DOTS#12: Balance & Imbalance, Part 2

RATING

R (for language as well as sexual content)

SUMMARY

Another in the ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, set during and after the episode “Blood Fever.” The truth is out there. Now a decision has to be made: is this the beginning or the end of the line for Tom and B’Elanna? And what are they going to do about the rumors that are flying around the ship at warp speed?

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

“Blood Fever”

CODES

P/T, P&K, T&C, and a little “lower decks” just for fun

DISCLAIMER

Lisa Klink wrote “Blood Fever,” but I dispense with her episode fairly quickly here. So, while the characters, ship, the planet Sakari, and the holodeck belong to Paramount, just about everything else in this story belongs to me. I have also reversed the order of two unrelated on-screen events. Artistic license, okay? (If you feel the impulse to write me to complain, write a letter to your mother instead. I’m sure she misses you and doesn’t mind your nitpicky side!)

NOTE

According to my interpretation of Federation Stardates (Hello, Neuman…), twenty-eight days pass between “Blood Fever” and “Unity,” and almost four months before the next canon P/T ‘dot’ is shown (in “Real Life”). Here’s my take on how they spent some of that time.

Text Download: CTDbalance2


“I heard she went nuts.”

Neelix was wiping down the mess hall tables, and turned as he heard his first guests arrive. “Good morning, crewmen. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” he said. His thoughts weren’t as upbeat as his words; somehow he had a feeling he knew who the men were talking about. He smiled at them nonetheless, and moved behind the counter to get their breakfast.

“Hello, Neelix,” Trent said, barely looking at his host before turning back to Daley. “I know an engineer on the beta shift who saw her punch out Vorik the night before last. Then I heard Lang tell one of the Delaneys that she flipped out down in the caves and attacked Paris. She started grunting something in Klingon and then she just went nuts.”

Daley laughed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well if she was going to pound on someone, she couldn’t have picked a better target. I can’t believe everyone else just acts like Paris is one of us. I tell you, if it weren’t for his father’s connections, he’d still be in jail. Every time I see those pips on his collar it makes my blood boil.”

Neelix took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to do. Gene Trent and August Daley weren’t his favorite crewmen to begin with. The two maintenance workers were assigned to general operations and were rarely seen above Deck 12 outside of mealtime. Closed-minded chronic complainers who believed the ‘truth’ to be whatever opinion they held at the moment, the men were difficult for him to stomach. He’d often wondered why such intolerant, impudent people had even bothered to join Starfleet, an organization that championed diversity. It didn’t make any sense.

They were also the last holdouts of serious anti-Maquis sentiment among the regular Starfleet crew. Chakotay had explained to him once that the pair hadn’t been able to meet the Academy’s strict academic standards. Their only way into the Fleet was to take less interesting service jobs. As a result, they apparently held grudges against any officer they felt had received preferential treatment, particularly the Maquis—some of whom, like B’Elanna, had never finished their Academy training. And Tom Paris—well, there was a lot to dislike as far as Trent and Daley were concerned. His commission—not as a provisional officer like the Maquis, but with a field commission back to his original Starfleet rank—had rankled the crewmen from day one.

As much as they disliked Paris and the Maquis, Neelix held these two in similar disdain. Still, he was Voyager’s morale officer and only chef. He didn’t have the luxury of avoiding anyone. So he made a rule of keeping his temper in check and his opinions to himself. This morning, though, their scandal-mongering was hitting a little too close to home. The people they were slandering were his friends.

Before he could decide the best way to intervene, the doors opened and another group of crewmen joined the line: Robertson, Kent, and Henley. Neelix wondered if his expression hinted at the groan he was trying to suppress. The three new arrivals were the Maquis mirror image of Trent and Daley: shortsighted, snappish and always happy to speak ill of anyone who crossed them. Particularly Tuvok and Tom Paris, both of whom they viewed as traitors to their cause.

“Yeah, well I heard that pinhead Vorik attacked B’Elanna and that she was only defending herself. And who could blame her for being in a bad mood after that?” Robertson didn’t seem to notice that he was practically shouting his opinion to anyone in earshot.

“Yeah, well, leave it to Paris to make a big deal out of nothing,” Henley whined. “I hope she whipped his ass.” She was looking over her shoulder at her friends as she walked—right into Daley’s tray, spilling the contents of his plate all over the floor.

Neelix bit his lip and waited for the fallout.

The two groups eyed each other up and down, and their conversations came to an immediate halt. Daley’s eyes were blazing. “Dammit, Henley! Look what you did!”

Robertson, who was nearly a foot taller than either of his Starfleet counterparts took a step forward and crossed his arms. Trent tried to look imposing—which Neelix would have found laughable if the men weren’t in serious danger of throwing punches. He could feel a fight brewing.

He was seconds away from hitting his commbadge and calling for security when the mess hall doors opened. As if sent by providence, Lieutenants Carey and Ayala walked in together, laughing. Joe Carey was died-in-the-wool Starfleet with a reputation for strictness and adherence to protocol. His best friend, a former Maquis and Tuvok’s right-hand security officer, Michael Ayala was probably the burliest man on the ship. Tall and muscular, he could seem imposing just sitting still. As second-in-command in their respective departments—both separated from sons they’d left behind in the Alpha Quadrant—the two officers had more than a little in common, and had become almost inseparable in their off-duty hours.

They also shared a well-known intolerance for Maquis/Starfleet infighting. As they approached the counter, Neelix stood down from his internal yellow alert. As he suspected, at the sight of their senior officers the warring crewmen immediately collected their breakfast and retreated to their respective corners.

“Neelix!” Joe said happily. “What’s for dinner?”

The cook smiled. As Voyager’s assistant chief engineer, Carey ran the gamma shift and was coming off duty just as Ayala was going on. Chakotay, Tuvok, and Torres had an unofficial agreement that the two men could arrange their schedules to share an occasional meal: usually dinner for Joe and breakfast for Mike. “Replicate whatever you want—on me,” the cook answered as he came out from behind the counter to clean up Daley’s spilled food from the floor. “I owe you both a favor.”

Ayala looked over at the Maquis crewman, who were now huddled in a corner by the viewport. “Were those three giving you trouble?” he asked sternly, shooting the group a dirty look for good measure.

“Actually,” Neelix answered as he stood up, “the whole lot of them were trying my patience.” As he took a step, the chef’s freshly-knit femur reminded him that he was still on the mend after the previous day’s climbing accident, and he let out a soft groan.

“Leg still bothering you?” Mike asked. Ayala had been part of the rescue detail that helped bring the injured Talaxian to the Sakari surface the previous morning. “Do you want me to get the doctor?”

Neelix smiled. “I’m fine, thanks,” he said reassuringly as he stepped behind the counter. He noticed the two men exchange awkward glances as he turned back to face them. “What is it?” he finally asked.

Joe looked embarrassed, and he checked over his shoulder to make sure no one could hear what he was about to say. “We were just wondering…what happened down there yesterday? There are all kinds of wild rumors floating around about the Chief, Tom Paris, and Vorik.”

Ayala leaned his crossed arms on the counter and lowered his voice to a whisper. “And Lieutenant Tuvok classified the away team report. I’ve never seen him do that before.”

“Not to mention all those systems failures yesterday,” Carey added. “The transporter relays, all the shuttles, and the external commlinks were clearly sabotaged, yet Commander Chakotay told me to just fix them and not ask any questions. When I asked him what Torres thought about someone messing with her ship’s systems, he ordered me to drop it and walked away!”

Neelix sighed. He didn’t know the answers to the men’s questions—not really. Not that he would have shared them if he did. But he knew that something had happened between Tom and B’Elanna. He’d seen it with his own eyes. And he also knew from the conversations in the caves that Vorik was involved somehow.

But, as much as he enjoyed sharing good gossip, he also remembered the promise he’d made to one of his best friends before smiling up at the men. “Of all people, you two should know better than to listen to rumors,” he answered, laughing. “I have it on very good authority that it was all a big misunderstanding. Now, gentlemen, what will it be? Steak and eggs or waffles?”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom was running late. He’d stayed up half the night reading up on Klingon culture and customs—then slept right through his alarm. Now, as he quickly scarfed down the last bite of a peanut butter sandwich, he hurried out of his quarters and toward the turbolift. His mouth was sticky and dry, and he wished he’d thought to replicate a cup of coffee before he left. Too late, though. He’d have live with his tongue intermittently sticking to the roof of his mouth until his lunch break.

He also wished he’d had enough time to check up on B’Elanna. Just to make sure she was okay. As it was, he barely had time to check the sickbay computer to make sure she’d been discharged. Part of him was glad to see the Doctor’s notation that Harry had walked her home just before midnight. Part of him kicked himself that he hadn’t been there in his friend’s place. But Chakotay’s orders had been pretty specific: let B’Elanna handle things her own way. Don’t pressure her. As much as he hated it, some part of Tom knew this was good advice.

Now, as he waited for the turbolift to come, Paris nodded at the crewmen who passed him. After the third one failed to look him in the eye, he started to wonder if he’d forgotten to brush his hair or fasten his pants. Discretely checking everything he could think of, he wrote off his observations to his still-sleepy brain and chronically overactive imagination.

In a moment, however, the lift doors opened, and he caught the tail end of a conversation between the two ensigns standing inside. “…he told the captain that she bit him, and that she was acting like some kind of wild—” Alissa Lang gasped as she looked up at him. “Oh! Good morning, Lieutenant,” she tried to cover. Her face was suddenly as red as Tom’s uniform.

Hiding his anger had always been one of Paris’s talents, and he smiled his most charming smile right back at her. “Ensign Lang, Ensign Molina. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

Inside, though, he was steaming. Not at Lang, who was only succumbing to her very human nature, but at himself. He was the one who had told the entire bridge crew about what B’Elanna had said and done after her fall in the caves the previous morning. He’d not only mentioned her biting him, he’d remarked about the very Klingon way she’d behaved. At the time, he was in shock and under an obligation to give his captain complete information. Still, if he’d only known what was really happening…

Before he could finish beating himself up, the doors opened and deposited them all on the bridge. He resisted the temptation to whistle as he walked to his station, just to keep up appearances. Not that he could have whistled, his mouth now dry from more than just his sticky breakfast.

Until that moment outside the turbolift, it hadn’t occurred to Tom to wonder what people were saying about their away mission. He’d been too focused on everything that had happened to give much thought to Voyager’s insatiable rumor mill. It hit him then: he, B’Elanna, and Vorik must be the talk of the ship.

Tom knew that Lang was a nice kid. But she was also Sue Nicoletti’s protégé. Sue was Jenny Delaney’s best friend. And Jenny had the biggest mouth in the Delta Quadrant. It was pretty clear now that word of B’Elanna’s biting him had made the rounds. He just prayed that no one besides Neelix, Tuvok, and Chakotay knew the sexual implications.

As he rounded the railing and headed down toward the conn, Tom looked up and caught the eye of his first officer. Something about Chakotay’s expression chased away Paris’s smug, plastered-on smile. The two men regarded each other for a moment, and Tom wondered why he suddenly felt like he was on parade review. “Morning, Commander,” he said as sincerely as he could.

“Lieutenant,” Chakotay answered evenly.

‘Great,’ Tom thought. ‘Now what have I done?’

It was barely 0800 and already it was turning into a banner morning…

~~

B’Elanna checked her personal database and sighed. The Doctor had instructed her to take the day off, but there was no way she could even consider it. There was a half-kiloton of gallicite waiting to be refined and warp coils to be rebuilt—no thanks to her.

She’d wanted to be in engineering before the start of the alpha shift, but she was having trouble getting moving. So her morning had barely begun and she was already behind schedule. No matter; there was still plenty to do. Today of all days, she would be grateful for the distraction of refining ore and working through the logistics of a major maintenance overhaul. It would keep her from thinking too much.

She’d had a fitful night’s sleep, reliving in her dreams much of the previous day. Her mind was clearly trying to bring order to what had been an unbelievably surreal experience, and she wished she could separate out what had really happened from what she’d imagined. Her memory of her time under the pon farr was sketchy, fragmented. Which was probably all for the best; much of what she did remember frightened her. Her ranting at poor, injured Neelix. Attacking Tom like some kind of beast in heat. Forcing him to admit his feelings for her, and then using them to try to lure him into having sex with her. Rejecting him when he refused to play her game.

She’d told him then, in the caves, that she felt the same way. That she’d been afraid to admit that she was just as attracted to him as he was to her. She knew it was true, and part of her was glad that they’d finally said it out loud. But another part of her was clinging to the ‘out’ she’d given herself. ‘It was the pon farr talking,’ she could say. ‘I didn’t really mean it.’

She could let them both off the hook that way, since she was certain that—now that he’d seen her growling, biting Klingon side—Tom would be looking for his own way ‘out.’

Still, she was glad she could remember those moments in the cave. The look in Tom’s eyes as she forced him to confess his feelings. The tender kisses they’d finally shared. Of course, her memories after that point were much fuzzier. Holding onto him for dear life after Chakotay rescued them, the way he’d held her as they prepared to climb up the cliff, their aborted foreplay in the Sakari clearing—her fistfight with Vorik. And though much of it was sketchy and some of it had probably been her imagination working overtime, there were some things her senses reassured her had really happened—for when she closed her eyes she could still feel Tom’s body pressed against hers as he rolled on top of her, his erection pushing against her through their skin-tight uniforms. He was seconds away from kissing her, then, she was pretty sure. Minutes away from taking her right there on the ground. If only Vorik hadn’t interrupted. Dammit, they’d come so close…

As if she needed any more evidence that it had all actually happened, she could also feel her fist making contact with Vorik’s jaw—a sensation she called up every time she thought she couldn’t stand living with the memories another second.

So some of what she’d dreamed must have been true. Yet some of it…some of it reeked of fantasy. Wishful thinking. Not the least of which was the sensation of a soft kiss on her ugly Klingon forehead, and Tom’s voice whispering that he loved her. There was no way that had really happened. Yet it had played over and over again in her dreams.

Not likely. He hadn’t even called to see if she was okay. Which was fine. Really. He didn’t owe her anything and she didn’t expect anything. Not after the way she’d behaved. Still, she’d have to face him sooner or later. And for now, later would do just fine.

Her head was swimming as she got dressed and tamed her wild Klingon hair back into its straight, human style. She checked her face for any sign of fatigue, and was grateful to see that she looked rested, even if she didn’t feel that way. Ah, the wonders of inoproveline. Still, she went a little heavier on her makeup than she would have for a sweaty day in engineering. For some reason it felt important that she look as pulled together as possible.

Finally dressed and ready, she stopped just inside her cabin door, deciding that being prepared was better than being surprised. “Computer,” she said just loud enough for the sensor to hear her, “locate Lieutenant Paris.”

“Lieutenant Paris is on the bridge,” it replied in its clinical monotone.

‘Good,’ she thought to herself as she took a falsely confident step into the corridor. ‘Later’ it would be.

Engineering was a beehive of activity, impatiently waiting for its queen to arrive. Joe Carey had clearly spent the gamma shift prepping for their concurrent projects: three teams of engineers were standing by just waiting for their Chief’s seal of approval. Team A was staffed with her geological specialists, who would coordinate the gallicite refining project. Team B would focus on the fabrication of Voyager’s new warp coil assemblies; they’d also act as quality control for Team A. Team C would handle the refit itself, and coordinate the overhaul with ops to make sure the warp drive’s downtime was kept to a minimum. It was a massive project, but B’Elanna was grateful that there was so much to do. So many ways to keep herself distracted.

She was barely inside the door when Susan Nicoletti appeared by her side. “Lieutenant, Ensign Kim and I are having some problems with the refit schedule. We’re stretched a little thin, what with the quick turn-around, and, well, being short-handed…”

Nicoletti’s voice trailed off, and B’Elanna wondered what the hell she was talking about. “Short-handed?”

