DOTS#3: Dreams & Nightmares, Part 2

RATING

PG13, though it is really probably just PG.

SUMMARY

Another in my ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, immediately following “Deadlock.” Tom, B’Elanna, and Harry are almost inseparable at this point. So why won’t Tom go along with Harry’s plans to rescue the Captain and Commander Chakotay?

TIMELINE

“Innocence” through “Resolutions”

CODES

P/T, P&T&K

SPOILERS

“Deadlock,” “Innocence,” (barely) and “Resolutions”

DISCLAIMER

Paramount sucks. Come visit me in jail for annoying them with my writings. However this story contains references to and quotes from “Resolutions,” by Jeri Taylor. Jeri was the primary influence on the development of the character Kathryn Janeway. She created J/C with this beautiful and touching episode. One can only wonder how Voyager would have developed had she stayed with the show. (Hmmm, maybe we can go back in time and change history; make her stay. Damn Temporal Prime Directive…!)

NOTE

This story contains a direct reference to “Covert Maneuvers” by Briar Rose, which is a sequel to “3 Days and a Pizza” by LA Koehler, which takes place just before “Barriers,” which is where this whole “Connect the Dots” magilla began. Parallel universe? Temporal paradox? Nah. Just good stories by two of my friends and favorite writers.

Text Download: CTDdreams2


Life on Voyager was settling into a comfortable routine again, and no one was happier than Tom Paris. For the first time in ten weeks, the deck felt firm under his feet, and his life seemed as normal as it was ever likely to get. After Caldik Prime, after Auckland, after the Caretaker, after Warp 10, after Michael Jonas, after the Vidiians, it finally seemed like the time to move on with his life.

 

That life now included a job he loved, the respect of his commanding officers, and two of the best friends he’d ever known. Maybe for those reasons, Paris was beginning to feel like Voyager was his home–not just his posting. That feeling made him consider–for the first time–finding a partner to share that home with.

It was funny, he knew, that he was starting to want a deeper level of connection than just a warm body–any warm body–in his bed. Ironic, too, since that bed had been emptier than most people suspected during his past two years on Voyager. Despite his reputation (or maybe because of it) he’d gotten a lot of his colleagues into the holodeck, a few into serious clinches, but none any farther than some disheveled clothing and the end of his couch. This was a secret not even Harry Kim knew, and Tom was determined to keep it that way. How would it look to have Voyager ‘s most notorious playboy revealed to be a born-again virgin?

Still, even if his intentions were more honorable now, he’d have to be careful. He was a senior officer and there were protocols: nothing that could be misconstrued as coercion, no one who even indirectly reported to him–and no one who couldn’t keep her mouth shut. He’d been the subject of enough Voyager gossip to last a lifetime, and he wasn’t interested in feeding the ship’s voracious rumor mill any further. On a vessel with only 150 crewmen, only half of them female, this left him with a limited number of options.

He’d been flirting with Susan Nicoletti for a while. She was an engineer (safe), a lieutenant (safe), and circumspect (safe). Unfortunately, she also seemed totally disinterested. At first, the challenge kept him engaged. These days, however, he wondered if there even was a warm person under that chilly exterior. “Cold hands, cold heart,” he’d begun to think of her. The prospects for a meaningful relationship there seemed slim.

Megan Delaney was another possibility. Tom and Harry had double-dated with the twins a few times–initially for the novelty of it. By chance, Harry had been paired with Jenny, Tom with Megan. (They were twins, right? What did it matter?) Tom found Jenny to be funny and vivacious–if a little dim. Megan was smarter, but so introspective. So serious. So…boring. By the time he realized he’d been matched with the wrong twin, Jenny was already head over heels for Harry, and vice versa (literally–she’d knocked him out of a gondola and into a holographic Venice canal on their first date). Besides, the twins both worked in stellar cartography–not reporting directly to Paris, but close enough that things could get dicey.

So the hunt for the perfect woman would go on. And, until he found her, Tom had Harry and B’Elanna–his best buddies–to keep him distracted.

They were going back to Sandrine’s tonight–for the first time in months–and Tom was looking forward to seeing them both. Something had changed since Harry’s birthday. B’Elanna and Harry seemed to be putting the whole ‘duplication’ nightmare behind them, and no one seemed preoccupied by the ‘their’ or ‘our’ issues anymore. Harry was just Harry. Voyager was just Voyager . And B’Elanna was just…

…wearing the jumpsuit. The teal jumpsuit that had played such a key role in several of Tom’s fantasies. He couldn’t remember where he’d first seen it. He only knew that the sight of her in it made him forget his name.

“Tom!” He silently thanked her for the reminder. “Over here.” Torres was waving for him to join her at a table in the back.

~~

B’Elanna had been early picking up Harry for their night out at Sandrine’s. She was excited–anxious even–and she wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was her lighter duty schedule or her almost-repaired ship, but she wanted nothing more than to spend a few hours relaxing and talking with her best friends. Harry and Tom (was there ever a time when those two names hadn’t rolled off her tongue like one?) were her security blanket: two people who cared about her, watched her back, and wanted nothing more from her than her company. They shared her warped sense of humor, her disdain for all things pretentious, and–best of all–they made her laugh. In a life that was once filled with pain and loneliness, Kim and Paris were an oasis of acceptance.

She was especially grateful for the way they let her feel like a normal woman. Most of the human men she’d met in her life had treated her as a conquest first and a person second. She knew the rumors–about Klingon women and their sexual appetites–and she’d learned early to mistrust any man who moved too quickly trying to find out for himself. Sure, Paris liked to tease her about her Klingon temper. But he’d never leered at her–not in the way he leered at some of the other women on Voyager. She wondered sometimes if he even knew she was a woman.

The double-edged sword of her fears nicked her at that thought. Paris was a well-known ladies’ man. He flirted with women as a sport. And, while he’d looked at her once or twice with that twinkle of mischief, he’d never really come on to her. Whether she wasn’t pretty enough–or human enough–for his tastes, she’d never know. And part of her was grateful not to have to worry that she’d end up on his ‘love-em-and-leave-em’ scorecard. She liked spending time with Tom. Any attempt at a romantic relationship might have put their friendship in jeopardy.

Still, there were times when she wished for one of those patented Paris leers. Just to know she’d be in the running if she were interested.

Sandrine’s was already filling up when they arrived. She was glad to find a table in their favorite area–the back corner against the wall–and she sat next to Harry so she could watch the door for Tom. And to leave room for Paris to sit next to his date. Harry had told B’Elanna that Tom was on the prowl again, and that Sue Nicoletti was on his short list of prey. While she knew this had the potential to be a little awkward–Nicoletti was one of Torres’s senior assistants–B’Elanna figured she could handle it. And she had to admit that she was glad to know Tom was finally mending some of the fences he’d broken during his ‘I’m a jerk’ undercover mission.

Yet, when she finally saw Paris walk through the door alone, a wave of relief washed over her. “Tom,” she called out to him. “Over here.”

~~

B’Elanna and her jumpsuit were sitting next to Harry, so Tom sat opposite her. “Where’s Sue?” Kim asked as Paris sat down.

“Huh?” Tom grunted, still mesmerized by B’Elanna’s choice of attire. Sue…?

“Nicoletti. I thought you were going to ask her to shoot some pool with us.”

The blood was pumping its way back into Paris’s brain, and he was now able to concentrate on their conversation. “Nah, I don’t think she’s the pool-playing type. Ice skating, maybe, but not pool.” Harry’s question reminded Tom of someone else who was conspicuously absent from the bar. “B’Elanna, where’s Bristow? I thought for sure he’d weasel an invitation out of you.”

She was blushing as much as B’Elanna ever blushed. “He’s persistent, I’ll give him that,” she groaned. “And, if I were going to see any of the cretins–I mean men–on this ship socially, I suppose he’d be in contention. But I told you, I don’t have the time or inclination right now.”

Why, Paris wondered, did she make a point of saying this every time the subject of dating came up? Wasn’t she lonely? Did she actually prefer to be alone? Not meaning to be crass, but he wondered how it was possible for someone who was half-Klingon to lead such a cloistered life. And somehow he felt that her comments were always more of a warning than a statement of fact. If B’Elanna were posting a big ‘keep out’ sign on her heart, he got the message–a while ago.

Sure he’d considered it. He’d been attracted to Torres ever since he first met her in the Maquis. They’d barely known each other back then–Chakotay saw to that. And, after they were thrown across the galaxy together on Voyager, they both had chips on their shoulders and something to prove. Their mutual defensiveness made things exciting–even exhilarating–but in ways that would have suggested hand-to-hand combat rather than romance.

Still, they’d been forced together by their work, and their mutual friendship with an ensign who liked to pick up strays. Through some miracle of fate, they’d become friends. Good friends. He’d even had dreams about her. Romantic–even sensual–dreams. But that was as far as it went. As far as it was going to go. He got her message. Why did she have to keep driving it home?

~~

Torres couldn’t believe Tom was asking about Freddie Bristow again. The ensign was a nice enough guy–clearly attracted to her–but he had the narrowest worldview of anyone she’d ever met. One of Paris’s junior pilots, Bristow’s universe didn’t seem to extend beyond Deck 10 and the shuttlebay. Every conversation with him seemed to focus on whatever maneuver he’d practiced that day, or his complaints about the way Paris had structured the duty assignments. He didn’t seem to have any interests outside of his work. Sometimes she wondered if he even realized they were in the Delta Quadrant.

Yet Tom kept bringing him up in conversation, trying to get her to consider dating Bristow, playing matchmaker. It annoyed the hell out of her. Of course, she tried not to let Paris know that as she answered his question.

“He’s persistent, I’ll give him that,” she tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. “And, if I were going to see any of the cretins–I mean men–on this ship socially, I suppose he’d be in contention. But I told you, I don’t have the time or inclination right now.”

