming home to her.

Torres looked equally tentative, but he wasn’t sure how to read that. She always seemed to pull back from him every time he returned from some unexpectedly dangerous situation, and Tom hoped it wouldn’t once again take them weeks to recover from this stupid little interruption to their plans. He was getting impatient with the ‘one step forward, two steps back’ nature of their relationship, and he wasn’t sure he’d have the patience to start over once again if she withdrew from him now.

It became clear pretty quickly, however, that B’Elanna was anything but distant. “It’s okay,” she said nervously. “But, uh, Harry and I thought you might want to grab something to eat now. I mean, well, I know it’s late and everything, but…” She hesitated for a moment. “Well, I think he was worried about you, and just wants to make sure you’re okay.”

Yeah, right. Harry was worried about him. Tom smiled at her transparency. “Sure. I’m starving.” He looked up, suddenly worried that the captain or Chakotay would be expecting him at some kind of debriefing. When he caught his first officer’s eyes, however, he relaxed.

“Go ahead, Tom,” Chakotay said, clearly suppressing a grin. “As a matter of fact, I might grab something to eat, myself.” He looked over at his captain, who eyed the whole group a little suspiciously, as if there were some conversation going on she hadn’t been a part of.

For his part, Tuvok only raised his eyebrows. “If you all will excuse me,” he said curtly, “I will go relieve Mister Kim.” The security officer headed out the door without waiting for a reply.

Janeway still looked confused, Tom thought. “Well, don’t let me keep you two,” she said to him and B’Elanna before turning back to Chakotay. “Commander, dinner in my ready room?” Then her expression turned more serious. “We should discuss Neelix’s situation before he regains consciousness.”

Chakotay nodded, and the two headed out into the hall.

Finally left alone in the transporter room, Tom stood there for a moment, distracted by his captain’s last comments. “This is all so unbelievable,” he said softly. “That Neelix would get himself involved in something like this.”

B’Elanna looked confused. “I saw him in sickbay. He was hurt pretty badly. What the hell happened?”

Tom hesitated for a moment, wondering if they should stop by the medical bay on their way to the mess hall. It was a silly impulse; there was nothing he could do for his friend. “I don’t know all the details,” he finally answered B’Elanna’s question. “But I’ll tell you everything the captain told us over dinner.”

He stood there for a moment, looking into her eyes, feeling very grateful to finally be home and spending a few precious moments alone with her. “I know this night didn’t exactly turn out like you planned,” he said softly. “I’m sorry if I disappointed you.”

As he said those words, B’Elanna got a strange look in her eyes. “I know,” she said, a smile quirking then leaving her face. “It wasn’t your fault.” Her expression changed again, and there was a look of uncertainty. “Tom, do you ever think sometimes that maybe this whole thing…this, um, dinner…just wasn’t meant to be?”

“No,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, determined not to let her imply that fate or destiny intended for them to be apart. “I don’t. We’ve just had a run of bad luck. And I have a feeling that’s about to change.” He spent a moment examining her face, staring at her perfect skin, her lips, then looking her in the eyes once again. “Besides,” he said mischievously, “you owe me, Torres. And I’m gonna make sure you pay up. You’re not getting off the hook that easily.”

She smiled, then, and headed for the door. “Oh, yeah? Well, you had your shot, Lieutenant, and as I recall you stood me up.”

Lieutenant. That was a good sign. “Hey!” he said as he chased after her. “Wait for me!”

~*~*~*~*~

A’Kweth Shau’kaush—The Hidden Passion

Vorik was lost. He had been on Vulcan practicing the Tu’Lan, a breathing exercise his father had taught him as a child to help him gain control of his emotions. But now, suddenly, he found himself walking along a dirt path, the air fragrant with unfamiliar and overwhelming aromas: damp wood, salt, strange foods. His ears were being assaulted by the din of hundreds of people laughing, singing, calling out to one another. And there was strange, dissonant music—behind him a calliope, in front of him the unmistakable wailing of horns and woodwinds. On either side of the path were wooden shacks covered in lights, each one more garish than the next. He wanted to run, wanted to find a quiet place where he could regain control of his now-pounding heart. But he couldn’t leave. Not as long as she was here.

It was hard to find her in the maelstrom of people and music, but he focused his mind on filtering out everything but the sound of her voice. Slowly, one by one, the noises faded until he could hear her speaking, hear her laughter, and it called to him like a beacon.

Pushing through the crowds, he followed the path past a city of machines, which loomed over him like mechanical monsters. The giant creatures swirled above his head, occasionally reaching down as if to grab him in their great claws. But he felt no fear; he was focused only on her.

He could see it now: an impressive wooden structure on an ocean shoreline, a large, covered veranda encircling its base. A band was playing, and people were dancing, men and women holding each other as they swayed in time to the music.

As he approached, the crowd parted, leaving only one couple standing there, holding each other in their arms, oblivious to the others, oblivious to him. He recognized them. It was her, his t’hy’la, the woman who would be his life partner. And she was with Him.

‘No!’ his mind screamed. ‘No!’

The intensity of his rage overwhelmed him, and he knew, then, that he must destroy this place, he must stop this Man—this Qomi—from taking what was his. He would fight for his mate, to the death if necessary…

Vorik sat straight up in his bed, his heart pounding so hard he could feel the rush of blood in his ears. He’d been having a dream—a nightmare—yet somehow, as his mind came to consciousness, the details were slipping away.

The realization, however, stayed with him. Emotions—raging emotions—had been coursing through him, and with them the sense that he’d done something…something prohibited. His mind struggled to find order among his chaotic thoughts, yet all he was left with was the strange sensation that he’d betrayed someone’s trust, hurt someone who had relied on him. He found the entire concept profoundly disturbing.

As he had for as many nights as he could now remember, the ensign slipped out of his bunk and walked quietly to his bathroom, gathering his meditation lamp and taking great care not to awaken his sleeping roommate.

Once inside, he closed and locked the door, dimmed the lights, lit the lamp, and began his Koh’l-Tor, his meditation. ‘Control,’ he repeated to himself as he pulled his hands together. ‘Must regain control…’

~*~*~*~*~

Why did the morning seem to come so damn early?

B’Elanna knew she was a nocturnal creature by nature. She’d spent her entire childhood staying up well past her bedtime, hiding under the covers reading. At first, it had been fairytales: myths and legends of noble men and beautiful women. White knights on tall horses, princes who always behaved honorably, and always came back for their princesses. And she’d felt like a princess once, when she was very young and the apple of her father’s eye.

Then just before her sixth birthday—after months of tension between her parents, and a camping trip where she’d overheard some things she would just as soon have forgotten—her father packed a duffle of his belongings and left Kessick IV to return to Earth. She never saw him again.

There she was, almost six—well, almost twelve in Standard years—and left behind, waiting for her prince to return for her, so she could apologize and ask for his forgiveness.

But he never came back.

By her next birthday, she’d switched to books on mathematics, mechanical engineering, and rudimentary physics. The fantasy world she’d lived in for most of her childhood had let her down; from that point on, she’d ground herself in the finite, in a world with immutable laws that could always be counted upon. She wrapped herself in science.

Still, she stayed up past her bedtime, making every sleepy morning before school another excuse for fighting with her mother. She was lazy, she lacked discipline, she was contrary. The father who once loved her unconditionally had left her alone with a mother that didn’t seem to love her at all. Somehow, it seemed so unfair.

Only recently, since coming aboard Voyager, had B’Elanna resigned herself to the early morning duty shifts that went along with being a chief engineer on a Federation starship. But waking up on time was no easier now than it had ever been. Particularly after a long evening on the second shift waiting for news about her imprisoned friends. And while her late-night ‘welcome home’ dinner with Harry and Tom had been a huge relief from the stress of the evening, it had kept her up even later—until almost 0400. Now it was a mere three and a half hours later and she was expected to be awake and alert and ready for work in thirty minutes.

All she wanted to do was sleep.

But duty called. Replicating a cup of raktajino and sitting at her dining table with her eyes closed, B’Elanna wondered how she’d ever make it through an eight hour shift. At least Tom’s night in prison had earned him the day off…

Mustering all her strength, Torres pushed herself out of her chair, got dressed, and headed out the door.

She stepped out of the turbolift and headed for Main Engineering. B’Elanna was exhausted to the point that—when the doors opened—she walked smack into Ensign Vorik on his way to his station.

“Oh, excuse me, Lieutenant,” he said flatly. Her reaction was hardly so reserved.

“Vorik, dammit! Watch where you’re going!” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. She was the one who was preoccupied. And she knew better than to blame one of her staff for something that was her fault.

She tried to recover her composure. “I’m sorry, Ensign,” she said evenly. “I should have been paying more attention.”

B’Elanna knew Vulcans had emotions; they just buried them under layers of carefully crafted mental discipline. She wondered if Vorik was silently cursing her for her outburst, but quickly realized that he didn’t seem bothered in the least. On the contrary, he seemed kind of…sweet.

“No, Lieutenant, I was distracted. I hope you’ll accept my apology for being so careless.”

If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn he almost smiled. “Fine, um, thank you, Ensign. Carry on.”

As she watched him take his seat, it occurred to B’Elanna how isolated Vorik must feel, trapped on a ship full of humans—mostly: the only other Vulcans were his senior officer and a former Maquis—neither of them engineers. She knew Joe Carey, kind soul that he was, had tried to lure the ensign out of his shell, inviting Vorik to play pool with him and Mike Ayala. But still, it must be lonely. B’Elanna felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the young man.

He’d also been a big help in refining her holoprogramming skills. If not for Vorik she never would have finished her program for Tom in time for…

Well, it wasn’t Vorik’s fault she’d screwed up the algorithm for the final resequencing and deleted the whole damn carnival. And she was grateful for his help, even if it hadn’t quite worked out the way she’d planned.

No, Vorik was a decent guy. So she’d keep an eye on him, she decided—include him in some of the larger alpha shift projects, help him develop his confidence. He was a better-than-average engineer, too, and she could use all the competent crewmen she could get.

Besides, despite her exhaustion, she was feeling surprisingly gregarious these days. Maybe playing ‘big sister’ to Vorik would a nice way to repay him for helping her out.

She walked over and stood behind the young man’s chair. “Listen, Vorik, I have to do some work on the ODN relays today. Why don’t you give me a hand?”

His face seemed to light up. “Certainly, Lieutenant. Lead the way.”

~~

Tom Paris woke up to a comforting realization: he loved his bed. Not that it was particularly comfortable or unique. In fact, it was identical to a few dozen others on Voyager, and hundreds like it on other similar starships. But this one, this particular bed, represented something to him that he hadn’t had in a long time. When he was in this bed, he was home.

And, after yet another away mission where he’d come to wonder if he’d ever see home again, he was keenly aware of how happy he was to be lying on this mattress, staring up at his nondescript ceiling, and breathing in the purified air of his own cabin.

As a matter of fact, there was only one thing he didn’t like about his bed: he always seemed to be in it alone.

That thought invariably led him to wonder: if he hadn’t gotten arrested, if his dinner with B’Elanna had gone off as planned…

Nope. He wasn’t going to think about it. He meant what he’d said to B’Elanna in the transporter room the night before: he refused to believe that there was some kind of cosmic conspiracy keeping them apart. What was supposed to happen would happen, all in its own time.

And, after all was said and done, they had finally had dinner together. Granted, it was more like a midnight snack, and Harry had tagged along, but they’d had a good time anyway, sharing a pepperoni pizza and talking about what had happened down on the space station. Tom had finally tumbled into bed at 0400—stopping only long enough to put away his unused good suit—and was unconscious before his head hit the pillow.

Now it was going on noon, and he was still feeling a little fuzzy. He considered rolling over and going back to sleep, to take advantage of this unexpected day off, but suddenly remembered an impulse he’d had the night before. There was something he wanted to do before any more time passed.

Grabbing a quick sonic shower and pulling on a clean uniform, Tom headed out on a mission of mercy and to get some answers to a question that had been bothering him all night.

Of all the places he might have thought to look for Voyager’s chef, the bowels of the ship’s engineering decks wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top of the list. Tom was relieved, though, to discover the sickbay empty when he’d gone to check in on his friend. But it seemed that the rumors of Neelix’s involvement with the death on the space station had been true. Obviously; no one ever volunteered to clean the exhaust manifolds. The man was clearly being punished for something.

“Hey,” Tom said as he let the maintenance bay doors close behind him. “You missed a spot.”

Neelix looked up from his work and immediately closed his eyes. When he finally opened them, Paris could see the shame and pain they held. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever want to see me again,” he said so quietly that Tom could barely hear him. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about getting you mixed up in this.”

Tom took a seat on a stool near his friend. “I’m fine. Hell, a night in jail is old hat to me by now. But I heard you got hurt pretty badly. Are you okay? Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Neelix’s face contorted. “I’m fine. And I’d rather just forget the whole thing, if it’s all the same to you. But if I can ever make this up to you in any way…”

Tom laughed. “Put peanut butter and jelly on the lunch menu next week and we can call it even,” he joked. “But if you really want to do something for me, you can tell me what happened. Who was this Wix character, and how did you get involved with him?”

Paris wondered if all Talaxians had such expressive faces; Neelix was clearly wrestling with what to say, and every conflicting emotion seemed to play upon his features. “Wix was an old friend,” he finally said. “At least, I thought he was my friend. You see, there was a time a while back when I had to do some things—things I know now were indefensible—just to survive. Wix helped me out back then. And so I owed him. I didn’t know what he was up to until it was too late.”

“So you were just helping out this friend of yours?” Tom was still a little confused.

“Yes,” Neelix answered. “But it was more than that. You see, this expanse we’re approaching, I don’t know anything about it. This is as far as I’ve ever traveled from Rinax. I wasn’t sure the captain would want me on board if I couldn’t guide you all any longer. So I was trying to trade for a map. Something to help you navigate the space up ahead. I guess I got in a little over my head.” Tom shook his head and started to laugh, but his friend cut him off. “I know how silly that must sound. But you don’t know what my life was like before Voyager. I owe Captain Janeway and the rest of you so much. I wonder sometimes what I’d be doing now if this ship hadn’t come along when it did.”

Tom took a deep breath before he answered. “I know what you mean,” he said quietly. “I’ve wondered the same thing myself. But, Neelix, you’re more than just our guide. You’re our friend, you’re a part of our family…”

“Some friend I turned out to be,” Neelix said, looking away. “Tom, if I had known you and Commander Chakotay would be blamed for what Wix…for what we did, I never would have lied. I’m sorry. Truly.”

Tom stood up and looked his friend in the eye. “Apology accepted. Let’s just say I’ve made my share of bad decisions in my life. But the most important thing is that you face up to them and move on.” Then he looked around the room. “Now hand me that other manifold degausser, and let’s get to work. I know a few tricks that will have this thing sparking like it was brand new in no time.”

He could see the light start to come back into Neelix’s eyes. “I don’t deserve a friend like you, Tom,” he said.

Paris smiled back at him. “Then we’re even.”

~~

The work on the primary ODN relays had taken a little over three hours. Major components had to be replaced as a part of normal maintenance on the network, and B’Elanna had taken her time showing Vorik the proper sequence of parts to replace. They discussed the reasoning behind some of the modifications she had made to the data pathways since they’d been trapped in the Delta Quadrant, and she tried—unsuccessfully—to explain the concept of improvisation to a man who was hard-wired to do things by the book.

After they’d finished, they stopped by engineering to pick up some tools and a quick cup of coffee before heading down to the lower decks to finish the job. B’Elanna was surprised when Vorik seemed to want to make small talk while they took their break. She had never known such a talkative Vulcan before—his behavior was bordering on friendly. He’d practically grilled her about the engineering projects she was working on, her preferences in recreational holoprograms, and her favorite foods to eat for dinner. It was strange, but not all that uncommon, she knew, for Vulcans to take a level of intellectual curiosity in the lives of the others around them. Maybe because they rarely did anything fun themselves. But this was different somehow. Still, she was grateful that he hadn’t mentioned the carnival. That subject was a little too sore these days.

