DOTS#6: Ranks & Rationalizations, Part 1

RATING

R for sexual situations. Shoo, children! Shoo!

SUMMARY

Another in my ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, immediately following “The Chute.” Ever wonder why B’Elanna was so crampy and fidgety in that shuttle? Ever wondered what Tom’s Lake Como sailing program was really like? Ever wondered how the Doc got back all those memories he lost? Well, P/T fans, you’re in the right place…

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

“The Swarm”

CODES

P/T, P&T&K, everyone else shows up, too

DISCLAIMER

Many people consider “The Swarm” the first canon P/T episode. For that, I would like to thank Voyager staff writer Mike Sussman. But, after watching it 15 times to write this story, that’s about all I’d like to thank him for. Nevertheless, much of the middle of this story reflects his ideas…

NOTE

This story is 98% angst-free! (Finally!) But we are heading towards “Blood Fever” and a lot of these episodes are building toward that sexually-oriented episode. I’ve tried to stay inside the bounds of taste, but finally just wrote what felt right to me. If any of it feels wrong to you, write your own stories…

DEDICATION

Some beta readers correct your spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Some fact check so you don’t embarrass yourself by calling someone a Bowly Ann instead of a Bolian. And—don’t get me wrong—Briar Rose has done all of those things. But for this story, she also ran into the burning building that was my absolute lack of imagination, threw a protective blanket over me and carried me out thrown over one shoulder. The CTD series might have stopped right here if it wasn’t for her. Thanks for the rescue, BR!

Text Download: CTDranks1


“Deck 6.” B’Elanna leaned against the wall of the turbolift. It had been a long and tiring day, and she needed to get off her feet and relax. As she took the short ride up from engineering Torres hoped that’s what she was about to do.

It had been almost four days since she’d seen Harry Kim or Tom Paris. Freed from the Akritirian prison, both men had been relieved of duty for twenty-four hours and had spent the bulk of that time catching up on their sleep. When they were finally allowed back to work, she noticed that they seemed to avoid the crowded mess hall, preferring instead to have their meals in the holodeck lab, where rumor had it they were working on some new project.

B’Elanna wondered if her friends were having problems adjusting to being back on Voyager. She’d read the official report of their confinement and the torture they had endured, and she realized the psychological toll it must have taken on them both. Searching for some way to understand what Tom and Harry had been through, B’Elanna had also done something she would normally never have considered: she read their confidential medical files, using her security clearance to get around the privacy lockout. What she’d seen there had made her sick and furious.

Particularly disgusting to Voyager’s chief engineer were the notations about the device each man had embedded in his scalp. The oval disk—which the report’s annotation referred to as a ‘clamp’—was designed to keep its victims in a constant state of agitation. The aggression it caused combined with their exhaustion and fear to produce a kind of paranoid mania. It was amazing they had made it out with their sanity intact.

Reading the report had helped her to understand Harry’s outburst in sickbay when the men returned. Kim had been manic—almost crazed—when she first saw him, accusing her of not caring about Paris and screaming at her to leave Tom alone. Torres knew now that Harry had been exhausted and artificially agitated. But she couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t meant at least some of what he’d said. She had been behaving like a child, and she knew she’d probably hurt Tom in the process.

Now that they were back and safe, she’d mended her fences with Paris, and promised herself she’d be more careful with his feelings. And even though she’d overheard Tom talking in his sleep about Megan Delaney, B’Elanna had gone out of her way to let him know she still wanted to mend their friendship. Sure, she’d been hoping for something more, but it seemed like that just wasn’t in the cards.

Heading to Sandrine’s to have dinner with them for the first time in ages, she hoped she’d now get a chance to make things better with Harry, too.

She walked in to find her friends leaning on the pool table, in the middle of an animated conversation with the Delaney sisters.

Jenny was telling a story—in a typically Jenny way—punctuating each sentence by rubbing her hand up Harry’s arm. “…and then he dropped the entire tray onto the floor right in front of Captain Janeway and the soup splashed all over her boots! It was so embarrassing! I just kept thinking, ‘Please, don’t let anyone else see me with this clown!’”

Tom laughed. “Well, I don’t know, it sounds like you two really hit it off!” Jenny smacked his arm, before once again rubbing Harry’s.

B’Elanna noticed that, while the others seemed to be enjoying the story, Megan was looking more than a little embarrassed. She was standing next to Tom with her arms crossed, rolling her eyes each time her sister spoke.