She watched as Sue stared at her shoes, then forced her eyes in the general direction of her boss’s face. “Well, I mean, with Ensign Vorik, um, on restricted duty. He’s been the primary engineer assigned to warp coil maintenance. It will take us longer than we’d hoped without his help.” She extended her arm and handed B’Elanna a PADD with, among other things, the duty roster, showing that the ensign was being limited to Deck 15 secondary maintenance projects until further notice.

Torres said a silent prayer that her expression didn’t betray her feelings. Hearing Vorik’s name was difficult, still, but she’d be damned if she’d let that show in front of her engineers. Sure, a handful of them were around when she decked the pon farr-crazed Vulcan and called for security two nights earlier. But there was no reason for anyone—besides the senior staff who had watched it all play out—to know what had really happened between her and the ensign. Apparently, though, someone—Chakotay or Tuvok most likely—had realized that she might need to keep Vorik at arm’s length for a while. It was a thoughtful gesture considering how awkward the entire situation had become.

In any other circumstance, B’Elanna might have agreed. But Nicoletti was right; they needed Vorik’s help to make their deadlines. And the sooner things got back to normal, the better for everyone.

“I’ll speak to Commander Chakotay about getting Vorik reassigned to your team,” Torres forced out with a practiced professionalism. In the meantime, you’ll have to make due.”

“Yes, sir,” she heard Nicoletti answer as she took back the PADD. B’Elanna turned and walked away without comment. She knew that engineering was the seat of Voyager’s rumor mill, and was determined to end their conversation without feeding it in any way.

Her heart was already racing, though, as she walked up behind Ensigns Ballard and Platt, just in time to overhear their exchange. “You were late again this morning, Lyndsey,” Platt was saying. “Better watch it or Torres might break your jaw next.”

B’Elanna didn’t know either of them well; at Joe Carey’s request the two Starfleet ensigns had been permanently assigned to the gamma shift, and only saw their chief when a project required all hands. She had heard that Ballard was an old Academy friend of Harry’s—a point in her favor—but Platt had a reputation for being an insensitive blowhard. A reputation that seemed to be proving itself true right in front of her.

“Listen, you jerk,” Ballard said as she turned around—and stared into the pained eyes of her commanding officer. “Oh! Lieutenant Torres!” she blurted out awkwardly. “Good morning, sir.”

“As you were, Ensign,” B’Elanna growled before heading straight for the maglift. ‘So this is how it’s going to be,’ she thought as she sought out the solitude of her upper workstation. Two years of fighting to gain the respect of her crew out the airlock with one punch. ‘At least that’s all they know,’ she comforted herself. If word ever got out about her day on Sakari, she feared she’d never be able to show her face in front of her crew again.

But Tom was the only one who knew that whole story. And she reassured herself with the belief that he would never, ever tell.

~*~*~*~*~

The bridge was a flurry of motion as Tom watched officers come and go from every direction. Chakotay had left for the surface soon after the start of the shift, only to call for the captain to join him a little while later. He knew that Harry was on temporary duty in the far recesses of the warp nacelles, and Tuvok was keeping the center seat warm and the activity going while Janeway and Chakotay were on Sakari. It seemed like everyone was busy with one of Voyager’s two major undertakings. Everyone except him.

The ship was in synchronous orbit—all computer controlled—and there was nothing for a helmsman to do except monitor the navigational sensors. And daydream. Which was probably a good thing. Considering how he’d spent the previous day, it was hard for Tom to keep his mind from wandering back to B’Elanna and the research into all things Klingon he’d begun the night before. It occurred to him, then, that he might be able to do a little inconspicuous reading while he waited for his lunch break. He’d just accessed the cultural database when the turbolift doors opened.

Paris looked up to see Janeway and Chakotay step out of the lift—both looking more serious than he would have predicted after such a successful first contact. “Tom, Tuvok, I’d like to see you in the briefing room,” the Captain said as she crossed the bridge. “Ensign Lang, page Mister Neelix, Ensign Kim, and the Doctor and have them join us.”

Tom nodded and waited for his senior officers to pass before falling in behind them. He noticed that Chakotay barely looked at him as he walked by. Tom wondered what the hell was going on.

He took his normal seat before he realized that the captain hadn’t mentioned including Voyager’s chief engineer in their impromptu meeting. He wondered how she was doing, and wished for the tenth time that he’d waited around for her to wake up in sickbay the night before. He’d had over twelve hours to brood about it, and had begun to resent Chakotay’s interference in what he’d come to think of as a very personal matter. Now he knew that seeing B’Elanna again would be awkward for them both. He only hoped she’d understand.

He was lost in thought when he heard his captain’s voice. “You look tired, Tom. Is everything alright?” She was smiling in a way that was more maternal than professional, and Paris grinned at her tendency to mother him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, putting on the same false smile he’d shown Lang and Molina that morning. He could no more discuss his troubles with Janeway than with his real mother. Not this kind of trouble, anyway. “Everything’s fine.”

With that, Neelix and the Doctor entered from the aft corridor, and Harry joined them a moment later. When they were seated, Tom felt even more acutely aware of the empty chair to his right. He knew B’Elanna had been released from sickbay; the computer told him so that morning. But was she still sick? Was she just too busy getting ready for the refit? He couldn’t ask, though. It was none of his business. Instead he shot a look at his first officer. Chakotay’s expression was grim, but unreadable. Paris decided to try and focus his attention on the captain.

“Gentleman,” she began solemnly. “As you know, Commander Chakotay agreed that we would clear the remaining ruins from the Sakari surface in exchange for a rather substantial amount of gallicite. The reclamation project began this morning at 0600 hours.”

None of this was news to Tom, who had worked late the previous evening planning the mission with his senior officers. “All along it was a bit of a mystery how the original colony was so utterly decimated in such a short period of time,” Janeway continued. “This morning, however, our people discovered something that helps answer a lot of those questions.”

She paused for a moment, and Tom wondered if it was for dramatic effect. What the heck could be so important about an almost-abandoned planet in the middle of nowhere?

He got his answer with the flick of the briefing room’s viewscreen. There, half-buried in the underbrush, was a familiar and frighteningly well-preserved corpse. It was all the explanation Paris needed.

Neelix, on the other hand, seemed confused. “I don’t understand, Captain. Is that some kind of android? The face looks like it might have been organic.”

“Right on both counts, Neelix,” Janeway answered. “He was Borg. They are cybernetic—an interconnected ‘hive’ of drones made up of billions of individuals from thousands of different species. They operate from a collective consciousness, attacking and assimilating people and technologically throughout the galaxy on some misguided quest for ‘perfection.’ They’re a ruthless enemy and a serious threat to this ship and its crew.” Her mind seemed to wander for a moment before she turned to look at the image of the decomposing drone on the viewscreen. “Starfleet has known for a while that their primary territory was somewhere in the Delta Quadrant.” She turned her gaze back to each officer in turn as she continued. “Gentlemen, it looks as if we might be approaching the outer boundaries of Borg space.”

“Captain,” Tuvok spoke up, “if your theory is correct and Borg space lies somewhere between our current position and the Alpha Quadrant—”

Janeway finished his thought, “Then the rest of our journey is about to get much more interesting.”

The security chief raised his eyebrows. “A considerable understatement,” Tuvok pointed out. Tom knew the man was right, though. A Borg-infested Delta Quadrant would make their battles with the Kazon and Vidiians look like child’s play.

As always, Chakotay was the voice of optimism and reason. “Of course, it’s possible that the Sakari were an opportunistic target. The attack on their planet was decades ago, and none of the species we’ve encountered up until this point seem to have any knowledge of the Borg at all.”

“Nevertheless,” Janeway said, her eyes reflecting the great weight of her worries, “we need to be especially vigilant for any signs of Borg activity from this point on. Tuvok, add a regular check for transwarp signatures to the routine sensor sweeps. And Harry, monitor all subspace communication for any mention of activity that could indicate Borg attacks in the region. I suggest the rest of you reacquaint yourselves with the information the Federation has gathered on the Collective over the years.” Her voice turned somber. “I don’t have to remind you that we’re all alone out here. Starfleet won’t be coming to our rescue anytime soon. So we can’t risk letting our guard down for a single second.” She paused once more before ending their briefing. “Dismissed.”

Tom looked up just in time to catch Harry’s gaze. For a moment, he considered asking his friend if B’Elanna had mentioned him when they’d left sickbay together the night before. He wondered if she was okay, if Harry had seen her that morning, how she was holding up after everything they’d been through. But it wasn’t the time or the place. They’d just been given news that seriously upped the ante on their already dangerous trip home, and Tom knew they both needed to stay focused on their duties.

He noticed, too, that Kim looked concerned and resigned—but not panicked at the idea of encountering the Borg. Paris realized how much Harry had matured in their years in the Delta Quadrant. The thought made him equal parts proud and sad. The innocent kid who’d befriended him was gone for good, replaced with an increasingly seasoned young officer who had been through more than his fair share of troubles on his first real Starfleet mission. Their journey was forcing his friend to grow up, ready or not.

As they stood up to go their separate ways, Tom was left with the strange feeling that everything in his life was about to change. He couldn’t help but wonder exactly what that would mean. The only thing he was sure of was that, just like Harry, he was probably going to be forced to grow up, too. And that maybe, finally, he was ready.

~*~*~*~*~

Starfleet Medical Corps, Publication 7813: A Comparative Study of Klingon Anatomy and Physiology, Chapter 1.

Tom’s lunch break was short enough without having to add a detour to his list of things to do. And he still hadn’t had a chance to get that cup of coffee. But he didn’t want to waste any time before seeking out the answers to some important questions. Questions whose answers lay in the hands of a good friend who happened to be Voyager’s medic.

He had spent the better part of the previous evening reading everything he could get his hands on about Klingon culture and customs. He knew now about the difference between a bat’leth and a kut’luch, between the Age of Inclusion and the Rite of Ascension, as well as all of the reasons why a Klingon might bite any part of your body. It was illuminating and fascinating. But it was incomplete.

Apparently, at the request of the government on Qo’noS, the generally accessible Starfleet database included only rudimentary—and often inconsistent—information about Klingon physiology. When he’d asked, Kes had warned him that much of it was false: rumors, myths, and conjecture—in some cases written by Klingons trying to look or sound more imposing to their enemies. And there was nothing at all about the few dozen individuals of mixed Human/Klingon descent. Nothing useful anyway.

So there was only so much he’d been able to learn on his own. Luckily, though, Kes had access to the medical archives—and a sixth sense about why Tom wanted detailed information from a reliable source. It was the kind of thing he’d never have been able to discuss with the Doc, and he knew Kes would be discrete. Besides, as a backup medic, a case could be made that Tom needed the information for professional reasons, too. A flimsy case, but a case nonetheless.

He had warned Kes that he’d be stopping by on his lunch break to pick up the PADD she’d prepared, and was grateful that she had it ready. Now, as he headed from sickbay to the mess hall for a very overdue cup of coffee and a quick snack, he found the index and began to read as he walked. ‘Basic Klingon Anatomy.’ He began skimming the section:

‘Brak’lul — the presence of multiple, redundant organ systems.’

The chapter went on to give an overview of several specific duplicate organs and their practical functions: ‘third lung, thought to increase stamina on the battlefield.’ Well, that could explain why it was so hard to keep up with B’Elanna some days.

‘Redundant stomach.’ He knew about this one from an offhand comment she’d made about Neelix’s cooking right after they met. No doubt designed to make the normal Klingon diet seem a little more palatable, a second stomach didn’t seem to do much for B’Elanna’s appreciation of pleeka surprise. Still, it might explain how she could store food like a camel: eating huge meals sometimes, then not taking another bite for what seemed like days.

‘Quintuple ventricles.’ Interesting. But that wasn’t exactly what he needed to know about the nature of her heart.

There were other notes about the enhanced Klingon muscular and skeletal structures, including ‘spinal ridges.’ He thought for a moment about the swimsuit he’d seen B’Elanna wearing a few months earlier. The image was burned into his memory, and he clearly recalled that it hid her spine from her collar to her shapely ass…

He stopped for a moment and let himself enjoy the memory. But he didn’t recall anything particularly different about the look of her back.

It only took a moment, then, before the realization hit him: with her combined Human/Klingon genetic makeup, there was no way to know exactly how much of her anatomy was Klingon—and to what degree—without her specific medical records. And there was no way to access her private medical records without—

No, he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. It would just be wrong. Besides, what was he doing?

Preparing himself, he answered his own question. But for what?

Deep down inside, he knew the answer. In his own way, Tom had decided to put himself on full tactical alert, needing to have every contingency covered in case an opportunity to advance their relationship presented itself. He wouldn’t be caught unprepared again. Besides, he hoped that—by learning more about what it meant to be a Klingon—he could gain some kind of deeper understanding of exactly what B’Elanna was afraid of revealing.

Oh, he knew the rumors. Of Klingon women and their insatiable sexual drives. Of their strange physiology and its redundant organs. But none of this fit into the context of the woman he knew. None of that was B’Elanna to him. Yet part of it must be. Her forehead ridges were subtle yet there. Surely they weren’t the only vestige of her mother’s genes.

Still, she was half-Human. Which made this whole little exercise pointless: there were too many variables to calculate.

Just as he was about to give up, Tom noticed something alongside the text. There, almost too small to see, were tiny pluses and minuses next to the index. It only took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.

Kes had given him some clues.

Nothing which would violate B’Elanna’s privacy in any way. Just tiny annotations of chapters for him to read or skip. He hadn’t told his friend why he wanted the information, but he knew Kes was developing her telepathy. She must have either read his mind or intuited what he was looking for.

Tom made a quick survey of the chapters with pluses. ‘Redundant organ systems: stomach, lungs, liver, heart.’ Nothing to be concerned about there. ‘Enhanced olfactory glands’—no wonder Neelix’s more aromatic dishes seemed to turn B’Elanna’s stomach. Stomachs, he reminded himself. ‘Enhanced muscle mass.’ Well, that was no surprise; he was more than sure he’d be the long odds’ choice in a wrestling match with her.

There were no other plusses, though. And there were some minus signs, too, mostly next to the skeletal systems. No spinal ridges. No extra or elongated arm or leg bones. And he could already tell that B’Elanna hadn’t inherited the height or girth typical of most Klingon women.

He was almost at the turbolift when he realized he still had some important—and potentially awkward—questions yet to be answered. ‘You’re alone, Paris. Look at it for godssake!’ he chided himself. After all, who would know?

He advanced the screen several chapters until he found what he was embarrassed to admit he was searching for. ‘The Female Reproductive System.’ God, he felt like a prepubescent boy again, hunting through his father’s cultural database looking up images of any alien species known for its exotic, nude women.

Was that all this was? Sexual titillation disguised as a research project?

He considered the question as he waited for the lift to arrive. No. B’Elanna wasn’t a curiosity to him. Well, maybe her mood and temper were. But her body…no, there was definitely a practical application to his inquiry. One that might spare them both some indignity and humiliation—if he was lucky and they ever got to that point again.

He forced his eyes back to the screen. There was no plus or minus, he noticed. Instead, there was an asterisk.

This couldn’t be good.

Before he could read the any of that chapter, though, the turbolift opened—with B’Elanna standing inside.

He hadn’t expected to run into her, and his first instinct was to step back and let the doors close again. Not that he didn’t want to see her—he’d thought of little else all day. But he wasn’t prepared, hadn’t figured out what he’d say or do the next time they met. It was too late to worry about that, though. Tom forced his feet to move forward as he joined her in the lift.

She looked equally uncomfortable as they danced around where each would stand. B’Elanna finally took an awkward step to her left, making room for Tom beside her. “Deck 2,” he called about before absentmindedly continuing his reading. He quickly realized the delicate nature of the data on the tiny screen, however, and shut off the display with a few quick punches to the PADD.

