DOTS#13: Friendly Fire, Part 1

RATING

Mostly PG-13, with a few tidbits that are seriously R

SUMMARY

Another in the ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, leading up to the episode “Unity.” New Year’s Eve 2373 brings new beginnings on Voyager. As the crew prepares to celebrate, Tom and B’Elanna have to learn a brand new dance, Harry rediscovers an old flame, and Chakotay and Tom get a few painful lessons in trusting and being trusted.

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

“Unity,” for now, and ultimately “Darkling” and “Favorite Son.”

CODES

P/T and friends + two guest stars from the continuity clean-up crypt

DISCLAIMER

I didn’t write the interesting-but-quirky “Unity,” the brooding and disquieting “Darkling,” or the implausible and insipid “Favorite Son.” Nor did I create these characters or their universe. But I just can’t seem to stop dressing them up and moving them around. Maybe what I really want to do is direct!

NOTE

I have, however, extrapolated an Earth-date/Stardate timeline working back from the episode “Homestead,” the only combined canon reference in Voyager. I’m using it to bookmark the timing of certain key events in the characters lives (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc.), since this series of stories covers so many years. Despite what a few obsessive/compulsive fans will tell you, there’s no universally accepted canon formula for this, so please make up your own seasons and dates for your stories if you don’t like mine. I promise not to lose any sleep over it.

ONE MORE NOTE

‘When we last left our intrepid (class) couple…’

I know it’s been a while since the last installment of the Dots. In case you can’t remember where we left off, the answer is ‘in the Nekrid Expanse, just after “Blood Fever.”’ B’Elanna has forgiven Vorik—and herself!—and she and Tom have agreed to take their ‘friendship’ slowly. Chakotay has urged her to follow her heart (even if he still isn’t quite sure he trusts Tom not to break it), and Harry is more than a little confused about what’s going on with his two best friends. Tom had also agreed to use the carnival program to help tutor B’Elanna in the advanced holoprogramming classes she missed at the Academy. Their first project: a new roller coaster…

Text Download: CTDfriendlyfire1


‘The interactive matrix can tolerate a variance of .035 before degradation begins, however Starfleet protocols require a closer alignment—no more than .02—before a program can be certified for critical path functions (training simulations, advanced tactical drills, etc.).’

B’Elanna memorized the readout and turned to the control panel. The diagnostic was almost complete and she crossed her fingers as she waited. When the results appeared on her screen, she almost shouted out loud. Instead she just smiled and slapped the console: .00015—she’d done it. The holographic matrix was almost perfectly aligned, and she’d finished it without any help. The carnival now featured a permanent amusement park fashioned after a real place Tom had called ‘Coney Island.’ Its first attraction: a brand new wooden roller coaster with a thirty meter drop, a series of hard banking turns and a covered tunnel right at the end. In theory, it was ready for its first test run and—following Tom’s lesson plan—she’d done the bulk of the programming and matrix integration herself.

She knew, then, that she’d essentially passed her ‘final exam,’ that she had learned as much about holoprogramming as Tom or anyone else onboard could likely teach her. And while she was proud of how far she’d come in just a few weeks, she was also a little disappointed. Their tutoring sessions had given them a reason to spend a lot of their off-duty time together, and she realized that she now had one of three choices to make: continue the pretense (feign knowing less than she did to justify more of Tom’s ‘lessons’), get back to their normal routines (seeing each other only when duty or circumstance brought them together), or admit how much she enjoyed the way their lives had begun to intertwine—and deal once and for all with the feelings she knew they both had for each other.

Not that there was really a question of what she’d do. Clearly her professional pride would never let her fake stupidity on a subject she’d mastered. And her relationship with Tom was way too confusing to even consider any kind of ‘big’ conversation. But she had gotten used to spending time alone with him almost every day, even if it was only for a few minutes after breakfast, or grabbing an hour in the hololab at midnight when they both had early shifts the next day. They’d started to develop rituals and habits and private in-jokes. She didn’t want that to end.

Still, the roller coaster was finished. Suddenly her joy at her achievement seemed a little bittersweet.

She looked again at the readout in front of her, excited to tell Tom about her success. It was only 23:15, though; he and Chakotay were on a scouting mission in the Cochrane, and she knew they wouldn’t be back until morning. Too bad, too—she was anxious to test drive their new creation.

After saving the program—and backing it up in three different places—B’Elanna shut down the holoimager and headed back to her quarters. As she reached the turbolift, her stomachs growled loudly, and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. “Deck 2,” she said as the lift doors closed behind her. She’d used all of that week’s replicator rations for pizza in the hololab and ‘props’ at the carnival, so Neelix’s leftovers were pretty much her only option if she wanted a midnight snack.

As the lift rose, her mind drifted back to the coaster, and she tried to figure out when they might get to ride it for the first time. It occurred to her, then, that she and Tom never seemed to have the same days off anymore. It seemed that, as soon as they’d started working together on her holoprogramming lessons, they’d been limited to lunch hours and dinner breaks and the occasional early evening. It was as if the duty roster were serving as their chaperone, allowing them time together, but in measured doses.

B’Elanna was a smart woman, and it only took her a moment to realize why: Chakotay. The roster didn’t make itself, after all, and she knew enough about her friend to realize he could be a terrible mother hen. Yet she also knew he wanted her to be happy, going so far as to encourage her to follow her heart even if it led her to a man he didn’t entirely trust.

She trusted Tom, though, and that was all that mattered. And she knew that, deep down, Chakotay must, too—he’d as much as said so after a hoverball game not ten days earlier. Maybe he just worried about her being pressured to move too fast. Maybe this was his covert way of suggesting they take it slowly.

Well, if so, he was worrying about nothing. Ever since Sakari—well, ever since she’d forgiven herself for Sakari—she and Tom never talked about what happened. He was a perfect gentleman, not once as much as flirting with her, never pushing for more than her company. She could sense him filtering his choices of words, backing away from a disagreement if it threatened to escalate into a fight, and pretty much tiptoeing around anything that could be misconstrued as pressure. She was grateful—and a little sorry. So much of the fun of knowing Tom Paris came from the unpredictability. In a strange way, she enjoyed fighting with him and didn’t really want him to change who he was just to suit her. Still, she knew he was trying to give her some space, and she decided to let him. There was plenty of time for ‘next steps.’

So, maybe Chakotay had the right idea after all…

The lift opened and B’Elanna took a step toward the mess hall. Almost instantly, she could smell something cooking—no, baking. The air was laced with the aroma of cinnamon and butter—so familiar and comforting—and it instantly made her think of her grandmother. Cookies…someone was baking cookies.

B’Elanna walked inside and headed for the counter. The two people working in the galley were almost obscured by a cloud of white flour. “What are you doing?” she asked, startling Neelix and a young woman she could now see was Ahni Jetal.

“Oh! Lieutenant Torres!” The ensign was stammering and instantly nervous; B’Elanna wondered for a moment why she always seemed to have that effect on her junior engineers.

At the same time, Neelix turned to her and smiled, his whiskers covered in fine powder. “Good evening, Lieutenant! Another late night in engineering?” B’Elanna could see little bits of cookie dough on his apron, fingers, and nose. “Don’t mind us. Ensign Jetal is just showing me how to make homemade Christmas cookies. It’s a surprise for our little Naomi.”

B’Elanna stopped for a minute and thought about the date. It was December 23rd—for another half hour, give or take. She wasn’t used to marking time in Terran months anymore; even so, it seemed as if December had just flown by.

“Are they…sugar cookies?” she asked tentatively, surprised that her voice seemed to have jumped half an octave.

She could see Jetal shifting in her boots for a moment, clearly trying to decide if she should let Neelix answer. “Yes. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. She always sprinkled the tops with…”

“…cinnamon,” B’Elanna finished the sentence. “Mine, too.”

There was a silent moment as both women seemed to make an instantaneous mental journey—not only back to the Alpha Quadrant, but back through time. Then, almost simultaneously, they looked up at each other and smiled.

B’Elanna was suddenly feeling a little vulnerable—as if she’d revealed too much to a total stranger—and quickly turned her attention back to Neelix. “I haven’t eaten since this morning, and was wondering if there were any leftovers from dinner.”

She could see as she asked that the counter was empty and the normally flaming skillet was cold. “Gee, I’m sure I can scrounge up something,” Neelix was saying, patting his floury hands on his apron.

“No, really,” she stopped him. “You’re busy and in the middle of something. I can wait until—”

“Nonsense!” he answered, his brow still furrowed. Suddenly a look of inspiration crossed his face and he motioned for B’Elanna to follow him to the replicator. “Dinner is on me tonight,” he offered, entering his access code as carefully as possible to minimize the amount of cookie dough residue he left behind on the panel. “Computer, one…” He paused, waiting for her to decide.

B’Elanna thought for a moment, “Computer, access culinary file Paris 2.” A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread appeared almost instantly. She grabbed the plate then added, “Oh, and a glass of cold milk, Terran bovine.”

Neelix grinned. “Don’t tell me: Paris 1 is…,” they said it simultaneously, “…pepperoni pizza.”

B’Elanna smiled and carried her dinner to a table by the viewport. It only took Neelix a moment to return with a plate full of warm cinnamon-sugar cookies in the shape of planets and stars and comets. “You know, these would go great with that milk,” he said as he sat them in front of her. Then he went back to his baking.

She took a sip of the milk, then picked up a cookie—holding it up to her nose. The smell was almost intoxicating, and transported her back to her grandmother’s kitchen in Scottsdale, Arizona on one of the three Christmases she’d spent on Earth with her father’s family. While her cousins played outside, B’Elanna would stay in with Nanna Torres, watching her carefully mix, chill, then roll out her famous dough. When she got older B’Elanna would help, learning how to plot out the most efficient pattern of shapes to minimize waste. In addition to being a wonderful cook, her grandmother was a civilian logistician, and B’Elanna had thought many times over the past three years that the conservation techniques she’d learned in that kitchen served her well on a resource-challenged starship.

After a moment, the smell alone wasn’t enough and she nibbled at the tail of a cookie comet. It was delicious, if slightly different than the recipe her grandmother had used. Still, it took her back to a time when she’d felt happy and safe and loved. A feeling she hadn’t had since…

Actually, it occurred to her that those feelings weren’t as foreign as they had once seemed. While happy might be too strong a word, she was definitely feeling a sense of contentment that she hadn’t really known since her early childhood. And even though she was stranded halfway across the galaxy from everything that should have grounded her, she felt amazingly safe on Voyager. With only a couple of notable exceptions, she’d never doubted that they’d survive the challenges they were handed. Even those few times when she’d lost faith, somehow they’d pulled it out in the end.

As for feeling loved…well… That seemed almost too much to ask for. But she did feel needed, respected, cared for. She was surrounded by friends she trusted with her life—Harry, Chakotay…Tom. Tom had been pretty clear about his interest. But did he love her?

The thought made her increase the pace of her nibbling, and in a moment the comet was gone. She took a long drink of her milk before picking up another cookie. She focused her thoughts on the sweet taste and comforting smell, and forced herself not to think about such a ridiculous question…

~*~

Tom rolled over on the bunk and tried to relax. Napping in the back of a Type 6 shuttle was almost impossible—particularly with Chakotay at the helm. But his uncomfortable bed had less to do with his restlessness than his preoccupation with the state of his life.

Work was boring—this part of the Nekrid Expanse was pretty much a wasteland—making his duty shifts crawl by at a snail’s pace. And he suspected this little away mission was Chakotay’s way of getting him out of the captain’s hair; Tom knew his fidgeting at the helm had been driving her to distraction. What he couldn’t figure out was why he’d been forced to trade days off with Culhane just to map space dust.