It was a totally innocent scene, yet it instantly drove home to B’Elanna how isolated she’d made herself. Megan had moved into Tom’s life; now Jenny was moving into Harry’s. Torres felt jealous of both twins, and she wasn’t even sure why. For a moment, she considered leaving. Then she remembered that she was playing under new rules now; she’d plaster a smile on her face and soldier on.

Tom saw her standing there and waived for her to join them. “B’Elanna!” She was glad that he seemed happy to see her, yet she was surprised that he was now totally ignoring Megan. “Jenny was just telling us about her date with Chell.” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Jenny’s hand practically pushed him onto the green felt of the pool table.

“Tom! I am not dating Chell! You are terrible!” She giggled, then linked arms with Kim. “He’s your friend, Harry. Tell him to stop picking on me!”

Now, B’Elanna knew she was supposed to play nice. She knew that, if she wanted to stay their friend, she’d have to tolerate the women Harry and Tom decided to get involved with. Still, as she stood there listening to Jenny squeal, B’Elanna was reminded of a trick her idiot cousin Dean used to do at birthday parties: he’d take a helium-filled balloon and suck some of the gas into this throat, constricting his vocal cords. Then he’d try to talk, only to end up sounding like a chipmunk in heat. Take that noise to a slightly higher pitch and you’d have Jenny Delaney’s normal speaking voice. Jenny giggling was almost enough to shatter eardrums or call in dogs from the fields. B’Elanna tried not to wince from the pain.

And, while Torres had no particular love for the very chatty and often paranoid Bolian, Chell was harmless. She didn’t appreciate seeing four Fleet brats making fun of one of her Maquis friends. Even if they were letting her in on the joke.

To B’Elanna’s surprise, it was Megan who jumped in to scold her sister. “I think you’re horribly rude. Chell was just trying to help you and making fun of him is mean.” She looked at B’Elanna apologetically. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Lieutenant,” she said sincerely. “Let’s go, Jenny.” With that Megan headed for the door without so much as a goodbye to anyone. Including Tom.

‘Trouble in paradise?’ B’Elanna wondered. Still, she had to admit to a grudging respect for the way Megan had stood up for Chell. This might make it hard to keep hating her, Torres realized.

The three friends were now left alone to enjoy their evening out. But, in light of everything that had happened over the past few weeks, what had once been so easy and natural suddenly felt a little awkward. “Hi,” B’Elanna said tentatively as she took a step toward Harry.

“Hi,” Kim answered, looking at his feet.

They stood there feeling stupid for a few more seconds before Paris broke the tension. “Well, this scintillating conversation is making me thirsty. Beer?” His eyes darted from one friend to the other as he waited for some kind of confirmation that they could use a little time to talk without him in the way.

“Yes!” Harry and B’Elanna said in the same desperate tone at exactly the same time.

Tom just shook his head. “Why don’t you two find us a table? I’ll be there in a second—with three beers.” Tom smiled at Harry, then winked at B’Elanna before heading off to the bar.

“I think he was trying to give us some time alone,” Kim mumbled. “Let’s go sit down.”

They ended up sitting at opposite sides of a booth at the back of a bar that—until recently—had only had tables. “Where did this come from?” B’Elanna asked.

Harry had almost forgotten. The changes to Sandrine’s had been an afterthought, something Tom had been playing around with while waiting for him to show up to work on the new program the night before. “Oh, Tom added it. I think he’s getting bored with this place. He keeps talking about writing a new program. I’m not sure why.”

Quickly exhausting the topic at hand, they were once again at a loss for something to say. After a moment, Harry took a deep breath and dove in.

“B’Elanna, I’m sorry about what I said to you when we were in sickbay. You didn’t deserve that. I was just…I was feeling guilty about…about something that happened to Tom while we were gone, and I took it out on you. I hope you can forgive me.” He was looking down at the table, absentmindedly tracing the grain of the wood with his fingers.

Her voice was quiet. “You were just trying to protect him. And you were right; I was being a jerk. You’re a good friend, Starfleet. Don’t apologize for that.”

In light of his own behavior toward Tom in the prison, Harry suddenly felt very uncomfortable. B’Elanna reached across the table and let her hand graze his. “Harry, I know about the ‘clamp.’ Do you want to talk about it?”

He looked up at her with a pained expression in his eyes, and in that moment, B’Elanna realized that naïve little Ensign Kim had done some serious growing up in the past few weeks. “No. But thanks. I never want to think about that place or that thing again as long as I live.”

She smiled sadly. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Not being able to control your anger—feeling like you want to smash everything you can get your hands on. Makes you feel like an animal instead of a person…” Her voice trailed off.