Tom had known things would be awkward the first time he saw her, but he’d never expected to feel quite so stupid. They were barely acknowledging each other, even though he actually wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms, kiss her once again, and tell her that everything would be okay. Which was unlikely to happen, considering how hard he was finding it to make himself even look at her. “So…,” he forced out as he hid his Klingon anatomical research behind his back, “looks like you’re feeling better. You back on duty?”

He was relieved when she turned and smiled at him. “Yes…yes, I’m fine. Thanks.” Her tone was even, but artificial, and the air was suddenly thick with all that was going unsaid. Still, B’Elanna seemed to feel that the silences were worse than the insincere banter and he watched as she forced herself to keep talking. “The refit is going well. We should have new warp coils by the end of the week.”

He nodded for lack of a better idea. “Oh, good,” he finally said, equally insincerely. “Glad to hear it.”

After another few seconds of viscous silence, Tom had had about enough. They needed to talk, he realized. Really talk. “Computer,” he called out as he turned to face her, “halt turbolift.” He could see her tense up—as if she could get any more tense. “Look, this is ridiculous. We are going to be together on this ship for a long time—”

She didn’t let him get the words out before turning to face him. “You’re right. We have to pretend that the whole mission didn’t happen.”

In an instant, Tom knew that what he’d feared was really happening. She was backing away from him. Again. But this time he wouldn’t let her do it without a fight. There was too much at stake now. They’d come too far. “But something did happen, B’Elanna.” He could barely believe he’d gotten the words out.

She was smiling, but there was a forcefield of professionalism between them as she spoke. “Look, Tom, I really appreciate what you did—what you were…willing to do for me. But, as far as I’m concerned I was under the influence of some weird—Vulcan—chemical imbalance. And whatever I did, whatever I said…” she took a deep breath, “…it wasn’t me.”

So that was how she would play it: she had been out of her mind. She hadn’t meant anything she’d said or done on Sakari. Therefore, none of it counted. They could just get on with their lives as if they hadn’t both admitted how much they cared about each other. As if they hadn’t almost fucked each other’s brains out just twenty-four hours earlier.

Hell, it had been more than that, Tom knew. He’d finally admitted to himself that his feelings went way beyond simple sexual attraction. He had fallen in love with B’Elanna. And there was no way he would let her do this—let her write off everything they’d gone through to a Vulcan imbalance and some uncontrolled Klingon mating urges.

That thought led Tom to a realization and he took a chance by blurting it out. “Yeah, I know. You’re afraid that your big, scary Klingon side might have been showing.” He could tell from her face that he’d guessed right, and he forced himself to keep pushing. “Well, I saw it up close. And you know, it wasn’t so terrible. In fact…I wouldn’t mind seeing it again some day.”

There: he’d said it. Again. Admitted—this time of his own free will—that he was interested and not at all frightened off by the side of her he’d encountered the day before. For a few seconds, he actually believed this might convince her, once and for all, to let down her guard and let him in.

It only took him a moment to tell that he was kidding himself. Her face had fallen into a sullen mask, her eyes focused squarely on the lift doors, and she’d closed whatever channels of communication he’d tried to open between them. He’d seen that expression before, and he knew instantly that pushing the issue any further was pointless.

His mind then flashed back to the last time he’d held her, in the ruins on Sakari as he waited for Chakotay and Tuvok to find Vorik’s shuttle. He’d suspected in those precious minutes that he’d lost his one chance to ever make love to her. His fears were now proven true. He’d never convince her that they were good for each other. That she could trust him with the complexities of her entire self without being afraid of rejection. Their moment together had come and gone, it seemed. He felt his face fall along with his heart.

“Computer…,” he said slowly, checking her expression one last time before giving up. “Resume.”

They stood together quietly for the second it took the lift to reach Deck 3. B’Elanna shot him one last glance before taking a deep breath and stepping into the corridor.

“Careful what you wish for, Lieutenant…” he thought he heard her say as she walked away, her voice trailing off before the implied ending of that old phrase. ‘Because you might just get it.’

She didn’t look back before the doors closed behind her, and Tom was afraid for a moment that he’d imagined the whole thing. Forcing his gaping jaw closed, he decided that maybe she had really said it, had kept the window to their relationship open just a crack.

That was more than enough for a desperate man to cling to, and for the first time all day, Tom’s smile was genuine.

Then he remembered the PADD in his hand, and decided to turn it back on. ‘The Female Reproductive System,’ it began. He drew in his breath and started reading.

~~

As B’Elanna headed to Chakotay’s office, her mind reeled at what had just happened. Exactly as she’d planned, she handed Tom a tailor-made excuse to back away from everything they’d said and done on Sakari. It had never really occurred to her that he might not take it. That he might imply that he wasn’t scared off in the least by her Klingon side.

Maybe she hadn’t really ruined things after all. The thought both terrified and delighted her.

She didn’t have time to consider her next move, however, before she was face to face with her senior officer and oldest friend. “B’Elanna, come in,” Chakotay said as the door opened. “I’m guessing you got a chance to review the information from this morning’s briefing?”

She instantly flashed on the image of the dead Borg drone they’d uncovered. She’d actually let it slip her mind between the distraction of the refit and her worries about Tom. “Yes,” she covered quickly. “I gave Harry everything I could find on Borg transwarp signatures. And I told Tuvok I would help him boost the range of the sensor grid as soon as this overhaul is finished.”

Chakotay nodded as he showed her to a chair. “Good. But I’m guessing that’s not what you came all the way up here to talk to me about. So, how are you feeling?”

“Fine,” she answered as she remained standing, determined not to let the conversation stray to her recovery and off the matter at hand. “Everything’s fine. I want to talk to you about Vorik.”

The commander sat on the edge of his desk, putting him almost at eye level with her. “What about him? Has he tried to contact you?”

Her head jerked back in surprise. “No. I’ve haven’t heard a word from him since, well, since we got back. But I understand he’s been banished to Deck 15 during one of the busiest weeks my engineers are ever likely to see. I wanted to know why.”

She watched his tattoo wrinkle as his brow furrowed. “I thought maybe it would be good to give you both a little time without running into each other. But the Doctor declared him fit for duty, and I couldn’t very well throw him in the brig for his conduct—since he wasn’t legally responsible for what he did.”

B’Elanna felt a familiar rush of anger start to surge through her as she thought back on all of the times her friend had appointed himself her surrogate father. She wanted to tell him to mind his own damn business, that she could take care of herself. Yet on this day—of all days—she was determined to stay in control. “Look, Chakotay, I appreciate your desire to protect me. But I think I’ve proven that I can handle Vorik if I have to. Besides, he’s cured, right?”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t contradict her either. She decided to keep pushing her point. “Nicoletti and Harry need his help if we’re ever going to finish on time. I want you to release him to his normal duty assignment. I promise I won’t let him come within five meters of me until we’ve sorted this all out.”

Chakotay looked at her silently for a moment, then smiled in a way that told her she’d won. “Alright,” he said as he moved back behind his desk. “I’ll have him report to Ensign Kim on the double.”

She smiled and was about to excuse herself when the first officer called her back. “B’Elanna, I have something for you.” He leaned over and picked up a small piece of translucent plastic from the corner of his desk and handed it to her. She could see in a second that it was an isolinear data chip.

“What’s this?” she asked, confused.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Vorik asked me to see that you got it as soon as possible. But I thought that maybe…” His voice trailed off before she could make him admit that he’d been trying to protect her once again. “I assume it’s an apology of some kind, but I didn’t look at it. You shouldn’t feel any obligation to view it either, after everything you’ve been through. It’s totally your decision.”

B’Elanna turned the chip over in her hand, wondering what Vorik could have been thinking as he recorded it. And why he didn’t just forward it to her personal database without using an intermediary.

Not that she really cared. She tucked the yellow sliver into her palm and looked back at her friend. “Thank you, Chakotay. And don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” Then she turned and headed out the door.

As she rode back down to Deck 11, she took a longer look at the small chip she held in her hand. She couldn’t help but wonder what it said.

B’Elanna understood before she’d even spoken to Chakotay that her decision to have Vorik cleared for duty in main engineering would bring them into almost daily contact. She’d have to face up to her anger and bitterness sooner than she might have hoped. Yet even as she remembered everything he had said and done, she knew that she would ultimately have to forgive him. He hadn’t been able to control his behavior under the pon farr any more than she had. She knew better than anyone exactly what that kind of neurochemical imbalance could drive a person to do.

So she’d listen to his recorded apology when she got off duty. Until then, she had more than enough to ruminate about without concerning herself with Vorik.

She was smiling as the doors to main engineering closed behind her. As was her habit, she started to head over to check on the warp core before remembering that it was offline. Feeling just a little bit silly, she turned to walk to the maintenance alcove, only to catch the tail end of yet another Nathan Platt witticism. Once again, his chosen victim was Lyndsey Ballard.

He was taunting her in an acrid tone of voice. “You’d better watch it, Ensign, that relay is out of alignment by a good ten microns. You don’t want Torres to see it and bite your head off. Get it? Bite your head off?”

This time B’Elanna was able to compose herself and walk away before either of the ensigns could see what must have been the horrified expression on her face.

They knew.

Everyone knew. The one person she needed desperately to trust had let it get around that she’d bit him. Her stomachs lurched as she wondered exactly what else Tom had told people about their away mission. She couldn’t believe it was happening.

Somehow this time the upper workstation wouldn’t be far enough away to offer the kind of solitude she knew she needed. After making a quick check on the progress of her three primary teams, B’Elanna reminded Joe Carey of the Doctor’s orders that she take it easy and turned the reigns over to him for the rest of the shift.

Then she forced herself to stay composed as she made the short trip back to her quarters.

Once inside her home, however, she reached for the first loose object she could find, hurling the glass vase across the room until it shattered into a hundred pieces. Then she dropped onto the bed and—for the first time since having her carefully practiced control ripped out from under her—she cried herself to sleep.

~~

B’Elanna woke up ten hours later to the persistent chiming of her door buzzer. Forcing herself out of bed, her eyes dry but still aching from the tears, she ran her hand through her hair and answered the call. “Come in,” she squeaked out.

She was relieved to see Harry Kim on the other side of the door. “Hey, Maquis. Joe said you weren’t feeling well. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Harry had inadvertently reminded her of how she’d ended up back in her quarters, and a wave of anger and nausea threatened to make a repeat performance. It was all she could do to hold them down. “I’m fine,” she lied. “The doctor is just being his normal overprotective self, and I promised him I wouldn’t overdo it.”

She walked to the replicator to have an excuse to turn away from him. “I was just going to make myself a cup of raktajino. Do you want something?”

“No,” Harry answered. “I was just worried about you. I wanted to make sure you weren’t, um, sick or something.”

She felt her body whip around before she could stop herself. “Why? What has Tom been telling you?” Her face was flushed and she could feel her pulse pounding in her temples.

“Nothing,” Kim muttered nervously. “I swear.”

Something about that didn’t ring true. Though Harry had been working in the nacelle pods all day. Maybe the rumors Tom was spreading hadn’t gotten that far yet. “So you haven’t seen him tonight?”

Harry looked confused. “I had a late dinner with him in the mess hall less than an hour ago. He didn’t even mention your name. And when I asked about you, he said as far as he knew, you were fine.”

It couldn’t be true. If Tom would tell anyone, it would be Harry. They were best friends, and she knew for a fact that there were no secrets between them. “You’re lying! You’re covering up for him.”

“B’Elanna!” she could see the wounded look in Kim’s eyes. “I would never lie to you. Not for Tom or for anyone else.” He swallowed hard but his voice never wavered. “What the heck are you talking about? Are you sure you’re okay?”

Okay? Hell, she was anything but okay. And now she was confused in addition to being humiliated. If Tom hadn’t told anyone, how did Platt know about the bite? Neelix, maybe? Her head was swimming, and she wished for the hundredth time that she could remember everything that had happened in the past forty-eight hours.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she forced herself to say. “It’s just been a long couple of days, and I’m not myself. I didn’t mean to…I know you wouldn’t lie to me.”

She turned around and grabbed the steaming cup of coffee from her replicator, and used the opportunity to pull herself together. When she turned around, she made herself look her friend in the eye. “I’m just tired,” she said with more conviction than she felt. “I’ll be okay once I get some more sleep.”

She smiled, then, and waited for him to return her grin. “Well,” he finally said, looking more than a little afraid of her, “I’ll let you get some rest.” He turned and headed for the door before looking back at her. “B’Elanna, I meant what I said last night,” he said softly. “You can talk to me about anything. Just between the two of us. You know that, don’t you.”

The sweetness of his offer almost made her cry again. “Sure,” she said sincerely, but with no intention of taking him up on it. “I know. Thanks, Harry.”

“Night,” he said as he stepped into the corridor. The door closed as he walked away.

B’Elanna clanked her coffee cup on the table and let her body sink into the closest chair. Her mind was whirling, a series of confusing and contradictory thoughts running though it. She brought her hands up to her face and rested her nose and mouth against her steepled fingers.

When she opened her eyes, she caught a glimpse of light reflecting off of something on her bed. Vorik’s isolinear chip. Her curiosity outweighed her exhaustion, and she walked over to retrieve it.

Slipping the chip into a datapad, she connected the interface to the computer on her desk and called up the file on her screen. Instead of a prerecorded message, however, she saw a stream of computer code scramble up the display. It only took her a moment to realize what she was looking at.

Leaning her head back, B’Elanna couldn’t stop herself from laughing out loud. Suddenly, so many things about the past few months seemed to make sense. So many ‘if only’s’ flooded through her mind.

Well, there was no changing the past. Only the future. And, if what Harry said was true—if Tom hadn’t told people about Sakari—then just maybe, she thought for the second time in this turbulent day, maybe, it was a future they could change together.

She downloaded the file from Vorik’s chip to her personal database, making an encrypted backup copy for safe keeping. Then she pulled her bedspread around her shoulders, grabbed her raktajino off the table, and curled up on the couch. She had a lot of things to figure out. A lot of soul searching to do. And at least one big decision to make before she could move forward.

~*~*~*~*~

The resort was festive; Tom’s mood was anything but.

It had been a week since Sakari, and six days since he and B’Elanna had last spoken about it in the turbolift. Since then—despite her hint that he might get to see her Klingon side again one day—their conversations had been limited to a few awkward words in a staff meeting and her hasty exit when he’d asked her to join him and Harry at lunch. Whatever glimmer of optimism he’d taken from her comments was slowly turning into frustration. He wondered if anything between them would ever feel normal again.

But he wasn’t ready to just walk away, to surrender this particular battle without a fight. A glimmer of hope was better than none, he knew, and so he went on with his routines as best he could. Which was hard, since so many of his routines had come to include her. He was determined, though. Determined and patient.

Harry, on the other hand, was just confused. “Tom? Tom!”

Paris looked up from the checkerboard in front of him. “Hmm?”

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said,” his friend complained. “Maybe we should just call it a night.”

Harry’s threat to leave was just what Tom needed to stop his mind from wandering. B’Elanna could avoid him forever if she wanted, but not if it meant avoiding Harry, too. She’d come around soon enough, he suspected, out of fear of hurting an innocent bystander if nothing else. And when she did, he’d be right there by Harry’s side, ready to pick up where they’d left off—wherever that was.

Tonight that meant a dozen games of checkers, most of which he’d lost from a lack of concentration. But Tom kept hoping that, if they lingered around in the holodeck just a little longer, their missing chief engineer might stop in at the end of her shift.

“I was just planning my next move,” he lied, picking up the red checker to jump his friend’s black. Harry just smiled.