She was glad, though, when their break was over and they got back to work. The secondary ODN relay junction wasn’t the most accessible of Voyager’s key systems, but it was critical to the smooth running of all the ships communications and computer functions, and B’Elanna knew it was overdue for maintenance. Normally, it was the kind of project she saved for days when she wanted some time to herself, but today—on an impulse—she’d invited Vorik to help her out. Only after they arrived at the Deck 13 maintenance hatch did she realize that the tight quarters would make working together on this part of the project a little difficult. Still, she couldn’t very well send the ensign back to his station. So she’d just have to make do and get it over with as quickly as possible.

She climbed into the Jeffries tube and indicated for Vorik to hand the engineering toolkit up to her. Then she began the half-deck climb up the vertical shaft to reach the junction control panel. As Vorik followed her up the ladder, she noticed that he seemed to be breathing heavily. “Are you okay, Ensign?” she finally asked when it sounded like he might hyperventilate.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he answered, his voice sounding perfectly calm. Still, she wondered if he was coming down with something. No matter. Young or not, Vorik was still an adult and perfectly capable of deciding if he needed medical attention.

B’Elanna pulled the cover off the panel and ran her tricorder over the instrumentation. While there were minor variances in the optical data transfer relays, they were nothing to be concerned about, and could easily be realigned with a quick diagnostic program and a few codes to the central processor. She began the procedure then leaned back to wait for the computer’s internal diagnostics to complete.

As she rested her head on the wall of the tube, Torres thought she heard voices—two voices to be exact—neither of whom belonged on the lower engineering decks.

“Lieutenant, I was hoping to talk to you about…”

“Shhh!” She silenced Vorik and leaned her ear against the ventilation duct that ran along the wall behind her.

‘Don’t get me wrong, Neelix. I like her a lot. More than that; she’s one of my best friends. But that’s all there is to it. There’s nothing going on between us.’

B’Elanna held her breath. She was right. The voices were very distinctly Tom Paris and Neelix. But what in the hell were they doing down on Deck 13? She immediately decided that she didn’t really care; she was more interested in listening to their conversation than solving that particular mystery at the moment.

Neelix seemed confused. ‘But I thought…I mean, you told me you had feelings for her.’

“Lieutenant Torres, I…”

She looked down the ladder and barked at the man beneath her. “Shut up, Vorik!” Then she put her ear back against the wall.

‘…care about her a lot, sure. But not that way. I mean, maybe once. It’s just that…’ Tom’s voice had gotten softer and she could hardly hear him. B’Elanna’s heart was pounding, and she was desperate to find out who the men were talking about. Desperate…and a little bit afraid.

‘I just thought that, well, you’re not involved with anyone else, and she’s certainly not involved with anyone else. And you two do seem to care a lot about each other. I guess I just thought…’

Tom’s voice was louder now. ‘You just thought that maybe I could take care of her if you couldn’t. But if you ask me, Kes seems more than capable of looking out for herself these days.’ Kes. They were talking about Kes. B’Elanna let her breath out slowly and closed her eyes. ‘Besides,’ Tom continued after a moment, ‘I am involved with someone else. Well, I’m not actually involved. But I want us to be involved. I mean, I will be involved with someone, if everything works out right.’

Oh, now, this was getting interesting…

‘She’s resisting, but I think I almost have her won over. Just a little more of that old Paris charm and I’ll have this woman eating right out of my hand.’

B’Elanna’s heart was beating just as quickly now, but for an entirely different reason. ‘Eating out of his hand,’ huh? Why that arrogant little pig!

“Lieutenant, I just wanted to ask you…”

“Vorik, dammit! What the hell do you want?” Didn’t he know that there was an important conversation going on here? Didn’t he know that she was getting a chance to hear the uncensored thoughts of a man whose head she’d been trying to climb into for over a year?! What the hell could be more important that that?!

“The diagnostic is complete,” the ensign said. “The computer is asking for the next command sequence.”

B’Elanna took a deep breath and realized she was behaving like a child. “Thank you, Ensign,” she said quietly before leaning over to punch in the new sequence. In thirty seconds, their work was finished.

As they descended the ladder, B’Elanna was left with two contradictory thoughts. Tom had come right out and admitted that his feelings for Kes were only friendship, and he’d practically confessed his interest in her at the same time. But he was getting cocky. And as charming as she found him, no man was about to have her ‘eating out of his hand’ without working a hell of a lot harder for it than Paris had so far.

Two could play this game, she realized. And at this moment, she knew she had the upper hand.

~*~*~*~*~

The Nekrid Expanse.

Well, that wasn’t what he called it privately, but they were in a staff briefing and Tom didn’t think the captain would appreciate a play on words even he realized was infantile. He had spent the last two days working out of stellar cartography, helping to chart the uncharted region—and catching up on all the ship’s gossip with Jenny Delaney. Rumor had it that a certain Betazoid security officer had begun picking up signals from a Bajoran astrophysicist and that a passionate affair was now in bloom. All of Deck 8 was apparently buzzing about it. For his part, Tom was glad to know that someone onboard was getting some action. Somehow Voyager’s ‘maiden voyage’ had started to take on an unintended double meaning.

Paris had also spent a fair amount of his time with Neelix, trying to convince his friend that he didn’t blame him for the circumstances surrounding his recent—and mercifully brief—imprisonment. As he thought about it, however, Tom wondered if he wasn’t living some other, more subtle kind of sentence these days: a prisoner of his affections for a woman he almost never got to be alone with.

Right after he’d returned, things seemed to being going well with B’Elanna. She was waiting for him when he and Chakotay were set free, and had stayed up half the night to welcome him home. She had even looked annoyed that Harry had invited himself along, and—like Tom—seemed anxious to spend some time alone together.

Now it was three days later and they’d yet to reschedule their long-awaited private dinner. As a matter of fact, every time Tom suggested they make time for each other, B’Elanna was either busy or went out of her way to invite Harry along. She wasn’t being cold or distant—not really—but she had a look in her eyes Paris had never seen before. Like she was testing him, making him work for her attention. And she had locked onto Harry with her own invisible tractor beam. Where they went, Harry went. It was getting strange.

So they were a threesome once again. But at least he and B’Elanna were regularly seeing each other. Even if she was suddenly playing hard to get—as if impossible to get weren’t already enough. He wondered what the heck he’d done this time.

Now here they all sat, in a particularly boring Monday meeting: Harry appearing surprisingly distracted, Neelix looking like he wanted to crawl under the table, and B’Elanna…well, B’Elanna looked like a cool drink on a hot summer’s day.

She was in the middle of a discussion with Chakotay about the warp coils, and her face was animated. Tom enjoyed watching her give her report. Normally she would have been sitting next to him—which would have made looking at her during the meeting a little difficult. Today, however, she’d deliberately passed up the open seat at his left and walked instead to the far side of the table—which disappointed Paris at the time, but which now allowed him an unobstructed view and an excuse to enjoy it. And she looked particularly good this morning; something about the way her hair…

“Mister Paris.”

He realized he must have been staring at B’Elanna. Now everyone was staring at him—including the captain, who clearly expected him to know what she was asking about. He didn’t have a clue. “Yes, ma’am?” he said tentatively.

“Your report…?”

Tom could feel the blood rushing to his face, but he was an old pro at covering these kinds of lapses and was careful not to let the tone of his voice betray his embarrassment. “The mapping project is going as well as can be expected considering how changeable the Expanse seems to be,” he said evenly. “And I think we might have come across something interesting on the long-range sensors. We’d have to alter course to verify it, but I think we could be about to pass by an inversion nebula.”

He watched the captain’s jaw drop and saw Chakotay lean forward in his chair. Tom wasn’t surprised; this was potentially a major discovery. Janeway was clearly intrigued. “Federation scientists have theorized about them,” she said, “but there’s not a single reported sighting in all of recorded history.”

The first officer clearly shared the captain’s mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. “How close is it to cascading?”

“That’s the strange thing,” Tom added, knowing how hard it would be for them to believe him. “This one looks pretty stable. And the energy signatures from the radiation it’s emitting show it to be pretty old—decades or even longer.”

Tuvok was skeptical—big surprise. “That’s a theoretical impossibility, Lieutenant. The cascade reaction inevitable in such a nebula would cause it to burn itself out in a much shorter period of time.”

‘Freakasaurus,’ Tom thought to himself as he answered. “Well, Lieutenant Delaney and I checked the readings three times. But you’re welcome to check them again.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Tom,” the captain interjected. “I say we go take a look.” She was getting that ‘Janeway gleam’ in her eye. “First a supernova, now an inversion nebula. This could be our year for unusual stellar phenomena.”

Tom was glad that the captain had confidence in his findings. While he might be ‘only a pilot,’ Paris prided himself on his knowledge of stellar geometry, and knew he was a better-than-average astrophysicist—his major at Starfleet Academy. He recognized the signs of an inversion nebula, despite the security chief’s doubts. Besides, after two years in the Delta Quadrant, Tuvok should have known that the impossible happened on a fairly regular basis.

~~

As the briefing ended, B’Elanna stood up from her chair and headed for the door without so much as a glance in Tom Paris’s direction. She’d started to take a strange sense of pleasure in the game she’d begun to play: keeping him interested, but keeping him working for it. She’d see who had who eating out of the other’s hand.

Still, she wondered how long she’d be able to keep up her little act. Because, the truth be told, she really did want to spend some time alone with Tom. Working on that damn holoprogram had already wasted two precious months they could have been spending together, she realized. Part of her wanted to just surrender her pride and get on with it.

Torres dawdled to let the Doctor get ahead of her in the corridor, then slowly walked to the turbolift by herself. “Deck 11,” she called once alone inside. The lift started its decent.

Why time felt so precious these days was a bit of a mystery. Voyager had been flying at high warp toward the Alpha Quadrant for over two years, and they were still decades away from reaching home. But somehow B’Elanna sensed a kind of urgency to her interaction with Tom these days. As if they were both sitting on the edge of a high cliff, knowing that at any moment one of them might jump off, daring the other to follow.

The unanswered question: who would make the first real move? And she had considered it. But after overhearing Paris’s little fantasy about the effects of his charm, she just couldn’t let herself confirm what his overactive ego seemed to know: that she was interested. Very interested. No, if there was a first move to be made, self-respect dictated that it was Tom who would have to make it.

So, she’d wait for the pilot to navigate a clear path to his courage. In the meantime, she’d try to figure out where she’d stowed her nerve in case he ever located his.

The turbolift stopped at Deck 11, and Torres headed back toward her station. She was still worried about the misalignment she’d found in their warp coils, and was contemplating a total overhaul. It was a fantasy without some gallicite, she knew, and the odds of them finding any of the rare mineral were about the same as the odds of Tuvok declaring his undying love for her: slim didn’t begin to describe it.

The doors to Main Engineering opened and she noticed Joe Carey bent over and leaning against the bulkhead near the phaser relay station. For a moment, she thought he might have been injured: he was taking in heaving breaths and wiping away tears from his eyes.

“Carey,” she said as she got close to him, “what the hell happened?!”

The lieutenant pulled himself upright and straightened his uniform. “Oh, sorry, Chief,” he said, looking a little embarrassed. “But Vorik just told the funniest story. I guess he caught me off guard.” Joe quickly composed himself. “So I guess you’re here to relieve me, then?”

She nodded. “Anything I need to know before you go?” she asked.

Carey nodded. “We’ve got a vibration in the coolant assembly. I think it’s tied to the misalignment problem. That’s about it.” He started to head for the door. “See you tomorrow morning,” he said as he went, still laughing under his breath.

B’Elanna shook her head to test her hearing. Vorik? Told a funny story? Had she stepped into some sort of mirror universe where Vulcans had a sense of humor?

What was it, suddenly, with all the men aboard this ship…?

~~

Tom knew crew discipline was none of his business, but he also knew that kicking a man when he was down wasn’t like Captain Janeway. And Neelix was nothing if not down.

Hoping his astronomical discovery might buy him a little influence, Paris pressed the buzzer on the ready room door and waited for his captain to acknowledge him.

He was surprised to see her sitting not at her desk, but on the couch that wound its way along her viewport. She and Chakotay were sharing cups of coffee and apparently a funny story, since they were still laughing as he approached.

“Nice work in detecting that nebula, Mister Paris,” Janeway said as she turned toward him. “Was there something you left out of your report?”

Tom took a deep breath. “No, ma’am. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Neelix.”

He notice that her face suddenly looked pained. “What about him?”

Paris blinked to focus his mind before making his argument. “I just wondered if you were aware that the exhaust manifolds are now clean enough to eat off of,” he said evenly, not mentioning his own role in helping his friend finish a sentence in two days that would have taken anyone else ten. “He’s probably down there now, spit polishing the floor. I just thought maybe you’d want to know.”

Janeway smiled sadly. “You understand, of course, that his assignment was to last two weeks,” she said carefully. “And that the actual cleaning of the manifolds wasn’t the point.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tom answered. “And believe me, I don’t mean to second-guess your decision. I was just thinking, though, that if you really wanted Neelix to atone for his mistakes, maybe there was something else, something he could do for the whole crew that might make him realize that he still has something valuable to contribute around here.”

Tom could see that Chakotay was smiling now, and he watched the man bring his coffee cup up to his lips to hide the fact. For her part, Captain Janeway was looking a little unconvinced. “I’ll take your recommendation under consideration, Mister Paris. Thank you.”

Tom smiled. “Thanks.” He took a step toward her and extended the arm that had been tucked behind his back the entire time. “I’ve taken the liberty of making a few suggestions,” he said, handing her the PADD. Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

“I’ll do that,” Janeway said, shaking her head. “Dismissed.”

~~

As she watched her helmsman make his way back to the bridge, the captain shook her head. Here was a young man—who had been falsely imprisoned because of someone else’s lies—not only encouraging her to show leniency toward the guilty man, but volunteering ways to help lift his spirits. Hardly the same hardened Tom Paris she had met in an Auckland prison just over two years earlier.

When the doors closed, she took a glance at the PADD in her hand and smiled. “So, Commander. Have you ever been to a luau?”

~*~*~*~*~

His duty shift had been over for an hour, but Tom had lingered behind on the bridge to bring Baytart up to speed on the tricky navigation that would be required for the next few days. They’d come across the inversion nebula just as Paris had predicted that morning, and had already learned that this particular stellar phenomenon was as beautiful as it was fascinating. Tom had even considered volunteering for a second shift—then immediately came to his senses. They’d be studying the nebula for days, he realized, and there was another equally beautiful phenomenon on his mind at the moment.

He and Harry had arranged to meet B’Elanna in the resort at 1800 hours for a quick dinner and a game of volleyball. That gave him less than an hour to get back to his quarters, get changed—and to come up with a way to ditch his best friend so he could finally spend some time alone with his favorite engineer.

As soon as he walked through his door, Paris took off his commbadge and began to peel away the layers of his uniform. If he timed it right, he’d even have time for a quick sonic shower. He threw his dirty clothes into the refresher and opened his wardrobe, grabbing his pale blue tank top and a pair of swimming trunks. He also pulled out the patterned blue and white shirt he’d replicated for his trip to 20th Century Los Angeles. Tom knew B’Elanna hated that shirt—at least it would give them something to talk about.

Twenty minutes of non-stop rushing and he was ready to go: ten minutes early. Perfect. Just enough time to take a leisurely stroll down to Deck 6 without looking too anxious to get there. Tonight, he thought as he headed out the door. Tonight would be the night…

~~

B’Elanna pulled out her regulation tank suit and held it up. Boring. Industrial. Sexless. Perfect…

Her new strategy to make Tom Paris work for her attention seemed to be succeeding. His eagerness, both at breakfast that morning and later in the briefing room—where she knew he’d been staring at her as she gave her report—only made her more resolved. Besides, she thought to herself as she got dressed, it was cute, having him fawn all over her, desperate for any kind of reaction.