It took Harry a moment to realize what she was saying. Then it dawned on him: B’Elanna lived with her own permanent version of ‘the clamp’: her Klingon temper. And in that moment, he had a whole new respect for the internal struggle his friend faced every day.

~~

Tom was having a struggle of his own: how to keep three cold glasses of beer from freezing his fingers off while he waited for the right moment to join his friends. He knew from the way Harry had been trying to avoid B’Elanna that something had happened between them while he was unconscious in sickbay. Harry wouldn’t talk about it, though, and had made it very clear he didn’t want Tom to, either. So Paris had kept his friend busy for the past few nights working on the matrix for a new holodeck program. He was glad, though, that when he suggested having dinner with B’Elanna earlier that day, Kim had agreed. It was time to put this all behind them and move on.

When he saw Torres reach out for Harry’s hand, he decided that was his cue.

“Three beers, as promised.” He sat the glasses down gingerly then slipped onto the seat next to B’Elanna. Impulsively, he turned and put his icy hands on either side of her face. Trapped in the booth’s inside seat, there was nowhere for her to run.

“Tom! What the hell are you doing?!” She was trying not to laugh, instead sticking her fingers into the closest glass and flicking beer into his face.

“Sorry, but that expression was way too serious. I am in a good mood and if you two want to cry in your beer tonight, you can do it at somebody else’s booth.” With that he picked up a mug and took a long drink.

“Speaking of which,” B’Elanna said, “why the changes to Sandrine’s?”

For a moment it looked like Tom was going to break his own rule and get reflective. Instead he just smiled, “It’s getting boring. I’ve spent too much time in this place. Besides, it’s depressing—all dark and smoky. I’m working on something new.”

B’Elanna was intrigued. “So, is that what you two were doing cooped up in the hololab for the last two nights?”

Harry smiled. “Actually, we’re helping Neelix with a little project. Tom mentioned that he’s thinking about closing down Sandrine’s and Neelix jumped at the chance to come up with his own public program. We’re just laying down the basic holomatrix for him. He’s doing the customization himself.”

“So what’s the theme?” B’Elanna wondered.

Tom rolled his eyes. “He won’t tell us. But he asked us to download some of the files from his ship’s database. Whatever it is, it’s probably going to be very…Talaxian.”

“Sounds…interesting.” B’Elanna smirked. “So, what is this new program you’re working on?”

Tom smiled quietly and took another drink of his beer. B’Elanna turned to Harry, who just shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I can’t get him to talk, either.”

Now she was intrigued. What kind of holoprogram could be so secret Tom wouldn’t even let Harry in on it? She decided there were ways to make Paris talk. She picked her beer up off of the table and once again dipped her fingers into the foam. Without taking her eyes off of Harry, she smiled and flicked her hand at Tom.

“Hey!” he said. “What the hell was that for?!”

She was still looking at Harry as she wet her fingers and once again sprinkled Paris with beer.

“B’Elanna! Cut it out!” He was pretending to be annoyed, but she could hear the laugher in his voice.

“So, are you going to tell us, or do you want to wear the rest of this home, too?” She was smiling at Harry, enjoying the way she was tormenting their friend. Then she felt it running down her neck…

She turned toward Paris just far enough to see that one of his hands was raised above her back, his own glass of beer tipped just enough to let a trickle of it pour down the side of her face and down her neck. Without thinking, she elbowed him in the side—a mistake when someone is delicately balancing a beer over your head…

The mug tipped and dumped its contents down the front of B’Elanna’s uniform. She was soaked, sticky, and freezing all in one instant. She closed her eyes and tried not to scream.

“Now, um, B’Elanna,” Tom was saying slowly and carefully. “Uh, you know, um, that was your fault.”

The worst thing was, he was right.

She could see Harry struggling mightily between two impulses: run for the door or laugh in her face. He was slowly giving in to the latter.

As Kim stifled a chuckle, B’Elanna looked down at her now dripping clothes. She was soaked from her chin to her knees, a fair portion of the drink having splashed off her chest and into her lap. It was a strange and not totally unpleasant sensation. She considered her options.

Slowly lifting her own, glass, B’Elanna took a sip and turned to smile at Tom. Then she dumped the rest of the drink into Paris’s crotch.

She saw him flinch and jump up in his seat as the cold beer covered his…pants. Smiling, she sat the mug in front of her wet friend and let out a satisfied sigh. “Ahhh. That was delicious. Tom would you mind getting me some more?”

Paris just sat there, blinking. Even though he expected some revenge for his little slip of the wrist, there really was no way to prepare your body to have two-thirds of a cold glass of beer hit its most sensitive spots. There was also no way he was standing up at the moment. Maybe not for a while.