Maybe now he’d get the hint and stop trying to fix her up. Didn’t he understand that spending time with him–and Harry–was as much socializing as she wanted for now? Why did he seem to want to keep pushing her into someone else’s arms?

Not that she wouldn’t like a real relationship one day. B’Elanna was a closet romantic, who hid her desire to feel wanted and courted under a well-practiced façade. But the right man never seemed to come along. Or if he did, he didn’t seem interested–at least not in anything except friendship.

She watched Tom’s face fall as she rejected Bristow again. Although, maybe he was really just upset that Nicoletti had turned him down. No matter. B’Elanna had been looking forward to this night all week, and she wasn’t about to let Paris’s mood get to her–or to him, if she could help it.

“Why don’t you make yourself useful, Tom, and buy me a beer.” That ought to snap him out of it. She watched the light come back into the pilot’s eyes. Success.

“Sorry,” he said with mock sincerity. “I didn’t realize your legs were broken. I’ll be right back.” She watched as he stood up and walked to the bar. Gee, were those pants new?

Harry had apparently said something, but she couldn’t seem to hear him over the noise. “Huh?” she grunted.

“I asked you if the primary plasma manifold is finally fixed.” When she turned to look at him, Kim was smiling. She wasn’t sure why. “But we don’t have to talk about work if you have other things on your mind.” What other things did he mean, she wondered.

“No, uh, it’s fine. I had Joe and Vorik working on it all day. But without some polypherinite, all we were able to do was patch things together and hope for the best. We won’t be out of the woods until we can totally rebuild them.”

They talked shop for what seemed like ten minutes before B’Elanna found herself turning to look for Tom. She was thirsty and anxious for that beer. What was taking so long?

The answer was standing next to Paris at the bar. Megan ‘Yawn’ Delaney–as B’Elanna had come to think of her–seemed to be sharing one of her ‘fascinating’ stories with him. B’Elanna knew the two had dated, but she could never figure out the attraction. Jenny–maybe–but not Megan. What could Tom possibly see in her? Still, he seemed very wrapped up in whatever Delaney was saying.

No matter: the woman was standing between B’Elanna and her beer. “Excuse me, Harry,” she said as she stood and walked over to the bar.

“Get lost, Tom?” Torres said as she batted her eyes at him. What was she doing? “Oh, hello, Megan. Tom, you weren’t about to give my beer to Megan, now were you?” B’Elanna wondered for a moment what alien life form had taken up residence inside her body.

“Oh,” Paris said with a twinkle in his eye that seemed to play right into B’Elanna’s game. “So your legs do work. Shall I report this miracle to the Doctor?”

Megan seemed annoyed, which only egged B’Elanna on. “Oh, Tom, you’re so funny!” She linked her arm under his and started walking away as she continued talking. “Why don’t you tell me some more amusing stories while we drink that beer.” She was pulling Tom away from the bar, but he didn’t try to stop her. “Bye, bye, Megan,” B’Elanna said over her shoulder.

As soon as they were out of Delaney Distance, Torres dropped her hand and gave Paris a light shove toward their table. “Gee,” he said a little mischievously, “I guess someone really needs her beer.”

Torres smiled back at him as she sat down. “You can thank me for that one later, Paris.” He seemed confused, but his grin told her he wasn’t upset. B’Elanna grabbed the glass he’d sat in front of her and took a big gulp. She was having fun already.

~~

“…in the final analysis, the power utilization was pretty much the same before and after we recalibrated the astrometrics sensors, so I think the entire project was just an exercise in futility…”

Tom hadn’t noticed Megan standing at the bar when he placed his order. Unfortunately, she’d noticed him. Why she thought he’d be interested in hearing about her day recalibrating the sensors was a mystery. How he was going to excuse himself without hurting her feelings was another.

It seemed like he’d been standing there smiling–the same blank expression on his face–for twenty minutes, though it was probably only half that time. ‘Rescue me, somebody,’ he thought, when he heard a voice from behind him.

“Get lost, Tom?” Thank god. B’Elanna must have read his mind.

Still, he couldn’t resist teasing her. “Oh, so your legs do work. Shall I report this miracle to the Doctor?”

The next thing he knew, B’Elanna was pulling him away from the bar, exchanging a few sarcastic words with Megan as she walked. He couldn’t get over how rude she’d just been to Delaney–and for some reason it amused the hell out of him. “Gee,” he teased her as he sat their drinks on the table, “I guess someone really needs her beer.”

Tom couldn’t help but notice the silly smirk coming across Harry’s face. He decided not to ask.

“So,” he said instead, “since Carey and Ayala are hogging the pool table, we could…” He was about to suggest they get some dinner when Ensign Vorik suddenly appeared at their table.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” the ensign said to B’Elanna formally. Her reply was equally formal. Maybe there was something wrong in engineering. Tom didn’t waste any time getting disappointed that B’Elanna might get called away. “I was wondering,” Vorik continued, “if you’d care to dance.”

Paris had been taking a sip of beer as the Vulcan finished his sentence, and it was everything he could do not to spit it all over B’Elanna as he waited for her answer. This was going to be good.

B’Elanna’s eyes were wider than Tom had ever seen them, and she stared straight at him with an almost horrified expression. Paris could tell he was only moments away from a full-fledged guffaw, which Torres seemed to sense from the look in his eyes. He was sorry that Harry didn’t have as good a view of their friend’s face as she tried to figure out how to answer.

Suddenly her expression turned defiant. “Certainly, Ensign,” she said as she stood up, her eyes never leaving Tom’s. “I’d love to.”

Paris couldn’t believe what he’d just seen. Sure, as Vulcans went, Vorik was a nice guy. Unlike Tuvok and some of the others Tom had known, Vorik wasn’t nearly as pretentious or serious. Nicoletti had told him once that Vorik grew up on a Federation colony, so he’d lived among other races for most of his life. Somehow this seemed to dull down the pompous-windbag quotient a notch or two. Still, he had that earnestness of someone who didn’t filter what he said, and it was clear that the ensign would do just about anything to impress his boss. Even, it seemed, ask her to dance.

Tom slipped into the seat across from Harry. “This is…new,” he said as he watched Vorik twirl B’Elanna in a gentle turn. “You know, Harry, you should rescue her and cut in after a minute.”

Kim was smiling that same silly smile Paris had seen a few minutes earlier. “She doesn’t look like she needs rescuing to me, Tom.”

Was he kidding? “Are you kidding? You think she wants to be dancing with Vorik? I thought you were her friend?”

Paris still couldn’t figure out what Harry was smiling about. “You’re her friend, too, Tom. If you’re so concerned about her welfare, why don’t you go rescue her yourself?”

Tom took a long drink of his beer as he tried to figure out why that hadn’t occurred to him. “I think I will,” he said, as he slammed the mug on the table and headed for the dance floor.

~~

B’Elanna looked up to see Vorik–one of her junior engineers–standing next to their table. ‘Please,’ she thought as she looked into his stony face. ‘Not another systems failure.’ She was afraid to ask.

“Yes, Ensign. What is it?” Did she sound as annoyed as she felt?

“I was wondering if you’d care to dance?”

She heard Paris blowing bubbles into his beer and she shot him a look that dared him to say anything. The look he threw back at her dared her to accept. And B’Elanna was never one to walk away from a good challenge.

“Certainly, Ensign.” She was glaring at Tom now. Smart aleck. Thought she wouldn’t do it, did he? “I’d love to.”

Of course, while the look on Paris’s face had almost been worth it, B’Elanna realized that she’d now actually have to dance with Vorik. Why was it, she wondered, that in her ongoing effort to spite Tom Paris, she only ever seemed to end up spiting herself?

Surprisingly, Vorik wasn’t a bad dancer. Still, if he weren’t a Vulcan, she would have sworn that Carey or Hogan–or Paris, for that matter–had put him up to the invitation. She was pretty sure that hadn’t been the case, though. Vorik just didn’t seem brave enough to risk the wrath of his angry Klingon chief just to entertain his colleagues.

“Where did you learn to dance, Vorik?” she asked to pass the time.

“On the Tenary Colony where I was raised. Ballroom dancing was a required course at my boarding school.” This was surprising; B’Elanna had always assumed he’d been brought up on Vulcan. “And you, Lieutenant? You seem to be an accomplished dancer, as well. Did you take lessons?”

Before she could answer, she saw Paris approaching from behind her dance partner. He made a ‘watch this’ face behind Vorik’s back, then tapped the young engineer on the shoulder. “May I cut in?” he asked with mock manners Torres was pretty sure he didn’t really possess.

Vorik seemed annoyed, but familiar enough with dance floor etiquette not to protest. In a second, Paris had swept her into his arms and was maneuvering her to the other side of the room.

“I think we’re even now,” he whispered into her ear.

B’Elanna was about to protest, but Tom was holding her tightly to him, and she got a deep whiff of–was it his soap? His cologne? Whatever it was, the scent distracted her enough that she lost her train of thought. Other than for one brief moment on a holographic beach, this was the first time Paris had held her in his arms. She was trying not to like the feeling too much.

She noticed something else, too. Vorik was a good dancer, but Paris was better. While the ensign had clearly mastered every step with Vulcan precision and attention to detail, Tom’s moves were all talent and finesse. He was sweeping her off her feet–literally and figuratively. B’Elanna wondered if she were blushing as she felt her cheeks and neck start to tingle.

“So,” Tom said softly, “Vorik was right. You’re a great dancer. Is it natural talent, or did someone teach you?”

His question brought B’Elanna back to reality. “I had a boyfriend while I was at the Academy who danced in ballroom competitions. He taught me.”

It had been a long time since she’d thought about Max Burke. A nice enough guy–or so she thought at the time–though a bit of a rogue. Burke was an operator; he always seemed to have one scheme or another going. And, while he treated her well and was always a gentleman, B’Elanna always suspected that he was constantly checking to see if someone better was coming along behind her. She’d taken dancing lessons to have some way to connect with him–during that one semester when she’d tried her hardest to be a part of the Academy social scene.