But she wouldn’t react. Wouldn’t pick her clothing to stoke his fantasies, or laugh at every silly joke he told. She’d just sit back and let him twist himself into knots trying to convince her to go out with him. One day, when he was properly chastised, she’d surprise him and give in. One day. But not today…

~~

Of course, Harry was already in the resort when Tom arrived. Paris considered asking his friend to hit the road, but B’Elanna walked in the door only a few seconds later. No, if he were going to spend any time at all alone with her, he’d have to find a less direct way to unload his best friend.

“Well,” he said as she approached, “you’re looking lovely tonight.” Actually, she looked like she’d thrown on whatever was laying in the bottom of her closet. As a matter of fact, there was a fairly obvious coffee stain on the shorts she was wearing. Still, it never hurt to turn on the old Paris charm…

“Thanks,” she said, suddenly looking at him like he was crazy. “What’s for dinner. I’m starving.”

Well, so much for the charm. Maybe chivalry would do the trick. “Why don’t you and Harry find us a table, and I’ll see what Neelix is serving.”

B’Elanna shrugged. “Fine. Come on, Harry.” Tom watched as they walked over to the edge of the terrace and picked out seats overlooking the lake. Good. At least the setting would be romantic.

As he walked over to the bar, Tom wondered if he’d done something to make B’Elanna angry. He replayed every moment of the last three days in his mind, searching for anything that could have caused her to take offense. He walked over to the warming dishes—self-service until Neelix was officially returned to his duties as chef—and started preparing three plates of a very unappetizing pleeka casserole.

“Excuse me,” he heard as he tried to balance the third plate. “Do you need a hand with that?”

Tom turned around to see a statuesque woman with strawberry blonde hair standing next to him. She was clearly not one of the crew, so she must be a hologram—a character in the simulation—though Paris didn’t recall seeing her in the resort before. No matter; crewmen were always creating and saving new photonic friends to suit their fantasies. Of course, whoever had created this woman had exceptionally good taste.

“Sure,” he said as he handed her the two plates he’d already topped off. “Thanks.”

She smiled at him and Tom sensed intelligence in her eyes. “You’re welcome. May I join you?”

Paris was about to say no, when he smelled an opportunity—in addition to the pungent aroma of his dinner. “Sure,” he said as he smiled back at her. “As a matter of fact, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“Wonderful,” she said as she handed him back one of the two plates. “Lead the way.”

~~

B’Elanna looked out at the water and sighed. She almost hated to admit it, but she loved this resort, especially the view of the lake from the terrace. It was nice during the day, but she particularly enjoyed the way the sun was programmed to set over the horizon. And the moon, she noticed, was always bright and full. They had about another two hours of sunlight, she estimated, and the breeze off the water felt wonderful.

She thought for a moment about another lake she’d visited once. Another chance she’d missed to spend some time alone with Tom as he tested out a sailboat he’d designed and built—well, programmed—from scratch. For a fleeting second, she wondered if she was doing the right thing now, pretending to be disinterested and letting him fall all over himself to impress her. Maybe she should just put an end to this silly little game, and…

“Harry, B’Elanna, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve invited someone to join us.”

Torres turned around to see Tom standing next to a tall blonde woman who was spilling out of her tangerine bathing suit, and whose legs seemed to go up to her armpits. B’Elanna just sat there for a moment, unable to stop blinking.

Harry, on the other hand, looked like he’d been shot out of a torpedo tube. “Harry Kim,” he stammered as he rocketed onto his feet. “And you are…?”

“Marayna,” the woman answered. “It’s nice to meet you, Harry Kim.”

The men stood there for a moment before Harry finally pulled out the chair next to him and motioned for this woman—this tall, voluptuous woman—to sit down. “This must be for you,” she said to Harry as she sat the plate she was carrying down in front of him.

“Yes, I guess so,” their friend answered. “But I’d be happy to share it with you.”

B’Elanna almost spit out the water she was drinking as she heard Marayna’s polite response. “Actually, I’m not hungry,” the woman said, choosing not to point out that she was a hologram and didn’t actually eat. Torres heard Tom clear his throat as he sat their plates on the table, and she resisted the urge to smack him when he sat down next to her.

“So, Marayna,” Tom was saying, “what do you do here?”

“I’m one of the entertainment directors,” she said sweetly. “Mostly, I teach hydrosailing.” The woman turned to Harry as she continued. “Do you like hydrosailing, Harry?”

“Love it,” B’Elanna heard him say. It was apparently Tom’s turn to choke on his water.

“Well, then,” Marayna continued, “maybe after dinner I can give you a few lessons!”

Suddenly, it was all becoming clear. This was a plan, she realized, a ruse to keep Harry occupied so Tom could be alone with her. B’Elanna turned to look at him, and noticed that he refused to meet her eyes. Well, it was a nice try.

“Great,” B’Elanna chimed in. “I think we’d all love a few lessons.”

She felt the temperature of the man sitting next to her drop by a good ten degrees. “But I don’t like hydrosailing,” Tom leaned over and whispered to her. “Neither does Harry.”

B’Elanna paused for a moment, but then grinned right at him. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little water, Tom.”

In that instant, any hesitation she’d felt about the game she was playing disappeared in a sense of victory at the expression on Paris’s face. Once again, he’d thought he’d outfoxed her. Once again, she’d proven who was really in control.

“Fine,” he finally said through his teeth. “We’ll all go hydrosailing.”

They ate the rest of their dinner in silence, as Harry and Marayna happily carried on their own conversation. B’Elanna was surprised to realize, a little while later, that she’d actually eaten most of the food on her plate. Tom, on the other hand, had done a pretty good job of sculpting a little castle out of his own casserole. He’d barely taken more than two bites.

Feeling a little guilty now, B’Elanna reconsidered her impulse to go along on Harry’s lesson. As they finished their meal and walked down to the shoreline, she made a split-second decision to change her mind. “Actually, Harry,” she called to her friend and his new date, “I think I’ll pass on the hydrosailing. I want to take a little walk before the sun sets.”

She turned to Tom, who was almost pouting by this time. “Want to come with me?” she said evenly. She was willing to let him off the hook for the little stunt he’d pulled, but she wasn’t about to surrender her entire victory by flirting with him.

“I guess,” he said, perking up a bit. “Too bad, though. I was starting to look forward to the hydrosailing…” Tom rolled his eyes so that only she could see him, then gestured toward the trail that led down to the swimming beach. “After you.”

B’Elanna walked to the end of the grassy trail then stopped to kick off her sandals. She loved the heat of the warm sand on her feet—almost as much as she hated the feeling of it inside her shoes. Tom was walking next to her now, alongside the water’s edge.

She decided in that moment that the first words out of his mouth would be a test. If he talked to her—really talked to her like an adult—she’d let him off the hook he’d been dangling on ever since she’d overheard his conversation with Neelix. But if he played some kind of angle or used some kind of patented line from the Paris playbook…

“The lake looks really beautiful this time of day,” he said as they walked.

Okay. So far so good.

“But it pales in comparison to you tonight.”

Ugh! Dammit! Why did he have to blow it?! Without even thinking about it, B’Elanna dropped her shoes to the sand and turned to face him. With one strong shove, she’d thrown him off balance and right into the warm water of the lake—not hard enough to knock him down, but enough that he was now ankle deep, his shoes soaking wet. Suddenly, the realization of what she’d done—as well as the totally shocked look on Tom’s face—made her laugh out loud.

He didn’t say anything, but she could hear the heavy sigh that escaped as he wondered, no doubt, why complimenting her had been the wrong thing to do.

Before she knew it, he was lifting her off the ground, and tossing her unceremoniously into the water. B’Elanna knew she probably deserved it, but she was still shocked—both by his sudden move and by the unexpected sensation of being soaked to the skin. Probably sensing that it was only a matter of time before she returned the favor, Tom kicked off his sopping wet shoes, stripped off both of his shirts and took a running dive into the lake.

“You should have told me you wanted to go swimming,” he said when he surfaced next to her. Then she saw his arm swing back, and a torrent of water rained over her. If she wasn’t soaked before, she was now.

She tried to splash him back, but he must have sensed her movement and grabbed her arm, pulling her toward him. Suddenly, B’Elanna found herself held tightly against his chest. For a moment she thought he might kiss her. And, for a moment, she thought she might let him.

Instead, she smiled at him, put her hands on his shoulders…and pushed his head under the water.

~~

Somewhere, some day, some how, Tom thought as he surfaced, he’d find the instruction manual that explained B’Elanna Torres and he’d read it from cover to cover. For now, it was enough to look at her, her hair dripping with water, her eyes gleaming, and her lips curled into a wicked smile, and to try to burn that face into his memory. He still had no idea where this relationship was going. But, at least for tonight, he didn’t care. “I’ll get you for that, Torres,” he said as he caught his breath. Someday.

~*~*~*~*~

Shon-Ha-Lock: The Engulfment

He’d never felt so alive. For some reason, the past few days had brought a flood of sensations that Vorik had never expected to feel. Full of energy, and with a level of focus and concentration he’d yet to achieve through meditation, the young Vulcan had spent the last forty-eight hours replaying a basic mathematical equation in his mind:

1 + 1 = 2.

The simplicity of it. The way it seemed to underscore all subsequent mathematical constructs. And in its simplicity there was beauty. Art. Focus.

He knew he should be sleeping now. Even without checking the chronometer, Vorik could tell that it was 0300 hours, yet he felt refreshed and renewed. So what if there were entire hours in the evening for which his mind could not account. So what if he’d begun to have cravings for foods and experiences he’d never tried before. This was a positive development. He was expanding the narrow horizons of his Vulcan heritage. He was evolving into something new and better than he had been. At first, the metamorphosis and the memory lapses had been unnerving, but gradually he’d begun to embrace the transformation.

Among the changes was a level of certainty that he should consider taking a mate. He’d given it much reasoned consideration, and had come to only one logical candidate: B’Elanna Torres.

Of course he was aware that, as a human/Klingon hybrid, she was accustomed to certain cultural rituals and traditions that must be obeyed. Unlike a Vulcan woman, who would understand the logic of his proposal without question, B’Elanna would need to develop a level of comfort with him. Learn to trust in his sense of reason. Become acquainted with him outside the confines of the command structure.

In other words, they would need to begin dating.

The past few weeks had been a time of learning for Vorik. He had developed friendships with several of the engineers and security officers and had watched the ritual mating behavior of his human shipmates. While there were variations according to personal preference and personality type, the majority of courtship rites began with a private meeting in a social setting—usually over a meal.

He decided in that moment to look for an opportunity to ‘ask her out.’

~*~*~*~*~

The invitations arrived in each crewman’s personal database on Wednesday morning:

‘Aloha, Voyager! Mister Neelix and Captain Janeway cordially invite you to join them for an authentic Polynesian luau. When: Friday, November 9, 2373, at 1600 hours. Where: Holodeck 1 Resort. Appropriate period attire is requested. R.S.V.P. to Neelix by Friday morning, 0800 hours.’

Tom immediately opened the cultural database and started searching. He enjoyed any opportunity he could get to wear clothing from historical eras, particularly from 20th century America. By slipping on the ‘costume’ of the period, he could pretend for a few moments that he was back in that time, living the life of a character from one of the movies he had seen, and stepping out of the sometimes unpleasant reality of life as Tom Paris.

Not that the reality was all that bad these days. But, remembering all those nights—first in the Maquis and then in Auckland—when he had laid awake wondering what the hell he was doing with his life, Tom was grateful for the second chance he’d been given, and was keenly aware of how lucky he was.

There was only one piece missing from the puzzle, and he was working on that one, too. Things had been strange between him and B’Elanna ever since—well, hell, they’d always been strange. A never-ending series of gains and losses, closeness and distance, and dancing to a tune that seemed to change every few measures. Sometimes, he wondered if it was all worth the effort.

Then he’d see her—half-asleep across the breakfast table in the mess hall, covered in grime after a long shift, dressed to the nines at a party, or in a pair of coffee-stained shorts at the resort—and he’d know immediately that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. There was something about her—something chemical—that he’d never be able to resist. So he’d dance to whatever tune she played for as long as he could and hope for the best.

He realized after a moment that the computer was sitting there waiting for a command. He knew exactly what he was looking for. “Scan historical database and display all recorded images of authentic rayon Aloha shirts, Earth circa 1960 to 1966.” Instantly, he narrowed his choices down to two: a red floral pattern nicknamed ‘Honeymoon Hibiscus’ and a scenic/floral/pattern combination with the memorable name of ‘Big Daddy-O’. Both were classic surf specials right out of ‘The Endless Summer’ or ‘From Here to Eternity.’

But a shirt named ‘Honeymoon Hibiscus’ just seemed to be screaming ‘jinx’. That thought sealed his decision.

“Computer, replicate image 15 Alpha in my size.” He jumped out of his chair and ran to the replicator. It was a beauty, a real work of art. Tom slipped his arms into the sleeves and enjoyed the feeling of the slick fabric as it slid over his shoulders. Yep, this would be his lucky shirt. And, if everything went according to plan, Friday would be his lucky night.

~~

The entire event smelled of Tom Paris’s handiwork: a party in a tropical setting, where everyone was required to dress up in period clothing and pay homage to a culture that was all about leisure, comfort, and food. No matter; it would sure beat the hell out of the way they had spent the previous Friday night…

After their dinner and impromptu swim in the resort the night before, B’Elanna knew it was only a matter of time before Tom was able to charm her into forgetting why she was upset with him. And, if she were honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was now manufacturing excuses to keep him at arm’s length. It seemed that, no matter how much she wanted to close the distance that remained between them, part of her was terrified of the prospect of truly letting him in.

Still, this luau might be a good first step. Dinner in a non-threatening romantic setting with a hundred of their closest friends making sure things didn’t get out of hand…maybe it would at least make up for the lost evening in her now-ruined holoprogram. And maybe, if he behaved himself and let her get comfortable with the idea, she might finally admit to him that she wanted to be ‘involved’ too. Whatever that meant.

B’Elanna scanned the database looking for just the right outfit. She was surprised to find that the majority of the authentic clothing for Polynesian women involved little more than a length of colorful fabric strategically wrapped around the body or a two-piece straw monstrosity called a ‘hula skirt’.

She switched instead to clothing designed for tourists visiting the islands, and immediately came upon a series of tailored dresses from the 1940’s and ‘50’s. One in particular caught her eye: cream-colored silk with a large red floral pattern, sleeveless, with a straight skirt, and narrow straps. It had more of a classic look to it and yet it was so…tropical.

She replicated it and tried it on. ‘Not bad,’ she thought as she looked at back at herself in the mirror. ‘Not bad at all…’

~*~*~*~*~

Tom spent most of Thursday contemplating the duality of beauty and mystery.

They’d been studying the inversion nebula for almost three days, and had found some things that stymied even their best scientists. This mass of plasma was undeniably magnificent, a vast expanse of gold, pink, and purple gases that radiated light and energy over the entire area. Yet it seemed to defy the immutable laws of physics. For the plasma that was so lovely was also unquestionably volatile. One stray spark and it could ignite in a chain-reaction, turning the nebula and the space around it into an exploding torrent of energy. All of that beauty belied the strength and power it surely possessed. And how it had kept its fury in check for so long was enigmatic to say the least.

It reminded him of a certain woman he knew.

Yet, there was more to it, even, than that. Theory stated that this kind of unstable nebula could exist for a few months—a few years at most—before the inevitable cascading reaction began, extinguishing itself almost instantaneously. Yet their radiographic scans seemed to show that this one, this nebula, had survived for over three hundred years.

Tom heard the captain make a similar observation as she recorded her log from the chair behind him. When she finished, she stepped down next to his station to get a closer look at the viewscreen.

“Maybe the theorists were wrong.” He observed to her. “After all, they had a chance to look at the real thing.”

It was unusual to hear Chakotay’s voice coming from the science station. “Not entirely wrong. These plasma strands we’re approaching look ready to ignite.” The first officer had requested to monitor the energy signatures personally. He didn’t like to admit it, but Tom knew the man was as big a sucker for exploration and scientific discovery as their captain.

Her patience for experimentation only went so far, however. “Tom, back us off two thousand kilometers,” she instructed him. “That’ll give us a safety margin.”