“I think this round’s on Harry,” he said, gasping slightly. “And bring a few bar towels back with the drinks.”

Kim was openly laughing now, having enjoyed the show and grateful that he was able to walk away from the scene high and dry. He had barely moved away from the table when B’Elanna elbowed Tom in the ribs again. “Get out of my way.”

Tom didn’t budge. “I thought you wanted another beer?” he said innocently.

She was trying not to let him see her smile. “Tom, I’m drenched. I need to go get out of this wet uniform.”

Still, Paris didn’t budge. “I’m not walking back to my quarters until I dry off some, so get comfortable. You’re not going anywhere.” He drummed his fingers on the table and started to whistle.

She was trapped in the booth, and—at least until Harry got back—was unarmed. She exhaled in frustration. Then realized that the ship, which normally felt a little chilly to her, was downright cold when sitting in a wet uniform. The effect on her body was a little…invigorating.

She could tell she was soaked all the way through her tunic and undershirt when her breasts started to tingle from the chill. She considered pulling the wet fabric away from her skin, then realized she’d be putting on a show for her beer-drenched friend. Instead, she sat there quietly, trying to ignore the sensations her body was clearly misinterpreting. Had it been so long that her skin would react so happily to a little cold beer and a little cold draft?

Apparently.

She tried to take some comfort in the fact that Tom (with his spill concentrated in his lap) was probably even more uncomfortable than she was. And she wondered for a moment if his body found the experience as provocative as hers seemed to. Then two words ran through her mind: cold shower. Hmm. Probably not.

While they waited for Harry, B’Elanna decided to try and distract herself from the physical sensations brought on by the evaporation of a cold liquid off of warm skin. “So,” she said tentatively. “Having fun yet?”

Paris turned to her and smiled. “You love it and you know it.” He was grinning that damned little boy grin. She wanted to slug him.

But she also had new cause to wonder if the tingling she was feeling was all from the beer. Getting physically aroused by the sight of Tom Paris was not a part of their friendship deal. This was going to be harder than she thought.

Luckily, Harry returned with three more mugs delicately balanced in his hands—and a stack of small towels tucked under his arm. “Here you go,” he said, grateful when Tom took the drinks before he dumped them, too. “Courtesy of Sandrine,” he said as he threw half the pile of rags to Tom and half to B’Elanna.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Tom teased, as he pressed a dry towel to B’Elanna’s chest.

“Excuse me!” she growled as she smacked his hand. “I think I’ve had all the help I need from you tonight, Lieutenant!” Of course, she resisted the temptation to return the favor and dry him off…

“Oh, it’s ‘Lieutenant’ now. Well, get comfortable ‘Lieutenant,’” he grinned. “We’re going to be here a while.”

“Well, if that’s the case,” Harry laughed as he watched their little game, “can we order some dinner while you two lieutenants dry off? Some of us ensigns are hungry!”

While Tom and B’Elanna argued about what they wanted to eat, Harry shook his head and wondered exactly how long his two best friends would keep playing these little mating games before they’d finally decide to give in to the inevitable. Advance and retreat, advance and retreat. Well, at least they were talking again—and it was fun to watch.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna couldn’t believe she’d spent another three hours sitting in Sandrine’s feeling her uniform starting to glue itself to her body. Somehow, after dinner, her innocent little prank had turned into a full-fledged battle of wills with Tom Paris to see who would cave in and bail first. Thankfully, a very sleepy Harry Kim had declared it a tie and sent them both home.

Still, as she peeled the disgustingly moist clothes from her body, B’Elanna knew two things: 1) she smelled like a Cardassian, and 2) this little evening at Sandrine’s had been the most fun she’d had in months.

Oops. Make that three things—tonight a sonic shower just wouldn’t do.

She tossed each piece of clothing into the refresher as she removed it, before it could come into contact with her furniture or carpet. Then she headed straight for the bathroom and set the temperature of the shower. A moment later, she was standing under a stream of hot water.

“Computer,” she called out, “reference musical database. Play selections Paris WW2 in random order.”

At her command, the computer called up a file she’d retrieved while hacking into Tom’s medical records. It was the musical track from the Clipper ship holoprogram he’d written for the dinner party welcoming the captain and Chakotay home from New Earth almost six months earlier. It was the last time B’Elanna could remember feeling so happy after a night out.