Her quest to fit in–like all of her Academy dreams–had been a disaster. Burke’s friends never accepted her, and B’Elanna had ended their relationship and her career at the same time by packing everything she owned and leaving Earth for good. She hadn’t even said goodbye, though part of her wondered if Max even noticed.

Still, they’d had some good times together. But he was a scoundrel at heart, and B’Elanna had promised herself ever since to avoid scoundrels at all costs. As the thought ran through her mind, she looked up and realized another scoundrel, of sorts, was holding her in his arms. Good thing they were just friends, she thought.

~~

Tom was glad Vorik hadn’t made a scene. But, now that his mission of mercy was complete, he still had to finish the dance to make his cutting in look legit. Which wasn’t a huge burden–as it turned out, dancing with B’Elanna was hardly a chore.

“So,” he said softly, “Vorik was right. You’re a great dancer. Is it natural talent, or did someone teach you?”

B’Elanna had seemed unnaturally quiet before his question; to the point that Tom almost wondered if she were upset that he’d intervened in her time with the ensign. “I had a boyfriend while I was at the Academy who danced in ballroom competitions,” she said, under her breath. “He taught me.”

It was then that Paris suspected his question had brought back some painful memories. He knew B’Elanna hadn’t had an easy time at Starfleet Academy. He’d heard from Harry that she’d gotten into a lot of scrapes with her professors, and that she’d quit during her second year. Somehow, the image that had been created in his mind was of a studious, angry Torres–the Klingon side she’d wrestled with so often. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might have had a boyfriend during that time. Especially not one who would take her ballroom dancing. There was an incongruity in the idea of tough-as-nails Torres going dancing just for fun that suddenly made his already interesting friend seem even more compelling.

“Well,” he said with sincerity, “I guess I should thank him. You were obviously a good student.”

His compliment seemed to relax her a bit, and the walls she normally hid behind were down, he could tell. He needed to tread lightly on her exposed feelings.

“B’Elanna, does it bother you that you didn’t finish the Academy? I mean, clearly you were good enough to make it through.”

Paris was grateful that she didn’t pull away. “Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing now if I’d been able to stick with it.” Her voice was soft and very distant. “But if I hadn’t left, I’d never have met Chakotay. And I might never have found the Maquis. My life would have been different, but I’m not sure it would have been better.”

Tom was surprised and happy that she was willing to talk about her past. Still, he couldn’t believe she realized the implications of what she was saying. “On the other hand, you’d probably still be in the Alpha Quadrant instead of stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with the rest of us.”

She took a deep breath, as if she were trying to decide whether to say what she was thinking. “Almost everybody I care about is on this ship,” she finally whispered, before looking up and into his eyes. “Don’t tell Harry, but there are some days when I don’t care if we never get back.” She stared at him for a minute as if she’d expected him to be shocked. Tom just smiled at her instead.

‘I know the feeling,’ he thought, but didn’t say. But her comments also made him think of something else he hadn’t considered. He knew B’Elanna and Chakotay cared a lot for each other. For most of their first few months in the Delta Quadrant, Torres had been closer to her Maquis captain than anyone else aboard. Not long after Seska’s betrayal, however, Tom had noticed B’Elanna pulling away from the other Maquis a bit, getting closer to Harry. Closer to him. Still, he wondered now for the first time the real nature of her feelings for the commander. Was she in love with him?

But, unlike their days in the Maquis, the first officer would have a hard time justifying a relationship with one of his subordinates on a Starfleet vessel. Maybe their new positions were standing in the way of what had been a budding romance. It sure would explain a lot, including B’Elanna’s reluctance to get involved with any of the men Paris had seen pursuing her for the past year, as well as her extreme protectiveness of the first officer’s dignity when Tom had been forced to provoke the man.

They had been dancing quietly for a moment as Tom worked out the question in his mind. For some reason, he pulled back slightly to see her face, trying to look for any signs that what he supposed might be true.

What he saw instead was a woman who looked happy to be right where she was, dancing with one of her friends in a holographic bar on the wrong side of the galaxy. Somehow, for the moment, that was all he wanted or needed to know.

~~

Maybe it was the three gulps of beer, or the music, or her relief at being anywhere besides a Jeffries tube, but B’Elanna was feeling good. She hadn’t danced in a long while, and part of her enjoyed that Paris seemed to want to get to know her better. The thoughts he’d triggered of her relationship with Max Burke were bittersweet, but they also reminded her of the last time she’d been part of a couple. She’d enjoyed that feeling more than she’d admit, even if Max hadn’t exactly been the man of her dreams.

On any other night, Tom’s questions about her Academy days might have made her anxious or insecure, but tonight she was relaxed enough to take them at face value. And she’d been amazingly honest: she wasn’t sure she was sorry about leaving school. Not if it meant finding Chakotay and the rest of her new ‘family.’

“On the other hand, you’d probably still be in the Alpha Quadrant instead of stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with the rest of us.”

For some reason, Paris’s comment caught her off guard. It was probably true: short of the unlikely coincidence she’d have been assigned to Voyager, had B’Elanna stayed in the Academy, she’d probably be living a very different life far away from her friends. Surprisingly, for the first time, the idea made her almost glad she’d quit. “Almost everybody I care about is on this ship,” she heard herself admit.

Torres realized at that moment that she might be talking to the only other person aboard who could understand. She looked into Tom’s eyes for reassurance. “Don’t tell Harry, but there are some days when I don’t care if we never get back.”

She was relieved when she saw him smile. Paris pulled her closer to him, and they danced quietly for a while. Her comment seemed to trigger some conflict in Tom; she could tell he was now lost in his own thoughts.

B’Elanna knew enough about Tom’s history to suspect that the Alpha Quadrant held no particular charms for him either. Still, he had a family there–distant though they may be–and people who were surely anxious for him to get back. Everyone likely to worry or care about her was on one of Voyager’s fifteen decks. Part of her envied Paris, even if she didn’t know his whole story. Besides, Tom had turned his life around. Should Voyager ever find a way home, he’d return an officer and a hero. He could probably walk right back into his life.

And probably right out of hers.

B’Elanna realized that such a homecoming might mean the end of a lot of friendships that seemed so close while they were so far from home. Of course, with the unending string of systems failures and hostile aliens, a quick route to Earth seemed unlikely. And for tonight, that was just fine with Voyager’s chief engineer.

She felt Tom pull back slightly, just enough to look her in the eye. He seemed a little lost in his thoughts, she realized, and seeing a more introspective Tom Paris made her smile. He retuned the grin, then pulled her back into his arms. B’Elanna suddenly realized that she wanted this song, this dance, to last the rest of the night.

~~

Harry would never have claimed to be the most perceptive person on Voyager. He knew he was young and a little naïve–especially about the complexities of male-female interaction. Hell, if his girlfriend Libby hadn’t made the first move, he might never have even asked her out. Still, he wondered: if the ship hadn’t been split in two, and if he’d never seen the look on the other B’Elanna’s face as she held a murdered Tom Paris in her lap, would he ever have realized the undercurrents of affection his two best friends clearly shared?

Of course, there were clues–all of which he had missed: Tom’s hyper-protectiveness of B’Elanna after they were rescued from the Vidiian mines, B’Elanna’s full-body sobs when she thought Paris had died after the transwarp flight, and the way they seemed to talk to one another with their eyes without ever saying a word. Still, he’d dismissed it all as a deepening friendship. That it might be turning into something more had never occurred to him.

Until a few weeks ago when he saw the other B’Elanna take Tom’s lifeless hand in hers and make a promise not to let go. That B’Elanna Torres had discovered something that day, he suspected. Something that came from the certainty that she and her Tom wouldn’t survive the experience. Something this B’Elanna hadn’t yet realized. Nor this Tom.

Instead, Kim was slowly seeing that, where Paris and Torres were concerned, every word seemed to be a challenge, every look an examination. What he’d once thought of as relentless bickering now seemed to be much more a mutual, covert flirtation. Nothing could be taken at face value with them. Why didn’t he see that before?

The realization left Harry with an interesting dilemma: clearly his two best friends cared about each other more than either was willing to admit (especially to themselves). Should he nurture the relationship–risking that it might fall apart and ruin the great friendship they all shared–or should he stay out of the way and let things happen at their own pace?

As he watched them dancing from across the room–both oblivious to him and the rest of the world–Harry decided to opt for the second plan. He’d sit back, enjoy the view, and see where this little secret led them. If everything went well, he’d have a ringside seat for what might turn out to be the greatest show in the Delta Quadrant. If nothing else, he knew it wouldn’t be boring.

~*~*~*~*~

Despite her optimism when talking with Harry, B’Elanna knew that many of the repairs she and her crew had made were temporary fixes at most. As an engineer, she was skilled at making the best of what she had to work with. But it was becoming obvious that they would need to locate some new sources of raw materials if they were to do anything more than move from firefight to firefight.

The sort of crisis management required in Voyager’s battered condition meant that no plans were firm, and engineering duty shifts were often double their normal length–particularly for the young woman in charge of holding it all together. B’Elanna’s shopping list was long: verterium, gallicite, cortenum, polypherinite–not to mention their ever-present needs for deuterium and dilithium. Some days Torres wondered if she ran an engineering department or a geological survey. But life on Voyager called for Delta Quadrant thinking, and each crewmember was expected to bring all of her imagination and skills to bear, no matter what unexpected situation arose.

And, for the most part, B’Elanna felt like she was living up to the professional responsibility the captain had placed on her shoulders. Still, there were days when she wondered how she pulled herself out of bed in the morning. And, at the end of what had been another exhausting double shift, she knew this was a question she would almost surely be asking herself in about six hours.