“Aye, Captain.” His fingers keyed in the sequence to engage the reverse thrusters and he could feel the almost imperceptible movement as Voyager obeyed his commands.

Janeway turned past him and looked over her shoulder. “Harry, set the sensors for full spectrum scans, continuous sweep. If that nebula does flare up, I don’t want to miss a beat.”

Tom was mortified when he didn’t hear a response. “Mister Kim,” the captain repeated herself. “I need your attention on the sensors.”

Harry sounded almost dazed. “Sorry, Captain. Full spectrum scans; I’m on it.”

Tom wondered what the heck was going on. As long as he’d known Harry, the man had never used one of his accumulated leave days, yet yesterday—in the middle of exploring a once-in-a-lifetime stellar phenomenon, Mister Starfleet, Mister ‘Wow-isn’t-this-cool’ had asked for and taken the whole day off. Now, instead of being rested, he seemed to barely notice the fact that he was on the bridge and on duty. Something was wrong.

Luckily for his best friend, their captain was too wrapped up in the wonder of it all to care. “Astrotheory never predicted this would be so lovely,” she said as she stood next to him. “Beauty and mystery: a tantalizing combination.”

It was as if she read his mind. “No argument here,” he said, equally impressed. As he turned to look at Janeway, Tom caught what he was sure was their tactical officer rolling his eyes. “Right Tuvok?”

Paris wondered why he took so much pleasure in picking on their stoic security chief. Something about Vulcans these days; they just got under his skin. The feeling seemed to be mutual. “I am fully capable of appreciating this phenomenon without the extraneous sentimentality humans find so necessary.” Typical. Tom wanted to roll his own eyes at that point, but insubordination was a little further than he was willing to go to make a point.

Thankfully, Chakotay saved him the trouble. “Being moved by an emotion isn’t always extraneous,” the commander chimed in. “Sometimes it’s the whole point.”

Tom caught the twinkle in the captain’s eyes as she looked over to the science station. What was it with the sexual energy flying around the ship these days? Paris took a chance and snuck a look over his other shoulder just in time to see the dimpled grin of his first officer start to wane. Maybe it was radiation from the nebula, he thought to himself. Or maybe they’d all just been alone together in space a little too long…

~*~*~*~*~

Friday morning dawned full of possibilities, and Tom had decided to make the most of every last one. Something told him that the evening’s luau would change everything between him and B’Elanna, and the thought put him in a great mood. And, as always, a great mood made him hungry.

He showered and dressed in record time, then stopped at Harry’s quarters on his way to breakfast. He’d been trying without any luck for the last two days to grab a few minutes alone with his friend to make a plan for the evening. They hadn’t discussed it, but Tom wanted to make sure Kim knew exactly when to disappear and leave him alone with B’Elanna. It would require a little careful timing so as not to look suspicious—Paris didn’t want to take any chances that a bad acting job might give them away.

He reached Harry’s cabin and sounded the buzzer. Nothing. After two more unsuccessful tries, Tom keyed in the security code and let himself in.

The bed was rumpled, though it didn’t really look slept in, as if someone had tossed and turned on top of the covers without actually getting underneath them. A dirty uniform was draped over the couch and a towel was lying on the floor by the bathroom door. In anyone else’s quarters, the scene might have looked perfectly normal. For the compulsively meticulous Harry Kim, however, it looked like a typhoon had struck.

“Harry?” Tom called as he walked toward the bathroom. There was no reply. “Computer,” he called out, “locate Ensign Kim.”

‘Ensign Kim is in Holodeck 1.’

Again. That’s where he’d spent his entire day off on Wednesday, and just about every off duty moment ever since. Harry had seemed distracted on the bridge the following morning, and Tom had tried to catch a few minutes with him on their lunch break. But Kim never showed up in the mess hall, and had skipped out on their dinner plans, too. Tom finally found him in the resort that evening, but his friend never came in off the lake the entire time. It had been odd to see Harry on a hydrosail board—until Paris caught a glimpse of the tall, shapely woman next to him and the silly grin on his friend’s face. Suddenly it all made sense.

But that had been almost midnight the previous evening. Now it was almost 0630—and they were due on the bridge at 0800.

“Computer, what program is currently running in Holodeck 1?”

‘Neelix Talaxian Resort Alpha 1.’

Paris sighed. Didn’t Harry know he needed him? Didn’t he know how much was riding on this luau?

No matter. They had the whole day on the bridge together and, if necessary, a few minutes at the end of their shift. That was all it would take to orchestrate Kim’s perfectly timed exit.

There was only one other thing to go on Tom’s morning checklist: the set-up. Taking a moment to throw Harry’s towel and the dirty uniform into the refresher, he shrugged his shoulders and headed to the mess hall.

~~

B’Elanna was famished as she made the trip up to breakfast. After pulling a double shift the day before, she was looking forward to the abbreviated workday the luau afforded her and a chance to firm up her plans for what she’d come to think of as her ‘make-up date’ with Tom. She’d already gotten her new dress out and reworked the duty shift to give herself enough time to get ready. Now all she had to do was get through this day.

She walked into the mess hall and looked around, a little disappointed to see that Paris and Kim weren’t there yet. She hadn’t seen either man since dinner on Tuesday, though she and Tom had traded ‘have you seen Harry?’ messages the day before. Grabbing a cup of coffee and a tray of something that looked like scrambled eggs, she scoped out a table by the viewport, sat down, and started scanning a PADD with the latest reports on her problematic warp coils.

When she saw the dark haired ensign in gold approach, she let her peripheral vision fill in the blanks. “Hey, Starfleet, where the hell have you been hiding…?”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant. Were you expecting me?”

The voice was way too deep. “Vorik,” she said as she finally looked up. “I’m sorry, I thought you were Harry.” He had a strange look on his face, she noticed. “Is there something I can do for you?”

There was a moment’s pause as he seemed to think about what he was going to say. She half expected a nervous question about the day’s assignments, but instead was met by a gentle, confident young man she didn’t remember seeing before. “I was wondering if I might join you for breakfast,” he asked evenly.

The question took her totally off guard. “Um, sure,” she said without thinking. “Have a seat.”

B’Elanna expected him to take the chair opposite her at the empty table, but instead he sat to her left at her side. “I was hoping to get the chance to talk with you privately,” he started, never touching the assorted fruits on his tray. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to…”

“Well, good morning.”

B’Elanna looked up into the quizzical face of Tom Paris. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said as he sat down.

“Well, actually…” Vorik interjected before Tom instantly cut him off.

“B’Elanna, did you see Harry yesterday? I’m getting a little worried about him.” Tom had reached over, picked up her fork, and was helping himself to her eggs.

“No,” she said, crossing her arms and wondering exactly where he got his nerve. “I was stuck in engineering until 0100, and he never answered the message I left him about the luau.” She wondered if Tom even noticed that she wasn’t thrilled to be sharing her breakfast. “Taste good?” she asked as she grabbed his hand and retrieved her utensil. “You know there’s plenty where this came from,” she said, absentmindedly putting the fork he had just used into her mouth before realizing she hadn’t picked up any eggs…

Tom was smiling that distracting little grin and leaned over conspiratorially. “I’d rather eat yours,” he said as he grabbed her coffee cup and took a drink. “Besides, you owe me a meal. And if I can’t get dinner out of you, then you ought to at least share your breakfast with me.” B’Elanna wasn’t sure what annoyed her more: that he was trying to charm her or that it was working so well. “Incidentally,” he continued, “I’ve been wondering…whatever happened to that secret project you were working on for so long?”

Of course he would have to bring it up in front of Vorik. She prayed the ensign would keep his mouth shut while she answered. “I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, what difference does it make to you?” she covered.

Tom seemed a little taken aback. “No difference,” he said looking a little thrown. “Just idle curiosity.” He reached out and picked up Vorik’s unused fork, then leaned over to stab another chunk of her breakfast. “But it doesn’t matter. You still owe me a dinner, and you know it.”

She decided to evade the subject. Vorik already knew too much about her plans, and this conversation could wait until she and Tom were alone. Maybe tonight…which led her to another topic. “Speaking of dinner, what time are we meeting Harry at the luau?”

The sparkle was instantly back in Paris’s eyes as he answered. “Well, I’ve already made plans to take my lunch break at the end of my shift, so I can be ready by 1530, 1545. I could swing by your place and pick you up…”

B’Elanna smiled. Just like Tom to want to be the first one at a party. Still, she couldn’t talk: she’d made the same arrangements. “Why don’t we just meet at Harry’s at 1600?”

“Deal,” Tom answered, looking only a little disappointed. Then he took one last swig of her coffee and stood up. “Gotta go,” he said as he pushed in his chair. “Big day at the office.” Then he leaned over, grabbed her right hand, and shoved her loaded fork into his mouth. “Thanks for breakfast,” he said, his mouth full, as he winked at her. “And I’ll see you tonight.”

B’Elanna smiled despite herself. He was clearly in rare form today, and she had to admit she’d enjoyed starting her day with a quick sparring match with her favorite pilot. She watched him practically bounce out the door, and realized that she was really looking forward to their time together in the warm summer evening, under a permanently full moon. Maybe they could take another walk along the beach. Only this time, she wouldn’t push him in the water. This time, she’d…

“So, I see you’ve already made arrangements for tonight’s festivities.”

Vorik. She’d almost forgotten he was sitting there. “What did you say?” she asked him.

“I was just commenting on your date for tonight’s luau. Lieutenant Paris…”

That was the last thing she needed to have spread around the ship: that she had a date with Tom Paris. Even if she hoped it might prove to be true…

“Actually, it’s not a date. Tom and Harry and I are friends. We spend a lot of time together. But, um, we’re not dating. Tom and I. Or Harry and I. Um, I mean, I’m not dating him. Them.” She sounded unconvincing, even to herself.

Vorik’s eyebrows shot up in a look that was somehow different from Tuvok’s normal droll expression of surprise. “Well, then,” the ensign continued, “would it be presumptuous of me to suggest that I join you?”

She didn’t know what to say, though two thoughts instantly popped into her mind: 1) She’d already considered trying to find a way to bring poor Vorik out of his isolated Vulcan shell. Including him in a friendly night at the resort might be just the thing to do the trick. And, 2) if Vorik were there, her threesome would become a foursome. Maybe she could pawn Harry off on him, and kill two birds with one stone.

“I don’t see why not,” she said evenly. “I’ll stop by and pick you up at, say, 1600 hours?”

The young Vulcan nodded before pushing away his uneaten breakfast and standing up. “It’s a date. I’ll see you this evening.”

As he walked away, that word rang in her ears again. ‘Date.’ Vorik didn’t think that she’d…that they’d… No, that was silly. Tom and his flirting had her all flummoxed. B’Elanna laughed, then downed the last of her coffee. A date with Vorik. It was too funny to even contemplate.

~~

Tom stepped off the turbo lift and was worried to see Alissa Lang at the ops station. He took his seat and checked the chronometer: 0758. Two minutes and counting. Where in the hell was Harry?

So far, Janeway had been more than patient with her operations officer’s recent distraction. But there was no getting around the fact that their mission was as dangerous as it was important, and that his close attention to the sensors might make the difference between life and death for them all.

Fifteen minutes later and still no sign of Harry. Yet neither Captain Janeway nor Chakotay seemed concerned. Maybe they were too fascinated with the latest data to notice. Apparently, Lang had picked up a plasma strand that was showing signs of a reaction. If so, the whole nebula could go up like a tinderbox—with Voyager inside it.

“Get Harry and Tuvok up here,” Paris heard Janeway say.

“Aye, Captain,” the commander answered. “Chakotay to Tuvok and Kim. Report to the bridge.” Tom wondered what the hell his friend was doing with the security chief—on the holodeck. Well, at least it looked like their absence was excused.

It took about five minutes before he heard the swoosh of the lift doors. Paris turned around just in time to see Harry relieve Lang at ops. He could see from Kim’s face that the man was hardly at his best. He regretted, now, not waiting around in the holodeck the night before and insisting that they talk. But, he hadn’t realized it was that serious.

Now, their day was just beginning, and already Harry looked like he was ready for bed. Tom wouldn’t say anything, but he made sure that his navigation sensors were tied into the ops console. He’d keep one eye on the helm controls and the other on the readouts. Just in case.

Captain Janeway brought the two officers up to speed on their situation. “We’ve located a plasma strand that looks like it’s seconds away from igniting.”

“There is some kind of unknown process that’s been keeping this nebula from going up like a torch.” Chakotay added, barely able to contain his excitement. “We’re going to see it in action.”

Tuvok, of course, was less than interested. And less than convinced. “And if there isn’t?”

Tom wanted to roll his eyes. “I’ve got my hand on the controls,” he reassured them all. “We’ll be out of here before it even touches our shields.” He wondered, then, why Tuvok seemed even pricklier these days than usual. If it were anyone else, he would have said the man was in a chronic bad mood, but Vulcans weren’t supposed to have moods. Still, this degree of snippiness was out of character even for Tuvok.

His attention was drawn back to the sensor readouts. Tom was glad when Harry noticed the same thing he was seeing. “Captain, the temperature is 9000 degrees Kelvin,” Kim said. “I’m picking up a subatomic cascade reaction.”

Tom watched the plasma start to ignite. It was beautiful: a crackling dance of bright white energy. “There she goes…” he said as he moved his hands over the thruster controls—ready to move the ship to a safe distance, but knowing the longer they stayed the more accurate their sensor readings would be.

Yet, within ten seconds, the reaction that should have ignited the volatile gasses that surrounded them had fizzled out like a spent sparkler.

Tom heard Harry say what he was thinking. “The plasma strand completely burned itself out…”

Chakotay finished the thought, “…without causing a chain reaction in the nebula.”

Harry’s sensors confirmed what their eyes had told them: something within the nebula had stopped the cascade before it started. A kind of dampening effect that acted as the equivalent of a firebreak. The implications bordered on momentous; if it were theoretically possible to stop a plasma reaction once it had ignited, then the days of warp core breeches and uncontainable plasma fires might be numbered.

Janeway’s natural scientific curiosity was now fully piqued, Tom could tell. And he realized they’d probably be sticking around for a while until they had a better idea of what they’d just witnessed. She confirmed his suspicions almost immediately. “Tom, it seems safe enough. Take us in for short-range sensor scans. Let’s find out all we can about this phenomenon.”

He smiled as he answered her. “Aye, captain.” Either she was getting way too predicable or he was getting to know her way too well.

Tom watched as she headed for her ready room. “I’ll see all of you at Mister Neelix’s luau,” Janeway said pointedly, suggesting that she planned to spend the rest of the day pouring over the sensor readings they had just taken. “I’m sure that everyone will be attending.”

Before he turned back, Tom caught the look of horror on Tuvok’s face and realized almost instantly that, until his captain had virtually mandated their participation, the man had no intention of joining them at the event. For the first time that Tom could remember, their stoic security chief actually looked rattled.

For some reason, the sight made him smirk. Hearing a slight chuckle behind him, Tom turned to see the glint in Chakotay’s eyes and the broad grin on his face. The men smiled at their mutual revelation before turning back to their work.

Of course, the thought ultimately led Tom back to wondering what Harry had been doing spending the morning with the Vulcan. Maybe getting a lesson on discipline and a lecture about paying attention to his duties. Paris made a mental note to ask his friend—and to plan the timing of Harry’s luau exit—as soon as their shift ended.

~~

B’Elanna liked scientific discovery as much as the next person. And this particular breakthrough could have serious implications for engineers all over the galaxy. If it truly were possible to contain a plasma ignition, the nightmare of a warp core breech could be a thing of the past.

She understood all too well how important these experiments were, and how much was riding on them. But, if the truth were told, they weren’t the most pressing thing on her plate at the moment. Not when she had a serious vibration developing in the plasma coolant assembly. Not when her warp coils were degrading by the minute.