It was funny, she realized, that she had thought of that dinner as a kind of date with Tom. She hadn’t gone with him, she hadn’t left with him, and she’d spent just as much time talking with Chakotay as she had with Paris. Still, they’d shared a moonlight stroll under the stars, and she felt confident that—had Joe Carey not called her back to engineering in the middle of a very interesting conversation—Tom would have asked her out for real that night.

No use crying over spilled beer, she realized. Besides, this friendship thing still had its up side. Tom was right: they’d had more than their fair share of tragedy in the past few months. It was time to accept their situation and move on.

And she’d felt some things tonight she hadn’t experienced in a long while. Not just the faux arousal of some wet clothes, but a kind of easy, fun, silly evening with two handsome men she had all to herself. The Delaney sisters be damned.

As she programmed the dispenser for her favorite soap, B’Elanna let her mind wander back to that sailing ship, and imagined for a moment that Joe had never called. Her life—and her relationship with Tom—might have turned out very differently. As she washed the last traces of beer off of her breasts, she allowed herself to imagine that Tom was with her, and that it was his soapy hand gently stroking her.

Then she shook her head and pulled herself back to reality. This was dangerous territory. Still, she lingered in the shower a little longer than normal…

~~

Tom stepped out of the shower and toweled off his hair. He’d stood under the warm water for almost twenty minutes, thinking about the evening he’d just finished and the state of his life in general.

After an unimaginably long streak of bad luck, Paris had been determined to turn his fortunes around, and with them his attitude. No more whining or moaning about his relationship with B’Elanna. No more planning his life and his future around her mercurial moods. They’d come to a friendly truce and were both moving on with their lives.

For Tom that meant rediscovering the things he enjoyed doing. He’d spent a few nights in the hololab for the first time in almost a year. Hell, it had been so long, he couldn’t even remember the last program he’d created. But that was about to change.

Tom’s decision to move on had led him to several conclusions; one of which was that Chez Sandrine’s time had come and gone. The bar had been a safe haven for him when he was new to the ship, the one place on Voyager where he knew he’d fit in. Now, however, it was a reminder of a drunken young man who had almost thrown his life away. A man he was determined to put behind him.

Now, with Neelix working on a new recreational program for the crew, Tom was able to come up with some private diversions that didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations but his own. It didn’t take him long to decide which would be first.

Tom had been to Lake Como only once, as a teenager on a family vacation. But he remembered the beautiful water, the view of the Alps in the distance, and the fifteen-foot sailboat his father had let him pilot alone for the first time. It was one of those rare moments past his eighth birthday where Tom had felt connected to the Admiral, and he was hungry for the feeling of confidence and peace that their trip to Northern Italy had given him.

Of course, he also remembered thinking it would be the perfect place to bring a girl. Romantic and lush, the lakeside was dotted with small villages, each one more picturesque than the next. He thought of something silly he had told his sister Moira at the time. They were walking down the narrow streets of Bellaggio, when he’d said something about bringing his girlfriend Charisse a souvenir of the trip. ‘Your girlfriend?’ Moira had teased him. ‘Tommy, you have a girlfriend?’ She was giggling in that patronizing way older sisters have when handed ammunition against their baby brother. ‘Well, she’s a girl and she’s my friend,’ Tom had answered in a very thirteen-year-old way. He’d instantly wanted to smack himself. Now, almost twenty years later, it just made him smile.

Another thought snuck up on him as he reminisced: by that definition, B’Elanna was his girlfriend, too. He just shook his head. These were unproductive thoughts. But for a man who—as an adult—had usually looked at his lovers as conquests, the quaint thought of having a girlfriend at his age made him surprisingly happy.

But also a little sad. B’Elanna was his friend—not his girlfriend—and Tom was now old enough to know the difference. Still, Bristow was nowhere to be seen tonight, and there were several moments when Tom was sure that B’Elanna’s beer wars were more flirtation than friendly fun.

So maybe, as soon as he finished tweaking this program, he might try to entice her out for a friendly sail—alone—with a picnic lunch even, and a beautiful view of Italy’s Monte Boletto.

It was a long way back to Earth. Anything could happen. Deciding that he wasn’t sleepy, Tom opened the narrative parameters file, and got to work.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was enjoying the sensation. He was kneeling on the bed behind her, his knees around her hips and his fingertips dancing down her arms. He was leaning in now, pulling her hair aside and kissing the nape of her neck. His voice was a deep growl and she knew he was saying something, though she couldn’t quite make out the words. But the low rumble of his vocal cords so close to her ear was sending current through her body, creating her own personal ion storm.

She felt his hands slip under her arms, searching out different targets as he explored her for the first time. She adjusted her position to give him better access as his left hand grazed her thighs. His right hand had already found its target and was massaging her breasts in time with the rhythm of the music.