Well, there was a little more to it than that. Harry had a theory that they might find a faster route through the Expanse if they avoided all the rogue comets and gravimetric storms they kept running into. So Tom and Chakotay had been flying in elliptical arcs for over twelve hours, recording astronomical data for use as navigational markers. It was mind-numbing work any first-year ensign could have done, and they still had six hours to go before they were finished.

Tom’s frustration was compounded by the fact that his day off and B’Elanna’s were supposed to coincide for the first time in almost two weeks. They’d intended to spend the morning together finishing the matrix for the roller coaster, then testing it out over lunch. That evening…well, he’d saved enough rations for a nice friendly dinner in his quarters. No pressure, just a chance to talk about something besides holoprogramming or amusement parks.

So, why was it that every time he made plans to spend some uninterrupted time alone with her, one of them would get a last-minute duty assignment?

Of course, the obvious answer to that question was sitting about three meters in front of him.

Tom knew there was an odds-on chance that Chakotay was doing it intentionally: arranging both of their schedules to keep them apart. The man had long ago named himself B’Elanna’s guard dog, and there didn’t seem to be anything Tom could do to reassure him that hurting her was the farthest thing from his mind.

The realization was the last straw, though: there was no way Paris was getting any sleep. But there was an hour left in his mandated break, and he decided to put it to good use. He sat up and pulled a PADD out of his duffle.

The beeping of its touchpad caught the commander’s attention and he swiveled around in his chair; Tom braced himself for a lecture on staying up past his bedtime. “Working on anything interesting?” he heard instead.

Tom had an instantaneous decision to make and he opted for the truth. “It’s a Christmas present for B’Elanna.”

“Oh.” Chakotay put the shuttle on autonav, then turned back around. “The two of you have been keeping pretty busy lately. Every time I try to find her to play a round of hoverball, she’s either with you in the hololab or the two of you are running some program.”

Tom just sat there, not sure what to say. All evidence to the contrary, Chakotay was neither B’Elanna’s brother nor father; he wasn’t owed any accounting of their off-duty time. Still, Tom had sat through more than one ‘what are your intentions with my daughter?’ interrogation when he was in high school. He knew he’d eventually have to say something. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, though.

Chakotay pressed on. “She told me you’re working on some project, but every time I ask her about it, she says it’s nothing.”

Tom wished he could think of something to get his first officer and inquisitor to turn back around so he could make some progress on B’Elanna’s present. Something told him that wasn’t going to happen until the man caught whatever he was fishing for.

“I’ve been helping her brush up on some holoprogramming courses she missed at the Academy. It’s no big deal.”

Chakotay nodded. “I see.” Somehow Tom knew he wouldn’t leave it at that. “Well, that’s very…thoughtful of you to want to help her. With her education.”

Tom bristled. Those words—‘help her’—had become a euphemism on Sakari. Was that what this was about? “Of course I want to help her. We’re friends,” he said flatly.

‘Sit!’ he was thinking. ‘Stay!’

“Sure,” Chakotay answered, clearly not getting the mental message to back off. “I just know that things were…uncomfortable between you for a while. She went through a pretty traumatic experience. I was just wondering if it’s good for her to be spending all of her free time…”

That was it. “Is there something you’re trying to say, Commander? Because I’d really like to get some work done on this present before my break is over.”

Tom was startled by his own bluntness—apparently so was Chakotay. “I’m sorry,” the first officer said evenly, not looking a bit embarrassed at having grilled Tom about his personal life. “I guess it’s just a habit after all these years—watching out for her. I keep forgetting that she’s old enough to take care of herself.”

Tom stared back at him, deciding to think carefully before opening his mouth again. However paternalistic, he knew Chakotay meant well. Wanting to protect B’Elanna was an instinct he understood. “She was pretty young when she joined your cell,” he finally said. It was as much a question as a statement. He didn’t really know the details of how B’Elanna came to be a Maquis.

Chakotay’s face was wistful. “Do you remember how Harry was when you first met him?”

Tom smiled. Green didn’t begin to describe his friend. “As I recall, he was a little wet behind the ears,” he said, smiling.

Chakotay grinned. “Well, B’Elanna was even younger when I met her. And furious at the world. She kept getting herself into trouble, and it always seemed to be my job to get her out of it. I guess after a while it became second nature: looking out for her. If you had known her back then, you’d…”

“I remember,” Tom interrupted. “I’ll never forget walking off that transport for the first time and seeing her chewing out Mario. He was three times her size—and still I thought she could knock him into tomorrow with one…” He hesitated for a moment, noticing the strange expression that had suddenly crawled over Chakotay’s face. “What?” Tom finally asked.

“You know, for a moment I almost forgot…” The commander shook his head before he continued. “I guess I have trouble sometimes, remembering that the drunken pilot I recruited in that bar was you.” It was a startling admission and—in its way—an incredible compliment. “I guess B’Elanna isn’t the only one who’s changed these past few years.”

Tom could barely believe his ears. Even though no one ever brought up his short stint as a Maquis anymore, Paris remembered it all too clearly—including the condition he was in when Chakotay first met him: drunk, broke, and desperate. He didn’t give a damn about the Federation colonists or their righteous cause. Not back then. He was just a loser looking for a chance to fly and a way out of debt. Well, maybe it was more than that—or could have become more than that—Tom didn’t really know, himself. He did know that those few short weeks had changed him in ways he never would have anticipated.

He realized, then, that there was unfinished business between him and his former captain. Even though none of it mattered anymore, there was something Tom needed to say: that he hadn’t intentionally turned tail that day, the morning he was captured. That by the time Starfleet caught up to him—despite his sorry-assed start on the Liberty—he wasn’t running anymore. That he wasn’t a coward.

The two sat quietly for a moment before Tom got the nerve to try to explain it all. “Chakotay, you’ve never asked me about that mission. About how I ended up getting arrested.”

“Tom, you don’t have to…”

“No, I want to.” He swallowed hard, and looked down at his hands. “I know you didn’t think a whole hell of a lot of me back then. I can’t really say that I blame you. I want you to know, though, I did what you asked me to that day. I sent the message to the Selka outpost. But when I saw that Federation ship heading toward me…well, I thought I was doing the right thing at the time—by taking off. I thought if I could just…”

“I know.” Chakotay was staring him in the eye. “You fired on them so they’d follow you away from us. You used your shuttle as a decoy so the Liberty could escape.”

Tom was dumbfounded. “How…?”

“I read the transcripts of your trial and the report the Bradbury’s captain submitted to Starfleet. It was pretty obvious—though maybe not to them. You led them away from us. You let them catch you so we could get away, even though you knew you’d probably be sent straight to prison.”

Paris was embarrassed—and more than a little confused. “How long have you known?”

Now it was Chakotay’s turn to confess. “Since the day I agreed to be Voyager’s first officer. The Captain insisted I read your file when she told me she was going to make you her helmsman. I think she was afraid I might sign on just long enough to be issued a phaser so I could shoot you before resigning my commission.”

The men laughed awkwardly, mostly because it wasn’t so far fetched. Then Tom waited for a chance to make eye contact again. “So, that’s when you decided that maybe I wasn’t the traitor you thought?”

Chakotay stared at him for a moment. “That’s when I decided that I didn’t know who Tom Paris was. Or if the man I recruited in that bar was still hiding inside you somewhere. I guess there are moments when I still wonder.”

It was an honest answer, and Tom was grateful for it. “Still, you decided to trust me that day.”

Tom could see the commander repressing a smile. “I decided not to shoot you that day.” They both snorted a laugh, before Chakotay’s expression turned serious again. “And I know that you’ve worked hard to turn your life around. You’ve become a fine officer.”

“It’s the man you’re just not sure about,” Tom interjected matter-of-factly. There was an awkward pause that confirmed his suspicion.

Chakotay turned back to the helm and reactivated the manual controls. “Well, I’d better get back to those sensor readings. And you’d better get to work on that present if you’re going to finish it in time for Christmas.”

Tom sighed. Well, at least he knew where he stood. And he wasn’t sure it really mattered, in the long run, if Chakotay trusted him not to become the irresponsible jerk he’d once been. Those days were over forever. Tom knew it. Harry knew it. B’Elanna knew it. B’Elanna trusted him. Or she would, one day.

He turned his attention to the PADD and went back to work.

~*~

B’Elanna enjoyed the last bite of her sandwich—licking the sticky remnants of peanut butter from her teeth—before she stood up and headed for the door. She was about to say goodnight to Neelix when she saw something on the table next to hers. It was a datapad someone had clearly forgotten.

“Neelix,” she called out as she picked it up. “Do you remember who was sitting here last?”

The cook looked up at her, then turned to Jetal. “Gee, I’m not sure.”

She saw Ahni shrug. “I think it was Ensign Ballard,” the ensign said tentatively. “But I’m not positive.”

B’Elanna nodded and tucked the PADD under her arm. She was too tired to care, and decided she’d find its proper owner in the morning. She turned to leave then stopped. “Thanks for the cookies,” she said, addressing them both, but looking at Jetal. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share your grandmother’s recipe?”

The young engineer beamed. “Yes, sir. Of course. I’ll send it to your personal database as soon as we’re finished here.”

B’Elanna smiled. “Whenever you get to it,” she said, grabbing one more warm comet from the plate on the counter. “I don’t think I’ll be doing any cooking tonight.”

She took a bite and waited for Jetal to return her smile, then she headed back to her quarters.

Why it took so long for the lift to come—after midnight—was a mystery. Or maybe she was just so tired that it just seemed like it took forever. In any case, B’Elanna’s boredom got the better of her sleepiness and she flicked on the datapad she’d found on the mess hall table.

‘His chest heaved as he pulled Roxanna toward him. Roberto’s lithe body was tanned and muscled, and she knew instantly that he was her destiny, that she would give herself to him that night. She looked into his azure eyes and felt her pulse quicken. Slowly she unlaced her silken blouse and stood before him—her ample breasts silently calling for him to—’

Wow. She knew immediately that the PADD contained what her Academy roommate would have called a ‘bodice ripper,’ a steamy story full of hyperbolic language—and rather explicit sex. Someone onboard—probably Lyndsay Ballard—had downloaded an adult romance novel from the ship’s database. B’Elanna smiled at the thought. She’d never read these kinds of stories herself. Well, except for the ones Linda, her roommate, used to leave lying around their dorm room. They’d always seemed so silly and melodramatic. Not something a serious engineering student would waste her time with.

B’Elanna quickly advanced the story by several paragraphs.

‘Roberto stood before her in the moonlight, no longer encumbered by clothing, the dew glistening in the amber hair of his sculpted chest. When he reached for her, she could see that he was ready to claim her as his lover, his prize. His throbbing muscle was fully erect as he—’

The lift doors opened and Tuvok stepped inside. “Deck 6,” he said, before turning in her general direction. “Lieutenant,” he acknowledged B’Elanna flatly.

Great. Of all the times to get stuck in a turbolift with a telepath. B’Elanna forced herself to mentally review the schematics of the warp core as she answered him. “Good evening. Or, um, good morning, actually. I mean, it is after midnight, so technically… I mean, um, hello.”

Wonderful. Nothing at all suspicious about that little greeting. Tuvok’s brows lifted slightly higher in what B’Elanna considered the Vulcan equivalent of an eye-roll. He didn’t say anything, though, and she was grateful.

He also didn’t bother to acknowledge her when the lift stopped and the doors opened. B’Elanna waited until they closed again, then sighed before beginning to laugh. She shook her head at her own silliness, her cheeks still crimson from the embarrassment of almost getting caught reading a trashy novel.

Once inside her quarters, she tossed the PADD onto her bed and stripped off her uniform. Deciding a shower could wait for the morning, she opened her dresser and pulled out her favorite pajamas—maroon velour, with cozy leggings and an oversized top. They covered her from neck to ankles and, while they kept her warm, they suddenly seemed a little…utilitarian.