“You were planning your next move alright,” he said, as he took the opening Paris had left him and cleared the board of red pieces. “Only somehow I don’t think it had anything to do with checkers.” Caught, Tom could just sit there, embarrassed, having lost yet another game while giving Harry an opening to ask a question he knew he couldn’t answer. “When are you gonna tell me what really happened down there?”

It wasn’t easy to make Tom Paris blush, but he could feel his cheeks start to redden. “Down where?” he said, feigning innocence.

~~

Harry just shook his head in frustration. In the two and a half years since they’d known each other, he could remember only a handful of times when Tom had held back from telling him all the sordid details of his life. Each exception had had something to do with B’Elanna, and Harry long ago made it a rule not to interfere in his friends’ budding—if tortured—romance. But this was different. The entire ship was teaming with gossip about two people he knew better than anyone, and Harry had been forced to hear about it through the grapevine. He felt like the last person to know, and it was driving him crazy. “Don’t give me that, Tom. Half the ship is talking about what happened on your away mission….”

Paris’s face immediately changed from embarrassment to anger. “What did you hear?” he whispered, looking around to see who might have overheard Harry’s comment.

“Calm down!” Kim reassured him. “No one can hear us. And why won’t you just tell me yourself?”

Tom took another look around before he continued. “You first,” he said curtly. “What have you heard?”

It suddenly dawned on Harry that—considering how evasive Paris was being, and how hard it had been to pry the details out of him—at least some of the rumors must have been true. If so, Kim was even more confused. A lot of the gossip had been pretty farfetched.

He lowered his voice to a whisper before he continued. “Well, Nicoletti told me that B’Elanna broke Vorik’s jaw the night before the mission. Depending on who you listen to, either he attacked her or she attacked him. Chell’s telling everyone that Vorik made a pass at her…” This last rumor had once seemed more than impossible—until Harry noticed how hard it had suddenly become for Tom to swallow his beer.

“Then Lang was at Ops while you guys were in the caves. She heard you call in to say that B’Elanna had bit you and it was some kind of Klingon thing. Next thing everyone knew, Vorik was missing and we were on tactical alert.”

Harry paused long enough to check to make sure they were still out of earshot of their crewmates. “People are saying that she went crazy. Started speaking in Klingon and beating the crap out of you and Vorik. Not that I believe any of that,” he said, his voice trailing off. “But ever since then, Vorik is walking around on eggshells and you and B’Elanna are barely speaking. So it’s obvious that something must have happened. Now are you going to tell me or do I have to ask B’Elanna again?”

~~

“You talked to her about this?!” Tom blurted out before he could stop himself. He took a quick look around to reassure himself that his shouting hadn’t raised any eyebrows; thankfully, Neelix’s Caribbean ‘mood music’ was loud enough that no one seemed to notice. Paris leaned in toward his friend and continued. “What did she say?”

Harry sighed. “Nothing. She just kept asking me what I’d heard from you. Like she was expecting me to know something that I don’t.”

Suddenly it was all too clear to Tom why she’d been avoiding him. B’Elanna had gotten wind of the gossip circulating about them and had assumed he’d been the source. And, in a way, he knew he had been. It was his report—over an open com channel—that had probably started the whole thing.

“Harry, you have to promise me that you won’t say another word about this to B’Elanna. And as for those gossip mongers you’ve been hanging out with, you have my permission to tell them they’ve got it all wrong.”

Tom didn’t want to lie to his best friend, so instead he created a highly-sanitized version of the truth. “Vorik was sick for a while, that’s all. B’Elanna caught whatever was wrong with him and it made her…temper…get a little out of control. She and I did have an argument while we were down there, but it’s nothing like what you’ve heard. And they’re both fine now. End of story.”

Paris looked down at the empty checkerboard in front of him and began to absentmindedly reset the pieces. He knew he wasn’t being totally truthful about the details of the away mission, and he hoped that Harry wouldn’t push it. What had happened on Sakari was nobody’s business. Not even his best friend’s.

Kim seemed to buy his story—and to sense that he’d pushed things too far. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Tom looked up and put a well-practiced smile on his face. “You didn’t upset me. I told you, nothing happened. Now it’s your move.” He indicated the reset game board.

“Don’t you have the early shift tomorrow?” Harry asked. “It’s almost 2300.”

Tom needed to yawn badly, but he knew it would contradict what he was about to say. “Are you kidding? It’s early, and I want to earn back the rations you’ve been stealing all night.”

Harry smiled as a look of realization crossed his eyes. “She’s not coming, Tom. I talked to B’Elanna just before we got here, and she and Chakotay are playing hoverball tonight. So can we please just call it a night and get some sleep?”

Paris couldn’t stop his face from falling, but he had appearances to keep up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you’re tired, Harry, why didn’t you just say so? Let’s go.” With that, he was up and out the holodeck door before his friend could say a word.

~~

‘Nothing happened,’ Harry thought to himself. ‘Yeah, right.’

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was at the top of her game. There was nothing like a little nervous energy to improve her athletic performance, and it didn’t hurt that Chakotay was almost fifteen years older with only two-thirds of her lung capacity. With a dive and a grunt, she smacked the hoverball out of his reach and finished him off.

The lunge left her sprawled on the holodeck floor and grinning like a Teeka cat. Her opponent rested his hands on his bent knees and struggled to catch his breath. “That’s another one you owe me, B’Elanna,” he said in between pants.

Barely winded, she spun around to sit on the floor and laughed. “Excuse me, Chakotay? I won—three straight games as I recall. How do I owe you?”

He flashed her a wicked, toothy grin, “I agreed to play you, didn’t I? That alone took courage!” He reached out his hand to help her off the floor. B’Elanna took it and smiled. Then she headed for her gym bag and pulled out two towels, tossing one over her shoulder and the other to her friend. She was exhausted and parched. Chakotay seemed to read her mind. “Why don’t we stop next door at the resort and get something to drink before we call it a night?” he suggested.

B’Elanna tried not to look as uncomfortable as she suddenly felt. “No thanks,” she answered. “It’s late and I have the early shift tomorrow.” She didn’t look at him as she rifled through her bag hunting for the cover-up for her workout clothes.

“You can’t keep avoiding him,” Chakotay said bluntly. She knew they had been friends for too long for him to mince words with her, but she was still surprised at the topic. “Voyager’s a small ship.”

She turned to glare at him, “And who is it you think I’m avoiding?”

He walked over to where she was kneeling and crouched down beside her. “B’Elanna, you’re forgetting that I was there. I saw what happened between you and Tom. And I see the way you’ve kept him at arm’s length ever since. I think it might be good for you to talk to someone about what you’re feeling.”

She took a deep breath and looked away. “You were there. So you know that nothing happened between Tom and me.” She shoved her towel into the bag and pulled it closed. “Not really… End of story.”

She got up and walked toward the holodeck doors. “Fine,” he called out after her. “I won’t press it. But you’re kidding yourself if you think what happened down there was nothing.” She stopped long enough for him to catch up with her. “B’Elanna, I don’t pretend to understand it, but it’s clear that you have feelings for Tom. I just don’t think it’s healthy for you to keep this all bottled up inside you. You need to deal with it so you can move on. And so he can move on, too.”

She had to laugh at that last statement—from Chakotay of all people. It was ironic on so many levels, not the least of which was her friend’s longstanding outright disdain for the man they were discussing. “Don’t tell me you’re looking out for Tom Paris’s feelings,” she said sarcastically. “Who are you, and what have you done with Chakotay?”

He let his head fall to his chest as he laughed. When he looked up at her, his eyes were gentle. “I know you were sick and might not remember everything that happened down there. But I saw some things that…well, let’s just say I saw a different side of Paris that day. And a different side of you. You can’t tell me that you’re not interested in him. I don’t understand why you keep pushing him away.”

She blushed at hearing her own words thrown back at her. Still, she wasn’t prepared to concede the point. Not to him, anyway. “Chakotay, are you saying you want to see me pursue a relationship with Tom Paris? Aren’t you the same guy who warned me to stay as far away from him as possible four years ago?” And a few times since then, as she recalled.

He smiled. They both knew it was true. But B’Elanna also knew that their days in the Maquis seemed like a lifetime ago. They were all different people now, not just the drunken, mercenary pilot Chakotay had once recruited to their lost cause. “Look,” he said as he draped the towel around his shoulders, “I’ve never been his biggest fan, that’s true. And, since you asked, I haven’t exactly enjoyed seeing you get so close to him.”

His brow furrowed as he continued. “But anyone with eyes can see that he’s been following you around like a puppy dog for over a year. Then, when he had an opportunity to take advantage of your situation on Sakari—something I would have expected from the old Tom Paris—he resisted doing it. Tuvok practically had to order him to help you. And I think we both know why.”

B’Elanna couldn’t bring herself to ask; she was afraid to know the answer. The variables were just too hard to calculate. It had been embarrassing enough that she’d forced Tom to admit his attraction to her. Hell, she had practically assaulted him—and yet he’d still refused to mate with her. She didn’t need a warp core to fall on her to know that he must have resented all the ways she’d tried to manipulate his emotions. Plus there was the still-unresolved issue of her very Klingon behavior, despite his reassurances in the turbolift. Besides, the ship was already buzzing with gossip about her. There was no way she would risk any more humiliation, thank you.

Still, Chakotay seemed to think there was more to it. “Why?” she finally echoed back to him.

He smiled. “You should have seen him when Tuvok and I found you both in that cave-in. He was scared to death that you might die before we could get you back to the ship,” Chakotay said softly. “We all were. And to tell you the truth, I was surprised he hadn’t tried to convince you to let him be the one to help you. But as soon as we found you, I could see it in his eyes. I think he was even more afraid that—if you had mated with him just to cure the imbalance—you’d live but never forgive him. That he’d win the battle only to lose the war. He protected you, B’Elanna. From Vorik and from himself. I just thought you might want to know that.” He handed her his towel and headed out the door.

This was crazy, she knew. Tom Paris was a walking libido; she’d meant it when she said that he’d never been hard to get—for any woman. Yet she still couldn’t figure out why he’d resisted her advances in the caves for so long. She’d almost come to believe that maybe he wasn’t interested. That he was just trying to spare the feelings of a friend.

Suddenly she could hear his words echoing in her ears. ‘…someday I hope you’ll say that to me and mean it.’

The memory gave her goosebumps. It was all so confusing.

She and Chakotay walked to the turbolift in silence. “Deck 9,” she called out. When they were finally moving, B’Elanna got the courage to ask, “So what do you think I should do?”

She could see him wrestling with his answer. “I think you should do what your heart tells you. And it wouldn’t bother me in the least if your heart told you to run in the opposite direction from Tom Paris. But only if that’s what you really want.”

B’Elanna looked uncomfortable, but a little hopeful. “So you think he really has feelings for me?”

His expression was pained as he answered her. “I think it’s clear to everyone that you’ve had an affect on him. That he’s not the same man he was when this mission started. We’ve both seen him operate before. He used to be so smooth with the pick-up lines, you could tell he’d had a lot of practice. But with you, it’s like he’s fifteen—he’s awkward, self-conscious. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the revolving door of women in his life seems to have become permanently sealed shut.”

Chakotay reached out and hit the override button to stop the lift’s descent, then turned to face his friend. “After you knocked Vorik unconscious, you passed out in Paris’s arms. He just sat there holding you while Tuvok and I found the shuttle, then he wouldn’t put you down until we’d made it all the way back to Voyager. If that doesn’t prove anything then the fact that he let me pilot the shuttle should. He didn’t let you out of his sight the entire time.”

She tried to remember the moments after the fight, but nothing came to her. Even the last parts of her battle with Vorik were mostly a blur. As she processed this new information, Chakotay continued filling in the parts of the story she couldn’t know.

“B’Elanna, he wouldn’t leave sickbay as long as Vorik was still there. I had to force the Doctor to discharge the ensign, then order Tom to go back to his post. Even then he almost refused to leave. But I didn’t want him pressuring you after all you’d been through. Whatever you decide to do, it needs to be what you want. What will make you happy.”

Chakotay paused and she let his words sink in. So that was why she’d woken up all alone. Tom had been kicked out of sickbay by a friend who was anxious to protect her. He’d wanted to stay. She was glad she finally knew.

Still, she had trouble believing that her surrogate big brother was actually encouraging her to get involved with Tom Paris. But she knew Chakotay cared about her happiness—no matter how hard it must have been for him to see her falling for a man he used to hate. Maybe Tom wasn’t the only one who had changed.

“I know what it’s like to have to walk away from someone you care about,” her friend finally added. “It’s going to be a long trip home, B’Elanna. I just don’t want to see you close yourself off to something that might make you happy.”

Torres reached out and touched his arm, suddenly reminded of Chakotay’s own untenable situation. Then she silently hit the button to restart the lift. They were at Deck 9 in only a few seconds.

When the doors opened, she turned back to her friend. “Goodnight, Chakotay,” she said softly. “And thanks.”

~~

“Deck 2,” the commander said softly as the lift doors closed.

He wondered if any of what he said had gotten through to B’Elanna. ‘I’d better be right about you, Tom Paris,’ he thought to himself. Then he smiled.

Always a bit of a hopeless romantic, the first officer had become a little cynical about love in the past few months. He’d seen first-hand the way circumstances on Voyager could dangle the prospect of happiness before you only to cruelly yank it away.

But he was careful not to confuse his own situation with his friend’s. Besides, if a reformed criminal and a half-Klingon could find love in the Delta Quadrant, maybe there was hope for them all.

~*~*~*~*~

The dream always began as the reality had.

They were in the caves, searching for Chakotay and Tuvok and a way back to the ship. Then the ground shifted and they were trapped, alone and in the dark.

B’Elanna’s frustration would turn to anger then to passion in the blink of an eye. Before he realized what was happening, she was lying on top of him, kissing him furiously. He rolled them both over and pulled away. ‘No, Tom. She’s sick—this isn’t really her.’ He would repeat the words to himself like a mantra, fighting to keep his own self-control in an attempt to help her regain hers.

But she was insistent, had laughed at him, and spoke a secret they’d both kept for months. “I see the way you stare at me in the holodeck when you think I’m not looking. And get jealous when I’m with someone else. You can’t tell me you’re not interested in me!” She was brushing the hint of her lips against his now, softly luring him into admitting the truth.

“You’re right, I can’t.”

He’d said it; it was out there in the open. He’d finally admitted it to her and to himself. As a last defense, he repeated his incantation out loud: “But this isn’t you. You’ve made it very clear you’re not interested, and I have to respect that’s how you feel…even now.” His body was starting a painful war with his mind and heart. If he could only get her back to the ship, to the doctor…

“No,” he heard her say, “it’s not… I just didn’t want to admit it.” She was kissing him again, still softly but more deliberately. “You see, I’ve wanted this for a long time.”

He wasn’t sure exactly when he’d started kissing her back. He closed his eyes and searched for any remaining shred of self-control. ‘Maybe just one kiss,’ he let himself think, then he’d force himself to stop…

“Just let it happen.”

It was all he needed to hear, as his heart, body, and mind now wanted the same thing. His kisses picked up in intensity—was this really happening? Was B’Elanna really here in his arms, telling him that she was interested, that she wanted him, too? He’d imagined this moment for months, he realized, only recently finding the courage to think it might—someday—be possible. Someday. Today.

Some part of him knew he was dreaming, yet he also knew this had been real. He remembered taking the initiative now and his momentum moved her back and against the cavern wall. He was holding her face in his hands as he kissed her and stroked her cheek with his fingertips. But then he saw the look in her eyes: the dazed, far-away look that came from the hormonal imbalance. ‘I need to stop,’ he heard his mind say. ‘She doesn’t really mean it.’