After a few moments, as much as she was enjoying this one-sided attention, she knew she needed to see him, needed to give her own hands and lips their chance. Pulling back for a moment, she stood and turned to face him. The lights were dimmed, but she could see the twinkle in his cool, blue eyes. Then he did it: he smiled.

And the game began in earnest.

She pushed him—hard—until he was flat on his back in the middle of the bed, looking at her with amazement. He was surprised by her strength, she could tell. He was ready to take her, but she wasn’t quite ready to go. Instead, she climbed over him, grabbed his wrists and slammed them over his head, the momentum bringing her face to his, and she kissed him while she was there. He was hungry for her and tried to pull his hands away to bring her closer; she reminded him that she was in control now and pushed him back against the bed.

Their wrestling brought her hips lower across his body, and she could feel that he was ready and waiting for her. She slid down further, torturing him with a taste of what was to come. But there was something she had to do first, something that would make this more than just an enjoyable diversion. Something that would let both him and the world know that this was more than one night’s pleasure.

She dragged her lips across his chin and toward his neck, searching for the moment and for the spot. When her mouth found the intersection of his jaw and neck, she kissed him there, softening him, preparing him to take her mark. Then she sank her teeth into the soft flesh of his face.

He was startled, but not afraid as she kissed the bite and tasted the blood as it escaped. She’d breathed in his scent before, but this was different; as she licked at his face, she could feel him becoming a part of her. It was a kind of connection she’d never experienced and it caused her to loosen her grip on the wrists she’d been holding over his head.

He seized the opportunity, and instantly flipped her onto her back, pulling her beneath him. She’d claimed Tom Paris, and now he was about to claim her…

B’Elanna woke up with her head at the foot of her bed, a pillow draped across her chest, and with the realization that—while her sexual romp with Voyager’s helmsman had been a dream—the lingering effects on her body were very real. Her skin was tingling, and she could close her eyes and instantly summon the feel of him on her and in her. She lay there for a moment, staring at the red glow of her headboard lights, and wondering how she could possibly face the reality of her life, when the fantasy of her dreams had been so wonderful.

But she knew she had to go. Just before she’d gone to bed she’d received a message from Chakotay in her personal database. An analysis of Harry’s long-range sensor readings from that afternoon had revealed some strange energy signatures in Voyager’s path. While the rest of the crew stocked up on food stores from the uninhabited planet they were now orbiting, she and Paris had been ordered to take a shuttle and verify the sensor data.

So she had to get out of bed.

But before she did, B’Elanna closed her eyes one last time and let the memory come to her. One last kiss, one last touch before she would start her day. She was glad when he appeared almost instantly. Smiling down at her, he leaned forward and nuzzled her neck before dragging his lips across hers. With a deep sigh, she envisioned his face one last time as she said out loud, “Bye, Tom.” Then she opened her eyes and forced herself out of bed.

She was pulling on a clean uniform when it hit her: she was going on an away mission with Tom Paris. Alone. In a Class 4 shuttle.

This was the same Tom Paris she’d just finished ravaging in her dream. The thought of being stuck in close quarters with him so soon was distracting to say the least. And what choice did she have? The captain needed this information, and it was logical to send her chief engineer and her helmsman to retrieve it. Besides, what could B’Elanna say? ‘Sorry, Captain, but I can’t be alone in a shuttle with Tom for two minutes much less two hours, because I’m too sexually aroused to concentrate.’

Actually, part of her enjoyed picturing the look on Janeway’s face if she had.

No, she’d go and she’d be professional, even if it killed her.

~~

Tom had barely gotten any sleep. After his shower, he’d found himself obsessed with finishing his new holoprogram, and had stayed awake well past his normal bedtime adding detailed rigging to the sailboat—and a romantic bistro along the coast. It was well after 0200 when he decided to check the message flashing in his personal database. The news—in combination with the hour—made him groan.

An unscheduled away mission had been added to the duty roster. He was due in the shuttlebay at 0600. As soon as he realized how little time he’d have to sleep he had quickly shut down the computer and headed for bed.

As he suspected, morning came earlier than he was prepared for. Grateful that he’d showered the night before, Tom threw on a clean uniform, replicated a thermos of coffee and stumbled out the door. This was going to be a long day.

It wasn’t until he reached the shuttlebay and started running the preflights on the Cochran that he realized who his copilot would be on this little survey. The computer had downloaded the mission specs just about the time he caught the scent of her shampoo.

“B’Elanna!” he said as he turned around. “Good morning.”