B’Elanna tucked the pajamas back in the wardrobe and closed it, moving down to the drawer beneath. She rooted around behind her leather vest and suede pants—clothes she hadn’t worn since her days as a Maquis. Her fingers brushed the satiny fabric and she knew she’d found it.

She pulled it out and held it up: a short, red nightgown with thin strings for straps that she’d won from Seska in a game of poker on the Liberty. She’d never worn it—somehow dressing provocatively for an audience of no one seemed a little ridiculous. But tonight she realized she had an overwhelming urge to have that silky fabric against her body, to let herself feel like a woman instead of just an engineer. Besides, who would know?

It was cool to the touch, and tickled her skin as she slipped it over her head. She walked into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Immediately, she noticed all the things she hated about her body: her shoulders were too broad, her legs were too short, and life aboard ship had washed out all of the color from her skin…

She closed her eyes, and tried again.

When she opened them, she let herself see how the nightgown flattered her. Its low-cut neckline followed the curve of her breasts, invisible seams tucking it in just the right spots to accentuate her tiny waist. The hemline caught her mid-thigh, and she let herself appreciate her toned, muscled legs. So what if she was short? So what if her body reflected the hard workout it got crawling around an engine room every day? Tonight, she’d let herself feel pretty. She took one last look at herself, then shut off the light.

She crawled into bed and picked up the PADD. This was ridiculous, she knew. These stories were insipid—most barely had a plot. Besides, she wasn’t the kind of person who read these things. They were for the Jenny Delaney’s of the world: hopeless romantics, people who couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Still….

‘Roxanna felt his eyes piercing her soul with his very glance, as his icy fingers traced slow circles around her nipples—’

This was so silly. Who wrote this stuff?

‘Her entire body trembled at his touch, and a fire she’d thought long extinguished once again burned inside her. She wondered how she had survived without his kisses for so long. And she knew, then, that she needed to feel him fill her with his long, thick—’

Someone had to have adjusted the environmental controls in her quarters, B’Elanna suddenly thought. Here she was in this skimpy little nightgown, and the room was starting to feel unbearably warm. She realized, then, that her face was flushed, and her skin was tingling.

She kicked off her covers, adjusted her pillows, then went back to the story. Somehow, she wasn’t tired anymore. And she was suddenly very curious to see exactly what Roberto was about to do to Roxanna…

~*~*~*~*~

“We’re flying in circles.” Harry was pointing to an animated display on the briefing room viewscreen. “I spent the morning verifying the data from the survey mission and there’s no doubt about it. The background radiation and the stray magnetic fields are so high they’re throwing off the navigational sensors. They keep detouring us around stellar phenomena that aren’t even there.”

From her seat between Tom and Tuvok, B’Elanna watched as the captain closed her eyes. “How much time have we lost?”

She saw Harry look at Tom before answering. “Almost a week—if the simulations we ran this morning are right.”

Janeway rested her temples against her fingers in a move the entire senior staff recognized as the precursor to one of her headaches. “Recommendations?” she asked.

Torres was wishing that she had one, just as Chakotay turned his chair to face her. “B’Elanna, how long would it take to modify a shuttlecraft to filter out the interstellar noise from the real data?”

She had to think about it for a second. “I’m not sure. The readings from the Cochrane don’t seem to be as distorted as the ones stellar cartography took this morning. The shuttles use a less complex navigational algorithm since they’re only intended for short-range flying; that may account for the difference.” She did a series of calculations in her head. “Assuming it can be done at all, I’d guess a week. Maybe a little more.” She still wasn’t sure what he was getting at.

“And to make those same modifications to Voyager?”

Suddenly the light went on. “At least three weeks. So if we focus on getting the shuttle ready…”

Tom finished her thought, “…we can send out a survey team to gather enough good data to help us plot a course out of this mess while we work on upgrading our main navigational sensor array.”

Janeway nodded. “And we only waste one more week instead of three.” For the first time since the briefing started, Torres saw her captain smile. “B’Elanna, you and Harry get started on it right away.”

She also saw a look pass between Voyager’s command team as the captain turned to face her first officer. “Well, it was your idea, Commander,” she said almost playfully. “So I say it’s your mission. Why don’t you give the lieutenant and ensign a hand.”

Torres watched her friend smile in an unguarded way he seemed to reserve only for Kathryn Janeway. “I’ll get right on it,” he said.

B’Elanna wondered sometimes what the real story was between the two of them, but she knew better than to ask. Chakotay was an intensely private man, and his love life had always been officially off-limits. Oh, she and all the other Maquis had known all about his fling with Seska, but only because Seska had worn him like a trophy. But the other women—his old friend Sveda, that Bajoran arms smuggler, the Betazoid bartender on the Yarish colony—B’Elanna knew there were stories there, ways in which these women had wormed themselves into Chakotay’s heart or bed. She knew better than to ask outright…and yet she always seemed to sense when it ended badly. So, whenever she could tell that her friend’s heart had been trampled, she made a point of staying close by. She’d be there to distract him, to help him pick up the pieces.

Yet, where Kathryn Janeway was concerned, all bets were off. There was an electricity between them, but their relationship was as guarded as it was warm. And, ever since New Earth, it was clearly more than professional—that was an open secret, at least among the senior staff. Still, no one knew how intimate their friendship had become, and she hoped Chakotay knew what he was doing. Falling in love with a starship captain was usually an invitation to a broken heart.

“Well,” Janeway said, her headache clearly averted, “let’s get to work, shall we? B’Elanna, you and Harry do whatever it takes to make those modifications—we’ve wasted enough time and I’m anxious to ‘get back on the open road.’ Dismissed.”

B’Elanna knew what this meant. From the look on his face, so did Tom. “Well, there goes lunch. And I guess we won’t be testing the coaster tonight,” he said, a little sadly, as they stood up. He looked tired, she noticed, wondering if he’d gotten any sleep after his away mission.

She was disappointed, too. “Sorry. I’ll call you if we finish early.” Not that either of them thought there was a prayer of that happening.

Tom nodded. “Don’t worry about it. I have another project I’m kind of in a hurry to finish. So, I’ll see you…whenever,” he said, then headed out the door and onto the bridge.

When B’Elanna turned around, she saw Chakotay waiting for her. He had an unreadable look on his face. “What?” she said as she led him into the aft corridor and toward the turbolift.

“I didn’t say anything, B’Elanna.” Except with his eyes, she noted. That overprotective frown was worth a thousand words. Except that he wasn’t exactly frowning. In fact, he looked a little sympathetic, and she wished she could figure out if she was right—if he was manipulating the duty roster to keep her and Tom from spending time alone.

“If it helps any, this isn’t how I planned to spend Christmas Eve, either,” he finally said. The lift doors opened and they stepped inside. “Shuttlebay.” Then he smiled. “But look on the bright side: we’ll probably be too busy to go to Neelix’s ‘Yuletide Bahamas Barbecue Blast.’”

Despite herself, B’Elanna smiled. “And you know how much I love a good party,” she said drolly.

Chakotay’s expression changed at her comment. He suddenly looked like a man who was doing a pretty bad job of keeping a secret. “What?” she finally asked.

“It’s nothing,” he answered, smiling. The lift doors opened before she could press the point. “Let’s get to work.”

B’Elanna followed him down the corridor, wondering why she couldn’t find just one man in her life who wasn’t impossible to figure out.

~*~

Tom knew the music was too loud—and off the mark—the second he walked into the holodeck. A steel drum version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ was more than incongruous—it was downright wrong. And while he admired the effort Neelix put into planning these ‘cultural exchange’ holiday celebrations, he wished his friend had bothered to ask for some help from someone who’d actually been to Earth before.

He gave their morale officer credit for trying, but he suspected the theme had as much to do with a new recipe Neelix wanted to try as it did with any real Caribbean holiday custom. To make it worse, the weather in the resort was as hot as ever, and the decorations were a hodgepodge of crepe paper stockings, misshapen pine trees, and a rotund bearded man in madras shorts and sandals. Nothing about the program felt like Christmas.

Normally, Tom would have gotten a good laugh from seeing a Terran celebration through Talaxian eyes, but this night it only depressed him. Maybe it was just his disappointment, he realized. He’d planned a nice, quiet, private dinner to give B’Elanna her present—a plan that was immediately ruined by Chakotay’s brilliant idea for solving their sensor problems. And while he knew this time it wasn’t some ploy to keep him from B’Elanna, it still ruined his evening. Here it was, Christmas Eve, and both of his best friends would be working all night.

The distraction of the party was better than sitting alone in his quarters, though, and he was determined to make the best of it. After grabbing a bizarrely fruity Tropical Eggnog, he scanned the room for someone to talk to, finding mostly security guards, relief pilots, and scientists—the engineers were being kept busy in the shuttlebay and on the sensor relays.

Tom caught sight of a few of his friends, and considered going over to join them. Jenny and Megan Delaney were taking turns baby dancing with Naomi Wildman, Sam was laughing at a story the Doctor was telling, and Neelix was apparently getting a lecture on the subtleties of Christmas traditions from a very unhappy Captain Janeway. Tom wasn’t really in the mood to talk to any of them.

He took a moment to look out over the water, and noticed Kes sitting by herself at the end of the dock. He dumped what was left of his drink in a potted palm before heading over to join her.

“Is this seat taken?” he asked, pointing at the empty space next to her on the pier. “Or would you rather be alone?”

She smiled, but Tom could tell that something was wrong. Kes was lousy at hiding her feelings; something was clearly on her mind. “I’d love the company,” she said quietly. “Especially yours.”

Tom took the invitation and sat down next to her. “Some party,” he said ambiguously. “Not exactly like the Christmases I remember as a kid.”

Kes smiled, but the wistful expression never left her. “I don’t recall celebrating this holiday before,” she said. “I wonder why that is?”

Her question made Tom think back on the two other Decembers he’d spent aboard Voyager, and it didn’t take much reflection to figure out why those celebrations had been low-key enough to have seemed non-existent. The previous year, Christmas had fallen just a few weeks after the ship was split in two—after Harry had been sucked out a hull breech and killed, before his duplicate was miraculously returned to them. Each deck, each major system had been badly damaged, too, and everything had been rationed until the repairs were finished—including their time off.

The year before…well, Voyager had only been lost for a few months, and the crew’s hopes of sending messages home to their families via a Romulan scientist had just been dashed. No one really felt much like celebrating back then. Tom had also spent the week after Christmas on an away mission with Harry—a mission that ended with him being arrested, convicted, and punished for a murder he didn’t commit. For more than one reason, it was a time he didn’t like thinking about. He tried to push the memories out of his mind before answering her question. “I guess the timing was never right before. Now—hell—we’re stuck flying in circles in this damn expanse,” he joked. “What else is there to do except throw a party?”

Something he said seemed to hit a nerve with Kes, and she looked back out across the lake. Tom couldn’t figure out what he’d said to upset her.

He was just about to take a risk and pry when she sighed, then turned to face him. “Tom, do you ever wonder why we’re here? I don’t mean here on Voyager, but why we’re here at all, why we exist? What it all means?”

He sat up straight and thought carefully before answering her. “I’ve never been much of a philosopher, Kes,” he said gently. “But, sure. I think we all go through times where we think about those things. Why do you ask?”

She didn’t look at him as she answered. “I’ve been realizing… I’m over three years old now, and more than a third of my life is over. Soon I’m going to have to make some decisions about who I am. Who I want to be. There are days when I feel like I’m doing nothing except flying in my own ‘circles’ of a sort. I just don’t want to wake up one day and realize it’s all over and I haven’t done anything meaningful.”