On the planet, his mind had wrestled free from the control of his body, and he’d forced himself to pull back. In the dream, however, his body and heart tackled his brain and locked it away where it couldn’t interfere…

He was kissing her harder now, and as long as he kept up his attentions, she was willing to follow his lead. He accelerated his pace, trying to tell her with his intensity that this was no idle flirtation; he was serious about his desire. He felt B’Elanna’s hands slide up his chest and grab his climbing uniform at the collar. In one quick move, she’d opened it to the waist, and began running her fingers across his shoulders and down his arms. He had to take his hands from her face to slip out of his sleeves, but he was careful to keep a firm grip on her lips with his own.

Something about the touch of his bare skin under her hands seemed to transform the gentle human woman in his arms into a fiery Klingon warrior. He could hear a guttural groan from deep inside her, and she broke contact with his lips just long enough to move her attention to his cheek and the still-tender wound she’d placed there earlier in the day. He could feel her licking the bite, tasting his blood, dragging her teeth across his neck in gentle nips.

Before he could reciprocate, he was flat on his back, the breath almost knocked out of him.

She was on him in an instant, but he knew just what to do. He maneuvered his longer arms to break her grip, then grabbed her wrists in his fists. He let his movement carry them over; suddenly she was beneath him, his groin pressed against hers, her hands pinned above her head. He leaned in for another kiss, and was surprised when he felt her teeth tear at his lip deep enough to make it bleed. He did the same, and could suddenly taste her blood—subtly different than his—mixing with his own as she began kissing him deeply once again. It all felt very…Klingon.

His skin-tight climbing uniform was reminding Tom that the rest of his body wanted a piece of his lips’ action. He decided to savor the moment by inviting in his hands, first. Sitting up only far enough to find the bottom of B’Elanna’s undershirt, he slipped his fingers under the tank top and enjoyed the first intimate feel of her skin on his. His hands found her breasts waiting less than patiently for his touch. She was aroused before he even got there, but he could feel her skin firming further under his less-than-gentle pressure.

He wasn’t sure how their uniforms suddenly got the rest of the way off, but dreams were nice in the way they helped one’s fantasies get right to the good parts. Once again, if only because of the limits of his first-hand experience beyond this point, they traded Klingon gymnastics for human passion—their next movements were tender and slow.

He was kissing his way up her body, suckling her breasts, before stopping only long enough to enjoy the expression on her face. He’d seen this look once before, as he lay on the hard earth of the Sakari ruins, looking up at her as she held him to the ground. That day, when he finally realized what she wanted, they’d smiled, and he could see the joy radiating from her face as if she were lit from inside. But here in his dream she showed more than the anticipation of a sexual challenge; he’d almost swear the look in her eyes came straight from her heart.

In a minute he’d be inside her and they’d never turn back. He took one last look in her eyes as he reached down to guide himself in…

“Torres to Paris.”

He was staring right at her, yet her lips never moved. It was as if he could hear her thoughts.

“Torres to Paris.”

Some part of his mind began to realize that her voice wasn’t a part of the dream, and he resisted the temptation to wake up and see what she wanted. The real B’Elanna wasn’t likely to be as accommodating as the one he’d made love to in his dreams every night for the past week. Hell, the real B’Elanna was hardly speaking to him.

What did she want? The thought was enough to wake him. Damn her timing! Left then with only one beautiful Klingon to choose from, he rolled over and tried to compose himself. His body was making him pay for the interruption of its pleasure, and it took him a moment before he could answer.

“Paris here.”

~~

He sounded out of breath, almost panting, and his voice was rough and gravely. For a moment B’Elanna wondered what she’d interrupted. Her mind went to a dozen different places—all bad. Dammit! She should have checked to make sure there wasn’t…that he hadn’t…that he wouldn’t…

He wouldn’t. Still, she had to resist the temptation to check the internal sensors.

“I’m sorry Tom, I mean, if you’ve got company…if this is a bad time—”

~~

Well he did and he didn’t, and it was and it wasn’t. “No, B’Elanna, I’m alone.” He was almost breathing regularly again. “What do you want?”

~~

Right. Of course he was alone. Good. But he sounded annoyed. Chakotay must have been wrong—or maybe he was just asleep. It didn’t really matter; she was committed. She tried to remember why the hell she’d called.

“Um, I just wanted to tell you that, well, tomorrow’s Friday.”

‘Good one, Torres,’ she kicked herself. ‘Like you were giving him big news.’ As soon as Tom answered, she could tell he was confused.

“Friday, huh? Well…thanks for that update. Is there something I’m supposed to remember about Friday?”

Even though it had been over a year, it never occurred to her that he might have forgotten. But she’d already embarrassed herself by getting this far into the conversation. She figured she might as well finish what she started.

“Yes. It’s ‘date night,’ and you may not care if people think you’re a loser, but I do. So, tomorrow night. Holodeck 1 at 2100 hours? Alright?”

Why did it seem like he was taking forever to answer? God, maybe he already had a date. She wondered once again if he was really alone.

~~

She couldn’t know that—lying on the bed in his quarters—Tom was pinching himself to make sure he was really awake and hearing her ask him out.

“I’ll be there,” he finally said, before thinking to check, “Single or double?”

~~

Might as well ask for what you want, she thought. “Single. Let Harry find his own date. Torres out.”

There, it was done. Now full of nervous energy, B’Elanna moved to the bed and plopped face down—beginning what would become twenty-one hours of agonizing over whether she had made the right decision.

~~

Five decks up, her ‘date’ could only shake his head and wonder—was any of what had just happened real?

~*~*~*~*~

Harry was clearly annoyed, though for the life of him Tom couldn’t figure out why.

“Tom? Did you hear me? That’s the third time this morning you’ve made me repeat myself!”

Paris took a swig from his cup and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Harry. Tell me again. I promise I’ll get it this time.”

Kim sighed and put down his fork. “I said Ayala invited us to his quarters for a poker game tonight. I told him I’d bring the cards. I think he uses some kind of marked Maquis deck. He’s cleaned me out the last three times we’ve played.”

Breakfast with Harry was usually one of Tom’s favorite times of day, but this morning Paris could barely keep his eyes open. His second cup of ‘coffee’ had yet to kick in, despite its high-octane Talaxian blend. But he was awake enough to realize that he was about to disappoint his best friend. Before he could open his mouth to break the bad news, though, he saw B’Elanna walk in. He didn’t stop watching as she poured herself something to drink, then grabbed a piece of fruit. For a second, it looked like she might turn around and head back out the door. Then she caught his eye.

Tom could see her mind working, applying an engineer’s precise calculations to the decision to stay or go. In a minute—for the first time in over a week—she was heading for their table to join them for breakfast.

“Good morning, Harry.” She took the seat next to Kim and took a bite of her apple. “Tom.”

Paris was trying not to smile. “Morning, B’Elanna. Sleep well?” He certainly hadn’t.

“Like a baby,” she smiled. “Yourself?”

“Oh, great. Never better.” Tom flashed for a moment on the last time he had ‘seen’ B’Elanna—totally nude and just as they were getting to the interesting parts of some serious lovemaking in his rudely interrupted dream. Just the thought got him aroused and he tried not to let himself look at her until the moment passed.

They sat in awkward silence for a few seconds before Harry asked, “Doesn’t anybody care how I slept?” He didn’t let them answer. “Just fine; thanks for asking. So, Tom, how about it?” He was still waiting for an answer.

“How about what?” Paris asked, totally forgetting they’d been in the middle of a conversation.

“Ayala? The poker game? Tonight? And just for the record, that makes the fourth time I’ve had to repeat myself. What in the heck is up with you this morning?”

From where he was sitting, Harry couldn’t see B’Elanna look at Tom with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Tom couldn’t miss it, however.

“Sorry, Harry,” he said, watching her face for a reaction. “B’Elanna and I….” He was surprised when, instead of relief, he found anxiety. Almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. For a second he thought maybe he had dreamed her invitation. Then he realized: she didn’t want him to tell Harry. “…are doing some routine maintenance on Holodeck 1 tonight. There’s a weird shimmer when I run certain shuttle simulations and B’Elanna’s offered to help me figure out what’s wrong.”

She took his cue and chimed in, “Yes, we’re not sure if it’s a problem with the program or the holomatrix.” Tom saw a look of gratitude in her eyes, though he still didn’t understand what was going on.

The expression on Harry’s face was more than a little suspicious, but he didn’t push it. Tom wished he could thank his friend for letting their obvious lie slide. For whatever reason, B’Elanna still seemed to be tentative around him, and he was more than a little worried that she was on the verge of changing her mind about their date.

“Well,” Harry said, sensing he was a third wheel, “have fun then.” He stood up and grabbed his tray. “You coming, Tom?”

Paris knew he was risking being late for his shift, but he needed a moment alone with B’Elanna if he was going to be able to concentrate the rest of the day. “You go ahead. I just want to finish this coffee.”

Kim shrugged and left without commenting. When they were finally alone, Tom shifted into the seat across from B’Elanna. “So, when are you going to tell me what we’re really doing tonight?” His tone was casual; the last thing he wanted to do was scare her off.

“It’s a surprise,” she said quietly. “You’ll find out when you get there.” She looked away for a moment, and he realized she was checking to see if anyone was watching them. Satisfied that they weren’t attracting attention, she leaned closer and whispered, “Thanks for not telling Harry about our ‘date.’ Anyway, it’s not like it’s really a date date. I just didn’t want him to get the wrong idea.”

Tom felt an invisible hand push him about ten steps back. So this wasn’t a date date? Then what the hell was it? On second thought, did he care? He’d be spending three hours with B’Elanna in the holodeck—and it had been her idea. He didn’t care if they really did do routine maintenance on the hologrid; at least they’d be spending time alone together.

“Sure. Of course. I understand.” He tried to hold onto the indifferent tone, but wasn’t entirely successful. “Heaven forbid anyone get the wrong idea.” They just looked at each other for a moment, both trying to figure out what the other was really thinking. Finally Tom broke the awkward silence. “Well, I’m late. I’ll see you tonight.”

~~

As she watched him head for the door, B’Elanna couldn’t believe what she had just done. Why did she say it wasn’t a real date? Why did she invite him to get closer only to push him away? And how was she ever going to stand the next thirteen hours?

~*~*~*~*~

‘Wear something casual,’ she’d said. That left lots of room for interpretation.

As he headed for the turbolift, Tom hoped he’d chosen well. He had no idea what they’d be doing on their ‘non-date date’, so he settled for the pair of jeans he’d saved from his recent away mission to 1996 and a blue linen shirt he’d had since his short stint as a Maquis.

When he reached the doors to the Holodeck, Paris could see that a program was already running. And he realized instantly that it was one of his.

Tom stepped inside to the sound of a calliope and the mingling smells of pine bark mulch, roasted peanuts, and cotton candy. It had been over a year since he’d last run this program; a carnival he’d created on the beach at the Delaware shore. He, Harry, and B’Elanna had been working on the Warp 10 project at the time, and the holoprogramming helped order his mind when the engineering problems left him frustrated.

He had also become bored with the smoke and cynicism of Sandrine’s. Paris was just beginning to make a new life for himself back then, and his interests were changing along with him. He’d been looking for a casual, fun place where he and his friends could ‘play.’ One night his mind drifted back to a story he’d read about 20th century amusement parks and traveling carnivals, and he’d stayed up all night working out the basic design. The program would be a surprise for Harry and B’Elanna; a place where they could spend their newly-inaugurated Friday ‘date nights,’ an excuse for the three unattached friends to just enjoy each other’s company on what could otherwise be a very lonely trip back to the Alpha Quadrant.

He’d only run it once.

On the day he’d chosen to debut his creation, Paris had just been released from sickbay—the Warp 10 flight, though still historic, quickly relegated to the category of ‘honorable mistakes.’ Harry had been busy that Friday night, so it was just Tom and B’Elanna—each expecting a casual evening out with a new friend.

By the end of their ‘date’, she’d stumbled into his arms on the beach, and he had wondered for the first time if their friendship might one day turn into something more.

By the following Friday, he was undoing his hard-won reclamation as a part of an undercover plan to reveal the Kazon spy in their midst, and Sandrine’s was reopened for business once again.

By the end of his secret mission, he and B’Elanna were back to square one, and their Friday night ‘dates’ were a thing of the past.

Yet here they were thirteen months later, more than just close friends—both clearly wrestling with their mutual attraction—and B’Elanna had invited him back to a place where he’d first thought of taking their relationship to a different level.

As he looked around at the lights of the midway, for the first time in almost a week Tom felt a glimmer of hope that Sakari might have been the beginning instead of the end.

He could see B’Elanna a few meters ahead of him, in that same greenish-blue jumpsuit she’d worn the last time; it was one of his favorites. She was standing at one of the games of chance, a booth where players aim water guns into the mouths of painted clowns. The water was triggering an attached balloon to fill with air until it popped; the player with the best aim would fill their balloon first and win a prize. As he walked up to join her, Tom realized this game usually required at least two players. She must have reprogrammed it so she could play alone until he arrived.

When he got closer, he also realized that the face of the clown now being pummeled by her water gun had distinctive raised eyebrows, pointed ears, and bore a striking resemblance to a certain Vulcan ensign assigned to engineering. Tom just smiled at the innocent way B’Elanna had found to take revenge on Vorik.

She didn’t stop until the balloon burst, and, when it did, he could see the look of satisfaction come across her face.

“Nice shooting,” he said, smiling.

She looked a little embarrassed, but returned the grin. “Thanks,” she said, obviously feeling a little pleased with herself. “I hope you don’t mind that I made a few modifications to your program.”

“Not at all,” Tom answered sincerely. “I’d almost forgotten about this place. Which is too bad, because I had a lot of fun the last time we were here.” He was still struggling to find the right balance between showing interest and applying pressure, so he hoped she’d understand that he was sincere.

She smiled back at him. “Me, too.”

They’d quickly come to the first awkward pause of the night, and Tom was determined to fill it. “Where did you find this file? I thought Starling deleted all of my programs.”

B’Elanna’s eyes lit up. “He did. But you sent me a copy of this one before you left to join that Talaxian convoy. I found it a few months ago and decided to make a few additions before giving it back to you.”

Tom’s memory flashed back to a night over a year earlier: sitting alone in his quarters when he thought he was about to leave Voyager in disgrace—and for the last time. The elaborate game he’d played to smoke out the Kazon spy was almost over, and he was pretty sure he’d be dead in a few days. He remembered, then, his impulsive, last-minute gesture to show B’Elanna that he wasn’t the lout he’d been forced to pretend to be. He couldn’t believe that he’d forgotten he’d given her the program—or that she’d kept it all this time without telling him. Not only kept it, he now knew, but enhanced it. But how? When?

She was still fingering the water pistol, but her expression had turned wistful. “I wanted to surprise you. I had it all figured out, too, until… Well, let’s just say that my plans didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped.”

Tom was confused. “I don’t understand.”

She turned around and put down the water gun before answering him. “I was having a few problems working out the holomatrix, and I asked Vorik to help me. We were almost finished when a glitch decompiled the entire thing.” She shook her head suddenly. “Well, I thought it was a glitch. As it turns out, Vorik had sabotaged the compilation subroutine. I thought the whole carnival was gone for good, but it seems that my conscientious Starfleet ensign had made a backup of the completed program before he ruined it. Force of habit for an engineer, I guess.”

Tom’s mind jumped back again, this time to the weeks just after their trip to 20th Century Earth. He remembered thinking that—just as things had started to look better between him and B’Elanna, she’d suddenly cloistered herself away. She’d disappeared from his life for weeks without any explanation. Had she really spent all that time working on the carnival program? And to what end?

She finished her story before he could ask. “Anyway, after we were released from sickbay last week, Vorik apparently found the backup of the program and gave it to Chakotay to give back to me. I think it was a peace offering. Which I guess means I’ll have to forgive the little idiot one day.”

Tom gestured to the Vulcan features of the soaked clown on the game in front of them. “One day,” he said, laughing. “But obviously not today.”