~~

Tom looked like hell. ‘Well,’ Torres thought to herself, ‘this will make it a little easier to get that dream off my mind.’

She couldn’t resist teasing him about his appearance. “Good morning, Lieutenant. You look…well rested today.”

He grinned at her as he turned back to his checklist. “Very funny. I got a little less than four hours sleep last night, and we’ll be lucky if I don’t fly us into the side of the shuttlebay before we even make it out into space.”

The thought seemed to remind him of something. “Here. I brought some coffee. You’re welcome to share it.”

B’Elanna laughed. “No thanks. The last time I had a drink with you I ended up wearing more than I swallowed. Somehow I think the coffee would be a little more painful than the beer.”

Tom grinned and continued working. “Now, now, don’t start something you can’t finish,” he said playfully. B’Elanna wondered for a minute if he was talking about last night or now…

~~

So already she’d started with the ‘lieutenant’ thing. What was B’Elanna’s sudden fascination with his rank? And why, when she said it, did it sound so much like an invitation?

They’d been in the Cochran for over three hours and there were no signs of the unusual energy readings they’d been sent to investigate. But the mission hadn’t been a total waste of time; B’Elanna seemed to be unusually antsy this morning, and Tom’s big scientific breakthrough was the discovery that it took next to nothing to make her blush today. In the name of research, he continued testing his theory.

“So, did you jump into the shower as soon as you got home last night?” It was a silly question, but it was all in the name of science.

“No, I crawled into bed covered in beer; what are you insane? Yes, I took a shower, if it’s any of your business.” The results were positive: her cheeks were a lovely shade of crimson. As a reward for his success, Tom diverted his attention from the helm just long enough to enjoy the mental image that was forming.

~~

What in the hell was that? It was like he knew what she’d been doing in the shower. If he asked her if she’d had pleasant dreams, B’Elanna knew she would have to space him. The thought of a telepathic Tom Paris after the night she’d just had was more than she was prepared to handle.

Why, of all mornings—after an incredibly erotic (if totally imaginary) night—did the captain feel the need to send the two of them on an away mission—alone—in the Cochran? B’Elanna knew it was Tom’s favorite shuttle, but it was a tiny two-seater, and they had barely enough room to move without running into each other. While she was normally happy to spend time with him, the thought of being in that kind of proximity with no outlet for her feelings was more than she thought she could stand.

Just as weeks before she had experienced a paralyzing fear whenever Tom was near her, this morning she was having an equally real, equally distracting sensation: she couldn’t be in his presence without wanting to touch him. The very sight of him—even looking like he hadn’t slept in a month—was arousing her, and she felt hot and sweaty even though the shuttle was cold. And her body had become sensitive to every movement, every vibration the ship made. The sensations were incredibly pleasurable, but horribly distracting. They made B’Elanna feel like a teenager, with the worst connotations of the word.

“So I had this really amazing dream last night,” he was starting to say. That was it: she looked around for a phaser.

~~

Tom could tell he was getting under her skin, but he wasn’t sure why or how. Still, he’d kept their official experiment—checking for anomalous energy readings—going long after he was sure it was just a sensor glitch. They’d been at it for a long time now and B’Elanna looked like she was about ready to climb the walls.

“We’ve been out here almost five hours and we haven’t seen any sign of those energy signatures. Isn’t it time to admit they were nothing more than galactic background noise?”

Good. He was still getting to her. Besides, she’d avoided him for months, and who could tell when she’d start avoiding him again. Tom was going to milk this away mission for all it was worth. “I want to keep looking a while longer. Just to be sure.”

He thought for a second that B’Elanna was going to reach over to wrestle the helm controls out of his hands when she suddenly grabbed her leg and gasped in pain. He was distracted from his game just long enough to ask if she was okay. “What’s wrong?”

~~

B’Elanna pulled her knee up to her chest and slowly massaged her calf muscle. “Cramp! Ugh, Klingon bodies weren’t meant to sit in a cockpit for five hours at a stretch.” She didn’t want to tell him the truth: that she thought she’d pulled something during one of their more gymnastic moves in the dream she’d had last night.

Tom was laughing. “You have a big dinner date, or something?”

Where did that come from? As if she were the one in the middle of a big new romance. Sometimes Paris really could be a jerk. Still, she didn’t make the connection between her leg and his question. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He had a wicked look on his face, and somehow she knew he was steering their conversation in a particular direction, though she couldn’t for the life of her figure our where or why. “Well, you’ve been angling to get back to Voyager for about two hours now. Just thought maybe there was a reason. Like Ensign Bristow…”

Still, she wasn’t prepared for that. “What?!”