Double-checking that Vorik was monitoring the plasma coolant irregularities, Torres walked the short trip to the turbolift and home. As tired as she felt, part of her dreaded walking into the train wreck that was her quarters. B’Elanna was not a naturally tidy person, but things had really gotten out of control over the last two weeks. Long shifts and a preoccupation with ships systems meant uniforms sometimes didn’t make it off the floor and into the refresher until she was absolutely out of things to wear. Meals were usually caught on the run, and the dishes often sat on her table until she had to move them to clear a space to eat. She remembered the sight (and the smell) of the mess she’d left that morning. Maybe if she just stumbled from her door to her bed without turning on the lights, she could pretend it all away.

Bad idea, she realized as she reached the door to her cabin. The last thing she needed was to trip over a stray boot and have to explain to the doctor how she’d been injured. She’d just make her hundredth silent promise to herself that she’d wake up a few minutes early to straighten up. Tonight, though, she was just six quick steps away from a warm bed.

Surrendering to her better judgment, she called for the lights as soon as the doors opened. She’d taken two steps inside before stumbling back to check the cabin number. Yep. She was in the right place. But instead of the piles of clothes and the vague aroma of decomposing salad, she was greeted by a room that could have easily passed a Starfleet admiral’s surprise inspection. Her clothes were cleaned and put away, her bed was made, and someone had even removed the grease stain off the carpet where she normally toed off her filthy boots. And the only thing on her dinner table was a vase with a single purple daisy.

B’Elanna almost laughed out loud. She’d come home to a similar surprise almost three months earlier, only the gift had been dinner instead of maid service. And she didn’t have to wonder if this stealth mission had been carried out by the same operatives; the choice of flower was a dead giveaway.

“Computer,” she said as she smiled, “locate Lieutenant Paris and Ensign Kim.”

“Lieutenant Paris is in Holodeck 2,” the flat voice replied. “Ensign Kim is not aboard Voyager.” That’s right, B’Elanna remembered. Harry was on an away mission scouting for mineral deposits with Carey. So…this had been a solo operation. She wondered if this time Tom had just cracked her security code, though the image of him crawling through the Jeffries tubes dragging a bag full of cleaning supplies was entertaining.

B’Elanna was a very private person, and normally the thought of someone coming into her quarters while she was out would have made her angry. But she trusted Tom–for the most part–and knew that, with the double shifts she and Harry had been working, Voyager’s pilot was probably a little bored and a little lonely. Under the circumstances, if this were the worst mischief Tom Paris got into, they were all lucky.

The jolt of surprise now wearing off, fatigue was reclaiming Torres, and she looked forward to crawling into the newly made bed. B’Elanna kicked off her boots and stripped off her uniform–deciding at the last minute to take the time to put it in the refresher. She didn’t want to ruin all of Paris’s hard work so quickly.

She stumbled to her bed and pulled back the blanket. There, she found her second surprise of the evening. Tucked between her two pillows was the slightly mangled stuffed targ her ‘housekeeper’ had won for her at the carnival midway. B’Elanna hadn’t thought of Tom’s carnival program–or what it had symbolized for her–in a while. After the whole Jonas investigation, she and Paris hadn’t spoken for weeks. She never told him about receiving the goodbye message he’d forgotten to delete or the holoprogram attached to it. And, since ‘date nights’–and their danced-around mutual attraction–had seemed to go the way of all passing Voyager fads, she’d had no reason to remind him.

Besides, that program was written by a different Tom Paris–one who seemed to be considering more than just friendship. At the time, B’Elanna wondered if his attraction had been motivated by the stress of his undercover mission. She was now pretty sure that it had been; since they’d rediscovered their friendship, Paris had tried repeatedly to fix her up with different crewmen, and he seemed to be pursuing at least two of his old girlfriends. So the carnival would likely be a one-time experience. One that left her with some great memories and a silly, stupid-looking, stuffed targ she just couldn’t seem to part with.

Embarrassed that Tom had found it (and touched that he had left it to keep her company), B’Elanna gave the little creature a strong scratch behind the ear before falling face first into the clean sheets of her warm bed.

“Computer, dim the lights,” she said with her last micron of energy. It was the first time in a long while that she hadn’t slept alone.

~~

Tom checked the chronometer while Chakotay lined up his shot. By Paris’s calculations, B’Elanna should have left engineering at least an hour earlier, meaning she had probably already discovered his surprise. He wondered what her reaction had been.

While engineering and operations had their hands full patching the ship back together after its duplication and near-destruction, the command crews–especially the pilots–were on light duty. Scouting for mineral deposits can’t be done reliably at warp speed and Tom and his team were near boredom. And, while the other pilots tended to socialize as a group, Paris’s best friends were both engineers. These days, even when he was off duty, there was no one to ‘play with.’

He’d decided to use the opportunity to relieve the burdens on his stressed-out friends. For Harry, that was easy: Tom dragged Kim away for lunch or dinner every day–even if it was only for fifteen minutes at a time. B’Elanna, on the other hand, was more of a challenge. Paris knew that dragging a Klingon chief engineer away from her engines would take an act of god or nature–particularly B’Elanna, who seemed to store energy like a camel stores water. He knew she often went several days without a complete meal, so–unlike Harry–food made a less-than-compelling lure. Besides, B’Elanna never seemed to need a break from the work itself. Even when she was physically exhausted, she always had the mental energy to tackle any engineering problem.

Instead, Paris tried to figure out what he could do for her that she couldn’t do for herself. One impromptu visit to her quarters gave him all the inspiration he needed. Her cabin bordered on a biohazard; it was a good thing the doctor was confined to sickbay and couldn’t just stumble across it.

No son of a Starfleet admiral grew up without knowing how to make a room ship-shape. Conditioned to try and please his father, Tom had learned early that a well-made bed and a neat-as-a-pin room were the most likely things to earn him a nod of approval from his perfectionist dad. And, in a life that had often spun out of control, bringing order to his surroundings was often the only way Paris could bring order to his world.

Something B’Elanna had clearly never learned.

Still, Tom knew Torres didn’t prefer to live this way. Normally, her sloppy habits were limited to a few clothes left scattered on the floor. But in a life where too much work was crammed into too little time, something had to give; housekeeping was the most innocuous casualty.

He’d timed his secret mission carefully, making sure she wouldn’t walk in on him. Now he was left to wonder how it was received.

Tom thought for a minute about his time alone in her quarters. Torres was a private person, and Paris had been careful not to violate her privacy while he worked. But there were moments when he hadn’t been able to disassociate his errand of mercy from the woman he was helping. Moments like gathering her clothes into the refresher, when he’d been overwhelmed with ‘eau de B’Elanna’–fragrant soap, warp plasma, and sweat intermingled like a custom perfume. He found it surprisingly intoxicating. Then, as he stacked a pile of rescued datapads on her desk, he’d seen the little stuffed targ, and the memory of an innocent holodeck date flashed through his mind. He tried not to walk too far down that memory lane; he knew it was a dead-end.

Still, on an impulse, he’d tucked the little toy in between B’Elanna’s pillows. She’d clearly had trouble taking care of herself these last few weeks. Maybe the furry little targ could look out for her instead. At the very least, he hoped it would give her a smile at the end of a very long, exhausting day.

“Tom.”

He suddenly wondered how long Chakotay had been trying to get his attention. “You looked like you were a million miles away.” Actually, about three decks.

“Sorry,” Paris said, slightly embarrassed. “My shot?”

“Your shot,” Chakotay answered. He waited for the pilot to line up the cue and shoot before he continued their impromptu therapy session. “So, is there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?”

Tom took a moment to choose his next shot, all the while wondering how he could steer the conversation without it being too obvious. “What do you mean?” he stalled.

“Well, you don’t seem as troubled as the last time we talked, but you’re obviously distracted. I just wondered if you want to talk about it?” Chakotay had been acting as Voyager’s de facto counselor, and he and Paris had shared a few conversations about the ship’s duplication and the toll it had taken on the helmsman. Like a few other crewman, he’d had occasional nightmares about the Vidiians and unresolved feelings of guilt about the fate of the other Voyager.

When Tom didn’t answer, Chakotay pushed a little harder. “Have the nightmares stopped?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tom lied. He’d dreamed of the Vidiians the night before. But they’d become less frequent, and–frankly–weren’t the source of Tom’s distraction tonight. He knew, though, that Chakotay needed some reassurance of his progress in getting over his fears before he’d let the matter drop. “I promise if they come back I’ll come talk to you about it.” Except not tonight.

Paris took his next two shots, clearing the table and winning the game. “I could use some coffee,” he said as Chakotay started to rack the balls. “Want some?”

“Sure. Cream and two sugars.” The commander found a seat at an out of the way table in case Paris wanted to talk.

Tom joined him with two steaming cups. “So,” he said, not sure how to get to the point of this little conversation, “any word from Harry and Joe?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Chakotay looked grim. “They didn’t find anything. Their shuttle should be back in a few hours.”

“That’s too bad,” Tom said. “B’Elanna’s gonna give Harry hell for coming back empty handed.” Good. He’d found a way to bring up her name. But he was still unsure of his next move. “You know, I’m a little worried about her,” Paris said, looking down into his cup. He didn’t want to risk Chakotay picking up something from the look in his eyes. “All she ever does anymore is work.”

If the commander was suspicious of Tom’s observation, he didn’t let on. “I don’t know. It seems to me that you and Harry do a pretty good job of keeping her entertained.” Tom snuck a look at Chakotay’s face and was glad to see a slight smile.

“Sure,” Tom admitted, “we do what we can–anything for a friend, you know. But she seems to avoid anyone who’s looking for more than a game of pool or dinner in the mess hall. You’ve known her for a long time, Chakotay. When was the last time she…I mean, Freddie Bristow has been asking me for advice on how to get her to go out with him. I have no idea what to tell him.”

Stupid, Tom, he thought to himself. The ‘I’m helping out a friend’ routine was older than Tuvok and totally transparent. Still, the first officer didn’t seem to be suspicious. “Well, it’s none of my business, but I’d tell him not to waste his time.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked, a little afraid of the answer.