Tom had never really given it much thought: what it must be like to live just nine short years. The idea was unnerving to him—he could barely imagine what it must be like for Kes.

“Well, have you been thinking about what you want to do, the things you’d like to accomplish?” He didn’t say, ‘before you die.’ He didn’t even want to think it.

She shook her head. “Not really. I know it won’t be long before the elogium begins—for real this time—and I’ll have to decide if I should have a child. Of course, now that Neelix and I aren’t…” Her voice trailed off, and a strange thought occurred to Tom. There was a time a few years earlier when he might have been thrilled at the thought of Kes and Neelix splitting up. And he wondered for a moment about what his life could have been like if he’d been free to pursue her back then. Would they have really gotten involved? Would he be sitting here with her now, having to make decisions about getting married or having a family? Would he have had to face the prospect of watching a woman he loved age and die right before his eyes while he stayed young in comparison? He’d never thought it through back then.

He had long since gotten over his crush on Kes. Looking back on it, he wondered if he’d just been thankful to find a woman who didn’t care about his reputation or his past—someone who was willing to see the best in him despite what everyone else thought. But had he really been in love with her? Somehow now he didn’t think so. Infatuated, sure. Grateful, maybe. Love, though…it was only recently that he’d begun to contemplate the real depth and meaning of that word.

Still, he could remember a time when all he could think of was Kes. It all seemed so foreign to him now. Like an alternate universe or someone else’s life.

Tom still cared about her, though, and had never stopped to think about the weight these kinds of life-altering decisions would carry for a person with such a short lifespan. He wondered—if he knew he only had six more years at most to live—if that would change everything. If every moment, every choice would seem urgent.

He leaned over and let his shoulder rest against hers. “You still have plenty of time, Kes. Just keep listening to your heart,” he said softly. “You’ll figure out what you need to do.”

She looked up at him and smiled sadly, then looked back across the water. They sat there together in silence for a few minutes before she turned back to face him. “You’re right. And I’m sorry I’m not very good company tonight,” she finally said. “Which reminds me, why aren’t you celebrating with B’Elanna and Harry?”

Tom was immediately jolted back to his own problems—which suddenly didn’t seem as important. “Big project in engineering,” he answered her. “They’re working double shifts until it’s done.”

A strange look came into Kes’s eyes—almost embarrassment—and she suddenly couldn’t seem to stop smiling.

“What?” Tom asked, nervously. He knew Kes had been working on her mental abilities with Tuvok, and he wondered if she’d suddenly got some kind of psychic flash. “It’s nothing. I just started thinking about B’Elanna and…well, does the name ‘Roberto’ mean anything to you?”

Tom’s eyes opened widely. “Not a thing,” he answered honestly, wondering what the hell that was supposed to mean and if he should be worried. As far as he knew, though, there was no Roberto on board.

Kes shook her head as if to shake the thought away, but she didn’t stop smiling. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said. “I just have a feeling that B’Elanna is thinking about you. Don’t ask me to explain why.”

Tom shrugged. “All right…” He was curious as hell, though, about what Kes had sensed from B’Elanna. Whatever it was, it seemed to snap her out of the funk she’d been in, and it was good to see such an unguarded smile from his friend. Her expression quickly changed, though, and—even though Tom was sure he didn’t have psychic powers—he knew where their conversation was about to head.

“So I take it things are going better between you two,” she said carefully. “Harry told me that you weren’t speaking for a while after, well, after what happened with Vorik.”

Tom began to wonder if there was anyone on board who didn’t know what had happened with Vorik.

“Things are fine,” he answered, hoping it was true. “Though where B’Elanna is concerned, I know what you mean about ‘flying in circles.’ I’m not sure where we’re headed most of the time.”

“Do you know where you’d like to head?” Kes asked.

It was a question Tom couldn’t really bring himself to answer. “No. Yes.” He shook his head. “Some days I think I do. I guess I’m not really sure.”

Kes looked at him thoughtfully. “That’s probably a strange feeling for a pilot. After all, how can you chart a course until you know where it is you want to end up?”

Tom wondered how Kes could make the most profound thing sound so simple. She was right: unless he set his mind on a destination in his relationship with B’Elanna, they could be left wandering aimlessly for the rest of their lives. And, while he wasn’t sure he knew what their final stop would be, he was pretty sure he could pinpoint the next few mile markers on their journey. The realization made him smile.

“How is it that I can’t stay in a bad mood when I’m around you?” he wondered out loud.

Kes smiled back at him. “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Tom got to his feet and held out his hand. “I’m getting hungry. We’d better go get something to eat before all that’s left is Neelix’s fruitcake.”

Kes let him pull her up, then walked with him back to the party. As they wandered back to their shipmates, Tom thought about what she had said about figuring out where he wanted his relationship with B’Elanna to go. And he decided that, after dinner, he’d chart a course for Deck 9 and deliver the Christmas present he’d finished that afternoon.

~*~

B’Elanna was exhausted and filthy. Working in a cramped shuttlecraft had taken a toll on her now-aching back and it was everything she could do to keep her eyes open. She considered crawling into bed fully dressed, but needed to get the smell of sweat off her before she could relax. She stripped off her clothes, leaving them like a trail of breadcrumbs from her front door to the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light as she went.

She set the sonic shower to pulse and let the sound waves massage the knot out of her shoulders—she could feel the tension melting away with the grime. Strangely enough, it was as invigorating as it was relaxing, and by the time the cycle had finished, she was practically wide awake.

Wrapping herself in a towel to keep warm, she wandered back toward her bedroom and started picking up after herself. When she turned to stuff her dirty uniform in the recycler, she caught a glimpse of something on her dining room table, glistening in the dim illumination from the bathroom. “Lights full,” she said, startled, pulling the towel tightly around her after realizing someone had been in her quarters.

She saw the box, then took a quick look around. The room was empty. One peek at the wrapping told her exactly who her surprise intruder was—not that it would have been hard to figure out. The bathroom light had been reflecting off a silver metallic bow, and the colorful paper was right out of 20th century America: Santa Claus and his reindeer riding a series of carnival rides, from a merry-go-round to a roller coaster to the Tilt-A-Whirl. B’Elanna took a kind of strange pride in the fact that she could now name just about everything in the entire amusement park.

It had been a long time since anyone had given her a Christmas present. Despite the fact that she was half-human, for the majority of her life everyone seemed to assume that a half- Klingon would never celebrate an Earth holiday, or even know Santa Claus from the Tooth Fairy. Yet B’Elanna knew them both, byproducts of a few happy years when she was first and foremost John Torres’s little girl.

Tom didn’t—couldn’t—know that. And he might have decided to leave the gift in some generic box. But, for whatever reason, he’d chosen a wrapping that reminded her what it felt like to see those presents under the tree of her grandmother’s house. This time the excitement was mixed with a bittersweet nostalgia.

She walked to the table and picked up the package, resisting the temptation to shake it. It wasn’t too heavy, but rattled a little when she moved it, and B’Elanna wondered what the heck it could be.

As a little girl, she’d been a notorious paper ripper, tearing off the bows and ribbons, then plowing through the wrapping. This time, though, she decided to slip them off carefully. Then she lifted the edges of the box and pulled back the tissue paper.

Folded inside was a long white satin party dress, strapless, with a full crinoline slip and an embroidered sheer jacket. She’d seen something like it in a movie once, though she couldn’t remember which one. It was the kind of dress you’d wear to a formal occasion—in 1950—and was a strange present for either a party in the mess hall or a day at a carnival. She knew she had to be missing something.

When she lifted the dress the rest of the way out of the box, she heard something hit the floor. It was a datapad—hopefully to explain the mystery she was holding in her other hand. She picked it up and flicked it on.

‘The pleasure of your company is requested at The Rainbow Room, Rockefeller Center, New York, New York, on Monday, December 31, 2373 at nine o’clock p.m. Please R.S.V.P. at your earliest convenience.’

It was signed, ‘Merry Christmas. Hope you can make it. T.’

B’Elanna stood there for a second looking at the screen. Part of her was excited—practically giddy at the idea of spending New Year’s Eve with Tom. On the other hand, it was one of those holidays that was laden with symbolism and meaning. After all, they weren’t even dating yet—not really—and to start with a private party on New Year’s Eve… What happened to taking things slowly?

The PADD suddenly beeped, and she noticed that a box marked ‘P.S.’ was now flashing at her. She touched it with her finger and the message scrolled forward. ‘I’ve invited a few friends to join us. Hope that’s okay.’

B’Elanna smiled. He’d obviously anticipated her reaction. She took a deep breath, walked to her desk, and opened a message file—then stopped. She needed to do more than just answer him; there was something else she had to do, too.

It only took her a few minutes of scanning, first in her personal files then in the historical database. With one or two quick presses of her display, she’d found the things she wanted and attached them to her reply. Then she encoded it for delivery and turned off her monitor.

She realized, then, that she was still holding the dress, and she carried it into the bathroom. Holding it up in front of her as she looked in the mirror, B’Elanna tried to imagine what she’d look like wearing it. It occurred to her, then, that she’d be eating Neelix’s cooking for another week if she wanted to save enough rations to replicate matching shoes.

Carrying the dress back to her closet, she hung it carefully inside, before digging out her new favorite satin nightgown from her wardrobe. She slipped it on, then realized her arms had goosebumps; spending the day overheated, then walking around half-naked after her shower, had dropped her body temperature, and she was chilled to the bone. For a minute, she considered changing into her ugly pajamas but decided instead to raise her cabin temperature. Just before she called out to the computer, though, she got another idea.

Rummaging through her bottom dresser drawer, she found a red-shouldered uniform jacket she’d hidden there over four months earlier. B’Elanna wondered if Tom had ever noticed it was missing. She couldn’t resist holding it up to her face, searching for a hint of his scent in the fabric. It was faint, but recognizable to her highly developed sense of smell.

She slipped the large jacket over her nightgown and pushed the sleeves up to her elbows. Her legs were still cold, but she didn’t care. She pulled the coat tightly around her, then walked back to the table. After throwing the box and tissue into the recycler, she carefully folded up the wrapping paper and tucked it inside her bottom dresser drawer. Then she finally climbed into bed.

She rolled over—and onto the hard casing of the PADD she’d left there the night before: Ballard’s steamy romance novel that she’d been reading before she fell asleep. For a moment B’Elanna considered finishing it, but she was exhausted and knew she needed to get some rest. Besides, it wasn’t Roberto she wanted to dream about that night. She rolled over and buried her face in the sleeve of Tom’s jacket and quickly drifted off.

~*~

Tom woke up just as he rolled face first onto the floor. He’d fallen asleep listening to Christmas carols on his couch, and was now grateful he’d kicked the coffee table far enough away to avoid smacking his head on it as he fell. It was a rude awakening, nonetheless, but he wasn’t sorry. Neelix’s buffet dinner had left a lot to be desired, and Tom’s stomach was now growling louder than the music which was still playing softly in the background.

He pulled himself off the floor and headed for the replicator—before catching sight of the blinking light on his monitor. He detoured to his desk and flicked on the screen. There was a message there from B’Elanna.

He waited for a second before reading it. Giving her the dress was a risk, he realized. It hinted at more than just a friendly evening in the holodeck, but he’d been careful to make things as low-pressure as possible…while still suggesting that they spend New Year’s Eve together in one of Earth’s most romantic settings. After all, as Kes had pointed out, he had to pick a direction and head in it if he ever hoped to get anywhere. Still…what if she said no? What if she felt like he was moving too fast and went running in the other direction? What if…?

He took a deep breath and touched the screen.

‘Hi, Tom. Sorry about dinner. I’m probably going to be tied up every night for the next week, so I can’t promise when we can reschedule. I’ve encrypted the carnival, though—don’t you dare try the coaster without me!