So she felt a little guilty for pushing Harry away, sending him to work with Vorik instead. Especially when she could tell something was upsetting him. Harry had been distracted ever since their dinner earlier in the week. Now he was practically in a daze. She’d only seen him this way once before. It was three months earlier when—what was her name? Jessen—had left. The Enaran engineer was the first woman Harry had really fallen for since he’d been thrown across the galaxy and away from Libby.

But he’d been in love then. As far as B’Elanna knew, Harry hadn’t even spent any time with anyone except those over-inflated volleyball babes and that hydrosailing instructor, Marayna. He couldn’t be mooning over her. Except…

That was it. Harry had fallen in love with a hologram. If it weren’t so sad it would be funny.

B’Elanna snuck a peek at her friend as he and Vorik exchanged blank stares and grunted the occasional word to each other. Yep. The man was lovesick. She could spot the signs anywhere.

It was funny, she then realized. Harry almost looked more Vulcan than Vorik, who was looking up at her now with an expression that was almost…. No, that was silly. All of her own obsessing over her love life and worrying about Harry were making her see things that weren’t there.

A lovesick Vorik…the thought was almost too funny to bear.

~*~*~*~*~

1500 hours. Finally. Despite the beauty of the nebula—and the deft dancing Tom had been forced to do to keep the ship away from the occasional plasma flare—he’d spent the entire afternoon waiting for this moment and for Jenkins to relieve him at the conn. Now he had exactly one hour to get dressed and ready and down to pick up B’Elanna. He’d surprise her, he thought, by meeting her at her quarters and walking her up to get Harry.

Harry. Now there was another subject.

Tom headed for the lift, kicking himself that he’d never gotten a chance to talk over his plan with his friend. The captain had pulled Kim off bridge duty and sent him down to engineering to start planning some plasma fire containment experiments. Now there was no time for them to talk before they were due to link up.

Oh, well. He’d have to improvise.

When the lift opened on Deck 4, it was all Tom could do not to sprint down the hall to his cabin. He had plenty of time, he knew, but sitting at the helm all day—just itching for this night to come—had left him with a store of pent-up energy. He wouldn’t run, though, even if containing the impulse added a certain bounce to his step.

Once he was home, Tom laid out his clothes, tossed his uniform into the recycler, then headed for the shower—soap and water tonight, not sonic, even if it did mean a few extra minutes drying off. When he was done, he pulled on a well-worn pair of slacks (so as not to look like he was trying too hard), and slipped on the quasi-period shoes he’d replicated for his trip to 1996. Then—with a bit of ceremony—put on the vintage Hawaiian shirt he had created just for the occasion. He let himself enjoy the feel of the smooth rayon as it slipped over his shoulders, then took a second to check himself out in the mirror. Perfect.

He checked the time: 1545. Right on schedule. After one final check in the mirror, he bounced back down the hall to the turbolift. “Deck 9,” he said, smiling.

~~

Considering her fondness for sleeping in until the last possible moment, B’Elanna was usually glad to be quartered so close to engineering. Tonight, however, as she rode her way up to meet Harry, she felt like her friend’s home was a million miles away.

Maybe it was just nerves, she thought. There was a lot riding on this night. If everything went as planned, she’d force herself to have the courage of her convictions to let Tom off the hook for the comments he’d made to Neelix. It was funny, she realized: facing down Cardassians in a firefight hadn’t scared her nearly as much as facing Tom Paris alone across a dinner table. Things were complicated enough as it was, yet she knew they couldn’t keep flirting with and challenging each other without one of them either losing interest or getting the courage to move the game forward. No, it was time. More than time.

So why did she suddenly feel sick to her stomach?

She hit the announcer and waited for the door to open. Nothing. “Computer,” she said, “locate Ensign Kim.”

‘Ensign Kim is in his quarters.’

‘Probably in the shower,’ she thought to herself before deciding to wait for him inside. She punched in her friend’s access code and watched as the doors parted.

“Harry?” she asked, suddenly aware of the unusual look of Kim’s quarters. For one thing, it was dark as a cave, lit only by candlelight. And Harry was there—in what looked like his pajamas—sitting at his dining table lost in thought. “What the hell is going on?” she asked.

Kim looked startled as he stood up and walked to meet her at the door. “B’Elanna! What are you doing here?”

She wanted to peek in and see what was going on, but Harry blocked her view. “I just came by to pick you up for the luau. Is everything okay?”

Kim ran a hand over his face. He looked awful, she noticed, like he hadn’t slept in days. “Oh, um, I’m not going. I’m too busy.”

Busy wasn’t the word that had sprung to her mind, but B’Elanna realized her friend was in no mood or condition to enjoy a party. She considered forcing the issue, but thought maybe Harry could use the time alone. Still, she hated leaving him like this. “Do you want some company? Can I do something to help?”

He shook his head. “Just have a good time. And apologize to Tom and Vorik for me.”

Vorik. Dammit. She’d forgotten to pick up Vorik.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” B’Elanna lingered for a minute hoping Harry would change his mind.

“Good night,” he said instead. Then he turned away and let the doors close.

B’Elanna wondered what the hell was going on. But, in all honesty, she didn’t have time to find out. She’d barely make it back to Deck 9 in time to get Vorik. And where the hell was Tom?

~~

He stopped at the door to her cabin and took a deep breath. Maybe he should have brought her something. Flowers or candy. No, that would have been too much. This wasn’t a date, he reminded himself. Not yet, anyway.

Tom pressed the buzzer and waited. Nothing. Maybe she was in the shower. He started to punch in his access code, then instantly thought the better of it. While the thought of surprising B’Elanna in the shower definitely had its appeal, he realized it would put a quick end to any plans he had for them the rest of the evening.

“Computer,” he called out, “locate Lieutenant Torres.”

‘Lieutenant Torres is on Deck 3.’

Dammit. She was already at Harry’s. Well, so much for his little surprise. Tom bounced back down the corridor and hit the call button for the turbolift. Not surprisingly, it seemed to take forever for the damn thing to arrive.

He was pacing back and forth as he waited, finally hearing the familiar swoosh of the opening doors behind him. Tom turned around…

…and practically walked right into a vision in cream-colored silk. “Lieutenant,” he said, making a mental note to close his gaping mouth, “you look absolutely…”

“Tropical?” B’Elanna guessed. Which she did, even if that wasn’t the word he’d been searching for.

“More along the lines of smashing,” he corrected. And it was true. The dress looked like it had been sculpted onto her, accentuating every curve, every line. And her shoulders were bare except for two narrow straps. Straps he suddenly pictured himself gently slipping off of her…

“Thanks.” Her voice snapped him back into the moment. She was walking away from him, he noticed, and in the wrong direction. He put his hand on her shoulder to stop her, then instantly realized that touching her was the last thing he should do if he was ever going to compose himself.

She turned to face him. Clearly time to improvise. “Of course, nothing can quite measure up with this shirt,” he blurted out, before showing off his new creation. “This is an exact re-creation of a 1962 Big Daddy-O surf special. An American classic.”

B’Elanna smiled, and Tom knew they had seamlessly slipped into a kind of electric flirtation, a game they were getting all too good at playing. “I think you put just a little bit too much thought into that,” she said with a grin.

“Now there’s where you’re wrong…” He started to continue their game, though he still couldn’t figure out where the hell she was heading.

“Let’s go,” B’Elanna interrupted. “I told Vorik we’d pick him up at 1600 hours and you know how ‘Vulcan’ he gets when anybody’s late.”

“Vorik?” It was like being doused with a bucket of cold water. What did Vorik have to do with anything? “I thought we were meeting Harry?” Tom asked, suddenly feeling like he missed a memo.

B’Elanna finally stopped walking when she realized Tom was no longer following. “Oh, he’s not coming.”

None of this made any sense. All Harry had done for the past two days was hang out in the resort. Now he had an excuse to spend the night there and he wasn’t coming? “Why not?” Tom wondered.

“He said he was busy…” B’Elanna was getting impatient, he realized.

Still, something was going on with Harry, and Tom knew he needed to find out once and for all what it was. “With what?” he pressed her.

B’Elanna, it seemed, was going to be no help. “I don’t know,” she said, trying to hurry him along with her clipped answers.

Making a split-second decision, Tom turned back toward the turbolift. There was no way he would let his best friend mope around in his cabin while there was a party going on. And there was no way he’d spend the rest of the night letting Vorik horn in on his plans. “Harry and I will meet you and Vorik at the luau,” he said, starting to walk back toward the lift.

B’Elanna’s voice called him back. “Well, you’re pretty confident about your powers of persuasion,” she teased.

Tom smiled. “Yes, I am…” he answered her confidently, wondering if she even knew how he planned to make use of those powers a little later in the evening…

“Surf’s up, Mister Kim.”

Paris stepped inside his friend’s quarters and knew instantly that something was wrong. For one thing, there were candles burning. Harry hated candles—something about the carbon residue they left in the air being an eye irritant. And the man was sitting at his dining room table with his fingers steepled and his eyes closed; hardly typical behavior for the chronically upbeat ensign.

“Hi, Tom.” Kim’s flat, lifeless tone was another dead giveaway, as was his clothing. He was wearing what looked like dark gray pajamas from the Sarak of Vulcan collection. Hardly his friend’s typical choice of stay-at-home lounging wear.

The fact that he barely acknowledged Paris’s presence was also strange. “Harry, this is a luau. You look like you’re dressed for a funeral. What are you doing?”

Kim hadn’t moved a centimeter. “A Vulcan meditation,” he answered through what sounded like clenched teeth.

Tom didn’t know for a moment whether to be amused or worried. “What for?!”

“To suppress my emotions,” Harry answered in deadly seriousness. That did it; this was getting too bizarre. Tom’s instinct was to laugh—and he did—only to see his friend turn away, his back now to Paris and the door.

So this wasn’t a joke, or a gag. Harry was really upset. “Is something wrong?” Tom asked, feeling a little bad that he’d laughed at his friend’s obvious pain.

Kim paused for a moment before he answered. “Not really.”

Well, that was clearly a lie. Starfleet’s best ensign didn’t get distracted, didn’t hide out from his friends, and certainly didn’t try to suppress his emotions. Suddenly the symptoms started to add up for Tom and he traced back in his mind to the last time Kim had seemed ‘normal’ to him: Tuesday night at dinner with B’Elanna. The night of their impromptu swim while Harry went hydrosailing with that…

The answer was so obvious Tom instantly wondered why he hadn’t realized it before. “The resort woman…” he said as he paced back toward the door. “What was her name?”

Target achieved: Harry was instantly on his feet and storming toward him. “Marayna!” he said breathlessly. “How did you know that?”

It was a silly question; no one knew Harry better than Tom. “For two days now, every time I look for you it’s always, ‘he’s in Holodeck 1.’ And since you don’t like hydrosailing, I figured something was going on.”

Kim was dejected—but animated. An improvement over the morose young man Tom had found when he’d walked in. “Am I that predictable?” Harry asked?

Tom could only smile and chuckle. For his part, Harry didn’t seem amused. “You sound like Tuvok!”

Ugh! Well, that explained a lot. “Tuvok?!” Tom said. “He told you to do all this?!”

Once again the young man standing next to him morphed from Harry Kim to Harry Grim as he quoted their humorless security chief. “‘Logically, the best course of action is retreat.’ Meditation helps.” He watched as Harry moved back to the table and resumed his praying—or whatever the hell it was he’d been doing.

Hearing Kim mimic back the bad advice he’d been given was almost more than Tom could bear. “Retreat?! A classic case of Vulcan denial if you ask me.” He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table next to his friend. When he spoke again, his voice was gentle and supportive. “Come on, Harry. We have all fallen for a holodeck character before. It happens. You deal with it by staying with your normal routine. Not by hiding out in your quarters.”

Harry barely acknowledged him. “I’m not hiding out. I’m…deconstructing the emotional complex.”

Well, that was a load of crap. But Tom was running out of arguments—and time—to make his case. B’Elanna and his luau were down in the holodeck waiting for him. And maybe Harry really did need a little time alone.

Tom stood up and headed for the door. “Okay…” he said as he walked. “Have fun.”

He barely made it five steps. “No, wait!” Harry called to him. “Computer, standard illumination,” Kim said before blowing out the candle next to him. “I’m getting tired of this anyway.”

Now this was the Harry Kim he knew. But there was no way Paris was about to let his friend go out in those funky pajamas. “Computer,” Tom said before blowing out the candle next to him. “One Hawaiian shirt.”

‘Specify parameters.’

Tom didn’t hesitate. “Pineapple motif,” he answered, then waited for the replicator to work its magic. In a second, he was holding a bright red shirt covered with images of the yellow Polynesian fruit. It was garish and tacky…and perfect.

“Here,” he said, shoving it into his friend’s hands. “Now hurry up and get dressed, will ya? B’Elanna’s waiting.”

~~

There was something strange about the sight of a Vulcan in a Hawaiian shirt, B’Elanna thought as she pretended to participate in the conversation she was having with Vorik. He was droning on about something—what he’d eaten for lunch?—but she just couldn’t seem to make herself pay attention.

As they talked, she tried to angle herself to leave a clear view of the resort’s doors, keeping a lookout for any sign of Tom and Harry. She didn’t have to wonder why it was taking the men so long. She’d seen Harry; there was no way he was in the mood for a party.

Tom, on the other hand… He’d been practically floating an inch off the deck, only confirming B’Elanna’s suspicion that Paris’d had some hand in planning Neelix’s luau.

Neelix’s luau… She thought back to the conversation she’d overheard between the two men. Neelix owed Tom a favor after the whole arrest debacle at that space station. And they’d clearly been discussing Tom’s love life—or lack thereof—while they worked the other day. Was it possible that this whole party was some sort of elaborate set-up? Some angle that Paris was playing with the morale officer’s help in some juvenile game to seduce her?

‘No,’ she stopped herself. Tom’s talk had been typical male posturing; bragging about his prowess in front of his friend. But his feelings, she suspected, were genuine. He cared about her. So what if he was working the angles to get her to go out with him? She hadn’t exactly made it easy for him to be straightforward.

In a way, that thought frightened her more. Games, she could handle. The real thing—letting someone inside her protective shell…that was something she’d never been able to do. Yet here was this unlikeliest of suitors, a man with as much baggage as she had, worming his way into her heart. It was all a little overwhelming sometimes.

“Hey, did you miss me?”

She turned around to find Tom standing behind her. How in the hell had he gotten in without her seeing him? Deciding to ignore his question, she asked one of her own. “So, Mister Persuasive, where’s Harry?”

He looked a bit surprised, but immediately started to grin. “He’s talking to the Captain,” Paris said, nodding toward the bar. Sure enough, a subdued but festively-dressed Harry Kim was standing with Captain Janeway and Chakotay. Impressive. “You should know by now—when I have my heart set on something, I don’t take no for an answer.”

B’Elanna tried to think of a quick retort, but she was too busy wrestling her doubts to the ground. It had been a long while since she’d worried about being just another one of Tom Paris’s conquests. Why, now, was it so easy for her to think that his attentions were all some elaborate trick?

“Ooh, be right back,” Tom said, popping away as quickly as he appeared. A second later, he was back and carrying two…pineapples. He handed her one and she realized it was a cup in the shape of a pineapple—and that it was full of some kind of tropical drink.

“Thanks,” she said as she took a sip. Fruit. But no bite. Probably plain punch. Still, when the juice hit her stomach, she realized that it was no substitute for dinner. “I am starving!” she said as she watched Tom smile at her around his straw.

“Uh, me, too,” he said with an unmistakable glint in his eyes. “Let’s find us a spot. This place is filling up fast.” A young woman in one of those grass skirts was putting flowered garlands around their necks. They looked ridiculous, but smelled…wonderful.

Before they could take a step, Vorik’s voice stopped her in her tracks. “I have already taken the liberty of reserving a table, Lieutenant,” he said only to her, “with a view of the lakeside. You did express a fondness for that particular vista.”

It had taken B’Elanna a minute to remember that Vorik was even with them. Now she struggled to remember when she’d ever told the ensign about her favorite place to eat. “I did?” she asked, looking back and forth from him to Tom.