She smiled before heading off down the midway. “No, not today. Maybe tomorrow, though.”

As they walked, Tom searched for evidence of other alterations she’d made, but nothing was jumping out at him. He did notice one subtle difference: except for the carnies and barkers, he and B’Elanna were alone. The holographic fairgoers had all been deleted.

“So,” he said as they made their way past the other games of chance, “are you thinking of resurrecting ‘date night’ on a permanent basis?” He noticed they were heading in the direction of the beach, but to no place in particular.

B’Elanna didn’t look at him as she answered. “Let’s see how tonight goes first.”

Oh. So this was a test. Well then he’d try his best to pass it.

They had reached the wood and wire fence that separated the rides from the midway. It was decision time. “So, do you want to try another ride?” he asked casually. “Your choice.” Tom knew he would be happy with whatever she decided.

B’Elanna stopped to look at him. “Actually, I think it’s your turn. I picked last time.”

Somehow Tom suspected this was Question 1 on his pop quiz. He took a look around the grounds until something caught his eye: the last alteration he had made to the program just after their first carnival ‘date.’ “Alright. Come on,” he said, taking her hand and pulling her past the stomach-churning Tilt-A-Whirl and Zipper.

Grabbing her hand had been an impulse, but he was happy to notice that she wasn’t pulling away. Even as he slowed his pace, their fingers stayed casually entwined. Tom tried not to let it distract him—B’Elanna was letting him hold her hand—and there was no way he’d be the first one to let go.

They stopped at a ride he’d added just for her, a large circular steel pinwheel that towered over the entire fairgrounds. Tom had only ever seen it on the tiny screen of his holoimager. In person, it was an impressive looking contraption. At each junction of the wheel’s spokes was a basket with a bench seat just large enough for two people. The operator advanced the wheel and motioned for them to take the open car. Tom let B’Elanna lead the way.

The seat was barely big enough for them both—he had a vague memory of designing it that way on purpose—and he had to put his arm across the back of the bench to make a comfortable fit.

They sat quietly for a moment as the burly bearded operator snapped a bar across them, then put the ride in motion. Instead of the massive G forces of their last carnival ride, this machine gave them a slow and gentle trip first back and up, then over and down again as they made their way around.

“This is nice,” B’Elanna said after a moment. “And the view is great.” Tom noticed that he could see for miles in any direction as they reached the top of the arc; they had a great view looking north along the beach. The details on the far-off horizon made him glad he’d spent so much time working on the realism of his holoprograms. He was rightfully proud of his handiwork.

He assumed that B’Elanna’s compliment meant he’d chosen well. “It’s called a Ferris Wheel,” he told her. “The last time we were here, you said you didn’t like the rougher rides, so I added this one just for you.”

B’Elanna suddenly looked a little agitated. “Let’s just be clear, Tom: I didn’t like spinning for the sake of spinning, but they weren’t too ‘rough’ for me. I’m more than strong enough to handle a few silly carnival machines.”

Her tone was challenging, but not angry. In fact, she was almost laughing. Of course, he knew she didn’t like anyone to accuse her of being weak or afraid; and that wasn’t what he’d meant at all. “B’Elanna, I watched you beat Vorik to a bloody pulp a week ago. I’d never think of implying that you couldn’t take a little spinning in a circle.”

He wondered for a moment if it was a mistake to remind her of Sakari, but she almost seemed a little proud of winning her fistfight with the Vulcan. He decided to keep talking just in case. “I just wanted to find something you’d enjoy instead of just tolerate. Carnivals are supposed to be fun.”

She seemed satisfied with his answer, so he pressed on. “So, do you like it?”

He watched a gleam come into her eyes. “Well, it’s not throwing me into your lap like the last contraption you tricked me onto.”

He wondered for a minute if that was a complaint or a compliment. More likely a challenge, he imagined. Not that it mattered. “As I recall, you picked the ride last time,” he corrected. She smiled, knowing it was true.

Maybe because things had been going so well—or because she was now trapped with him on the Ferris Wheel, but Tom decided to risk a direct question. “B’Elanna, why did you ask me to come here tonight? I mean, if this isn’t really a date.”

She tensed up, but didn’t get angry. “I just wanted to apologize. Not just for how I behaved on Sakari, but for the way I’ve been avoiding you the past week. I was just embarrassed, and I wasn’t sure, you know, if we could still be…friends…after everything that happened.”

Tom wasn’t sure of many things, but he was positive now that the otherwise innocent word ‘friend’ could sound downright awful.

Of course they were friends. The unresolved question: was that all they were? While they were trapped in those caves, B’Elanna—in the throes of her ‘chemical imbalance’—had gotten Tom to admit that he was attracted to her, even jealous when he saw her in the company of other men. But maybe she didn’t mean it when she’d said she felt the same way. Maybe she’d just been willing to say anything to get him to help her through the pon farr. A small part of his heart sank at the thought.

Yet there they were, alone at her request. Maybe she just had to find a way to get comfortable showing her real feelings. He wasn’t about to risk everything by asking her which it was.

“Of course we’re still friends, B’Elanna.” He did mean it, even if he still wanted more. “And there’s no reason for you to be embarrassed around me. Not about anything, ever.”

She shifted a little uncomfortably in the seat. “I just figured that when people found out what had happened…”

The ride suddenly stopped, with them at the top. Tom remembered programming this in, as the operator simulated taking on new passengers even though the other characters in the program had been deleted. He also had a vague memory of a dream he’d had once. Of sitting in this very spot, B’Elanna by his side. For some reason, he couldn’t remember the details. Still, he knew the implication of the location. The ‘stop at the top’ was a classic for couples just starting a relationship; it gave them a chance to make a move on their partner in what was a safe, yet exhilarating place—and where the only way out was a thirty-meter drop.

Tom did take the opportunity to make a move—but not the kind he had originally anticipated. He turned around in his seat as far as he could and tried to force her to look at him. “B’Elanna, is that what you were worried about? That I would tell people what happened between us?” He already knew the answer from talking with Harry, but needed to make her say it.

“No,” she stammered. “Well…maybe. I mean, I’ve heard you tell Harry stories about women before, and I just figured that once Harry knew—”

Again, he interrupted her. “B’Elanna, you’re not some girl I picked up in a bar on shore leave. I’d never tell Harry about what happened down there. I’d never tell anyone. It’s none of their business. And I don’t think Vorik, Tuvok, or Chakotay are likely to say anything, either. So just relax. Trust me.”

He held his breath waiting for her to respond.

~~

B’Elanna had been sure there was no way Tom Paris would be able to resist telling their best friend how she’d practically begged him to have sex with her; that they’d actually begun some very Klingon foreplay before getting interrupted by Vorik. But she could tell from his expression that he was being honest with her, and she finally began to let go of her fears. But she was still sure the crew knew something had happened.

“Didn’t Harry ask you…didn’t he wonder…?” she let her voice trail off, unable to find the right words to express her trepidation.

She believed now that Tom wouldn’t lie to her, but she needed to hear his explanation. “People know something happened to you, and that you weren’t acting like yourself. And they know…”—he seemed hesitant to tell her—“…that you bit me.”

Her heart jumped into her throat at the confirmation of her worst fears. She started squirming again, getting more than a little agitated as he continued. “I’m sorry, B’Elanna. I was reporting in to the captain right after it happened—I didn’t even know what was wrong with you then—and I guess I didn’t think about who else could hear me.”

Her eyes were closed tightly, and she could feel herself trembling. Tom kept trying to reassure her. “B’Elanna, I didn’t say where you bit me, and—even if I had—I doubt very many people would know what a bite like that is supposed to mean.”

She actually felt a little relieved to confirm that he did seem to know. That learning how—in a kind of technical Klingon sense—she’d virtually proposed marriage to him hadn’t been enough to scare him away.

He kept talking as she let it all sink it. “Look, I told Harry that Vorik had come down with some weird Vulcan illness, and that you’d caught it from him while you were working together. I said that the illness made you get angry really easily, and for all he knows you bit me accidentally when I made you mad.” He let her digest his explanation for a minute before he continued. “Technically, it’s all true. As far as he or anybody else is concerned, you and I just had a fight.” He paused for a second. “I don’t think that will be a big shock to anybody. And that’s all anyone will ever hear about it from me. I promise.”

She turned her head to look back at him. The expression on his face was so sincere, so vulnerable, that she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. And she knew she could live with the story he’d cobbled together to shield her. “Thanks,” she said softly. He’d protected her dignity and her privacy in ways she wouldn’t have expected, and it reminded her why she’d come to care so much about him. And how much she’d missed him, not just since Sakari but during the months of cat-and-mouse games she’d played as she tried to come up with a series of ways to push him out of her life.

The ride was now working its way toward the ground, a short stop every few minutes as it advanced to change imaginary passengers from each car. B’Elanna was finally starting to relax and enjoy the time they were spending together, but she had one more question before she could totally let it go.

“Tom, when we were first trapped, before Chakotay and Tuvok dug us out, there was a minute when I thought you would…well, I was wondering: why did you pull away from me then?”

It was her turn to wait for his answer.

~~

Tom smiled to himself, thinking of the number of times he’d asked himself the same question, wondering if it had been the right choice or a missed opportunity. He made sure she could see his eyes as he answered. “You weren’t yourself. I didn’t think you really…I would never want to do anything you weren’t ready for. You know, to jeopardize our…friendship.”

With that, the ride lurched forward, and they were back on solid ground. The holographic operator leaned over and unlatched the safety bar—creating what for Tom was a welcome distraction. Part of him was afraid to hear what B’Elanna might say next. Would she confirm that he’d done the right thing, that she hadn’t really wanted him? Or would she be angry that he’d rejected her advances? It was dicey either way.

At least they’d gotten some measure of closure, he thought, and took the opportunity to change the subject. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

She nodded and smiled. “Sure.”

He stood up from the seat and held out his hand to help her up. “Pizza again?” he asked innocently. The look on her face suddenly changed from a tired smile to a mischievous grin.

“Not this time,” she answered, a plan obviously forming in her mind. “I thought maybe we’d try a new place tonight. A restaurant at an old hotel along the beach. I hear the food there is really wonderful.”

Tom was confused. There was no such place in his program. Maybe this was one of the additions she’d been talking about. In any case, there was a wink in her tone if not on her face, and this time B’Elanna led him off by the hand.

When they cleared the last of the rides, she pulled him down a rocky path heading south along the shoreline. Almost instantly he could see it up ahead of them.

The Chalfont. An historic Victorian inn that stood to that day on the shores at Cape May, New Jersey. (So what if it was the wrong state, he thought. It was more than close enough.) Still, he couldn’t figure out how it had gotten into the middle of his carnival program. “How did you…? When did you…?” It was a rare occasion when Tom Paris was at a loss for words.

B’Elanna was beaming. “I figured this place must have some special meaning for you. I remembered the way you kept staring at it when we had dinner on that boat. I pulled up the historical files you used to make it the first time. Though I’m sure I must have missed a few details. You know my holoprogramming is a little unsophisticated…”

He just laughed, “You’re the chief engineer on one of the most advanced vessels in Starfleet and you still don’t know the difference between a boat and a ship,” he teased. “But you’re a better holoprogrammer than you think you are if you were able to come up with this all on your own.” He hoped she could tell that he was not only impressed, but touched at all the work she’d put into her creation.

The look in her eyes turned playful. “Boat, ship—if it doesn’t have a warp core, I couldn’t care less what you call it.” He could feel her hand getting sweaty in his as she searched his face for approval of her masterpiece. “So you really like it?” she asked nervously.

He couldn’t hold back a grin. “It’s perfect,” he said, as he took the lead and pulled her down the beach. “Now let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving.”

They were seated on the large veranda with a perfect view of the ocean. Just as he had in his bed the night before, Tom pinched himself to make sure it was all really happening. He was—finally—having dinner alone with B’Elanna in one of the most romantic settings he could imagine. The pain in his hand confirmed that this was more than another dream.

He’d ordered a rare steak and the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. B’Elanna had asked for a garden salad with grilled chicken—not elegant, but her favorite meal, he remembered. He loved that he knew that: what she liked for dinner. How she took her coffee. What she liked on a pizza. They were just a few of a million things he wanted to know about her, though. He let himself imagine for a second that he’d get the chance to discover the rest. Her favorite place to vacation. What season she liked best. How she looked when she woke up in the morning. What side of the bed she preferred…

This was leading him into dangerous territory and he forced himself back into the moment.

They’d been sitting there for a while listening to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra play a string of hits from World War II, when an impulse suddenly overtook him. “It’s too bad this isn’t a date date,” he said, choosing his words very carefully. Things were going too well, and he was determined not to screw it all up by pushing for more than B’Elanna was able to give.

He noticed that she swallowed conspicuously before she answered him. “Why’s that?” she asked.

He lifted his glass and held it in front of him. “Because then this would be champagne instead of wine. Moet 2304, I think. And I would take advantage of this wonderful music and ask you to dance with me. If this was a date date, I mean.”

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Well,” she said after a moment. “I don’t see why two friends can’t dance with each other. We’ve done it before, after all. Danced—in Sandrine’s—I mean.”

He resisted the temptation to smile. “You’re right,” he said, agreeing with her. “Friends dance together all the time.” He took his own deep breath before continuing. “So do you want to? Dance, I mean?”

He watched as she put on an air of false confidence and moved her napkin from her lap to the table. “Why not?” she answered. “What’s the harm?”

Tom tossed his own napkin onto the tablecloth and stood up, extending his hand. “None that I can see,” he said as he helped her up.

In a moment she was swaying in his arms. He couldn’t have timed things better if he’d tried; just as they hit the dance floor a new song began. He almost laughed out loud. It was ‘As Time Goes By.’ She really had been paying attention to detail.

B’Elanna looked up at him and Tom could tell what she was thinking. “I’ve heard this before. On the boa—ship,” she caught and corrected herself. “It’s from that movie you were telling me about. ‘Casa…’ something.”

Tom smiled. “‘Casablanca.’ It was named after a city in French Morocco on the African coast during World War II. You remember: ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl again.’”

She nodded as his description came back to her. “I do remember. And I still don’t get it. Don’t you like happy endings?”

He felt his smile fade as he answered her. “I love happy endings. I just haven’t seen that many of them in my life.” He couldn’t seem to stop himself from looking into her eyes as he wondered for the millionth time how their own little drama would turn out.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said softly.

The serious turn in their conversation seemed to make B’Elanna uncomfortable, and Tom forced himself to finish the story. “It’s a classic movie. The hero, a guy named Rick Blaine, is kind of a loser when the movie starts. He’s a drunk who chases women he couldn’t care less about. He made a lot of mistakes in his past and ran away from them all. But he finds this one woman he loves—a woman he’d thought he’d lost forever—and she inspires him to turn his life around. To finally stand up for what he believes in.” He stopped talking for a moment and let his eyes scan B’Elanna’s face. “So, in a way, it does have a happy ending.”

She was looking just as intently back at him. “But he leaves her? I don’t understand why they can’t end up together.”

Tom wondered for a minute why she assumed that Rick had left Ilsa instead of the other way around. And he thought back to his own reaction the first time he saw the film. “Well, in some ways, the movie ends at the beginning. You know, I think maybe, after the war ended and he’d redeemed himself, that someday they ran into each other at some sidewalk café in France. He’d be a war hero; maybe she was a widow. It would be awkward at first, but then they’d start talking. Maybe start dancing to a romantic old love song that just happened to be playing at the café.”

He was holding her left hand in his right, his other arm around her waist. The tempo of the song was slow, and they were turning in a gentle circle as both the melody and Tom’s imaginary sequel continued. “He’d tell her all about his adventures, he’d ask about her life during the war. Soon, though, he wouldn’t be able to let it go at small talk. He’d blurt out that he’d never let her leave him again, and he’d pull her to him, promising himself that he’d never let her go.” His voice got soft and thick, and he could feel his palms starting to sweat.