Oh, and I’m sending you a few files I thought you might enjoy. Maybe I’ll see you for a few minutes at breakfast tomorrow.

‘Night,
B.’

He let out an audible groan. Either she didn’t get the present, or she was going to great lengths to avoid mentioning it. In either case, this wasn’t a good sign about their…

The monitor beeped, and a small icon suddenly appeared with the letters ‘P.S.’

Tom quickly tapped the screen.

‘Oh, and the dress is beautiful. I’m really looking forward to seeing New York. Thanks for the invitation—and make sure Harry brings a date. I don’t want him dancing on my feet all night. Merry Christmas.’

He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and sighed. For the first time in ages, to beat Kes’s metaphor to death, he felt like maybe he and B’Elanna were shifting out of neutral.

The computer beeped again, reminding Tom of the attachments still to be viewed. He tapped the screen and could see that the first one was some kind of recipe, and the other was a file from the historical database. He routed the first to the replicator and walked over to get his present.

Sitting inside was a plate of Christmas cookies in the shapes of stars and comets that were still warm and smelled of cinnamon. Next to them was an ice-cold glass of milk.

He carried them back to the desk and accessed the other file. It was the holographic version of an old, two-dimensional Hollywood classic called ‘White Christmas’—a film he’d always wanted to see.

Tom realized, then, that as Christmas Eves went, this one hadn’t turned out so badly. “Computer, end audio playback,” he said, stopping the background music. Then he put his feet up on his desk, grabbed a cookie and started the movie.

~*~*~*~*~

It was a well-known fact that time was a relative construct. During the early 21st century, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University had won a Nobel Prize postulating that there existed both ‘universal’ time and ‘experiential’ time, that the consistent ticks of the clock could feel faster or slower depending on the activity you were engaged in at any given moment.

Hell, Tom thought, any five-year-old could have figured that out; after all, everyone knew that ‘time flies when you’re having fun.’ Of course, the reverse was true, too. Time crawled when there was nothing to do.

In the seven days since Neelix’s Christmas Eve party, Paris had seen B’Elanna exactly three times: once for five minutes at breakfast, once at a staff meeting in the briefing room, and once for an entire hour as they celebrated Harry’s birthday over a quick lunch in the mess hall the day before. Now it was coming up on 16:00 hours—the end of his duty shift—and time had pretty much come to a dead stop. Literally, whenever he checked the chronometer on his console, he half expected the clock to have moved backward.

He really wasn’t sure what was worse: being bored with nothing to look forward to, or being bored while waiting to spend New Year’s Eve at party he’d designed just for B’Elanna. Either way, there was only so much longer he’d be able to look at the static-filled sensor echoes of this damned empty expanse before losing what little was left of his mind.

At 15:59, he began squirming noticeably. “Patience is a virtue, Mister Paris,” he heard the captain say from behind him. It was a little unfair, Tom thought, that his station put him in constant view of the command team. He was just about to make an ill-timed remark, when he turned to see an ensign coming up behind him.

Tom repressed the urge to kiss Baytart when he realized he was there to relieve him. “Permission to be excused,” he asked unnecessarily, like a ten-year-old who wanted to leave the dinner table.

Janeway smiled. “Granted, for goodness’ sake. And don’t let that party start without me!”

Paris smiled at her as he double-timed his way to the turbolift, wondering how he’d kill another five hours before it started. “Deck 4,” he called his instructions to the lift just before hearing Harry’s voice coming toward him from Ops.

“Tom, wait up.” Kim jumped through the doors just before they closed. “I got the instructions you sent to my database. Are you sure about this?”

Paris rolled his eyes. “Harry, trust me. White tuxes with skinny lapels. It’s what they wore in the 1950’s. You should slick your hair back, too. You’ll look just like Cary Grant.”

You couldn’t be Tom’s best friend and not get the reference. The two men had watched everything from “Gaslight” to “North by Northwest” to “To Catch A Thief” before Harry had decided he needed a break from the constant barrage of old movies a year into their trip. “I don’t care if I look like Clark Gable—I’m not putting that stuff in my hair.”

Tom just snorted. “So who’s the lucky girl?”

Harry was suddenly preoccupied with the turbolift’s carpeting.

“Don’t tell me you couldn’t get a date! Geeze, Harry, what’s the big deal? You just walk up to Jenny Delaney and ask her out!”

Kim looked annoyed. “I don’t like Jenny! I’ve never liked Jenny. For the tenth time, I only went out with Jenny because you asked Megan first.” Then his expression turned sheepish. “I guess I just don’t have the Paris way with women.”

Considering the long string of rejections he’d faced—and the two-year-long battle to get one engineer to go on a real date with him—Tom found the comment downright laughable. Except that none of this was particularly funny. He was on the verge of having his best friend tag along with him and B’Elanna like a stray puppy all night. There was no way he could let that happen.

“Just be dressed and in Holodeck 1 by 21:00 hours. Don’t ask me how, but I’ll think of something.” Tom stepped into the Deck 4 corridor, not caring that they’d missed Harry’s floor. “And wear a red carnation in your lapel, for godssake. There’ll be some girl there looking for one on her blind date!”

Harry had started to object as he followed Tom out of the lift, but Paris shoved his friend back inside before the doors closed. ‘Great,’ Paris thought to himself. ‘Like worrying about my own love life wasn’t bad enough…’

He thought for a minute, then hit the button to call back the turbolift. Where could he go to find a woman lonely enough—or adventurous enough—to consider a blind date? Maybe if he started on Deck 15 and worked his way up…. As he headed off on his quest, he decided to be grateful for the distraction: at least now he knew how he’d be killing a good part of the next five hours.

~*~

B’Elanna hated being stared at. As a little girl, the sideways glances and whispered comments of other children had reminded her every day that she was different, that she didn’t fit in. Tonight, though, she knew she was attracting a different kind of attention—and, for a change, some part of her didn’t mind.

The dress was even prettier on her body than it had looked on the hanger, as if it had been custom designed to flatter her figure by someone who had memorized its curves. She remembered, now, where she’d seen the style before—the holographic version of an old Hollywood movie called ‘To Catch a Thief’ that Tom had once made her watch with him and Harry. It was right after they’d started working on the Warp 10 project, and they’d been wracking their brains to solve the nacelle fracture problem that kept dooming their plans. Tom convinced the two of them that they needed a night off to forget about warp mechanics, and they’d met in Harry’s quarters for dinner and a movie. It was the first time they’d spent an evening together socially—just the three of them—as friends.

She’d barely known Tom back then. And much of what she assumed she knew had been wrong.

Thinking back on that night now, she remembered seeing Grace Kelly wearing a dress almost exactly like hers—and thinking that she could never pull off something so elegant. Yet here she stood, walking though Voyager’s corridors as if she owned them, in a gown that made her feel like a princess.

B’Elanna had done something else that would have once seemed unthinkable—she’d spent over an hour fixing her hair. Four different styles had come and gone as she experimented with it up, down, and in between. Ultimately, she’d settled on ‘down,’ with just a hint of a curl at her temples—the perfect mix of subtle and sophisticated, and very much in keeping with the historical period of her dress. At least that’s what she was aiming for.

She assumed she’d chosen well: three different crewmen had done double-takes as she made her way down the Deck 9 corridor. Thankfully none of them reported directly to her; as much as she was starting to enjoy her experiments with femininity, she also liked her reputation as tough-as-nails chief engineer. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being Cinderella on her way to the ball, though, and she just hoped her carriage wouldn’t turn into a pumpkin before she’d had a least one dance with Prince Charming. Or was she mixing up her fairytales?

She barely had a moment to think about it. As B’Elanna started to step inside the turbolift, she heard the thud-thud-thud of heavy footfalls on the carpet behind her, and she turned around to see Lyndsay Ballard running down the corridor at a full-out sprint. The ensign was wearing a pretty but ill-fitting yellow dress and carrying a pair of spiky high-heeled shoes in her hand. “Lieutenant, hold the lift!” she hollered as she ran.

Ballard was practically hyperventilating as she caught up to her boss, and B’Elanna was unnerved for a minute. “Catch your breath, Ensign,” she said, still a little startled. “You made it.” The doors closed behind them and Torres called for Deck 6.

It was clear immediately that Voyager’s chief engineer wasn’t the only one experimenting with dressing like the 1950’s version of a woman. “This get-up makes me look like an idiot,” Ballard said, blushing, “and these shoes are some kind of medieval torture device. You can tell they were designed by a man.” B’Elanna opened her mouth to agree, but was quickly cut off. “I can’t believe I let Lieutenant Paris talk me into this!”

There was a time when that kind of comment would have thrown B’Elanna into a paranoid tailspin. For the moment, though, she decided to hang onto her composure until she could figure out what was going on. “Tom talked you into coming to his party?” she asked. “Or did he just talk you into wearing those shoes?”

Ballard began blinking frantically. “Oh, uh, no. I mean, yes—he talked me into coming tonight. Bribed would be a better word, actually. He said if I’d go on a blind date with one of his friends that he’d write me an ice skating holoprogram and give me enough rations for new skates. I mean, how could I say no to that?”

It was all starting to make sense now. “So, did he tell you who this ‘friend’ of his was? The one who couldn’t find his own date?” As if B’Elanna didn’t already know.

The ensign didn’t look too worried. “Nope. I’m just crossing my fingers that it isn’t Vorik—or that creepy little guy from security. You know, the short one who kind of looks like a monkey.”

B’Elanna laughed—and she realized she knew nothing about this young woman who had worked in her section for over three years. Well, except that she was chronically late for duty and read smutty romance novels in the mess hall. She was starting to like what she saw, though: a funny, fearless, ballsy broad. “Ensign Molina—the ‘monkey’ man,” she filled in the blanks. “Though I don’t recommend you call him that to his face. Besides, you know, I don’t think you have to worry about being stuck with either him or Vorik tonight.”

Ballard shrugged and blew her shaggy brown bangs out of her eyes. “Sorry. I mean, I’ve only been on the alpha shift for, what, a month?—after three years on gamma. I don’t know half the people I see at breakfast—and when I’m having dinner, all my friends are still in bed!”

B’Elanna smiled at the young engineer, and she thought about the datapad she’d found lying on the mess hall table. Was this why Ballard had spent the night reading romance novels while she ate—because she was lonely and didn’t know anyone on the alpha shift she could have dinner with? If so, that could be fixed pretty easily if everything went according to Tom’s totally transparent plan. After all, the rumor was that Lyndsay and Harry had been friends back at the Academy.

Of course, that begged another question: had their friendship ended badly? It certainly didn’t seem as if Ballard considered asking Harry to dinner and B’Elanna had never once seen the two of them together. In either case, it made for a potentially interesting New Year’s Eve. She decided to keep her mouth shut and watch how it all played out. “Somehow I can’t see you having trouble making new friends, Ensign,” she said. “Maybe even your mystery man.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” Ballard said, sincerely. “And if not, there’s an old friend I’ve been meaning to catch up with now that we’re on the same schedule. Maybe he can help me ditch the loser I’m getting fixed up with—then we can plot my revenge on Lieutenant Paris together.”

Gee, B’Elanna wondered, should she admit now that the ‘loser’ Ballard was referring to and the old friend she’d wanted to catch up with were almost certainly the same guy? Or that he and the lieutenant she’d be plotting her revenge against were two of B’Elanna’s best friends? Nah. But she did decide to make one suggestion. “We’re off duty—you’d better get used to calling him Tom. I have a feeling you’re going to be spending a lot of time with him and his…friend tonight.”

Ballard smiled. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll remember that.”

“B’Elanna,” Torres said, grinning back at her. “How about if—just for tonight—you call me B’Elanna.”