Vorik nodded. “Five days ago in a conversation we had in engineering about holodeck programs.”

Five days ago. Monday. While they were working on the ODN relays. That conversation had barely registered with her. It was just small talk. Nevertheless… “I guess maybe I did…”

She was looking at Tom as she answered. His face was a sort of sad mixture of confusion and stunned silence. “Good memory…” he said, clearly wondering what the hell was going on.

“Of course,” Vorik answered in a tone that—if he hadn’t been a Vulcan—would have sounded like bravado. A look passed between the men at that moment, and B’Elanna suddenly felt like the grand prize in some sort of macho competition. Vorik took a step toward her as if to lead the way.

She stood there for a moment looking at Tom, his hand nervously stirring his drink over and over with his straw. She knew he was waiting for her to brush off Vorik and get on with their dinner—a dinner she suspected they had both put a lot of time and effort into getting ready for. And she remembered her own impulse to turn this evening into the date she’d been postponing for so long, a way to make it up to him for being so aloof the past few days.

It couldn’t have been more than a second, but to B’Elanna it seemed as if time were standing still. She had a decision to make, she knew. She almost couldn’t believe, then, what she heard herself say.

Still looking Tom in the eye, she answered Vorik. “Well, then, Ensign. Let’s go.”

A hint of disappointment flashed across Tom’s face, she noticed, replaced quickly by shock. Still wondering why the hell she kept walking away from this man she cared for so much, B’Elanna turned and followed Vorik across the resort.

~~

Tom watched as B’Elanna walked off with Vorik, wondering as he stood there how in the hell his dreams of an evening alone with her had gone so awry again. He searched his memory, checking to make sure he hadn’t imagined the plans he and B’Elanna had made to come to this luau together. A chain-reaction cascade of memories suddenly assaulted him, and he took a moment to piece them all together.

Less than three weeks earlier, he’d gotten upset when Vorik took the place he’d saved for himself across from B’Elanna at lunch. He’d seen her practically fawn all over the ensign when Vorik mentioned his holoprogramming skills—even though she knew Tom was the best programmer on the ship. And he knew B’Elanna was working on some holodeck project, but she never told Tom what it was and didn’t seem inclined to when he’d asked about it at breakfast that morning.

Breakfast… Vorik was sitting with her at breakfast—the sight of which had caused Tom to forget to get his own tray before joining them. Had she asked Vorik to join her so she wouldn’t have to be alone with him?

It occurred to Tom, then, that there were only two possibilities: 1) B’Elanna and Vorik had started dating (which was absurd on so many levels—she was his direct supervisor, he was an emotionless Vulcan—that Paris couldn’t even let his mind go there). Or, 2) B’Elanna was using Vorik as a way to keep him away, to let him down easy and try to get him to see on his own that she wasn’t interested in being anything except his friend.

That had to be it. What other explanation could there be?

It sank in for him then: she wasn’t interested. His relationship sensors were so rusty from a lack of use that he had mistaken her friendship for romance—over and over again. Maybe he’d wanted it so badly, that wishful thinking had made it seem as if she felt the same way when she was really just being polite. And, as his friend, she hadn’t wanted to hurt him by telling him directly. So she’d dropped hint after hint. And still he’d kept chasing her.

What an idiot he had been.

Tom took a long drink from his straw—instantly realizing that he wanted something a lot stronger than fruit punch now. As he turned back toward the bar, he saw another lost soul standing right where he’d left him. The look on his best friend’s face matched his own mood.

“Harry,” Tom said as he walked to join him.

Kim seemed to be in a daze, his eyes fixed on some point across the resort. “What?”

“Do you want to get something to eat or not?” Tom realized as soon as he said it that he sounded snappish. There was no reason to take his own increasingly foul mood out on his friend.

It was clear Kim had retreated back into the shell Tom had found him in earlier that evening. “I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” Harry was staring, still, at something or someone on the other side of the resort. Tom turned to see Marayna—with Tuvok of all people—playing that Vulcan stick game. Instantly Paris wondered how the two emotionless men aboard Voyager had ended up with both his and Harry’s dates. The irony seemed lost on the ensign. “Listen, I’m going back to my quarters,” Kim said as he turned away.

Well, at least Tom’s heart had been broken by a real woman. “Harry…”

“Tom!” Kim shook his head in a way that told Paris very clearly not to push it.

He was being unfair to Harry, Tom realized. Just because Marayna wasn’t real, that didn’t mean his friend’s feelings for her weren’t. And he understood that maybe they both needed some time alone. “Okay. Okay,” he finally said, trying to sound supportive and sympathetic. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Tom watched Harry leave, then couldn’t help but look back—first at the table where Marayna sat with Tuvok, then where B’Elanna sat with Vorik. He thought, then, about a conversation he’d had with his mother when he was a boy. He was about twelve at the time, and had developed quite a crush on a Vulcan girl in his class at school. She wouldn’t give him the time of day, however. He’d been pouting about it for a week before his mother finally dragged the story out of him after dinner one night. ‘They’re machines,’ Tom had said to her in a fit of anger. ‘They don’t feel anything.’ His mother had explained to him, then, that Vulcans did have feelings, but their culture forbid them to express their emotions. It had all seemed kind of sad to him at the time. Now it only made him confused.

It had been so easy to forget that they had feelings at all, working everyday with the ice-cold security chief. The thought occurred to Tom then that—had Vorik been anything but a Vulcan—his attentions toward B’Elanna lately would have seemed clear. But Paris had written him off as some kind of ‘machine’ instead of really seeing a young man locked in every Vulcan’s daily struggle to control his deeply-felt emotions. He’d underestimated the ensign—and Tuvok for that matter; a mistake he knew he’d never make again.

Tom turned back and headed toward the bar. “Double scotch, straight up,” he said before calling the bartender back. “No, give me a beer instead. In a bottle, not a glass.” This night was bad enough already. No need to make it worse.

~~

Vorik was droning on and on about…something. Some girl he’d left behind on Vulcan. B’Elanna couldn’t make herself pay attention to the ensign. Instead, she scanned the resort trying to catch a glimpse of Tom and Harry. No sign of them anywhere.

How had she let this happen, she wondered? She wasn’t trying anymore to make Tom jealous; she wondered now why that had ever seemed like a good idea. She wasn’t trying to figure out what she wanted; she wanted him, she knew. She wasn’t even trying to push him away—not intentionally. Yet, in the moment, when it was clear Harry wasn’t going to be around to be much of a safety net for her, she’d run away. It hadn’t even been a conscious decision. More of an impulse, a rising sense of fear of where she might go if left alone with Tom.

She’d regretted the impulse as soon as she saw Tom’s face fall. As soon as she found herself stuck at a table with a nice enough junior officer who didn’t seem to want to shut up.

After a moment, she found Paris with her eyes: first standing at the bar, nursing a beer. Then checking in with Neelix. Turning down an invitation to join Captain Janeway and Chakotay. Making excuses to get away from Jenny Delaney. She watched him, then, walk the rocky path down to the lake, then sit on the end of the pier—alone—in the moonlight. Not once had he glanced her way. Not once had she caught a glimpse of a jealous expression as he pretended not to notice her with another man. None of the normal Tom Paris games. Instead, he just looked lonely.

She almost excused herself, then. Almost told Vorik there was something she had to do. But before she could interject, she saw someone walking to join Tom at the end of the dock. Kes. Of course. If anyone could sniff out the one lost soul in an otherwise festive party it was Kes.

B’Elanna watched as the young Ocampan sat down next to him and leaned her head against his shoulder. She saw Tom smile, sadly, and offer her a sip of his beer. Ten minutes later, they were laughing about something, some private joke she would never know. Strangely, the sight made her feel better.

Just a week earlier, seeing the two of them together might have made her jealous. But she knew, now, that there was nothing between Tom and Kes, except a deep and loyal friendship. And she suspected—with Harry in a funk and her having deserted him in favor of Vorik—that Tom could use a friend tonight. For the second time in a matter of days, B’Elanna was grateful to Kes for being there. Still, her timing could have been better. Five minutes later, Torres told herself, and it would have been her on that pier—apologizing for leaving him in the lurch, making him share his beer with her…making him forgive her for acting like a frightened child.

Soon, she knew then. Soon she’d force herself to tell him what she’d been afraid to say for so long. Then there’d be no more hiding behind Harry. No more reasons for him to watch her jealously from across the room. No more nights of going home to her dreams of Tom instead of the reality.

Soon.

~*~*~*~*~

It was turning into another strange day in the Delta Quadrant. Not only were they puzzled by the nebula’s mysterious feedback loop—a dampening field that seemed to kick into place only when a plasma strand ignited—Voyager had also developed a mysterious problem with its propulsion systems. The impulse drive was showing normal and his conn diagnostic checked out, yet every time Tom tried to engage the engines, nothing happened.

As if he weren’t feeling powerless enough already.

Harry and B’Elanna were convinced it was some kind of computer problem. They’d spent a few hours working on it in engineering before Harry—and then B’Elanna—had come up to the bridge to test a few theories.

Tom hadn’t spoken to either of his friends since the previous evening’s luau. He’d left early, after grabbing a quick dinner with Kes and making sure Neelix was getting proper credit for throwing such a ‘wonderful’ party. Even if it hadn’t quite lived up to Tom’s expectations.

He hadn’t bothered to look for B’Elanna before heading back to his quarters. He’d already humiliated himself enough on her account, and didn’t want to put her in an awkward position any more than he already had. She’d been a good friend to him, he knew, by trying to spare his feelings. He owed her a little break before telling her that he finally understood that she wasn’t interested in him. Not romantically, anyway.

He’d walked home alone, determined not to feel sorry for himself. But when he got inside his cabin and started to get undressed, he’d looked for a minute at the garish Hawaiian shirt he’d spent so much time and energy picking out. He remembered how much he’d been looking forward to this luau, and how things hadn’t exactly gone as he’d planned. With all of his energy, he wadded the fabric up in a ball and threw it against the wall. Rayon hardly made a good projectile, however, and the shirt floated gently to the carpet—where it stayed. Tom didn’t bother picking up any of his clothes before dropping face first into his bed.

He woke up later than normal and had to skip breakfast to make it to the bridge on time. That afternoon, he’d grabbed a quick lunch with Neelix, happy to see that his friend’s self-recriminations were pretty much over. Now he was back in his quarters after a tiring and frustrating day on the bridge, trying the whole time to look like nothing was bothering him. Voyager was moving again—barely—after B’Elanna had gotten the aft thrusters working. But at this rate, it would take them a full day to clear the nebula. Too long for his taste, Tom realized, having lost interest. Beauty and mystery were overrated as a combination, he now knew.

He was about to change out of his uniform and replicate something for dinner when Chakotay’s voice came over the com. “Yellow alert. Senior officers to the briefing room.”

Great. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

~~

B’Elanna was still on the bridge—diverting as much power as possible to the thrusters—when Tuvok’s call came. Apparently Marayna, the holodeck entertainment director Harry was so smitten with, had appeared in the security chief’s quarters—the Doctor’s stolen mobile emitter on her sleeve, and a misguided sense of passion in her holographic heart. It seemed she and Tuvok had become acquainted somehow or another, and Marayna had mistaken his attentions for love.

Clearly the woman knew nothing about Vulcans.

As she moved from the engineering station to the briefing room, B’Elanna thought about another Vulcan—and the thought led her to Tom. He hadn’t joined her for breakfast, and she’d worked through lunch, so they hadn’t spoken all day. She’d thought about leaving a message for him, just to break the tension about ditching him at the luau, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Hell, she couldn’t explain her behavior to herself—how could she ever explain it to him.

Still, something had to give. He’d seemed too chipper that afternoon on the bridge, too upbeat. Something wasn’t right. And she needed to think of a way to make him talk to her.

A thought suddenly occurred to her, and she got up out of her regular chair at the table—and moved to sit in Tom’s—just as he entered from the aft corridor. As she suspected, force of habit had him walking right toward her before he knew she was even there. She turned around to greet him.

“Hi,” she said gently, wondering if her tone alone could convey her apology.

“Hi,” he answered before sitting down next to her. His tone was…well, it was even. Hard to read. “What’s going on?”

She knew he was asking why they’d been called to a briefing, but before B’Elanna could answer, the captain and the others entered from the bridge. Tuvok quickly brought them all up to speed on the situation. B’Elanna noticed Harry’s pained expression as everyone learned that the woman of his dreams had ditched him—for a Vulcan.

“Where is this ‘individual’ now?” Janeway was asking.

B’Elanna forced herself to concentrate on the problem at hand. “When security got to Tuvok’s quarters, she downloaded herself back into the computer and onto the holodeck.”

Tom leaned in toward her and asked a question they were all probably wondering. “More to the point, what is she?”

“Most likely, a sentient computer program,” Chakotay answered as he referenced the PADD he was holding. “I checked the Starfleet database—this kind of thing has happened before. The Enterprise-D under Picard was once taken over by a holocharacter.”

Harry’s funk was momentarily interrupted by his interest in such an unusual phenomenon. “We studied that case at the Academy,” he said, sounding more animated than she had heard him in days. “It gained control of the ship from inside the holodeck.”

Tuvok seemed to agree. “Marayna may well have done the same. She was able to silence the intruder alert by an apparent act of will.”

B’Elanna realized then that an errant holodeck character with the run of the ship could very easily have caused their propulsion problems as well. Even more frightening: those sorts of powers would give Marayna almost limitless control over Voyager and all of her key systems. Unless they did something soon, they’d be totally at this woman’s—this program’s—mercy. Still, it didn’t explain why she’d chosen the propulsion systems as her target.

“Could she be trying to keep us near the nebula?” Chakotay wondered aloud.

Harry’s eyes lit up. “This all started the day we got here. That’s when I first met her. Maybe the nebula is somehow affecting the holodeck.”

It was true, B’Elanna knew. Marayna had made her first appearance Tuesday night during their dinner in the resort. Somehow, that seemed like the only reasonable explanation.

The captain seemed convinced as well. “In any case, I can’t allow her to gain any further control over my ship,” she was saying. “Tuvok, Paris, Torres, get down to Holodeck 1. I want this situation solved…one way or another.”

“Aye, Captain,” B’Elanna heard herself say at the same time as Tom. She looked at him for a second as they rose, waiting for his normal banter, or even some pithy observation. Instead, he just looked at her and smiled a quick smile before turning on his heels and heading toward the corridor.

They rode the turbolift in silence, Tuvok clearly embarrassed that he was the cause of all this drama, Tom looking like he wanted to say something, yet not seeming to be able to put it into words, and B’Elanna wondering why it was she always seemed to screw things up just when they were getting good. She wanted to talk to Tom—to apologize to him, or even just get him to talk to her—but there wasn’t time. They were on duty and in a dangerous situation. She knew any real conversation would have to wait.

When the lift reached Deck 6, the three officers stopped by the weapons locker and armed themselves. Tuvok handed them both tricorders, and they headed carefully down the corridor toward Holodeck 1.

B’Elanna punched in her override code. Nothing. “She’s locked us out of the program,” she said. “We’ll be lucky if we can open the doors.” With that, the large entranceway parted, allowing them access.

“We’re lucky…” Tom quipped, as they stepped inside.

Tuvok, as always, stated the obvious. “Marayna may have opened the doors. Caution is advised.”

They stepped inside and found Neelix’s resort running in its modified luau format—the Polynesian hostesses and waiters still wandering the place, offering flowered garlands and assorted tropical fruits…to no one. Other than the three bridge officers, the place was deserted.

B’Elanna was glad they didn’t have to go too far inside. “I’ll try to access the inside control panel,” she called over her shoulder.

Tom and Tuvok had begun looking around for their out-of-control hydrosailing instructor. “It’s kind of creepy,” Paris said, echoing B’Elanna’s thoughts exactly.

Even their stoic Vulcan seemed a little unnerved. “Marayna’s attempting to recreate the setting of my previous encounter with her.”

“You really know how to pick ‘em, Tuvok,” Tom teased before pulling out his tricorder and scanning the resort.