Chakotay grinned. “Well, I don’t know if I’m comfortable talking about B’Elanna’s personal life without her permission.”

Paris had suspected for a few weeks that there might have once been more between Torres and Chakotay than just friendship. Maybe they still had some feelings for each other. Even if they did, prying that information out of a guarded person like Chakotay would be hard. Still, that was the entire purpose of this little ‘secret mission,’ and Tom knew he had to take a few risks to get his answers.

Maybe a different tack would help. “Right, right. I’m sure Freddie wouldn’t want you to do or say anything that would make you uncomfortable. I just thought…well, you and B’Elanna used to be pretty close. I just figured if anyone knew the way to her heart it would be you.”

This time Chakotay chuckled out loud. “Actually, she’s as big a mystery to me as she is to every other man on this ship. Which would bother me, I guess, if she were anything besides my friend.”

“So,” Tom was trying not to be obvious, “you two never…”

This time the commander looked him right in the eye, and his voice was gentle but firm. “No. I think she might have had a little crush on me right after she joined the Maquis. But I was involved with…someone…at the time.” Tom knew that ‘someone’ was Seska. “I care for her like she was my little sister. So you tell Bristow or any other man who asks you how to get close to B’Elanna that I wouldn’t take kindly to seeing her heart broken.”

Tom needed to swallow, but hesitated, worried that the gulp he’d take would give him away. He raised his cup and took a drink of his coffee instead. “I’ll pass that along,” he said nonchalantly.

Paris was feeling a little exposed, so he decided to call it a night. “Well, thanks for the game, Chakotay. But I’d better be getting to bed.”

“Sure.” He was relieved that Chakotay’s expression seemed relaxed once again. “Goodnight, Tom.”

‘Yikes,’ Paris thought as he headed for the door. ‘I just dodged that one.’

Chakotay watched Tom as he left the holodeck. ‘Bristow,’ he thought to himself. ‘Right…’

Still, he’d meant what he said. He wouldn’t sit still and watch someone hurt his best friend. And, as the first officer, he was in a position to inflict all kinds of pain on anyone who tried–especially a cocky pilot with a checkered past and a reputation for playing the field.

Still, he’d misjudged Tom Paris before, he knew. So, for now, a warning would do. But he also knew they had a long journey ahead of them, and that sooner or later the crew would start forming deeper relationships. He was also beginning to realize–from very personal experience–that one’s emotional connections couldn’t be predicted by logic or common sense. Sometimes the heart and the brain had very different agendas.

~*~*~*~*~

It was always a variation on the same theme. Tonight’s was typical:

Tom, B’Elanna and Harry were in the mess hall. They were having lunch and a few laughs, just enjoying each other’s company.

From the corner of his eye, Tom noticed Neelix approaching to refill their coffee cups. When Paris turned to greet the cook, he saw that Neelix was covered with the phage, his skin a deformed, twisted mess–all except for his face, which wore the newly grafted skin and features of Pete Durst.

Before Tom could react, the Vidiian grabbed B’Elanna and put a weapon to her neck. Harry lunged to pull her back, but was shot and killed.

When Paris looked back, the woman in the Vidiian’s arms was now the fully-human B’Elanna–clearly terrified–and the face grafted onto her captor was Tom’s own.

Tom woke up on the floor of his quarters, the fall startling him awake as he rolled out of bed. He was out of breath, his heart racing, and he was left with the terrible feeling that somehow he’d let B’Elanna down.

Just as he had every time this nightmare intruded on his sleep, Tom called for the lights and sat there, listening quietly for any sound, any hint that something was wrong. Just has he had every other time, he heard only the barely perceptible hum of a beaten-up–but intact–starship. Only two more rituals and he could try to sleep again.

“Computer,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “Locate Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Kim.” Why did it always seem to take the machine so long to answer?

“Lieutenant Torres is in her quarters. Ensign Kim is in the main shuttlebay.” The shuttlebay? Right, the away mission. Harry must have just gotten back. Good.

One reassurance down, one to go.

Paris got to his feet and walked to his desk, pulling the display screen to face him. With a few touches, he had tapped into the helm’s sensors and verified the readout. No sign of Vidiian ships. No sign of much of anything.

Only when he was sure that his friends were safe and the ship was in no danger could he let himself try to fall back to sleep. “Computer,” he said as he sat back down on the bed. “Dim the lights.”

~*~*~*~*~

Why was it, B’Elanna wondered, that all good things came at a very high price. After weeks of scouting for supplies with no success, she and Neelix had finally found a moon with a deep vein of polypherinite. But during the same mission, Ensign Bennet, one of her junior engineers had been killed in a shuttle accident, and Tuvok had almost started a diplomatic incident with a species called the Drayans. They’d finally gotten Drayan permission to mine the ore, but their survey had cost them the life of a kind young man with his whole future ahead of him, including–B’Elanna knew–a budding romance with Ensign McCormick.

Now, less than a month later, they’d come across a planet covered in edible vegetation and rich with other critical resources, only to have Captain Janeway and Chakotay contract a life-threatening illness from one of its native insects. The scouting parties–which had included Tom and Harry–had only been on the surface a few hours before the two senior officers each reported developing a large red welt (Chakotay’s on the back of his neck; the captain’s on her face). They’d beamed back to the ship immediately, but it was too late.

It didn’t take the doctor long to find evidence of the insects that had burrowed through their skin. It also took almost no time before Janeway and Chakotay were near death from the virus the creatures had transmitted with their bites.

The doctor had put the captain and first officer into stasis for over two weeks, trying to delay the progression of their disease, and searching the whole time for a cure. Soon he discovered that the planet’s atmosphere might offer some level of protection from the native virus. Desperate and out of options, he’d ask that the two be beamed down to the surface.

His hypothesis was correct: as soon as air from the planet was pumped into the stasis chambers, the offers’ vital signs began improving. Soon the doctor’s scans showed they were practically recovered from the worst of the symptoms. But there was a serious problem, however: as soon as they left the protection of the planet’s environment, they’d become fatally ill once again.

B’Elanna’s mind worked overtime trying to think of a solution. If this were a mechanical malfunction she could throw herself into it, deconstruct and rebuild it until she’d come up with a plan. But all her ingenuity was wasted on a medical mystery. And she hated the helpless feeling that now overwhelmed her.

~~

Tom was at the helm when the doctor gave the command to deactivate the stasis chambers. At least now the captain and commander could participate in the search for their own cure. They were running out of options, Paris knew. Still, there had to be something they hadn’t considered. Something besides…he didn’t even want to think about it.

Their last senior staff briefing had revealed one potential solution: the Doctor reminded everyone that they were still on the outskirts of Vidiian space. As they’d learned from painful experience, the search for a cure for the phage had advanced the cause of Vidiian medicine well beyond the limited understanding of Federation doctors–including Voyager ‘s EMH. It was possible that, were they to contact the Vidiians, they could negotiate for information that might lead them to a cure for the virus.

But there had to be another way, another solution other than walking back into the hands of a people who had brutalized so many of Voyager ‘s crew. Paris was considering the problem in his mind when he received the call. “Tuvok to Paris. Report to the Ready Room.” Good. Maybe there was news.

It was odd to see Tuvok sitting behind the captain’s desk. It made sense: he was the senior officer on board now–had been running Voyager for almost three weeks–and the convenience of a bridge-side office was the entire point of the room. Still, it had always felt like an extension of Kathryn Janeway’s personal quarters–she spent more time in her office than her home–and anyone else behind her desk would never seem right.

“Have a seat, Mr. Paris,” Tuvok instructed in his normal, clipped tone. Tom did as he was ordered. “I have just spoken with Captain Janeway, and she has turned command of Voyager over to me on a permanent basis. We will be leaving orbit within the next twelve hours and resuming a course for Earth.”

Tom’s jaw almost hit the floor. Of all the options he’d considered, abandoning Janeway and Chakotay on this planet had never occurred to him. “We’re leaving without them?”

“That is correct. And, as you are now second in command, I am appointing you acting first officer until further notice.” Now Paris was really stunned. “I will expect you to take over some of Commander Chakotay’s basic responsibilities including crew assignments and ship’s status reports.”

Tom was at a loss for words. “Sir, I’m a pilot. I really can’t see myself…”

Tuvok interrupted. “Once we are out of communication range with the planet I will decide on more permanent assignments. Until that time, you are a first officer and a pilot. Is that clear?”

Paris’s world was now on its ear. He was the first officer. Captain Tuvok’s first officer. Two of his friends and colleagues–including the woman who had given him his new life–would be stranded on a planet in the Delta Quadrant for the rest of theirs. It was too much to take in. Tuvok barely seemed to notice.

“We will need to inform the senior staff. Please have them join us in the briefing room in ten minutes.”

Tom’s brain was on autopilot now. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Right away.”

As he walked back onto the bridge, Paris had the strange sensation of not knowing where to sit. He moved to Chakotay’s command console and opened the intercom. “Senior staff to the briefing room,” he said hesitantly, not sure he’d ever get used to this.

It didn’t make sense to relieve Baytart for the ten minutes it would take everyone to gather, yet Tom wasn’t prepared to take his new chair for that long either. Not yet. “You have the bridge, Mr. Rollins,” he called over his shoulder, in what felt like another surreal moment. “I’ll be in the briefing room.”

Still another odd decision. While seats at staff meetings were never assigned, there were certain patterns that had developed over the years. Almost without exception, Captain Janeway sat at the head of the table with her back to the viewport. Chakotay and Tuvok occasionally alternated positions, but it was a sure thing that both would be sitting in the seats to the immediate right and left of the captain. The rest of the senior staff grabbed whatever chair was closest, though Tom always tried to scout out a seat near one of his friends.

Not too long after their journey started, he’d found himself choosing whatever seat gave him the best view of B’Elanna. They didn’t know each other well then, but Paris was fascinated by her, and enjoyed watching her think through problems during their meetings. Something about the intelligence in her eyes always kept him interested–and very aware that she was a force to be reckoned with.