~*~

1950’s New York was a sophisticated place—at least in comparison to the rest of America at the time—and its nightspots and restaurants were legendary. But it was also a city in transition. The country was still recovering from its huge casualties in the second World War, and a whole generation of ‘baby boomers’ was heading out of diapers and into kindergarten. At least on the surface, it was an innocent and optimistic era, when every enemy could be defeated, the good guy always won, and the girl next door was just waiting to be swept off her feet. Soon, the United States would leave the elegant simplicity of those post-war years—and take its first steps into the rock and roll era. It was a romantic time full of energy and history—and great music. It was a time Tom Paris had started to identify with.

And while he had hardly finished the transition from cynic to optimist, he was sensing new possibilities for himself both professionally and personally. Tom was almost, well, happy—for the first time in his adult life, and was about to end the year a different man than he’d been when it had started. He was more than ready to move on.

Whether he’d be able to do that or not depended in large part on a woman who was now officially thirty seconds late.

He took a look around at his handiwork. Luckily the historical records on this place were pretty detailed; even with all of the art deco styling and elaborate ornamentation, it had been a pretty easy program to write. The Rainbow Room had been a New York landmark, perched high atop the fabled Rockefeller Center. Its bandstand and revolving dance floor were ringed with plush booths for six to ten guests, with the occasional tables for two or four tucked into strategic, secluded corners. The restaurant also had a sweeping panorama of the ever-changing New York skyline, which in this era, featured the historic Empire State Building. In the crisp, cold December evening, you could almost see the entire city—and the view was breathtaking.

Tonight, they’d be dancing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra—minus its leader, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances during the war, and Tom watched as holographic musicians took their seats. His ‘guests’ were starting to arrive, too, and he resisted the temptation to pace the floor as he waited for the only one who really mattered.

He turned back toward the bandstand and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirrored wall: white tuxedo, black tie, a white carnation in his lapel—and his hair tamed ever so slightly with a dab of something called Brylcream. He looked, well, dashing if he did say so himself.

Tom checked the vintage watch at his wrist: 9:02. He started compulsively tapping his foot as he kept a close eye on the entrance.

“How in the heck are you supposed to tie this thing?” He turned around to see Harry, dressed as ordered in a baggy white tux, his hair slicked back—and a red carnation tucked into his buttonhole. Only one thing spoiled the picture: the two flaps of black fabric hanging loosely around his neck.

Tom shook his head and started to come to his friend’s rescue. Before he could, though, he heard a sultry voice from behind him. “Allow me, Mister Paris.”

The men turned to see Kathryn Janeway, in a knee-length sequined cocktail dress—that wasn’t at all accurate for the period—but which showed off what Humphrey Bogart would have called her ‘great gams’. She walked over to Harry and started wrapping the fabric end over end. “My parents loved to go ballroom dancing at a 20th century nightclub in Chicago. Mother always had to do this for Daddy, though,” she said a little wistfully. “She used to tease him that a Starfleet admiral ought to be able to tie his own bow tie.” Janeway pulled the two ends neatly, then made sure it wasn’t crooked. “You gentlemen look very handsome tonight.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Harry said, sheepishly. “So do you—I mean, you’re looking lovely this evening.”

Janeway seemed to blush for a second, and Tom noticed that she immediately changed the subject. “This is quite impressive, Mister Paris. I’ve seen photographs of this era and you seem to have captured it perfectly. It must have taken you hours to write.”

Tom could see Chakotay walking up behind her. “I can vouch for the fact that he lost some sleep over it,” the commander joked. “But it looks like it was worth the effort.” He smiled at the captain, then looked out over the crowd gathering around them. “It looks like everyone from the alpha shift is here.”

“Not everyone,” Tom blurted out before realizing he’d betrayed himself. He smiled and tried to cover, “Harry’s blind date hasn’t made her appearance yet.” The captain’s eyebrows raised and Harry blushed, but Tom was quickly distracted by the vision in white satin that had just walked in. “Excuse me,” he said without acknowledging the others, then he made a beeline for the door.

~*~

Harry quickly made his excuses too—Chakotay wondered if it was to go and hide from his fix-up date—and the captain and first officer were left alone to watch Tom practically run over to B’Elanna’s side.

“Do you think they’ve realized it yet?” Kathryn asked.

Chakotay smiled. “I don’t know. Tom maybe. But B’Elanna…she never lets anyone get too close. I think it’ll be a while before she’s ready to admit it—even to herself.” He turned away from the door and looked into Kathryn’s eyes. “Confessing that you’re in love with someone is a pretty terrifying thing.”

She nodded and looked back at him for a moment, her expression pained despite the smile on her face. He knew the memory that was playing through her mind: a warm summer night in the portable shelter that had become their home. Even though he regularly promised himself to let it go—to let her go—he doubted he ever really would. Especially not if she kept looking at him that way.

“Well, shall we find ourselves a table?” she finally asked.

Chakotay let her lead the way, but took a quick glance over his shoulder at the two young lieutenants now talking at the door. Watching them, he felt a twinge—the way, he thought, a big brother might feel seeing his baby sister go off to the prom. It was more than that, though. He knew B’Elanna was on the verge of letting down the walls she’d so carefully built to protect herself. Part of him was happy to see her finally start to let someone in. But if she miscalculated, and got her heart broken…

He couldn’t help it; some part of him just wasn’t ready to blindly trust Tom Paris. Not yet.

His own heart—well, that was another matter.

~*~

Tom had forced himself to stay composed, to walk the ten meters to the door instead of run, but he could feel his heart racing nonetheless. “Hi,” he blurted out. “Nice dress.”

B’Elanna smiled a little nervously, but he could tell from her confident stance that she really did like it. “Thanks. It was a Christmas present…from a friend.”

He grinned back at her. “A friend with excellent taste, I’d say.” He was transfixed; he’d imagined her wearing this dress in an ongoing series of romantic fantasies and late-night dreams. Seeing her in it, finally… “You look beautiful,” he heard himself whisper.

Tom could feel the incredibly strange sensation of time both standing still and rushing forward. And even though it had only been a few weeks since he promised to take their friendship slowly, it was everything he could do not to pull her into his arms and kiss her.

She seemed to get caught up in the moment, too—before they both heard the distinctive sound of someone clearing her throat. Tom realized, then, that B’Elanna hadn’t been standing alone at the door. Her cheeks turned pink as she nodded to the woman at her side. “So, Ensign Ballard—Lyndsay—was telling me that you made a special point of inviting her tonight. And that you picked out her dress, too…”

Tom froze for a minute—she didn’t think that…she couldn’t really believe he’d…the twinkle in B’Elanna’s eye gave her away just as Ballard chimed in. “So where is this mystery date with the red carnation? And is he human, Vulcan—or simian…”

The two women laughed out loud—clearly a private joke—and Tom wondered what the hell they were talking about. “Human—well, and part chicken, which I think may explain why I can’t find him.” He turned around and scanned the room before catching a glimpse of Harry talking to Lang and Molina over by the bar. “Ah, ha! Right this way, ladies.”

He held out his arm—and B’Elanna took it—then led the women across the crowded dance floor. When they got to the bar, both Harry and Molina turned around. “There you are,” Tom said. “There’s someone here I want you to meet.”

Just then he realized that the red carnation was missing from Harry’s lapel—and was now tucked behind Alissa Lang’s left ear. He could also see that B’Elanna and Ballard’s eyes were practically bulging out of their heads.

Ballard quickly pulled him aside. “Lieutenant Paris, um, Tom, you know I really appreciate the gesture, but I’m, um, well…I mean, she’s a very attractive woman, but, um, I don’t…I think you might have misunderstood about my…”

Tom just shook his head and pulled her back to the group. He grabbed the flower from Lang’s hair and quickly tucked it back into Harry’s jacket.

“Hey!” Lang said, rubbing her ear.

Tom handed Alissa Harry’s drink, smiled an apology, and herded his friends away from the bar. “Ensign Ballard, I’d like you to meet…”

“Hello, Harry,” Ballard said, cutting him off.

Tom watched Kim’s cheeks turn about ten shades of pink before settling into a nice, glowing red. “Hello, Lyndsay. Don’t tell me that you’re…”

“Your blind date?” she asked. She shot a look at Tom, then to B’Elanna—who nodded almost imperceptibly. “It looks like maybe I am.”

Tom was confused. “You two know each other?” He could see B’Elanna looking like the cat who just swallowed a canary.

Ballard smiled. “Harry and I are old Academy buddies, aren’t we Harry?”

Tom had never seen his best friend look so rattled. Well, maybe once—when that Enaran engineer was onboard. That didn’t make any sense, though. Harry had fallen head over heels for that woman. He couldn’t be…at the Academy he was…he wasn’t involved with…what about Libby? He suddenly wondered if he knew Harry Kim at all.

He took another look at the stammering man in front of him. “Yep,” Kim was trying to force out. “Old Academy buddies.”

Tom just shook his head and sighed. “Well, then…maybe we should find our seats and you two can catch up on old times.” He turned around and snapped his fingers. In a second a plump, older man with graying hair, spectacles, and kind eyes appeared at their side. “Carl, can you show my two guests here to my table? And bring us a bottle of champagne.”

The waiter nodded. “Yes, Monsieur Tom,” he blustered with a French-twinged German accent. “Follow me.”

As soon as Harry and Lyndsay were out of earshot, Tom turned back to B’Elanna. “Did you know that they already knew each other?”

She just shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe he was even asking. “Harry’s mentioned her name a few times in passing—don’t you listen when he talks to you? And Joe Carey told me they were in the same classes at the Academy. I never really made anything of it before.”

Tom had to stop and wonder what she meant by that crack about not listening to Harry. Of course he listened…didn’t he?

B’Elanna took a step closer to him as she watched the two ensigns being led to a table in front of the panoramic window. “Did you see the look on his face when he saw her, though?”

“Which look? The ‘scared to death’ look or how he practically started to drool when he caught a glimpse of her in that dress?” Tom absentmindedly wiped his own mouth.

They laughed, then B’Elanna got a strange look on her face. “I think this could be a good thing for Harry. He’s seemed a little lonely lately, and since you and I have been…so busy with the carnival…I mean, who knows? Maybe he’s finally found the right woman.”

Tom couldn’t stop staring into her eyes. “Lucky, Harry,” he said softly.

The air became thick around them, and Tom could sense that something was changing about their interaction. Their ‘friendship’ was once again turning electric, and there were currents and undercurrents in every look and word. He let himself enjoy the moment before smiling and extending his arm again. “We’d better join them, don’t you think? I mean, I’m curious to see how this blind date turns out.”

B’Elanna breathed in deeply before wrapping her hand under his elbow, and Tom watched her breasts rise and fall with her dress. His arm instantly started to tingle where she held it. “Me, too,” she said softly. Then he led her through the crowd.

As they passed the bandstand, the music was too loud to talk over, and Tom let his mind race. In some ways, it felt like his relationship with B’Elanna had been playing out in slow motion for as long as he could remember. Yet, in other ways, he knew things had really changed—finally and for the better. There was no danger, for instance, that she would go off and sit with Vorik at the last minute. No chance that she’d get the wrong idea about his being interested in someone else. And no matter what she called it, she was clearly his date for the evening.

In a way, Tom knew she’d given him tacit permission to pursue her. He also knew, though, that it would have to be low-speed chase.

It only took them a minute to find their table—and Tom groaned to see Harry and Lyndsay sitting across from each other. Clearly no one had ever explained the ‘boy-girl-boy-girl’ rule to Ensign Kim. But, while it ruined his plans to sit next to B’Elanna, at least he would have an excuse to look at her all night.

Tom held out her chair, then helped her push it in before moving to the other side of the table. “So,” he said, drawing out the vowel, “how is it possible that we’ve been on this ship together for three years and I’ve never seen you two together? I mean, if you’re ‘old Academy buddies?’” Harry looked like he might kill him, but that was the price his friend paid for keeping secrets.