B’Elanna was surprised at how easy it was to tap into the emitter controls. “I’ve got access to the holodeck computer,” she called out.

A minute later, Tom’s tricorder seemed to confirm what her own diagnostic was showing. “I’m not reading anything on the holodeck,” he said to her. “It seems to be working perfectly.”

And it was. But there was evidence of a strange transmission being ‘broadcast’ into their computer system. It was not only into the holodeck systems, but was affecting pathways all over the ship. “There’s a subspace signal coming from outside of Voyager,” she called out to the men, before waving off one of the Polynesian hostesses—who seemed intent on giving her a garland. “It’s some kind of an uplink. There’s somebody on a ship out there, tapping into the…!”

In an instant, she was choking.

~~

“B’Elanna!”

Tom’s attention had been drawn by her news of the computer uplink, but before she could even finish the sentence, one of the hula girls had wrapped a lei tightly around B’Elanna’s neck, determined to pull her away from the control panel by her throat. The force was choking her nearly to death.

He tried to run to her only to be blocked by one of the huge native waiters, who unceremoniously clocked Paris across the face with a tray of fruit. After the disorientation started to fade, Tom noticed that his jaw was throbbing and there seemed to be blood on his chin. It took him a moment to get his bearings.

When he tried to get to his feet, though, another of the women landed a sharp holographic foot squarely in the middle of his gut, and knocked the last of what little breath he had out of him. The force of the impact sent him rolling across the floor, wracked with pain. Out of the corner of his watering eyes, Tom could see that Tuvok was now trapped behind a force field. And he could hear B’Elanna struggling to breathe as she wrestled with the woman who restrained her.

“Shoot the control panel!” Tuvok called to him. Tom staggered to his knees, catching his one lucky break of the day—by catching the outstretched leg of another ‘hostess’ who was trying to flatten him with a flying kick. Once she was properly disposed of, Tom reached for his phaser and fired a clean shot straight into the holodeck controls. In an instant, the characters were gone.

Tom watched as B’Elanna sank to her knees, gasping for air, but finally free of her attacker. Tuvok’s forcefield disappeared, too, and the men were at her side in an instant, helping her to her feet and hustling her out the door. The very fact that the resort simulation was still running showed they’d only been partially effective in stopping Marayna. There was no way they were going to stick around for round two.

As soon as they reached the corridor, the ship was rocked by a powerful blast. The pieces were all coming together in Tom’s mind now: the nebula, the dampening field, a holodeck in perfect working order with characters who’d been reprogrammed to kill them. All of that—on top of B’Elanna’s discovery of the computer uplink—told him that Marayna was no sentient holocharacter. She was an alien. An alien who’d been spurned and outwitted—and who apparently decided she’d let the plasma storms rage around Voyager. An alien who could make sure they never got out of an exploding inversion nebula.

They had to get to the bridge. They had to find a way to stop her.

When they reached the turbolift, B’Elanna finally tried to take a deep breath—only to begin a coughing fit she couldn’t seem to stop. She was able to take in air, Tom could tell, though she was clearly in a lot of pain. A faint bruise was already forming around her neck, and she seemed shaken—understandably.

“Are you alright?” he asked as the lift began to move toward the bridge. “Maybe we should get you to the Doc.”

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine,” she answered, coughing again.

Not knowing what else to do, Tom began to rub her back in slow circles. As far as he knew with his limited medical training, there was no therapeutic power to the motion when one had been choked, but his mother always rubbed his back when he coughed. Somehow, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Amazingly enough, her hacking subsided, and B’Elanna turned around to face him. “Thanks,” she gasped as she caught her breath. “You saved my life in there.”

“Anytime,” he said, smiling, only to wince at the sharp pain of his lacerated chin.

“Maybe we should get you to sickbay,” she said, examining the cut. “That looks pretty deep.”

Tom smiled at her again, despite the pain. “If we live long enough to get out of this nebula, we’ll both pay the Doc a visit.” He looked at her quietly for a moment. “Deal?”

“Deal,” she said, before another coughing fit stopped her short. There was no time for his improvised therapy this time, Tom knew. They’d reached the bridge and were clearly under attack.

~~

“What happened down there?” Janeway demanded.

Tuvok answered as he took his station. “Marayna attacked us and attempted to restrain me. She has control over the holodeck characters.”

B’Elanna followed Tom out of the lift, trying to explain the situation between coughs. “But she’s not actually on the holodeck,” she said, gasping. “I found an uplink and tracked it to the nebula. She’s on a hidden ship or a space station.” The bridge rocked under her feet as Torres took her station, the captain by her side. “She’s manipulating the holodeck from there.”

Chakotay reframed the implications of what she was saying. “She’s been using the Marayna character like a puppet.”

B’Elanna heard the familiar beep of the commlink opening. But she could see from her readouts that Harry hadn’t opened a channel. ‘Tuvok.’ The voice was Marayna’s. ‘Come back to me. I’m waiting for you.’

The captain was in constant motion. “Harry, try to trace the uplink. Find her!”

B’Elanna grabbed her console as the ship was jolted again. Her sensor readings were showing a trail of plasma strands igniting in sequence. They were being snuffed out—but only after giving Voyager a good hard slam. She checked the readouts for the inertial dampers. They were overloaded. Unfortunately, keeping power flowing to the shields had to be engineering’s top priority. She transmitted her instructions to Carey’s station as she monitored the deflector.

‘Don’t make this more difficult than it already is, Captain,’ she heard Marayna say. They were trapped in a tinderbox of a nebula with no way out and at the mercy of some lovesick alien. B’Elanna wasn’t sure it could get more difficult.

The captain’s face was strained. “What do you want?”

Marayna’s answer was hardly surprising. ‘Tuvok. I want Tuvok. Let him come to the holodeck alone. Or I’ll destroy your ship.’

B’Elanna watched the look that passed back and forth between the captain and her chief of security. She knew there was no way Janeway would let one of her officers become a sacrificial lamb. Yet they needed to buy some time.

She saw Tuvok nod, then turn the tactical station back to Mike Ayala.

“He’s on his way,” the Captain said to their hidden captor. “Now break off these attacks.”

The ship stopped shaking and B’Elanna heard the connection cut out. In a moment, both Janeway and Tuvok were standing by her side. “Keep working on that signal,” the captain said softly, obviously concerned that they were still being monitored. “If we can figure out where she’s transmitting from…”

“…I can beam to her location,” Tuvok finished the sentence. “Let me know when your preparations are complete,” he said, then headed for the turbolift.

“Be careful,” the Captain called to him as he went. Surprisingly, her instructions went unanswered.

~~

They’d been sitting on the bridge for what felt like hours—though no more than ten minutes had actually passed, Tom realized. B’Elanna was able to isolate Marayna’s uplink signal, and Harry had beamed Tuvok to her location. Whatever truce they had called with the alien seemed to have ended in that instant. The ship was under attack once again. And the shields—what little they’d had—were now completely gone.

They were defenseless. Sitting ducks at the mercy of a woman who—strangely enough—had fallen in love with the one man aboard the ship incapable of returning her feelings. Well, one of the two, Paris corrected himself, not entirely sure that it was even true.

For Tuvok was married—and older than Harry, B’Elanna, and Tom combined. And, even though he was 65,000 light years from his wife, the man was clearly committed to the bond he’d made with her. He spoke reverently of her in a way Tom could only assume was the Vulcan equivalent of love.

Vorik, on the other hand…Vorik was young and unattached. At least for the moment.

The bridge crew was killing time now, in a strange lull between plasma fires, and Tom let his mind speculate about exactly how it was that Vulcans chose their mates. He assumed, he supposed, that they did it…logically. Weighing their options and circumstances, then choosing someone who fit some kind of formula. It didn’t sound very romantic.

He thought then about his own sorry search for the right woman. And how strange it was that B’Elanna had chosen a stoic Vulcan to make her point, to help him see that she was never going to be interested in being anything but his friend. Maybe it was safer, Tom speculated, for her to choose a man who wouldn’t get the wrong idea. A guy who wouldn’t think she was actually interested.

Because she wasn’t really interested in Vorik, he’d decided. Was she?

His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of a different Vulcan, hailing them from wherever it was they had beamed him. ‘Tuvok to Voyager.’

Tom held his breath as he waited to hear their fate. “Go ahead, Tuvok,” he heard the captain say from behind him. You could have heard a pin drop on the bridge.

‘I am ready to return. Stand by to beam me aboard.’ Paris let himself enjoy the feeling of relief as he exhaled. Whatever had happened with Marayna appeared to be over.

In a moment, Harry confirmed his assumption. “Captain, ship’s systems are coming back online,” his friend said, looking more animated and focused than Tom had seen him in a week. He waited until Kim caught his eye, then the men exchanged smiles.

The captain’s tone reflected her own relief. “Acknowledged, Tuvok,” she said. “Standing by.”

Tom glanced over his shoulder and saw B’Elanna tip her head back. As quickly as she did, her hand came up to her throat and Tom realized he needed to get her to sickbay as soon as the danger had definitely passed.

A moment later, they got the signal. ‘Tuvok to Voyager. Ready for transport.’

Over the open channel, and slightly muffled, they could hear the alien woman’s final question for the Vulcan she had fallen in love with. ‘What about you, Tuvok. Will you always be alone?’

With that poignant question still hanging in the air, Janeway nodded toward Harry who signaled the transporter room. In a moment they received the confirmation that the lieutenant was safely aboard.

“Tom,” Janeway said softly as he heard her settle down into her chair. “Get us out of here. Best possible speed.”

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was grateful that Tom had allowed them to clear the nebula with some room to spare before requesting that they be relieved to be checked out by the Doctor. He hadn’t said anything in the turbolift on their way down to Deck 5. She couldn’t think of anything to say, either. So they’d smiled awkwardly at each other a few times, and made their way to sickbay in silence.

“Mister Paris,” the EMH said as they walked in. “Here for your weekly repair job, no doubt.”

She saw Tom smile, but he was still subdued. Not angry or upset, really. Only…subdued. “Just trying to make sure the captain gets her money’s worth out of you,” she heard him say as he took a seat. “But Kes can practice on me today. B’Elanna’s the one who’s really hurt.”

Torres climbed up on a biobed and rolled her eyes. She’d seen how hard Tom had been kicked, and suspected his busted chin was the least of his worries. “Check him for internal injures,” she said to Kes as the medic passed by her. “He’d never admit he’s not unbreakable.”

Tom was smiling at her, now, and B’Elanna let herself hope for a minute that the awkwardness between them was passing. She didn’t have time to think about it, though, as the Doctor stepped between them and began examining her sore throat.

Twenty minutes later, they were good as new—and relieved of duty for the night. As she always seemed to when they were in sickbay together, Kes shoed the Doctor into his office, giving B’Elanna a few moments alone with Tom.

She jumped down off her biobed and moved to stand next to his. Paris was just starting to sit up, his legs swinging over to her side of the bed. “Thanks again,” she said awkwardly, “for, um, shooting out that control panel. Another minute and she would have killed me.”

Tom smiled at her, but not the showy/flirty smile she’d come to know and love. This one was softer. More protective. “Anytime,” he said again. “I never did like those women and their grass skirts,” he teased her. “And those garlands made me sneeze.”

His words reminded her of the open wound between them: their aborted date at the luau the night before. “Tom,” she said, hoping the deep breath she took would give her courage, “about last night…”

He cut her off with a sad smile. “It’s alright, B’Elanna. You don’t need to explain.”

“Yes, I do…” she interrupted, only to be cut off, herself.

“No, really. I know what you’re trying to say. It’s okay. Really. And I’m not mad.”

His words threw her off guard. No anger, no accusations, no pouting—not even any questions about why she’d bailed out on him. It was as if he knew, somehow, that she’d just been afraid. And he was giving her another chance. One she knew she didn’t deserve.

“You’re not upset?” she finally asked.

His face turned a little sad for just a second, then he smiled at her again. “Upset about what? It was a great luau. I had a good time.”

Something was strange about that last comment, she thought. But she was happy to think that this horrible mistake she’d made wasn’t going to set them back. Not like the ones she’d made in the past. “Well, um, good,” she said, her relief no doubt showing on her face. Still, part of her was wondering how this had been so easy.

Paris jumped down off the biobed and headed for the door. She matched his slow pace as they headed for the turbolift. When the car came, she waited for him to step inside. “I’m going up, remember?” he said softly. “I’ll wait for the next one.”

B’Elanna looked at him for a moment, suddenly wondering if he really did understand after all. “Goodnight,” was all she could think to say, though.

“Night,” Tom echoed back to her. She let the doors close on his increasingly sad smile.

~~

Tom waited for the lift to move before hitting the call button again. He was glad B’Elanna had brought up their awkward evening at the luau. As much as his realization hurt him, Tom wanted her to know that he did—finally—understand what she’d been trying to do.

She wasn’t interested in him. He got it. He really did. And though he knew it would take awhile for his heart to move on, he was glad to know that his romantic obsession with her hadn’t cost him B’Elanna’s friendship.

Still, the wounds were tender, and probably would be for a while.

“Deck 4,” he said softly.

When he finally made his way back to his cabin, Tom kicked off his boots and stripped out of his uniform. He was tired, and wanted nothing more than a long night’s sleep. He realized, as he went to throw his uniform into the refresher, that his clothes from the luau were still strewn across the room.

Tom bent down to pick up the discarded pants and shirt, and tossed the pants in with his dirty singlet. As he balled up the shirt, however, he took a long look at its bright print, and the ridiculously upbeat tropical scene that seemed to mock his current mood. Without stopping to think about it, he tossed the shirt into the recycler and hit the button. ‘So much for my lucky shirt,’ he thought, sadly.

He turned off the lights and climbed into bed, hoping that sleep would come easily since he felt exhausted to the bone. Whether it was the medication Kes had given him for his bruised muscles or the ‘what if’ recriminations that were on endless loop in his brain, Tom laid there for what seemed like forever, just staring at the ceiling.

Climbing out of bed, he moved to his dining table and lit the candle at its center. Mimicking the posture he’d seen Harry take, Tom laced his hands together and steepled his index fingers. ‘Deconstructing the emotional complex,’ he thought, guessing it couldn’t hurt.

Five minutes later, bored out of his mind and no closer to eliminating to his emotions, Tom blew out the candle and moved to his desk. Scanning his personal database, he found what he was looking for in just a few seconds. He carried the display terminal to his bed and sat it on his nightstand. A quick press of the screen and it started to play the now familiar music.

‘Overture, curtain, lights. This is it. Our night of nights.
No more rehearsing or nursing a part. We know every part by heart…’

Tom lay face down on his bed, his arms hugging a pillow to his chest. And, to the soft glow and loud distractions of the colorful cartoons, he finally drifted off to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~

It had been over three weeks since the luau, and—on the surface at least—things seemed to be back to normal. B’Elanna had seen Tom and Harry just about every day at breakfast or lunch, and their conversations were full of gossip and rumors and teasing each other about anything and everything. Harry had pulled out of his lovesick depression, and Tom…well, Tom was almost chipper. He laughed at all of her jokes, made just as many of his own, and—from all outward appearances—was his same happy self.

But something was missing. The gleam in his eye. The way he’d look at her as if trying to memorize her face. She hadn’t seen that side of him since the luau. And he’d stopped flirting altogether. It was as if he’d become some two-dimensional version of the man she’d gotten to know. Not distant, not morose, but guarded. A part of him locked away behind some emotional barricade.

Not that he was punishing her or putting on some sort of act. B’Elanna was quite sure that his interactions with her were genuine. But they were incomplete. As if that playful side of him had been left home in his cabin every day.

And the dinner invitations had stopped.

In fact, he’d refused a few of hers, saying he was too busy or making up some reason why he couldn’t join her. They had gone to Neelix’s ‘Talent Night’ together to hear Harry’s clarinet solo, but Tom left early—not long after Vorik arrived. Which instantly reminded B’Elanna of the luau.