These days, however, he found he preferred being near her to watching her during briefings. Whether by accident or design, no matter who arrived first, if there were an empty seat next to the other, Tom or B’Elanna would occupy it without thinking.

Today, as he looked at the empty room, Paris knew where he would be sitting. He took the chair to the immediate left of his new captain’s, and waited for the rest of the staff to arrive.

He was happy when B’Elanna showed up first. (Odd how she always seemed to do that even though her station was the farthest away.)

“Any news?” she asked. He nodded, but didn’t speak. She could tell from the look on his face that it wasn’t good.

Torres took the chair next to him, practically grunting as she sat. “I can’t believe this. An insect bite. If it weren’t so awful it would be funny.”

“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “I know what you mean.” He leaned his elbows on the table and rested his head against his hands. He was surprised when he felt B’Elanna lean closer to him.

“You’re really close to Captain Janeway, aren’t you?” The question took Paris off guard.

“I owe her a lot, if that’s what you mean. My life before Voyager was…” he suddenly realized who he was talking to. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard all about it.” He let his voice trail off.

“Not really,” she said sincerely. “And what I did hear I didn’t pay much attention to. But I know the captain means a lot to you.”

He nodded. “They both do.” Tom realized B’Elanna was in the same position. “Have you spoken with Chakotay?” he asked.

Torres shook her head. “No.” Her voice was soft. “I’ll call him later. But I have no idea what to say.”

Tom saw a look come across B’Elanna’s face, and he thought about his conversation with Chakotay in Sandrine’s a few weeks earlier. Despite the commander’s reassurances, Paris still wondered how much B’Elanna felt for her oldest friend. Not that it mattered; if what Chakotay had said were true and they were more brother and sister than potential lovers, his loss would still be devastating for her.

For the hundredth time that day, he wished he could think of something to do to make it right.

Before he could say anything else, Neelix and Kes came through the doors, with Harry right behind them. Tom wondered now if it was his job to call Tuvok and tell him they were ready and waiting. Before he could decide, the lieutenant–the captain–arrived.

“I have received orders from Captain Janeway,” he began, filling the staff in as he had Tom. The news was almost impossible to believe. Tom tried to point out that–as Voyager’s new captain–Tuvok could always rescind Janeway’s orders and stay behind. Without any prospects for a cure, however, there didn’t seem to be a point. They’d leave a type-9 shuttlecraft, Tuvok reminded them–giving some chance for the two officers to make their own way home should Janeway’s research turn up anything.

No one needed Tom to do the math for them, but he felt compelled to say it anyway. “A type 9 shuttle has a top speed of warp 4. It won’t take them more than, oh, about seven-hundred years to get home.”

“I’m not sure what it is you expect me to do, Lieutenant,” Tuvok asked.

Suddenly realizing he was looking for more than just a solution to their problem, Tom couldn’t help letting his own frustration show through. “I guess clearly something you can’t do, which is to feel as rotten about this as we do.”

Not able to suddenly stop being a Vulcan, Tuvok ordered the staff back to work. As he left, Tom noticed Harry sitting alone and dejected at the far end of the table. Kim hadn’t said much during the meeting, but Paris knew his friend wasn’t taking this development very well. Not having a clue what to say to comfort him, Tom left Harry alone with his thoughts and went back to work, deciding before he left the briefing room that he’d be returning to the helm.

~*~*~*~*~

There was some irony, B’Elanna knew, that in the wake of their losses, she and Tom Paris had become the role models for Starfleet discipline on Voyager. Not that they didn’t know and understand the frustrations of their colleagues. But, without a reasonable plan for curing the virus, the two lieutenants both seemed to take some comfort in the routines of their work.

They also seemed to have something else in common: a distance had opened between each of them and Harry Kim. Sometimes she forgot how young Harry was–not necessarily in age (he and B’Elanna were only two years apart)–but in life experience. Torres was beginning to realize that Kim was used to getting his way. He’d been pampered as a child prodigy, and didn’t have a lot of experience dodging the kinds of obstacles life had regularly thrown at her.

While the crisis had created a space between her and Harry, it seemed to have had the opposite effect on her relationship with Tom. Something about the way he was handling his new responsibilities showed a kind of maturity she hadn’t really associated with Paris before. She noticed something else, too. With the ship’s systems in decent shape now–and with the Tom doing double duty as helmsman and exec, he was the one working non-stop. And B’Elanna was suddenly in the position to return a few favors.

As Voyager’s acting first officer, Paris needed to be in regular contact with the chief engineer, and–with Tom refusing to use Chakotay’s office–they’d begun meeting every other day in Tom’s quarters to review engineering reports. Knowing they were scheduled to meet at 1700 hours, Torres had left herself one hour after her shift to get everything ready. She checked the time: it was 1550. She’d have to hurry.

~~

Of all the words used to describe Tom Paris, workaholic had never been in the top 200. Not that he didn’t love his job; piloting an advanced starship through uncharted space was a childhood dream come true. But eight hours of doing any one thing seemed to tax Paris’s patience and attention span.

That those eight hours were followed by eight more of paperwork and red tape made him want to bang his head against the bulkhead. But these were stressful times, and–weird as it was–he was in a leadership position and Paris knew he had to hold it all together until their new lives could be sorted out. And tonight, considering who was delivering them, reviewing those reports might not be so bad.

He was almost at the door to his cabin when he smelled it. He stopped in the corridor for a moment and smiled.

Walking into the room, his eyes confirmed his nose’s assessment. “Pizza!” He said, grinning at the woman setting his dining table.

She was moving back to the replicator for her next surprise. “Yep. Half-pepperoni, half-mushrooms.”

“Mushrooms?” Tom winced. “I thought you liked pepperoni?”

B’Elanna was turning around and he could see she was holding two cold glasses of beer. “You like pepperoni. I like mushrooms.” Somewhere this information was being filed for future reference in Tom’s mind. “Now have a seat.”

Accustomed to taking orders from a beautiful woman, Paris did as he was told.

They spent some time talking about the day they’d just finished, comparing notes on Harry’s declining mood, and speculating on when or whether Tuvok was going to start wearing the extra pips his new rank now allowed. The thought made B’Elanna wonder something else.

“There’s probably another pip in your future,” she said casually. “Now that you’re on the fast-track to command.” She’d meant it as a joke, but Tom suddenly seemed uncomfortable. “You want the first officer’s job, don’t you?”

She watched a series of emotions play across his face. “Not really. Though I’m glad my father can’t hear me say that.”

Torres was confused. She knew Paris was the son of a highly decorated, almost infamous Starfleet admiral. She also knew he’d been kicked out of the service before joining the Maquis, though the details were never clear to her. Jonas had told B’Elanna that Tom killed some people–though that didn’t seem likely once she got to know him. No matter; getting booted out of the ‘Fleet and ending up in jail as a Maquis terrorist couldn’t have been good for Tom’s relationship with the admiral.

“Weren’t you in command school at the Academy?” she asked. “I assumed you’d want your own ship one day.”

She was surprised when Tom laughed out loud. “My own boat, maybe, but… Commanding a starship is the family business,” he explained. “It was my father’s dream, not mine. I resisted the idea my entire life. I’ll do it if I have to–I don’t want to let Tuvok down–but I won’t enjoy it.”

This was a rare moment, B’Elanna knew; Tom was opening up, talking about his past. She didn’t want to push too hard, but there were some questions she wanted to ask. “I guess things were rough between you and your father after you…left…Starfleet.”

He looked up at her and smiled. “After I was thrown out, you mean. Actually, it was rough for about two hours. And then it wasn’t anything at all.” She didn’t understand. “He kicked me out of his house and his life that day. I haven’t seen him or talked to him since.”

B’Elanna was stunned. “Tom, what was it you did? That got you discharged.”

She was afraid for a moment that he wouldn’t answer. When he did, the bluntness of his revelation surprised her. “I killed three people in a shuttle accident, and then I lied about it.” He was watching her eyes for a reaction, seeing if she pulled back or was shocked. Instead, the look on her face was compassion. “I got away with it, too. But I had trouble living with myself, so after a while I confessed.”

B’Elanna could sense that there was more, so she just waited for him to continue. “You know, I thought my father would be angry that I’d cost three people their lives. But he was more upset that I was too afraid to tell the truth. The Admiral has a thing about Starfleet honor. He called me a coward. And I guess he was right.”

Without consciously deciding to do it, B’Elanna slid her arm across the table and took Tom’s hand in hers. She squeezed it gently before pulling away. He wasn’t a coward, she knew. But maybe thinking of himself as one explained a lot of the crazy risks she’d seen him take over the years. Maybe he had something to prove to his father. To himself.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked. He’d been more than patient with her stories about her childhood and her struggle to accept being half-Klingon. She was happy to return the favor.

“Not tonight,” he said, changing the topic and the mood. “We should get to work on those reports.” He started to push back from the table, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“You know, you can talk to me about this when you’re ready,” she said sincerely.

He just smiled. “I know. And I will. Just not now, okay?”

She nodded. “Deal. But you need to reconsider this first officer job, Paris, because I’m next in line and there’s no way in hell I’m giving up my engine room for a pile of paperwork.”

Her joke worked; he laughed. Then they got to work, all the while Tom picturing B’Elanna barking orders in Klingon from the center seat, her wondering when or if he’d ever trust her enough to share the rest of his secrets, and both of them very grateful that they had each other to lean on as their world was turned upside down yet again.

~*~*~*~*~

Not many people would have predicted that Harry Kim would one day start a mutiny. Fewer would have guessed that Tom Paris would be the person trying to talk some sense into his angry and insubordinate friend. But this morning Kim had detected a Vidiian convoy on Voyager’s sensors. A potential cure for Captain Janeway and Chakotay was within hailing range, yet Tuvok refused to make contact. Harry had actually made a scene on the bridge–begging with his eyes for Tom to join the cause. It hadn’t worked.