Lyndsay smiled. “Well, I was on gamma shift until Lieutenant Torres—B’Elanna—rescued me a few weeks ago. Besides, Harry dumped me in the middle of our junior year, didn’t you, Harry?”

Tom had never seen his best friend’s eyes open so wide, and he almost spat out the water he’d started drinking. “Dump you? I…I never…I mean…”

Ballard was grinning, clearly enjoying the teasing she was giving. “You’re right, it wasn’t just me you dumped. As I recall, you dumped all your friends once you met ‘Miss Clarinet Concert.’ Suddenly, you weren’t sleeping in the dorm any more. I think Mooney McAllister was afraid he’d flunk spatial geometry that semester without you home to tutor him. But how could we fight true love?”

Harry was wiping his chin with his napkin and B’Elanna nodded knowingly. “So you knew Libby?” Tom wondered if she was stirring up trouble or if she was genuinely trying to unravel the mystery of young Ensign Kim’s love life.

Lyndsay smiled. “Not really. But I knew Harry. And he lit up like a sparkler whenever she was around. Of course, she never really gave me the time of day.” The conversation suddenly seemed awkward, as if they were speaking ill of the dead. Except that, as far as Libby was probably concerned, it was Harry who had died.

Things were starting to make sense, now. Lyndsay and Harry and been friends—just friends—at the Academy, and somehow his romance with Libby had driven a wedge between them. Still, Tom knew Harry Kim, too—there was more to the story, at least from Harry’s perspective.

“So, how about you two?” Ballard said to Tom, changing the topic. “How long have you and B’Elanna been seeing each other?”

It was Kim’s turn to smile.

Tom instantly went to yellow alert, and waited for B’Elanna to overreact. But she didn’t. She just sat there looking at him as she answered Lyndsay’s question. “Tom and me? Oh, we’re just…old Maquis buddies. Isn’t that right, Tom?”

He tried to bite back a grin that threatened to encompass his whole face. “Oh, um, sure, right.” He took a sip of his water. “Of course, B’Elanna wouldn’t give me the time of day back then either. She was too wrapped up in ‘Mister Leftovers’—that was your pet name for Mario, wasn’t it?”

She smiled and shook her head so subtly that only he would notice. “It was a long time ago,” she said. “A lifetime…”

The conversation had taken a turn for the weird, and Tom wondered what made her bring up the Maquis. Still, she hadn’t really denied that they were seeing each other. Was this a step forward?

Tom decided to take the opportunity the conversation presented. “Well, I’d like to make a toast,” he said, indicating the full champagne glasses Claude had left for them. He picked up his glass and looked into B’Elanna’s eyes. “To renewing old acquaintances.”

He saw a look pass between Harry and Lyndsay as they raised their glasses. “Here, here,” Ballard said confidently.

B’Elanna just smiled and clinked her glass to his. “Cheers,” she said softly.

Lyndsay looked at the empty table in front of her, then at Tom. “Now, what’s for dinner—I’m starving!”

~*~

Dinner in a 1950’s ballroom wouldn’t have been B’Elanna’s idea of the perfect evening—until now. While she didn’t really know much about this time period, the music was interesting, the clothes were beautiful and the company…well, the company was pretty much perfect, too.

Lyndsay Ballard had turned out to be a spunky, funny, likable woman, and her presence seemed to bring Harry out of his shell. The two clicked together, reconnecting as if they still lived across the hall from each other, as if no time had passed in their friendship. There stories about life in the Academy dorms were funny and B’Elanna wondered, had she been housed in their building, if she might not have quit so soon. She was still a little confused about how Libby fit into this picture, but she could tell Harry had been—and still was—over the moon for his old ‘buddy’.

They’d just finished dinner when Tom caught B’Elanna’s attention, and played a little eyeball-tennis across the table. She almost laughed as he looked back and forth from the babbling Lyndsay to the grinning Harry; it was clear he could see it, too.

So it surprised her, then, when Tom stood up and held out his hand to Harry’s date. “Hey, a Fox Trot! Lyndsay, come dance with me.”

Harry seemed a little startled when she accepted without hesitation. “Only if you promise to let me stand on your feet. I have no idea how to Fox Trot!”

Tom smiled. “Just hang on and let me lead,” he said as he took her hand and started to drag her away. As he passed B’Elanna’s chair, she felt a sharp thud—he’d kicked the leg hard enough to make her jump. When she looked up at him, he nodded his head in Harry’s direction and opened his eyes wide.

‘Oh…right,’ she thought, instantly catching on to his little plan. “Come on, Harry,” she said, standing and pulling her friend to his feet. “I have no idea how a fox trots, but I’m game if you are.”

Kim just shrugged and followed her onto the dance floor. B’Elanna was careful to keep Tom and Lyndsay close by, but not so close that they could overhear each other’s conversations.

“Okay, spill it,” she said as she stepped into Harry’s arms.

“Spill what?” he asked. Sometimes the man could be as thick as a board. Or maybe he was just trying to avoid the question.

“Tell me how it is that you’ve had a crush on one of my engineers for six years, and yet I didn’t even know you knew her.”

Harry was blushing, hesitating. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re just friends. Old friends.”

Maybe it was the look on her face—B’Elanna knew exactly the expression to use to scare the pants off her easily-intimidated friend—but he blinked a few times then gave in. “Okay, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to tell Tom…”

~~

“Wow!” Ballard said as Tom pulled her back up from a rather low dip. “You’re a great dancer.”

He snorted. “You had to be in my family. It was a requirement of the job.” He let her spin away from him, then reeled her back in.

“You know, I failed your father’s survival class in my junior year,” she said out of nowhere. Somehow it always surprised Tom to realize how many of his shipmates had studied under the ubiquitous Admiral Paris. Luckily, most of them never mentioned it. Of course, in a way, he’d brought it up.

“Let me guess,” he said. “You hid a little jar of peanut butter in your pant leg so you didn’t have to eat ration packs?”

She laughed out loud. “No! But only because I didn’t think of it!” She turned her head and squinted at him. “Don’t tell me that you…”

Tom spun her away again. He really didn’t want to talk about it. “So what did you do?” he asked.

She blushed. “I got caught making out with Danny Byrd while we were supposed to be on guard duty. Admiral Paris dragged us back to the campsite and made us tell our entire team why we were all going to fail the course. It was so humiliating. Of course, Harry tried to stand up for us. He started…”

“Harry was in your class?” Tom interrupted her.

She seemed surprised that he would ask. “Yep. He made this big impassioned argument about how conserving body heat was a valid survival strategy. By the end of it, he’d actually convinced the Admiral not to fail the rest of them. I think he ended up getting the only ‘A’ in the class.” She looked a little wistful as she continued. “You know, I always thought maybe he missed his calling. Harry would have made a great lawyer.”

“Or a great son,” Tom whispered under his breath.

“What?” she said, trying to hear him over the music. He just smiled and shook his head.

He got quiet, then, and Lyndsay pulled back to look at his face. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

Tom pasted on a grin. “Never better,” he answered, twirling her one more time. Then he started scanning the dance floor for B’Elanna.

~~

Finally it was all making sense. B’Elanna wished she knew what to say.

“Well, maybe you’re getting a second chance. Maybe this time things will be different. I mean, Libby is on the other side of the galaxy. And Lyndsay’s right here.”

Harry didn’t seem convinced. “Look, she doesn’t think of me that way. We’re friends. Nothing more. I resigned myself to that a long time ago.”

“Alright,” B’Elanna said, wondering if she should encourage the relationship or let it be. She decided she probably wasn’t really qualified to give advice to the lovelorn. “But I think she’s good for you. And it’s nice to see you smiling again.”

“You, too,” Harry said before twirling her out—and right into Tom’s back.

She hit him hard enough that he stumbled forward—narrowly missing Lyndsay’s foot. “Gee, B’Elanna, most people just tap a guy on the shoulder,” he said as he turned and slipped his dance partner’s hand into Harry’s.

“Sorry, you two,” Tom said as he pulled B’Elanna away. “She gets mad if I don’t dance with her after she cuts in.”

B’Elanna slapped him on the arm—but let him lead her away. She waited until they were out of earshot before she spoke.

“So what did she say?” she asked quietly. Despite his joking, Tom seemed a little rattled, and she wondered if it was bad news.

“Well,” he said, whispering back at her, “Other than the fact that he found out in a public and humiliating way that she was fooling around with one of his best friends, I’d say their relationship was pretty good.”

B’Elanna sighed, then turned to make sure no one could hear. “I know. Junior year survival training—thank god I quit before that little nightmare.”

She watched a strange look play over Tom’s face, but he interrupted before she could ask what was wrong. “So where the heck does Libby come into the picture?” he asked.

B’Elanna waited as he spun her out and back. “They met at some concert that spring. The rest, as they say, was history.” She thought for a minute as they danced. “You know, I don’t think Lyndsay has any idea how Harry feels about her. Do you think it’s possible that someone could be madly in love with you for years and you wouldn’t even know it?”

She felt Tom’s palms start to sweat and she wondered if the dancing was tiring him out. Just then, the music changed from an upbeat dance tune to a slow, romantic ballad.

“I don’t know,” he said as he stood there holding her hand loosely. “What do you think?”

B’Elanna looked up into his eyes for a minute, then looked away. He let go of her hand and started toward their table, but she grabbed his arm gently and pulled him back to her.

“I think,” she said softly. “I think I’d like another dance.”

She rested her palms on his jacket. He took the cue and wrapped his arms around her. She slid her hands along his coat, one stopping on his upper arm as her other slipped into his fingers. She let her head fall against his chest as they began move in time to the music.

~*~

After the debacle of Neelix’s Christmas party, Captain Janeway had authorized Tom to use enough replicator rations to do New Year’s right, and he’d spared no ‘expense.’ But there was one treat he had saved for his own private party: a single bottle of real champagne, a Veuve Cliquot 2362, to open at midnight.

Leaving Neelix in charge of the official countdown ceremonies, Tom picked up the ice bucket, grabbed B’Elanna by the elbow and motioned for Harry and Lyndsay to follow him. They left through the holographic kitchen and climbed a small flight of stairs to the roof. Tom could hear the sounds of horns and noisemakers and the rumble of the thousands of people below them on the streets.

“What are we doing up here?” B’Elanna said, her teeth suddenly chattering even though the air was mild for a New York winter: an almost balmy six degrees. Tom took off his tux jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“We have to watch the ball drop in Times Square,” he said. “It’s a New Year’s Eve tradition.”

“Watch the ball drop?” Ballard said, rubbing her bare arms. Tom jerked his head in Harry’s direction until his friend caught on and took off his coat. It was unusual for ‘Mister Considerate’ to miss a move like that.

Tom turned around and searched the cityscape until he found it. One Times Square. ‘So what if you couldn’t actually see the ball drop from the roof of Rockefeller Center,’ he thought. Harry and B’Elanna would never know. “There it is,” he said, pointing at the glowing white orb off in the distance. “At ten seconds before midnight, the crowd will start the countdown and the ball will start sliding down the pole. When the countdown is over and the ball gets to the bottom, it’s the stroke of midnight. It’s a new year.” He didn’t mention what usually happened next. He didn’t want to risk it.

“Good,” he heard Harry mutter from behind him. “This one can’t end too soon to suit me.” Then his friend pulled Lyndsay over to where B’Elanna was looking out at the skyline. The three seemed fascinated at how far they could see into the distance and at the remarkable view of New York City at night.