He’d said he understood, and for a while she thought he had. But something had changed, and she was determined to find out why. Yet, every time she broached the subject, Tom pretended that he didn’t know what she was talking about. ‘It’s fine,’ he kept saying. ‘Everything is fine.’ And yet she knew it wasn’t.

Her engineering schedule wasn’t making things any easier. The warp coils were slipping further and further out of alignment, and it was only a matter of time before they’d need a thorough refit. After all those months of evading Starfleet during her time with the Maquis, she would have given almost anything to have Tom fly this crate into a Federation drydock so she could rip the ship apart and rebuild her. Unless that unlikely little miracle happened, however, B’Elanna was splitting her time between the maintenance teams and the routine geological survey. They’d have to find some gallicite or verterim and cortenum soon or the situation could turn desperate.

As it was, they’d almost paid a terrible price. The day after the talent show, Chakotay and Captain Janeway had been on a survey mission when their shuttle was struck by ion lightning. They’d crash landed on a nearby moon, and the captain had almost died. The atmosphere on the entire ship had been tense ever since.

At least until this morning. B’Elanna was at her station on the bridge—using Harry’s scanners to run what felt like her millionth survey—and was shocked speechless when the results came up positive for gallicite. It was almost too good to be true.

The captain had Tom take them into orbit of the lush fourth planet in an uninhabited six planet star system.

“If these readings are right,” Torres said, barely able to contain her excitement, “we’re looking at a yield of nearly a kiloton. That would be enough gallicite to completely refit the warp coils.”

She turned toward the captain and saw Tom smiling back at her. He knew how much this discovery meant to her. “They sure could use it,” he said knowingly, “with all the damage they’ve taken the past two years.”

Chakotay had moved to his station and was verifying her readings carefully. “Is there anyone in the area who might consider this their properly.”

Tuvok’s tactical report was encouraging. “There are indications that a colony once existed on the planet’s surface,” he said. “However, it appears to be long abandoned.”

Captain Janeway was beaming. “Alright. Let’s stake a claim!” She practically skipped to the engineering station. “I’ll leave this in your hands, B’Elanna. Use whatever resources and personnel you need.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “You might want to talk to Mister Neelix. I believe he spent some time working in a mining colony.”

“Aye, Captain,” Torres answered. Her first time leading a major away mission. She couldn’t tell for a moment what felt better: the knowledge that they’d found the minerals they needed or the faith the captain was showing in her with this assignment.

Not that it mattered. Either way. B’Elanna knew her formerly rotten day had taken a decided turn for the better.

~~

Kali Farr—The Bonding of Bodies

Vorik had spent the better part of the day in his cabin in private meditation. He knew he had been having unusual impulses these last few weeks, and for a while he had written his condition off to the macrovirus the entire crew had been infected with about the same time. But soon it became apparent that something else—something even more disturbing—was happening inside his body.

First, he’d begun to lose his appetite. Then his sleep patterns became erratic—sometimes he’d stay awake the entire night. More unsettling, he’d begun to lose track of his whereabouts and actions during entire chunks of the day and night. Once, he’d found himself in Main Engineering without being able to remember how he’d gotten there. Another time, it was the holoimaging lab. Each time, he was left with the strange sensation that he’d done things—indefensible things—that he could neither remember nor justify.

His thoughts had become obsessive, he realized when he was lucid. And he’d begun to have fantasies—sexual fantasies—about the women he worked with. Well, about one woman in particular. She filled his thoughts from the time he awoke until his last conscious moment. He dreamed of touching her, touching her mind and her body with his, bonding with her. Becoming her mate.

Until now, he’d been able to control these impulses and desires while he was on duty or around others. But recently, in the past day or so, he felt his control slipping. He was on the verge of acting, he knew. And his logical mind knew the reason.

It was upon him. The pon farr. The time of bonding. An unstoppable urge to take a mate—or to die trying.

Vorik considered seeing the Doctor, hoping beyond hope that he was wrong, that some alien parasite had infected him and unleashed all of these carnal desires and emotions. But deep down, his logic told him the truth.

And there was only one alternative: to take a wife. Quickly. And he knew who he would choose. His analysis was sound, he believed, and he’d followed all of the prescribed human customs—as best he understood them. Surely, as a fellow engineer, she would see the wisdom in his reasoning. She would recognize the immutable logic.

He checked the chronometer, and realized he was moments away from being late for duty. Duty in engineering, with her. B’Elanna. His a’duna. His life partner.

Or so she would be. Soon enough.

~~

B’Elanna was exhausted, moving on adrenaline alone, yet at least she was seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. All of those days trying to will the warp coils back into alignment. All of those nights reviewing sensor readouts, wishing for nothing more than a pocket of gallicite ore. Now they’d found the motherlode. The excitement alone had her blood pumping.

Left to assemble her own team, she had already recruited Neelix and discussed deep vein mining techniques with him. And she’d asked Vorik to join her team, too. This refit would be the perfect project for a talented young engineer, and she could best illustrate the process if he were around to watch it from the beginning.

Harry had transferred his geological scans to her upper engineering station, and she and Vorik were getting their first look at the challenge that lay before them. And it would be a challenge.

The planet was an unusual mix of natural and man-made rock faces—most of which were incredibly steep. On the one hand, they’d be difficult to navigate. On the other, a lot of the time and effort Voyager’s crew might have had to spend digging into the planet was made unnecessary by the pre-drilled access shafts. It was odd, B’Elanna realized, for a people to have gone to all the trouble to create a path to the ore only to leave before mining it.

“These tunnels are clearly artificial,” she pointed out to Vorik, who, for some reason, was pacing behind her. “Someone else must have been interested in digging up this gallicite.”

“That should make it easier to access the deposits,” he said evenly.

“True,” she acknowledged before another sensor readout caught her eye. “But we’ll have to be careful. There’s a lot of seismic activity down there. Look—these tunnels are completely collapsed.”

It would be a challenging decent, B’Elanna realized, wishing more of her own climbing experience had been top-roping. A thought occurred to her at that moment. A conversation she’d had in the mess hall a few months earlier. “We should bring Tom Paris along on the away team,” she said more to herself than to Vorik. “He’s had quite a lot of rock climbing experience.”

“I have spent several summers exploring the Osana Caverns, which involves some quite treacherous climbing,” the ensign said in response. If she didn’t know it was impossible, B’Elanna might have thought he was boasting, trying to convince her that he was a better climber than Tom.

“Great. You two can be our safety experts,” she said, glad to have two experienced climbers on her team. Assuming Tom agreed to go, of course. The thought made her a little anxious. Of course he would agree, she reassured herself. The man had the best-developed sense of adventure of anyone she’d ever met, and he loved a good physical challenge. Not to mention the chance the mission would offer to do something together for the first time in…

B’Elanna wondered for a moment if she was confusing his interests with hers. If anything, she admitted to herself, he’d seemed ambivalent about spending time with her lately. Yet, if they were on a mission…

“Have we completed our preparations to your satisfaction?” Vorik asked. Torres realized in that moment that she’d let her mind wander—probably because she was tired—and had left the poor ensign standing there waiting for her next order.

“We’re done here, yes,” she acknowledged. Now a quick conversation with Tom, a good night’s sleep, and her away team would be ready to…

“Let me take this opportunity to declare Kunat So’Lik—my desire to become your mate.” Vorik’s words took a second to register, and she blinked at him as if to rewind and replay his last sentence.

“What?” she stammered. What had he just said?

His face was its normal stoic mask. Surely her tired brain was playing tricks on her. “In human terms, I am…proposing marriage,” he repeated, rephrasing his offer in terms that were unmistakable. “Do you accept?”

She stood there for another moment, knowing that this had to be some strange—and ridiculous—practical joke. “Uh, this is a…a little…sudden, isn’t it?” she blurted out. “Besides, I thought that Vulcan marriages were arranged. Don’t you already have somebody back home?”

He nodded, but seemed unconcerned at the thought. “She has sufficient reason to consider me lost and has most likely chosen another mate. It’s appropriate for me to do the same.”

This was too much to absorb. B’Elanna barely had the wherewithal to ask the most obvious question. “And you’ve chosen…me?”

“I’ve come to greatly admire not only your impressive technical skills, but also your bravery and sense of moral duty. All excellent qualities in a prospective mate.” So he’d really thought this through, she realized, replaying in her mind their every recent interaction—and having them connect for her in an entirely new light.

“But you’re Vulcan,” she heard herself saying, still not sure how she was able to question the young man in front of her on a topic that was so patently ludicrous. “I am half Klingon. I really can’t imagine…”

He was undeterred, his words now pouring out as if heartfelt and long-rehearsed. “Perhaps we are not an obvious match, however our differences would compliment each other. You’ve often expressed frustration with your Klingon temper; my mental discipline would help you control it. Furthermore, I think that…”

“Wait! Please, please,” she stopped him, knowing in that moment that she couldn’t let this go on. “Um…I see you’ve given this a lot of…logical thought. And I really am, uh, very flattered. But my answer is no. I’m sorry.”

She had a sense, then, that she needed to get out of there—to get out of proximity of this very deluded and increasingly intense young man. She crossed behind him and walked quickly up the steps to the Deck 10 platform, hoping she could get out the door without making an embarrassing scene.

“B’Elanna!” The growl in Vorik’s voice put an end to that fantasy. He was practically shouting at her, a feral look in his normally placid eyes. “You may wish to reconsider. Your choices for a mate are currently limited to seventy-two male crewmembers on this ship, some of whom are already unavailable…”

This was unbelievable. He had actually done the math to see how many men were eligible for her to marry? “I’ll worry about my choices myself, thank you,” she barked back at him, her own anger beginning to rage. Her ‘Klingon’ was rising inside her, she knew—an instinctual battle-readiness that usually made her uncomfortable, but this evening felt like her armor.

This unbelievable situation only got more so when she realized Vorik had followed her up the steps. “I should also remind you that many humanoid species are unable to withstand Klingon mating practices…”

“Okay, that’s enough!” she growled back at him. He barely seemed to notice.

“…whereas my superior Vulcan strength would make me a very suitable partner.” In that instant, he reached out for her, his large hands cupping her jaw, his fingers pressing into her face. She could hear him, then, chanting something in Vulcan. It seemed strange though—his lips weren’t moving.

She realized in that moment that he was reaching inside her mind with his own. Some kind of uncontrolled, swirling mind meld. She forced herself to scream back at him in Klingon, her own thoughts filling with an uncontrolled rage at this violation of her very being. Pulling her arms inside his and concentrating with all of her energy, B’Elanna forced the Vulcan’s strong hands from her face and swung her right arm back in a fluid stroke. Without a second’s hesitation, she let her fist make contact and enjoyed the crunching sound her hand made as the ensign fell to the deck.

“Torres to Security!” she screamed, relieved when her own staff working below heard her and came to her aid. “Get someone to engineering. Now!”

~~

Tom had gotten off work at 1600, then grabbed a quick dinner with Neelix. He had hoped he and Harry might shoot a game of pool in Sandrine’s that night, but his friend had the next two days off and wanted to spend some time alone practicing his Kal’Toh, the Vulcan game Tuvok had agreed to teach him. Personally, Paris didn’t see the attraction, but at least Kim had broken out of the deep depression that had plagued him during his love affair with Marayna. And whatever bridges had been burned between Harry and Tuvok seemed to be mending. The security chief was almost civil these days. The budding friendship between the two men seemed a little unusual, but Harry needed a mentor, Tom knew. And Tom was nobody’s mentor.

He thought about Tuvok for a moment, and recalled the final words the alien woman had spoken to him over the open com channel: ‘Will you always be alone?’ she’d asked. It was a question that resonated with Tom now.

He hadn’t really thought before about the crewmen who had left behind wives and husbands—and in some cases children. Even Harry had left behind a girlfriend. Captain Janeway, a fiancé. Tuvok, his wife of sixty-some years. How did they stand it, he wondered, being so far away from the people they loved, with little to no hope of ever seeing them again. In a strange way, he was lucky, Tom realized, that he’d left nothing but burned bridges behind him in the Alpha Quadrant. No one to miss him. No one he missed. Not really. Not like that.

Little good his good fortune did him, he thought then. Because he was missing someone, too, almost as badly. Only she was in his life every day, across the breakfast table from him almost every morning. And yet he couldn’t have her. Probably never would.

He was starting to feel sorry for himself now—a feeling he could control as long as he wasn’t tired. But he was exhausted now, and started the new bedtime ritual he’d inaugurated almost a month earlier. Hell, if he was going to spend the night alone, he might just as well spend it doing something he enjoyed. Besides, it was the only thing these days that seemed to cheer him up.

Tom leaned over to his display monitor and keyed in the sequence. Within seconds, he was lost in the colorful cartoons. Ten minutes later he was sound asleep.

The desert was vast and dry, but he was undeterred. He was on a mission, and this time he had the proper tools for the job. Not a spring-loaded rubber mallet. Not a canon full of gunpowder. This time, his ploy would work. This time he’d get that damn bird.

He carefully unpacked the large black box. Another fine product from the Acme Company of Toledo, Ohio. Tom stood back as the carton’s sides fell open revealing a shiny, black anvil. This would do it. This time he’d catch that damn road runner.

“Beep! Beep!” he heard from just across the barren cliffs. “Beep! Beep!” It was show time…

It took Paris a moment to realize that the beeping noise he was hearing was actually the buzzer for his cabin door. He also understood, in that same moment, that he’d been dreaming about that ridiculous cartoon again. The one where some poor sucker of a coyote keeps chasing and chasing the same stupid road runner, never realizing that he’s destined for the anvil or the cliff—or both. And that no matter how fast he runs, how many sticks of dynamite he buries in the road, or how many Acme rockets he straps to his back, he’ll never actually catch the damn bird.

There was a time when Tom found this particular cartoon incredibly funny. Tonight, it just seemed kind of sad. Finally surrendering his sleep, Paris turned off the monitor and crawled out of bed, wondering why someone would be ringing his bell at this ridiculous hour.

He couldn’t have been more surprised to find B’Elanna standing in the hallway. “Hi, Tom,” she said as she let herself in, not bothering to wait for an invitation.

“Hi, yourself,” he answered back, wondering in exactly how many directions his hair was now standing. She didn’t seem to notice. “What are you doing here?” he asked her.

She was pacing, a ball of energy—which would have been strange at any time of day, but which struck him as particularly odd at this late hour. “I wondered if you wanted to go rock climbing?”

Maybe he was still asleep Tom realized, but this was a strange question to ask in the middle of the night. Especially from a woman who knew that all of his holoprograms had long ago been deleted, including his rock climbing simulation.

“You know the captain put me in charge of the mining operation,” she continued eagerly, the connection slowly dawning on him. “I’ve checked out the caverns down there and I need someone with your experience,” she said, a twinkle slowly forming in her eyes. “I could really use you on my team. What do you say?”

What could he say? “Sure. Um, when do we leave?”

“0600,” she said smiling. “So get to bed or you’ll never be ready on time.”

This was a particularly ironic coming from a woman who needed a cannon blast to wake her up in the morning. “Don’t worry about me,” he said reassuringly. “I’ll be there.”

“I can’t help myself,” B’Elanna tossed out cryptically. “And replicate a climbing suit,” she added as she headed for his door. “See you tomorrow, bright and early.” Then she was gone.

Tom pinched himself to make sure he hadn’t dreamed their entire encounter. The pain reassured him that B’Elanna’s little cameo appearance had indeed been real.

“Computer,” he said as he staggered back to bed. “Reset wake-up alarm for 0500.”

‘Acknowledged,’ the machine confirmed.

Tom gathered his pillows back around him and considered turning the monitor back on. Almost instantly, he changed his mind, hoping that—unprovoked—his dreams might have the common decency to leave him alone. As he closed his eyes, however, he could hear the noise echoing in his head.

“Beep! Beep!” the stupid bird called to him. “Beep! Beep!”

~*~*~*~*~

To Be Continued… Next up: “Blood Fever”

CREDITS:

“Fair Trade,” story by Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louis Mathias, teleplay by Andre Bormanis
“Alter Ego,” written by Joe Menosky
“Blood Fever,” written by Lisa Klink

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