Dismissed from duty–and just moments from having been sent to the brig–Kim was stewing. Not only that Tuvok wouldn’t listen to reason, but that his best friend had refused to support him.

Tom had reassured Tuvok that he could talk Harry out of this asinine plan over some dinner. But when he called Harry to his quarters, Paris found his friend’s heels firmly dug into the deckplates. Tom was equally firm in his support of Tuvok. This only made Harry madder.

They’d been arguing for fifteen minutes when Kim’s anger finally exploded. From the intensity of Harry’s outburst, Tom guessed he’d thought of nothing else since he’d been escorted from the bridge that morning. “Tom, what’s happened to you? You’re first officer for less than a month and I feel like I don’t even know you anymore. Since when do orders and protocols mean more to you than your friends?”

Paris was furious at Kim’s insinuation. “This has nothing to do with Tuvok and his stupid orders.” Why couldn’t Harry see that? “Forgive me if I can’t stand the thought of us inviting the Vidiians over for dinner and a little scientific exchange, but considering how many times they’ve tried to kill us all, I think it’s a terrible idea. I won’t help you, Harry. It’s too risky.”

Not surprisingly, Harry disagreed. “Not if we plan for every contingency. The Doc knows and trusts Dr. Pel. He thinks she’ll help us. Besides, we have the best bargaining chip in the quadrant; B’Elanna’s DNA might be the only chance they have to cure the phage. I think they’ll be willing to…”

“You are not going to ask her to help you with this stupid plan.” Tom’s anger just notched up dramatically.

“I already did–at lunch today.” Harry was almost smug. “She thinks it’s worth the risk.”

The look on Tom’s face was equal parts disbelief and determination, but his voice had turned ice cold. “Well it’s not. Tuvok will never agree to this and neither will I. And I can’t believe you’d even ask that of one of your best friends.” Kim noticed that Paris’s anger now included more than a touch of fear. But he was resolved to make his point.

“It’s a simple medical procedure, Tom. The Doc says she won’t be at any risk. Besides, don’t you think it’s up to B’Elanna to decide?”

Paris exploded. “You didn’t see what they did to her, Harry! What they did to Durst. I won’t let that happen again.” Paris threw the datapad he’d been holding onto his desk and walked away from his friend.

Harry thought for a moment of something he had seen: Tom Paris, dead, lying in B’Elanna’s lap, the bodies of dozens of other crewmates strewn around the ship where the Vidiians had left them after harvesting their organs. He tried to push the image to the back of his mind. Kim knew that the Vidiians were dangerous and deadly. But he also believed the risk could be managed.

“Tom, nothing will happen to her. We won’t let it.”

Paris closed his eyes and shook his head. “You don’t know that.” When he turned around to face his friend, his voice was trembling. “Harry, if they capture Voyager, they’ll kill us. But they’ll torture her.”

Suddenly it all made sense. Kim took a deep breath and sighed. He understood why his best friend had been so unwilling to agree to help: he was trying to protect the woman he was almost certainly in love with. Harry had suspected Tom was starting to fall for B’Elanna, and had even begun to think it might be a mutual attraction. No wonder Tom was so afraid at the thought of taking any risk with her safety.

But Kim was equally sure that his plan would work. “You really care about her. So do I. We’ll keep her safe, Tom, I promise.”

Paris looked up and into the eyes of his best friend. “I can’t take that chance. I won’t help you, Harry. I’m sorry.” He walked back to his desk and picked up the PADD once again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll skip dinner. I have a lot of work to do.”

Harry knew his plan wasn’t the only thing being dismissed. He also knew this wasn’t over by a long shot.

~*~*~*~*~

They were in the mines. B’Elanna was ill and barely able to keep moving. Tom tried to carry her load and his, but the rocks were too heavy. He stumbled, and they went crashing to the dirt, attracting the attention of the guard.

B’Elanna was bent over now, her hands on her knees, trying to find enough strength to go on. “You’ve got to keep going,” Tom said to her. “He’s coming this way.” Still she didn’t move.

“B’Elanna, please!” She sat down and leaned against the wall. He could tell she was about to lose consciousness. “B’Elanna!” But she couldn’t respond. Tom bent down and lifted her off the ground. He had to get her out of there before the guards realized how useless she was in her condition. Useless prisoners, he knew, quickly became organ donors.

He stumbled backward and into a dark passageway. B’Elanna’s small frame was cradled in his arms as Tom searched for a door or an opening–any way out. He was practically running now, stopping only long enough to check over his shoulder. He could hear the footsteps; he knew they were following him.

As he turned back around, he ran full-force into Harry. His friend’s eyes were dark and empty. He was blocking Tom’s way.

“Give her to me, Tom,” Harry said. “I’ll protect her, I promise.”

“No!” Paris screamed. “Get back!”

Harry was persistent, though, his voice becoming agitated, his eyes ablaze. “What are you afraid of, Tom? Are you a coward? Give her to me!”

He heard the familiar voice of Captain Janeway approaching from behind. “Don’t you want to save us, Tom?” she asked. “Don’t you want to rescue us?” Paris didn’t know what to do. But he knew he couldn’t let B’Elanna go. Not even to Harry or the captain. He could see a familiar look of determination in Janeway’s eyes. “Hand her over, Mister Paris. That’s an order!”

When he looked back at Harry, Tom saw that his friend’s face was now twisted and distorted from the phage. “I’ll protect her, Tom,” Kim reassured him. “Trust me.”

“No!” Paris screamed as he jolted awake.

And the nightly ritual of reassurance began again.

~*~*~*~*~

Harry had always been a persuasive guy. Whether it was his obvious intelligence–or his childlike earnestness–he was a young man who knew how to get what he wanted. And as Tom watched him marshal his forces in the mess hall, he had to admit he was impressed.

Alone or with the help of Hogan and Kaplan, Kim had convinced most of the crew to support his plan. Tom watched as Harry held court at the far end of the mess hall, whipping up their emotions and trying to think of a logical argument that might work on their Vulcan captain. Clearly on the record with his objections, Paris knew he wasn’t welcome at this gathering, but he’d be damned if he’d be driven away from his breakfast routine. Besides, as Voyager’s first officer, it was good for him to keep an eye on any potential mutineers.

Trying to focus on the duty roster while spying on his friends meant Tom was too preoccupied to notice B’Elanna come up behind him. “He’d have made a great Maquis, don’t you think?”

Paris looked up at her and smiled. “I don’t know,” he joked, “I just can’t see Harry in leather.”

Torres sat across from Tom and he noticed she hadn’t picked up something to eat. “You’d better hurry; the scrambled eggs are almost gone, and that would leave the yucca fritters–which I can tell you from experience are appropriately named.”

B’Elanna smiled. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” Her smiled hadn’t faded, but she seemed a little subdued.

Tom could guess what was on her mind. “Don’t worry, B’Elanna. Tuvok is never gonna agree to contact the Vidiians. No matter how much Harry lobbies.”

“Actually,” she said softly, “I wish he would agree. I think Harry’s plan could work.”

Tom couldn’t believe it. “You’d be willing to fly right into their hands? Knowing what they’ll do to us if we’re captured?”

She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “If there’s a chance for us to find a cure for the captain and Chakotay, we have to take it. And, if my DNA can help the Vidiians put an end to the phage, they wouldn’t need to keep killing people anymore.”

Tom could tell that B’Elanna was trying to convince herself as much as him. And he was moved by her bravery. But he still wasn’t convinced. “Don’t ask me to support this idea, B’Elanna. I can’t do it.”

She nodded. “Alright. But if Harry and the others are able to change Tuvok’s mind, promise me that you won’t fight it.”

His own feelings now conflicted–and still fairly sure that Tuvok would never go along with this crazy idea–Tom nodded. B’Elanna smiled at him, then headed back to work.

As he watched her leave, Paris was struck by how willing she was to risk everything to save her friends. And he had to admit that he was surprised by his own reaction to Harry’s idea. Since when was he afraid of a risky mission? What was so different about this situation? He couldn’t figure it out.

But he’d made B’Elanna a promise, and he would keep it. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Paris started running tactical scenarios. If they did end up facing the Vidiians, he was going to be ready.

~*~*~*~*~

Once Kes was recruited to the cause, Tom knew what the outcome would be. Her sweetness hid an iron will and a command of logical argument second only to Tuvok’s. Paris was suddenly glad he’d started preparing himself for the mission.

The ringleaders of this little campaign were gathered on the bridge with the rest of the senior staff, waiting to hear from their captain. Kes wouldn’t need long, Tom suspected, to bring the Vulcan around to her way of thinking. Still, part of him hoped those ready room doors would never open.

B’Elanna seemed to sense his nervousness, and she put her hand on his arm. She didn’t say anything, though she did nod toward the young man standing just behind Paris near the tactical station. He turned to see Harry pacing a hole in the carpet–all of his friend’s planning and scheming coming down to these final moments.

Kim stopped when he saw Paris looking right at him. He seemed nervous, but confident. “You’re with us, aren’t you, Tom?” he said quietly.

Paris felt B’Elanna take a step toward him, even though his back was to her now. Their non-verbal communication was in full force; he knew what she wanted him to say. “Yeah, Harry. I’m with you.” So maybe his tone was less than convincing, but he’d gotten the words out.

They didn’t have time to discuss it before the office doors opened and Tuvok came onto the bridge. Tom could barely concentrate on what his captain was saying, but five words jumped right out at him. “We will contact the Vidiians.” And it was done.

~*~*~*~*~

For the first time in his life, Tom hated being proven right. While the Vidiian doctor claimed to have an antiviral agent that could cure Janeway and Chakotay, their scheduled rendezvous with her ship turned out to be an ambush. Three Vidiian vessels now surrounded them, and Voyager was outgunned and outmatched. Enemy weapons were doing serious damage to the ship and her crew, and they had only one hope to escape: a plan Tuvok devised that depended thoroughly on the skill and teamwork of Paris and his two best friends–with an assist from the Doc and Denarra Pel.