Tom watched as they stood there laughing and talking. All things considered, this was turning out to be a nice night and he was feeling uncharacteristically introspective. Harry’s comment made him think back on all the turbulence in their lives during the past year, and it occurred to him that the more memorable things were the ones that had almost happened: almost leaving the Captain and Chakotay behind on New Earth, almost losing Voyager to Seska and the Kazon, almost dying with Harry in the Akritirian prison.

Actually, he’d been in jail twice in the past year—three times if you counted the metaphorical prison of his up and down relationship with B’Elanna. The word turbulent suddenly seemed like more than a bit of an understatement to describe the past twelve months.

Still, 2373 hadn’t been all bad. With only a few painful exceptions, Voyager’s crew had survived the trials thrown at them, and Tom’s rescue of the crew after the Kazon attack had permanently answered any lingering questions about his courage. He’d even gotten back to Earth for a few days, and spent some time in the real 20th century. In many ways, that trip had been a dream come true.

The memory made him think for a moment about Rain Robinson. It was less than four months earlier that he’d left her standing there on that dirt road, yet in so many ways it seemed like a lifetime. He thought, too, about lying on the beach that night, wondering what in the hell was going on between him and B’Elanna. Wondering—even for a moment—if he shouldn’t just give in to the invitation Rain was clearly making. He knew the answer even then.

Then there was Sakari. Sakari had changed everything.

Tom walked up behind B’Elanna and put his hands on her shoulders. “You still cold?” he asked, as if her chattering teeth weren’t a dead giveaway.

“I’m fine,” she said over her shoulder. “Besides, we’re only going to be out here for another minute or two…right?”

He checked his watch—which he’d been careful to synchronize with the dropping ball. “Actually, about another thirty seconds, I think.” He could feel her shivering as his hand fell back to her shoulder, and he took a subtle step toward her to block the cold wind. She responded by leaning ever go gently against him.

Harry and Lyndsay moved closer to them, and Tom watched her lean over the ledge to get a look at the street below. Harry let out a gasp and pulled her back by the hand. “Hey! You could fall!” he said nervously. Tom noticed, though, that he didn’t let go of her fingers.

Lyndsay just shook her head and laughed at him. “So, Harry,” she said evenly—though loud enough for them all to hear, “are you going to kiss me?”

Harry suddenly looked like he was staring into the light of an oncoming train. “Kiss you?”

“At midnight. It’s a tradition to kiss your date at midnight on New Year’s, isn’t it Tom?”

He noticed B’Elanna flinch beneath his hands as he answered. He was glad for the moment that he couldn’t see her expression. “Yep. Actually, it’s considered bad luck if you don’t.”

Lyndsay let her arm swing enough to pull Harry closer to her. Tom admired how comfortable she seemed with herself. And, despite their conversation on the dance floor, she was obviously flirting with Harry. “Well, now, you wouldn’t let me have a whole year of bad luck, would you?” she asked coyly.

Kim was smiling, relaxing under Lyndsay’s teasing, but Tom noticed that he didn’t answer. Instead, he seemed to tighten his grip on her hand.

B’Elanna, however, was tensing up. This had the potential to be awkward, Tom knew, and he decided he’d just stay in the moment and do whatever felt right at the time.

“Shhh!” Harry said, cocking his head to one side. “I think they’ve started the countdown.”

Tom checked his watch. Yep. In ten seconds, it would be midnight on the dot.

As they listened to the countdown—both from the street and the ballroom below them—Tom let go of B’Elanna’s shoulders and reached for the champagne. She turned around to watch him as he popped the cork quietly, without spilling a drop, and poured four fizzing glasses. He handed them to his friends as the last few seconds ticked away.

“…four…three…two…one…Happy New Year!”

There was an ear-splitting blast of horns and whistles, then the muted music of Auld Lang Sine from the bandstand. They raised their glasses in a silent toast, and Tom downed his in one swallow. As soon as her champagne was gone, Lyndsay backed Harry against the wall and took him in a long, slow kiss.

The first moment of the new year was a moment of truth for Tom, and he turned to face a very anxious B’Elanna—who looked irresistible in his oversized coat. They stood there staring at each other, and it felt for a second like time had stopped. He wanted to kiss her. He had an excuse to kiss her. Still, he’d promised her he wouldn’t push. It was an agonizing deliberation that seemed to take hours instead of the one or two seconds he knew had actually passed. Then, without making a conscious decision to do it, he cupped her face in his left hand, and leaned over to kiss her softly—almost genteelly—on the lips.

“Happy New Year, B’Elanna,” he said over the din, letting his thumb brush lightly over her cheek.

“Happy New Year,” she said softly before she pulled back.

Just then, the rooftop door burst open and a dozen reveling engineers in paper party hats burst through it, throwing streamers and confetti and blowing kazoo-like horns. Harry and Lyndsay ended their clinch and reached for the half-empty bottle of champagne. Molina pulled B’Elanna into a synthahol-induced embrace, and she was swept away from Tom by the dancing crowd.

He just stood there for a moment, the din of horns and bells and whistles ringing in his ears, and the feel of B’Elanna’s lips still tingling on his own. In that moment, Tom knew something had changed. That their friendship was officially a courtship. That he could take a few risks, as long as he chose his moments carefully.

He looked over and saw B’Elanna laughing with Harry and Lyndsay in a storm of confetti, streamers draped across her shoulders, a fresh glass of champagne in her hand. She looked happy for the first time in ages, and seeing her that way made him realize that he was, too. Happy. And hopeful.

Just then, B’Elanna looked over and caught his eye. He could see her blush…and then smile. Tom suddenly had this strange feeling, then, that 2374 would be their year. Okay, so they’d never even been on an official date; he knew it was just a matter of time now. So what if it would take a marathon instead of a sprint. She was worth it. They were worth it.

~*~*~*~*~

Somehow, after getting off to a rousing start, Tom’s new year was starting to feel all too much like his old one. There they were, flying on a slow road to nowhere in the same damn expanse, B’Elanna working all day and night, and nothing for him to do but watch the clock tick. Their brand new roller coaster sat encrypted in her database, just waiting for them to get a day off together to try it out, but there was zero chance of that happening anytime soon.

They had squeezed in two lunches and half a breakfast in the week since the party. Tom was glad to see that their evening together hadn’t scared B’Elanna off. But he could tell that their time in New York had changed things, subtly, between them. They were flirting again, though in a different, more careful way. And they didn’t talk about their midnight kiss.

They did spend a fair amount of time talking about Harry and Lyndsay, though. Tom had half expected his friend’s blind date to spark a new romance, but that didn’t seem to be the case. In fact, Harry had seemed a little morose those next few days. Maybe what he told B’Elanna was right, Tom thought. Maybe it was a one-sided attraction. Still, that kiss at midnight had been pretty passionate. Of course, that could have been the setting. Or the champagne.

Whatever it was, life seemed to be back to status quo for his best friend. Tom hoped that wasn’t true where he and B’Elanna were concerned. Of course, if they didn’t get out of the damn expanse sometime soon, he might never find out.

After the party, it had taken B’Elanna and Harry another two days to get the new navigational sensors installed on the Sacagawea. Chakotay and Ensign Kaplan had left immediately afterward on a five-day shakedown cruise to test them out. That meant Voyager was limited to a straight-line trajectory at maximum impulse. A chimpanzee could have plotted that course. Tom’s only consolation: figuring out how to sleep in the back of a Type 6 shuttle would be Kaplan’s problem this time.

From their briefing, Tom knew it would be another two weeks before Voyager’s navigation systems were retrofitted with the same type of filters B’Elanna had designed for the shuttle. Hopefully the away team would have made it back with enough reliable astrometric data to plot a course out of there long before then. And there was one upside to this new project: B’Elanna was spending most of her workday on the bridge.

That was the only upside, as far as Tom could see. For the tenth time that morning, he slipped on the autonavigation and tried to think of something to do to make the time pass faster. Staring at the engineering station was out of the question, tempting as it was. And with Chakotay gone on his away mission, there wasn’t even any interesting conversation to listen to behind him. Tom tucked his hands under his armpits and resisted the impulse to spin around and around in his chair.

“You know, they ought to rename this place the ‘negative expanse,’” he suddenly blurted out. “We haven’t run across anything interesting for days.”

He checked the chronometer, once again counting the minutes until the end of his shift. Why wasn’t the damn number moving.

There was a loud sigh behind him, and he realized he was about to be lectured. “If you’re bored, Mister Paris, I’m sure I can find something else for you to do.” The tone of the captain’s voice wasn’t exactly compassionate. “The warp plasma filters are due for a thorough cleaning.”

Tom could hear matching snorts from B’Elanna and Harry, and he refused to look at either one of them. Instead, he slid his chair over to the flight controller and turned off the autonav. So he’d fake interest for another two hours. Message received. “Now that you mention it, Captain,” he said as he took manual control and ran a new sensor sweep, “I find this region of space a real navigational challenge.”

He was just about to look over the updated sensor data when he heard Tuvok behind him. “I believe I may have found something else to pique Mister Paris’s interest, Captain. It’s an unidentified ship on long-range sensors.”

Tom looked down and searched for the vessel in his data. There didn’t seem to be…no, wait. There it was. Metallic, not an asteroid or other natural body…but it wasn’t moving, and there were minimal energy signatures. They were too far away to tell much more than that with all the background radiation screwing up their sensors.

“What sort of ship?” Janeway asked. Tom knew there was no way to answer her question.

Being a Vulcan, of course, Tuvok let the ‘I don’t know’ remain implied. “Sensor readings are very limited, but the vessel appears to be stopped directly in our current flight path.”

Well, at least there was something to do now. Tom started running scan after scan, slightly recalibrating the sensors each time, hoping he could figure out what it was they were seeing. Captain Janeway seemed to prefer the more direct approach.

“Harry,” she said, pacing the deck behind Tom, “send the standard greeting.”

“Aye, Captain,” Kim answered. Tom doubted his friend would have any luck. If the ship were powered up enough to send or receive com traffic, they would have been able to get a clearer reading. It only took Harry a second to confirm his suspicions. “They’re not responding.”

Of course, Janeway was as persistent as she was direct. “Try resubmitting the hail on wide-band subspace,” she ordered.

Tom waited for Harry to say it. “Still no response.” Not that it mattered. They were almost close enough to see for themselves.

“We are entering visual range,” Tuvok said, seeming to read Tom’s mind. Harry put the image on the viewscreen at the Captain’s request.

Tom looked up and felt his pulse instantly race. He snapped to attention and readied his hands for the orders he knew were about to come. Yet he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing. They knew it was probably inevitable. They knew this day would come all too soon. Yet here, now, in the middle of this unnavigable, boring, wasteland of an expanse? It was the last place he would have expected to find them.

He heard the words coming out of his mouth, but his mind still couldn’t believe it.

“The Borg!”

~*~*~*~*~

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

Stay Tuned for “Friendly Fire, Part 2”
Coming soon…

CREDITS:

“Unity,” written by Kenneth Biller

Some notes:

  • Thanks to everyone who was so patient while waiting for this latest installment of the Dots. If it weren’t for the very sweet and encouraging emails from Dots readers, this series might have ended a few months ago when my personal life went off a cliff. Here’s hoping I’m back on track and will be publishing on a more regular schedule from now on.
  • I know it’s been a while, so remember that these are multi-part stories. Some of the threads won’t get tired up in a pretty bow immediately.
  • Love and kisses to my betas, Bobbie, LA, Linda, and Devin, and to my friends Ann, Brigid, Kat, and Nancy for holding my hand these past few difficult months.

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Comments

One Response to “DOTS#13: Friendly Fire, Part 1”

  1. Shannon says:

    Hi! I love these! Please keep writing. I would read them for the entire series! But at least until revulsion…I love that they are in keeping with canon.
    I love the way you’ve explained and dealt with everything. I’m just accepting it as canon in my mind.
    Thanks for writing!

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