B’Elanna’s eyes were starting to glaze over. “This woman…”

“Ilsa,” Tom interjected. “Ilsa Lund.”

She nodded. “Ilsa. Wouldn’t she be scared to trust him? Maybe afraid that they’d said and done things they couldn’t take back. Or that he might leave her again?”

Tom shook his head. “He didn’t leave her. The first time, before the movie even started, she’d left him. The second time, he sent her away for her own good. To protect her. But he’d never leave her. Not if he could help it. Not after all they’d been through to be together.”

They were still swaying absentmindedly, B’Elanna now totally caught up in his story. “So, um, how does it end? With Rick and Ilsa?”

He swallowed hard before he answered. “He’d tell her that he loves her. That he’s always loved her. And he’d wait for her to answer.”

B’Elanna nodded. “And she’d say the same thing. That through everything, he was the only one she ever wanted. That she needed him in her life, even if she was scared and didn’t know how they’d ever make it work.” She leaned her head against his chest, and Tom could feel his entire body begin to tingle.

He picked up the narrative. “Then he’d kiss her. One of those big, romantic, 1940’s movie kisses that seem to go on forever. Then the music would swell to a big crescendo and the credits would roll. The End.” As if on cue, their own song ended, and they found themselves standing in the middle of an empty dance floor, holding each other in what would easily have passed for an embrace.

The silence seemed to break the spell of the moment and B’Elanna took a step back. “Well, um, it sounds really great. Your ending, I mean. But are you allowed to do that? Just make up your own scenes in a movie?”

Tom coughed and tried to find something to do with his now-empty hands. “Why not? That’s half the fun, especially when they’ve left so much of the story unresolved. But, um, it’s really a great film, even without my ending. You should see it sometime.”

She nodded. “One day. Maybe.”

With that, a parade of holographic waiters arrived at their table, and they headed back to eat. Tom stopped behind B’Elanna’s chair and held it out for her, then took his own seat.

‘If this were a date date, I would have kissed her a minute ago,’ he thought to himself. But it wasn’t. And he knew, without asking, that it would have been the worst thing he could have done to get B’Elanna to relax and trust him. This was a friendly night out at her insistence. Nothing more.

Instead, they ate their dinner, talked about bringing the warp core back on line, and about when and where they might encounter the Borg. They laughed about Freddy Bristow’s latest haircut, and Tom told her a joke he’d seen in an old television show. The conversation was light and easy, and reminded them both of what things had been like without all the angst and drama and Vulcan interference in their lives.

It reminded Tom that, whatever else they were or would one day be, they were friends. Good friends. And, considering the complications that had plagued their lives for so long, friendship was feeling like more than enough for the moment.

~~

After dinner, they repeated another ritual from their previous visit to the program and took a walk down the steps to the beach. Instead of sitting in the sand, this time they took off their shoes and followed the shoreline, the cool water tickling their feet as the tide slowly came in. They didn’t say much as they walked, but B’Elanna noticed the change in Tom as he looked out over the moonlit ocean. She remembered their talk about his wanting to go to sea as a child, and all the time and care he’d put into his sailboat program. He heard a siren song in the waves, she realized. And she smiled that she knew this about him.

There were still dozens of other mysteries to unlock, though. How things had gotten so bad with his father. The rumors of his having killed some people in a shuttle accident. Why he’d really joined the Maquis—and what had happened the day he was captured. Even more so, she was seeing something that she was pretty sure no one else knew: that there were actually many Tom Parises. The flip, flyboy. The dutiful officer. The incorrigible flirt and the brilliant pilot. But they were all masks. Faces he put on like his uniform or his vintage clothes. They all were—and weren’t—really him. She wasn’t even sure that Harry had figured this out.

But every now and then, when they were alone together, he’d let down all the artifice and she could see the real Tom: a sweet, smart, gentle man with more than his share of battle scars. And despite the cynicism he showed to the world, he was an optimist at heart. He watched silly cartoons and sappy movies and dreamed up his own happy endings just for fun. And he’d learned—probably from necessity—to shield his vulnerabilities under layer after layer of armor. Armor she suspected she could peel back, given enough time alone together.

After they’d walked a few dozen meters, they came to a jetty and climbed on top of the rocks, Tom holding B’Elanna’s elbow as she made her way across the slippery surface. They found a dry place to sit, and breathed in the salty night air. This was a place for a more substantive conversation, and Tom took the lead.

“You know, after everything that happened last week, I started doing a little reading on Klingon culture. I never realized before how interesting it is.”

She could feel her pulse start to pick up as she wondered where this discussion would lead. “I guess interesting is one word you could use to describe it,” she said derisively. “Crude, unenlightened, and barbaric are a few others I can think of.” She bent down and picked up a pebble, turning it over and over in her fingers before tossing it into the water.

Tom looked a little nervous, but he didn’t back down. “I don’t know. I think the whole concept of trying to live an honorable life is a pretty noble one. Klingons don’t waste a lot of energy putting on appearances, and they’d do just about anything to protect their families and friends. I guess I’m not sure why being part Klingon bugs you so much.” She could see his mind working, but she could tell he wasn’t trying to manipulate her into talking. His curiosity seemed sincere. So she decided to let the conversation play out.

“I guess it all just seems kind of silly: the rituals, all the violence and the battles. I’ve always been interested in science, so I guess the mystical elements always seemed so…backward to me.” She knew her explanation barely scratched the surface of the truth, but it was all she felt capable of revealing. A funny thought occurred to her, and she decided to use it to change the subject. “And don’t get me started on the food!”

~~

Tom laughed. He had trouble imagining the taste of gagh and blood pie, too. Not to mention the Klingon custom of eating meals that were still alive. “I see what you mean,” he said, smiling. “I don’t like the idea of my food staring back at me, either. Neelix’s hair pasta alone gave me the creeps for a week!”

She smiled and he was glad that she’d let him talk to her about such a difficult subject. From their earliest conversation in the Vidiian mines—less than six months after they’d been pulled into the Delta Quadrant and long before they’d become real friends—Tom knew B’Elanna’s father had left her and her mother when she was a child, and that being Klingon was all tied up in it, at least from B’Elanna’s perspective. And he knew she’d made it her personal mission to bury that side of herself permanently. She’d done a pretty good job, too; without the forehead ridges, fiery temperament, and physical strength, she could have easily passed as all human.

Tom wondered, then, if he’d accidentally hit the nail on the head when they’d talked in the turbolift. If B’Elanna hadn’t backed away from him because he’d seen the Klingon side of her she’d tried so hard to suppress.

If that was true, if she thought he’d gotten a close-up look at a part of her she hated, then maybe he’d just have to convince her that he not only accepted but appreciated it. Maybe if he embraced the Klingon parts of her nature, she might find a way to finally accept them herself.

All of the sudden, his little research project took on a new significance. Maybe understanding what it meant to be a Klingon was not only the key to understanding B’Elanna, but the way to help her finally come to terms with who she really was deep inside.

They’d sat there quietly for a few minutes and he decided to stick his toe in the metaphorical waters that surrounded them. “So, are we okay again? You and me?” He was afraid to look at her as he waited for her answer.

“Sure,” she said tentatively. “I just need to take things—our friendship—slowly for now. If that’s okay. I mean, I just wouldn’t want you to think that—”

He interrupted her, a little afraid of where she was heading. “It’s okay.” He tried to sound reassuring, even if he wasn’t sure of what. “Besides, we might be stuck on this ship for the next sixty years,” he joked, “I’m not going anywhere.”

After a moment, he let his voice turn serious again. “And I meant what I said before, B’Elanna. I wouldn’t push you to do or say anything you weren’t ready for. I would never want to jeopardize our…friendship.”

She smiled as she looked up into his eyes. “Me either,” she agreed. “Thanks.”

The breeze was picking up and the temperature started to dip. Tom could see B’Elanna rub her arms, and wished he’d thought to bring a blanket or jacket to keep her warm. Not that it really mattered; their holodeck time was almost up.

Sure enough, just a minute later he heard B’Elanna’s commbadge chirp out its warning.

“Well, we should probably go,” he said reluctantly. He would have been perfectly content to let this night go on forever.

“Yeah, I guess we should,” she agreed, looking equally sad that their time together was ending. Tom helped her off the rocks and they started the walk back across the beach.

“So,” he decided to take one last risk, “have you decided?”

B’Elanna looked confused. “Decided…?”

“About ‘date’ night? Should we do this again next Friday?”

An unreadable look crossed her face. “I don’t think so,” she said, instantly dashing his hopes. Before his heart had time to fall, though, she kept taking. “I don’t see why we should have to wait for Friday nights if we want to spend time together. I mean, our duty schedules are so crazy. Maybe we should just see each other whenever we feel like it.”

Making a quick 180 degree turn, his heart started to lift again. She wasn’t finished, though. “Not that they’d be ‘dates,’ I mean. We could just be two friends who liked to get together after work. That’s all.”

‘That’s all?’ Damn, he hoped she didn’t really mean that. Still, part of him was starting to catch on that ‘friendship’ had become B’Elanna’s euphemism of choice, her way of being able to handle the idea of their getting closer in a context that was less intimidating. Which was so much better than anything he feared he’d ever have with her these last few weeks that he decided to be grateful and see how it all panned out.

And in that instant, Tom made a decision. His feelings for her were now an open secret. He’d admitted his attraction twice. The next move would be hers. He wouldn’t pressure her, he wouldn’t beg, trick, or maneuver her into a situation she wasn’t ready for. He’d just be there. Be her friend. And wait for her to decide if she could handle more than that. It would be painful and frustrating and next to impossible, he realized, but he’d made a promise to her and to himself that he wouldn’t push her. Besides, the next time they kissed, he wanted to know—without a doubt—that she felt the same way. That she wanted him, too.

“Great,” he finally answered her. “I think I’d like that.”

He was still mulling his plan over in his mind when she blurted out something else. “You know, Tom, this might be even more fun if we made things more permanent.” They were walking along the midway now, and Paris stopped in his tracks to make sure he had heard her correctly.

“Permanent?” What happened to taking things slowly, he suddenly wondered.

“The carnival,” she clarified. “You know, when I was working on the hotel, I did some research, and most beach resorts had a more permanent midway. I figured that if we changed it from a traveling carnival to an amusement park, we could add some more rides. I want to try something called a ‘roller coaster.’ Just to prove to you that I’m tough enough to stand a thrill or two.”

Tom checked to make sure his mouth was closed. Was she flirting with him?

He was glad when she kept talking; he had no idea what he might have let himself say. “You know, you told me once that you’d be willing to tutor me in the holoprogramming classes I missed at the Academy. Maybe we could use this matrix to experiment on. I mean, if you’re still willing to teach me.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said sincerely. “I could come up with a lesson plan and we could work on it as a project in our spare time.” In an instant he was caught up in her enthusiasm. “You know, we could add a real boardwalk, too, with a fishing pier and a boat dock.”

They walked together quietly for a few minutes before Tom had another thought. “You know, we never did show this place to Harry. I think he might get a kick out of it.”

B’Elanna looked uncomfortable at the suggestion. “I don’t know, I mean, we’ve still got to add the boardwalk and the roller coaster. Don’t you think we should finish it first? You know, before we show it to anybody else?”

Tom went along with her pretense for keeping the carnival private, suddenly glad that she’d suggested it. “You know, you’re right. We wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for him by not having everything ready.”

She called for the exit, but turned around for a final look toward the beach before stepping into the corridor. Tom reached for the controls and closed the program.

They walked at a casual pace to the turbolift, talking about the additions she’d made and the process of integrating a complex holomatrix. After a minute, though, they both noticed the stares and whispers their presence together was attracting. B’Elanna seemed to get a little uncomfortable, but Tom was damned if he would let her retreat again, and continued talking to keep her mind occupied. It only took them a few minutes to reach Deck 9.

“So, we should get together soon and start mapping out your lesson plan. Are you busy tomorrow night?” he finally suggested.

B’Elanna hesitated. “I’m on duty until 1800, then I have an engineering staff meeting right afterward.” Damn. Was she making excuses? Was he going too fast? He couldn’t tell. “But that should only take an hour or so. How about my quarters at 2100 hours?” Tom didn’t even realize he’d been holding his breath until he heard himself exhale. She wasn’t brushing him off. “If you don’t mind eating late, we can work over dinner,” she even added.

“Great,” he answered, trying not to sound as excited as he felt. They were coming up on the door to her cabin, and he waited as she entered her access code. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” He hoped he wasn’t smiling too broadly as he said it. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Tom,” B’Elanna said as she started to walk through the door. Then she hesitated for a moment, and turned back to him. He thought for a second that she was going to say something else. Instead, she leaned up and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Breakfast?” she added, a little self-consciously.

He stood there, dumbfounded for a second, before he answered her. “Absolutely. I’ll see you there,” he finally mumbled, barely able to focus on anything but the look in her eyes. His stare seemed to make her uncomfortable, and she finally stepped inside and let the door close behind her.

One week earlier, she’d kissed him with a hunger he thought might eat her from inside. Yet this kiss, a gentle peck on the cheek, meant even more to him somehow. B’Elanna was no longer under the influence of an alien desire. She’d made this decision with a clear head and her own heart.

Standing in the middle of the Deck 9 corridor, Tom was overwhelmed with a feeling he had first given name to on Sakari—a revelation that he knew back then would change the rest of his life: he was in love with B’Elanna Torres, and had been for a very long time. It wasn’t just attraction, or affection, or friendship—no matter what she needed to call it for now. He was in love and it scared the hell out of him.

“Wow,” he heard himself say out loud. Wow, indeed.

~~

She let the doors close and lock before falling back against them. She’d done it. She’d made it through this night alive.

More than that. She’d found a way to reconnect to Tom without having to either confirm or deny her real feelings. Feelings that were as much a mystery to her as they clearly were to him.

And they’d forged some ground rules she could live with for now: they weren’t dating, yet had a standing invitation to spent time alone together. She could trust him to keep their private lives private—even from Harry, and even if, at this point, there wasn’t anything to tell. And they’d take it slowly, at her pace, until she was ready to move things to the next level.

So why did she feel so terrified?

Some part of her knew the answer. She’d known going in that Tom was attracted to her. That he wanted more than anything to become her lover and share her bed. Tonight, though, he’d proven that he was also her friend, that he cared about her feelings and would do what he could to protect them. But on some core level, she realized she wanted more than that. She was falling in love with him, had started imagining him as a permanent part of her life. And the idea scared her more than any encounter with the Borg ever could.

She walked over to her bed and sat down, trying not to let her mind race ahead of her heart. To just let herself enjoy the memory of their night together without turning it into some reason to run and hide.

As she sat there, she noticed a furry little face peeking out from behind the corner of her pillow. She smiled as she leaned over and grabbed the stuffed targ Tom had pretended to win for her the first time they’d gone to his carnival.

The little black beast had been through a lot with her. In equal fits of frustration and affection, she had petted and hugged and strangled and thrown him until his head was misshapen and his fur was matted. He’d taken a lot of abuse at her hands in the last thirteen months, but he was still there, waiting for her, every time she needed him. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but just as soft and just as comforting as they day she first took him home.

Reminded her a little of someone else she knew.

The thought made her smile. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she could hear Tom say. She wanted to believe that.

At least for tonight, she knew it was true. And, tucking the targ under her arm, she let herself lean back and really relax for the first time in weeks.

~*~*~*~*~

The mess hall was crowded and Tom wondered for a minute if B’Elanna would keep her promise to meet him for breakfast—considering the size of their ‘audience.’ The room was teaming with the loudest mouths on the ship, too: Jenny Delaney and Sue Nicoletti sat along one wall, the ‘gripe and snipe’ twins, Daley and Trent, were against the other. But in a second it became apparent that Voyager’s most notorious over-sleeper would not only show up, she was already there—a full five minutes early.