It would go something like this: they’d drop shields just long enough to beam over the antiviral agent. Then B’Elanna would eject a container of antimatter into space, Harry would detonate it with the ship’s phasers, and then Tom would get them the hell out of there before they could be caught in the explosion. It would require a kind of precision that might have needed weeks of practice–if they all hadn’t known each other’s moves so well.

With one shot at getting it right, Tuvok began giving the orders in sequence. In a matter of seconds, it all played out: they had the antiviral serum, they’d detonated the explosive–disabling all three Vidiian ships–and they were now backtracking at high warp to pick up the captain and Chakotay.

They’d done it. Paris could barely believe it.

When they were safely out of range of the Vidiian ships, Tom looked over his shoulder to the young man at the ops console. Harry was grinning before he even caught Paris’s eyes. Now very aware of how right and wrong they had both been, the friends shared a moment of silent thanks and congratulations before getting back to work.

One day, Tom knew, their luck might run out. The Vidiians were just one of the many Delta Quadrant races less than thrilled with Voyager and her crew–and they’d barely begun the journey home. The odds said that one day they might find themselves in a showdown they couldn’t win.

But not today.

~*~*~*~*~

They’d never been so anxious for a duty shift to end. Despite the repairs made necessary by the Vidiian attack, Paris had pulled rank–while he still could–and ordered Harry and B’Elanna to take the night off. They’d meet in B’Elanna’s quarters–a concession to her desire to stay as close as possible to main engineering–and Tom would supply the dinner. Harry, as the mastermind behind their successful plan–would bring only himself.

Torres was home when the men arrived–making a break-in unnecessary this time–and it only took her a moment to realize that Paris was empty handed.

“I thought you were on dinner duty, Flyboy,” she said, using a term of endearment Tom had never heard from her before. He decided he kind of liked it, and noticed that she seemed almost giddy–a rare state for B’Elanna, even when she was in a good mood.

“I am,” he laughed. “But I thought I’d use your ‘kitchen,’ if you don’t mind.”

She pointed him in the direction of her replicator. “As long as you don’t use my ration account–I know how you like to go snooping through my access codes.” She was trying to sound agitated, but her voice was more sultry than snippy.

“No need,” Paris answered as he punched in his first order. “This meal is courtesy of Captain-Soon-to-be-Lieutenant-Again Tuvok. ‘For a job well done,’ or so he said.”

B’Elanna was stunned. “Tuvok–giving us extra rations–did you ask the doctor to check him out?”

“Actually,” Tom laughed, “a few more minutes with Kes, and I think our captain would have cooked the meal himself. Kes can talk him into anything. She missed her calling. Clearly she would have been the perfect choice to be Tuvok’s first officer.”

“I don’t know,” Harry said, sincerely, “I think the one he had was pretty damn good.”

Tom was working at the replicator with his back to his friends, and resisted the temptation to turn around at Harry’s compliment. He knew Kim’s opinion of his performance as second in command hadn’t been as high only a day earlier. Still, after all they’d been through, it made him smile.

“Well, tonight I’m not the pilot or the exec–I’m the chef. Now have a seat.” He walked to the table and held out a chair for B’Elanna, who looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “Madame,” he said, in a very bad impression of a waiter in a French restaurant.

“Mademoiselle, actually,” she reminded him, with a twinkle of–he wasn’t sure, flirtation?–in her eyes as she took the seat he offered. “You’d think someone named Paris who spent years in Marseilles would know the difference.”

“Pardonez-moi,” he covered. “Don’t tell Sandrine.” Tom hurried off and brought back two perfectly prepared chicken salads, returning a moment later with his own, a bottle of wine, and three glasses.

“What, no pizza?” B’Elanna teased.

“I thought we’d have your favorite dinner tonight–since it’s your place.” He uncorked the wine and poured for them all. “And I’d like to propose a toast: to Harry Kim–visionary tactical strategist. Sure he almost got us all killed, but it all worked out in the end.” He was glad to see Harry laugh at his friendly jibe. “And to B’Elanna Torres, who proved once again that a little antimatter and some attitude can go a long way.”

Harry felt the compelled to interject. “And to Tom Paris: a great pilot who, even when he’s wrong, has the humility not to admit it. Cheers!”

The friends clinked their glasses, all properly celebrated and chastised.

They were quiet for a moment as they ate. There was still some unresolved tension between Harry and Tom. B’Elanna tried to think of something to talk about.

“So, I think the captain and Chakotay will be surprised to hear from us. How long before we’re in com range?”

“About three weeks if we maintain warp 8,” Harry answered. “Can you imagine the thought of being trapped on a planet in the middle of nowhere with only one other person for company–for the rest of your life?!”

He was surprised when neither of his friends answered right away. “Well…” Tom started softly, “I guess it depends on who the other person was.” Harry noticed that–while his expression was totally innocent–Paris couldn’t seem to take his eyes off B’Elanna as he answered. “Under the right circumstances, it might not be so bad.”

Torres avoided Tom’s gaze, looking down at her salad. “Sure,” she agreed. “If you were safe and with someone you cared for…what’s not to like?” She looked up at Tom, who immediately looked away.

“True,” Harry said, acutely aware of the silent conversation happening in front of him. “I just can’t picture the captain and Chakotay alone for two months, much less twenty years. I bet they’re driving each other crazy.”

They all laughed. It did seem a little difficult to imagine: the by-the-book Starfleet captain and the renegade Maquis she’d been sent to hunt down. It hadn’t been that long ago that Janeway had planned an entire covert operation without even telling Chakotay. They each enjoyed the mental picture of two of Voyager’s most headstrong officers trying to make a life for themselves alone on that planet.

“Well,” Tom smiled, “the cavalry is coming. I’m just not sure who’s being rescued from whom!”

Harry was enjoying the image of another couple he knew–also headstrong, also famous for their ability to drive each other crazy–trapped together for life. “So,” he was about to start some trouble, “if you had to be trapped on a deserted planet with one other person, who would you pick?”

“You first, Harry,” Tom said almost immediately. If he was stalling for time, it wasn’t going to work.

“That’s easy,” Kim answered. “Libby. Your turn.”

Tom sensed that Harry was getting him back for not supporting his Vidiian plan. Or for all those lost games of pool. Or for any number of other indignities that came with being the best friend of Tom Paris.

“Well, I don’t know. It would have to be a beautiful woman, of course. And, assuming we’ll have to build our own shelter, she’d have to be strong and handy with tools. Did I mention that she’d be beautiful…?”

B’Elanna rolled her eyes. “Does this mystery woman have a brain–no, wait–she’s agreed to live alone on a planet with you. Silly question.”

Tom ignored her. “A smart woman–did I mention she’d be smart? Above-average intelligence, definitely.” He let his sarcastic tone turn gentle. “And she’d have to be a great dancer…”

He let his voice trail off. Harry could sense another silent conversation coming on, and decided to up the ante. “What about you, Maquis?”

B’Elanna pushed a piece of chicken around her plate with her fork. She refused to look at either man. “I don’t know…” she seemed hesitant to play this little game. But some part of her knew she’d be tormented until she did. “I suppose he’d be handsome–in a dopey kind of way–smart enough, and it wouldn’t kill him to have a decent sense of humor. Assuming there are no restaurants nearby, he’d have to be a good cook.” It seemed for a moment that she’d leave it at that, but then she added–almost under her breath–”And he’d have to be able to stand living with a Klingon…”

Tom looked up at her, and then to Harry. There was clearly a story there. But he got the strong sense that B’Elanna didn’t care to share it. “Well,” he said after an awkward moment, “anyone ready for dessert?”

Paris replicated an apple pie–Harry’s favorite reminder of his mother’s cooking–and the friends spent two hours catching up on ship’s gossip. Kim noticed that, for the rest of the evening, Tom and B’Elanna avoided looking at each other. Something had changed, Harry suspected. Perhaps they’d admitted more than they meant to.

A little after 2300 hours, B’Elanna started to yawn, and Tom suggested it might be time to go. He was still the first officer, he reminded them, and he ordered them both to get a good night’s sleep.

As the men walked to the turbolift, Harry decided he needed to end this dancing around the truth once and for all. “So, when are you going to tell her?” he asked.

“Tell who what?” Tom pressed the button for the lift.

“B’Elanna. That you’re crazy about her.”

Paris’s eyes darted up one end of the corridor and down the other. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re friends.”

The lift came, and Tom couldn’t get in it fast enough. “Deck 6,” he said.

“You’re forgetting something,” Harry was determined to finish their conversation. “I know you better than anyone on this ship. You’re falling in love with her. If you can’t admit it to me, at least admit it to yourself.”

“You’re crazy.” Tom was quiet for a moment. “Besides, what difference would it make,” he finally said. “She’s made it pretty clear that she’s not interested.” When he got the courage to look at Kim’s face, he saw a wide grin. “What?!” Paris demanded.

The lift stopped on Deck 6. “Harry!” Tom called as his friend walked away.

“Night, Tom,” Kim said as he turned back to face Paris. His grin had evolved into a chuckle. “Pleasant dreams.” Harry hit the lift button, pushed Tom squarely in the chest, then yelled into the cab, “Deck 4.”

“Harry!” Paris called as the doors began to close. “Harry!”

As Kim walked to his quarters, he had to smile. Tom had as much as admitted the truth. Harry was sure B’Elanna felt the same way.

He thought for a minute about all they’d been through lately. Twice in only a few months, they’d faced incredible and painful losses–and had prevailed. Now, the two people Harry cared the most about seemed to be on the verge of discovering something Kim had known for weeks. And, though they weren’t abandoned on a deserted planet, they were stranded together on a starship in the middle of nowhere–with, it seemed, the person of their dreams.

Navigation

Next Page >> DOTS#4: Dreams & Nightmares, Part 3

Comments

Leave a Response