“Tom!” B’Elanna called out from a table for four in the center of the room. “Over here.”

The volume of the din around them seemed to drop almost instantly from a loud clamor to a soft murmur. Paris pretended not to notice as he walked over to join her. “Hi,” he said tentatively. Sometimes the B’Elanna he met in the morning was a different woman than the one he’d left the night before. He felt the need to make sure they were still alright with each other before he sat down.

“Hi,” she said softly, but with a confidence he found reassuring. “You’d better grab something to eat and get back here soon. I already had to fight off half the stellar cartography lab to keep your seat empty.”

Tom smiled, suddenly feeling hungrier than he’d been in a long while. “Great,” he said. “Be right back.”

By the time he made it to the counter, Harry was stumbling through the door looking tired and a little sick. The men made small talk as they filled their trays and headed back to join B’Elanna.

“Morning, Harry,” she said as they sat down. “You look awful!” A wicked smiled came over her face. “Let me guess: your poker party at Ayala’s last night. They played by Maquis rules?”

Tom almost spit out his coffee. He’d been the patsy in a card game on the Liberty once. Basically, the ‘rules’ involved taking a drink of homebrewed rotgut each time you threw in a chip. By the end of the night, you were so drunk you couldn’t remember how to bluff—and the next morning you were usually as poor as you were hungover. In his case, they’d failed to count on his experience with both liquor and lying and he’d made himself a tidy profit—and more than a few enemies.

Paris looked at B’Elanna and grinned at the memory of one of his few happy times as a Maquis. And also just because she was there with him, having breakfast together in front of everyone, and in such a good mood.

“Very funny,” Harry mumbled, pretty much verifying her guess. “Now I have to eat Neelix’s cooking at every meal for the next week.”

Somehow this seemed like a fair payback for all those lost games of checkers, Tom thought. Yet another reason it was turning into a beautiful morning. He was letting himself enjoy both the conversation and the company when Kim threw a monkey wrench into the works.

“So,” their friend asked, “did you two solve your problems last night?”

Tom was sitting across from B’Elanna and noticed that they both suddenly seemed to forget how to swallow. “Problems?” she asked innocently.

“With the shuttle simulation,” Kim reminded them. “The ‘shimmer?’”

Tom mentally smacked himself in the forehead. Right, their cover story. You know, he thought, if they were going to start lying to Harry on a regular basis, he was going to need more practice to get it right.

“Actually,” he heard B’Elanna say loud enough to be heard halfway across the room. “Tom and I decided to skip the maintenance work and have a little fun instead.”

Tom’s eyes opened wide at her very public admission. Still, he’d let her decide how much she was telling. Harry, on the other hand, had perked up almost instantly and clearly wanted details. “Fun, huh? What did you do?”

Paris waited to see how she answered. “I’m afraid that’s classified, Harry,” she said, smiling at Tom, and holding his gaze for a long moment. Then, she popped the last bite of her biscuit into her mouth and pushed her chair away from the table. “Sorry I have to go,” she said to Tom as she stood up. “But tonight, right? 2100 hours?”

“I’ll be there,” he said casually, pretending not to notice all the eyes that were suddenly on them.

Then he turned and watched as she walked out the door. The entire time, Tom could feel Harry’s gaze boring a hole through the back of his head, so he turned around to find an expression that could only be described as half-grin, half-scowl. “What?!” he said in mock-innocence.

There was an expectant look on Kim’s face. “I’m just wondering when I’m going to hear about this ‘classified mission’ you two went on last night?”

The teenaged boy in Paris answered before the grown man could stop him. “I don’t kiss and tell,” he jokingly whispered, immediately regretting that he’d said it at all. In a second, Harry jumped up from his seat next to Tom and moved to sit across from him. If he was going to get the juicy details, he clearly wanted to do it face to face.

“So you finally kissed her, huh?” Harry whispered enthusiastically. Tom couldn’t believe the joy his friend was taking in the idea.

“No! It’s just an expression, Harry! What’s gotten into you?” Paris was backpedaling. The last thing he needed was for B’Elanna to find out he’d talked about their non-date date and their non-kiss kiss to anyone else. Besides, technically, she was the one who’d kissed him. “And what do you mean, ‘finally’?”

Harry looked a little embarrassed for prying into Tom and B’Elanna’s personal lives. But, that didn’t seem to stop him from pressing on. “When are you going to tell her that you’re crazy about her? Admit it! If not to her, then to yourself!”

They’d had this same conversation several times before. But Kim had no way of knowing that his best friends’ first kiss had long since come and gone, and that Paris had already confessed his feelings to himself—and to B’Elanna.

Tom thought back on all the times he’d given Harry the low-down on the women he pursued, the details—often exaggerated—of his dates, and his plans to make one conquest or another. This morning, though, his feelings for B’Elanna and the state of their relationship felt very much off-limits. He wasn’t afraid to talk about it; it was just too precious to share, even with his best friend.

“Harry, I need you to do me a favor and back off.” He hadn’t meant to sound so strident, but the look on Kim’s face said he’d gotten the message. “I’ve gotta go,” Tom said as he picked up his tray and left.

~~

Harry sat there alone for a few minutes, wondering if he’d ever find out what had really happened between his two best friends. He also couldn’t help but feel a little down. Over two years and half a galaxy away from the woman he’d once loved, he had found people who understood, cared, and helped get his mind off a life he’d lost and might never know again.

Now, despite their protestations, he could tell that those same friends were starting to build a new, separate life for themselves. If things went the way he suspected, their little threesome was about to become a twosome. And, as happy as he’d be for Tom and B’Elanna, Harry knew that—very soon—things were probably going to change for all of them forever.

~~

“Well!” Jenny Delaney whispered as she watched Harry leave. “That was interesting. I guess Tom and Torres kissed and made up. You know, Henderson saw them together last night coming from the—”

“Jenny!” Sue took a deep breath as she dropped her fork on her tray. “Don’t you think it’s about time that you worried about your own life instead of hers?”

Her friend’s eyes practically bugged out at the reprimand. “Since when do you care who I talk about?”

Nicoletti could barely believe what she was about to say. “Since you’ve made it your personal mission to trash a woman I happen to like. Isn’t it time you left the Chief alone and picked a new target? Someone who actually deserves it, maybe?”

For a minute she thought her best friend’s lip was going to fall onto the table from the weight of her pout. And part of her could understand Jenny’s confusion. While she didn’t share Delaney’s need to speculate on the personal lives of everyone she met, Sue had always been a willing listener, and was ashamed to admit that she enjoyed knowing so much of what was going on in the relationships of her shipmates.

And there was once no love lost between her and Torres. While Nicoletti never regretted rejecting the Tom Paris who’d courted her for many of their early months in the Delta Quadrant, she was starting to get a little jealous at missing out on the man he had become in the years since. And she suspected her senior officer was more than a little involved in her old suitor’s reformation.

But she’d also spent over two and a half years watching and learning as Voyager’s chief engineer taught her how to think on her feet, how to intuit the mood of a temperamental warp core, and how to play her very best game every single day. She’d learned more from her Maquis mentor than from any of her professors at the Academy, and she knew she was better off for being held to Torres’ impossibly high standards. So maybe she didn’t always like her boss, but she had grown to respect her. And she was sick of hearing the woman trashed constantly as if she didn’t have feelings.

She noticed that Jenny looked like she was either going to scream or burst into tears, and Sue’s compassion kicked in once again. “Come on, Jen,” she said reassuringly as they stood up to head to work. “Poker at my place tonight?”

Jenny sighed, then forced a half-smile. “Sure,” she said. “2200, right?”

“Yep,” Nicoletti answered as she recycled her tray. “And don’t be late. Mike taught me a new game I want to try out. He said he learned it in the Maquis…”

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna couldn’t believe she felt so energetic so early in the morning. There was a spring in her step as she strode into Main Engineering—a full ten minutes before the start of her shift—and she paused for a moment to listen to the hum of a perfectly tuned warp core. It was her favorite kind of music.

The gamma and alpha shift changeover was in progress, and she walked up to her sleepy second engineer. “Good morning, Carey,” she said as she reached for the PADD he instinctively handed her. “You look like hell.”

He suddenly looked a little nervous. “Nothing a good morning’s sleep won’t cure,” he joked before getting down to business. “We’ve finished all the final diagnostics, and the new warp coils are in perfect alignment.”

“Nice work,” she said. “You and Nicoletti did a great job. I mentioned as much in my report to the captain.”

She thought for a second that she saw shock flash across his face. “Thanks, Chief. But we couldn’t have done it without a lot of…‘Vulcan precision’ if you know what I mean.”

B’Elanna stiffened but didn’t say anything. Instead, she looked around the room until she found the person she needed. “Ensign Vorik,” she called loud enough for everyone to hear her. “Can you join us for a second?”

The young Vulcan double-timed it, then suddenly came to an abrupt halt—exactly five meters from them. She didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh. “It’s okay, Vorik,” she said, giving him permission to ignore Chakotay’s rules about keeping his distance.

B’Elanna could have sworn she saw his cheeks flush with green as he took the last few steps. “Yes, sir, Lieutenant. You wanted to see me?”

She glanced at Joe before looking back at the nervous ensign standing before her. “Lieutenant Carey was just complimenting the work you did on the refit. I wanted you to know that I’m putting a note to that effect in your personnel record and in my report to the Captain.”

She could see the young man visibly relax. “Yes, sir,” he said evenly. “Thank you, sir.”

B’Elanna thought for a minute, then turned back to Carey. “Could you excuse us for a second, Lieutenant?” she asked him. Joe stepped away, leaving her alone with Vorik in the middle of the deck. She steeled herself and squared her shoulders before she continued. “Commander Chakotay returned the holoprogram to me. I wanted to thank you for not deleting it.”

She knew Vulcans were supposed to be practiced at hiding their emotions, but Vorik was young and more transparent than he might have liked to admit. She could tell he was still afraid of her, even after her compliments. And, frankly, that was fine with her. Part of her still wanted to continue the pummeling she’d given him on the Sakari surface. But she also knew she had to let her anger go and move on. Today would be the first step for them both.

“Permission to speak,” he finally said, an artificial self-assurance infusing his tone.

“This isn’t an inspection, Ensign, it’s a conversation,” she blurted out. “Say whatever you want.”

He seemed to calm down slightly but still didn’t look her in the eye. “My behavior over the last few weeks has been unprofessional and inexcusable,” he said softly, a hint of remorse leaking through his otherwise emotionless tone. “You would be well within your rights to have me transferred out of your section. Yet I hope you will find a way to accept my apology for any embarrassment or…injury…I might have caused you. I am deeply, deeply sorry.”

They stood there for a moment as she felt herself processing a flood of conflicting impulses. At times like this, she envied Vulcans their emotional control. After a moment, she nodded her head. “Apology accepted,” she finally said in a tone that would have made Tuvok proud. “Dismissed.”

She could see his pointed eyebrows raised in relief and surprise. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll return to my station.”

As he turned to leave, B’Elanna noticed the rest of her crew trying desperately to watch without actually looking at her. “Vorik!” she called out decisively. She waited for him to turn around. “You’re welcome,” she said confidently. Then she turned and walked away without looking back.

She had one last matter she wanted to raise with Carey before releasing him, and found him in the maintenance alcove near the corridor finishing up his shift report. “Lieutenant,” she said as she walked up to him. “There’s a personnel matter I’d like to discuss before you go.” She could see him fighting to stay awake as he answered her.

“Yes, sir?”

Once again, she turned toward the center of the room, happy to see the two people she was looking for standing within earshot. “Platt, Ballard.” She didn’t have to say, ‘come here.’ Her crew new to jump when she called. B’Elanna turned around and addressed Carey in their presence. “I want these two transferred to the alpha shift effective immediately.”

She searched the faces of the two ensigns. Only Platt’s expression seemed to register any anger that he’d just been handed a double shift. “Do you have a problem with that, Ensign?” she asked him forcefully.

“No, sir,” he grumbled. “It’s just that I was due for a day off and—”

“That’s enough, Platt,” Torres cut him off. “You have your orders. And I’d like nothing more than to ‘bite your head off’ this morning, but I’m afraid I already ate.” She turned back to Carey. “Put Ballard on Nicoletti’s team. And transfer this one to deuterium maintenance until further notice. Those manifolds could use a good polishing.” Then she dismissed the two junior engineers without looking at them.

When she turned back around, she could see an interesting mix of admiration, confusion, and trepidation in Carey’s eyes. “He’s been asking for that,” the Lieutenant said. “But Ballard’s a good egg. She’s chronically late and her work’s a little sloppy, but she’s a decent engineer. I’ll be sorry to lose her.”

B’Elanna nodded. “I figured as much. But I want to keep an eye on her for a while. Give her a chance to learn from Nicoletti. Maybe let her spread her wings a little.” She noticed as she was talking that Carey had started to blink almost compulsively. He was clearly having trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Get some sleep,” she said, finally letting him go. He looked relieved as he nodded and headed for the door.

“Joe,” she called out after a second. She made sure he was the only one who could hear her before she continued. “Tell me you were the one who designed the still. I mean, Mike’s a great security guard and a half-decent pilot, but he’s a lousy excuse for an engineer.”

Carey’s look of surprise was quickly replaced by a broad grin. “B’Elanna, I wouldn’t let that man use a still much less build one,” he admitted, grudgingly. “I want his boys to get their father back in one piece.”

Torres laughed. “Well, I’ll make you a deal,” she said, smiling. “I’ll let your personal ‘engineering project’ stay our little secret if next time, you two let Harry keep some of his replicator rations. He’s insufferable when he has to eat Neelix’s cooking for more than two days.”

“Sure thing,” Carey said, chuckling. Then the two stood there for a minute, both a little contemplative, as if they were really seeing the other for the first time. B’Elanna thought maybe Joe might say something else, but he just smiled instead. “Morning, Chief,” he finally said.

“Night, Joe,” she answered. Then he turned and headed out the door.

B’Elanna looked around her engine room and let herself enjoy the view. Her warp core was flashing a brilliant blue, Nicoletti was showing Ballard the ropes, and Vorik was compulsively monitoring the coil alignment. It seemed like such a huge improvement over the place she’d run away from in tears just a few days earlier.

Actually, she realized, it wasn’t better. It was just normal. The axes of both her personal and professional worlds had been tipped to the side and then righted. And she had landed on her feet in both places.

She let herself enjoy the anticipation of sinking her teeth into that long-overdue realignment of the secondary plasma couplings. Of turning a carnival into an amusement park. Of seeing Tom again in a little over thirteen hours. Of finally getting on with it.

Then she smiled, took a deep breath, and got back to work.

~*~*~*~*~

To Be Continued… Next up: “Unity,” “Darkling,” and “Favorite Son”

CREDITS:

“Blood Fever,” written by Lisa Klink
“Casablanca” screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, from a play by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison

Some notes:

  • The poker game references were inspired by a wonderful Maquis fanfic currently being written by my beta buddy, Briar Rose. She promises me she will finish it before June 30, 2002. When you finally read it, please remember that her ideas for these events are what inspired mine. Thanks, too, to the Queen of the Lower Decks, LA Koehler, for inspiring me to write about these often forgotten members of Voyager’s crew.
  • The Klingon anatomical information was compiled from various online sources, all of which seemed to borrow liberally from each other. Therefore, I don’t know who the original author was, and have no way to credit them. It wasn’t me, though. And anyone wanting proof that B’Elanna has no spinal ridges should watch the end of the episode “Juggernaut”.
  • An official welcome to Kat to my beta pit crew. And ongoing thanks to BR, Devin, LA, and Linda for sticking with me through this ridiculously long series, and for being such good friends.

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