~~

Tom wondered what the exaggerated reaction was all about. She’d told him herself she was seeing Bristow. Hell, he’d run into the two of them—literally—after their romantic dinner date. And was she forgetting that he was Bristow’s supervisor? He’d had to pull the little worm back to his duty station three times in the past two days alone.

“Well, I noticed he’s been making any excuse to hang around engineering. Around you.” Tom was afraid for a moment that the jealously was showing in his voice. He’d have to be more careful.

“Freddie Bristow is a child!”

B’Elanna was steaming; Tom realized he’d caught her off guard. And, if the rumors were true, maybe the couple’s second date had been their last. It had been all over the ship for weeks that B’Elanna had practically killed the young pilot during a game in the holodeck. Still, something didn’t ring true. Tom decided to dig deeper.

“Oh, really. Well he looks like a grown-up to me: tall, good looking…and I hear he plays a mean set of Parisses Squares…”

That seemed to throw her over the edge. “I played one game with him! And I whipped him. Look, he has a crush on me. I can handle it.” Tom could see that she was looking at him out of the corner of her eye as she continued to rub her leg. “Why are you so interested?”

~~

Where in the hell had this come from? B’Elanna wondered if Paris had a cruel streak, dumping her for Megan Delaney then teasing her about her almost-dates with that little worm, Bristow. Why was he suddenly so interested in her love life?

“Oh, just curious…how someone with Klingon blood seems to live the life of a Tabran Monk…”

Now that was just mean. Did he think she was totally without feelings? And what was that crack about Klingon blood? Still, something about the tone in his voice made her wonder again why he was asking. Besides, if he really knew how she’d spent the last twelve hours… “Lieutenant, that is none of your business,” she teased him despite herself.

~~

He knew he must have pushed a button; she was calling him by his rank again.

Yet maybe she was sincere. Maybe she wasn’t dating Bristow. Maybe this had all been some huge, cosmic misunderstanding. Or someone’s idea of a really sick joke. He was left hanging out there, wondering how he could justify his curiosity about her love life after their pledge to stay friends. Still, he was having an almost uncontrollable impulse. In a split second, he decided to risk everything.

“Well, if you ever have a free evening, I have a holodeck program you might enjoy—sailing on Lake Como…” He turned toward her, but couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eye.

He knew all he needed to from the sound of her voice. “I’d rather take my chances with Freddie Bristow!”

Tom tried not to let his disappointment show on his face, but he knew he’d blown it. If he’d just resisted the temptation, he might have convinced B’Elanna to try his new program as his friend. He could have told her what the lake symbolized to him, about the way it reminded him of a happy time in his life—the last time he’d felt trusted and respected by his father. A time before the pressure to achieve, before Caldik Prime, and before the Maquis and an Auckland jail cell. Now there was no way he could get her there without it looking like a pathetic plea for a date. Just like the one he’d just made.

Before he could tell her he was ready to head back to Voyager, they both heard the sensor panel beep.

B’Elanna said what he was thinking. “Those energy signatures are back.”

~~

They barely had enough time to figure out what was happening. Apparently, the Cochran had stumbled into a tachyon barrier of some kind and had triggered an alert. Before they could contact Voyager, they both heard the whine of alien transporters and turned around to see two masked figures standing in the back of their shuttle.

Tom stood up without thinking. “I’m Lieutenant Tom Paris of the…” He never had a chance to finish the greeting. B’Elanna’s last memory was of simultaneous blasts. Every muscle in her body screamed as she and Tom were thrown back against the console. She was unconscious in less than a second.

~*~*~*~*~

She woke up in sickbay, still very aware of the pain in her arms and legs. Whatever weapons those aliens had used, they were clearly designed to torture as well as incapacitate. A moment later, though, she heard the hiss of a hypospray at the same time she felt the pressure on her neck. The residual pain faded almost instantly.

“What the hell happened?” she asked the Doctor groggily.

“You and Lieutenant Paris seem to have made someone very angry. With your sunny personalities, I can’t imagine how that could have happened.”

B’Elanna made a mental note to herself: the next time this holographic tongue depressor asked her to expand his program, she’d tell him where to stick his vocal subroutines. Better yet: maybe she’d reprogram him herself, give him Jenny Delaney’s voice. No, why punish the whole crew…

She felt a twinge in her shoulder, and turned her head to work out the kink. Then she saw Tom lying unconscious on the biobed to her right. For a moment, a very familiar fear flashed through her mind. “Tom…” she said as she tried to sit up. It only took Kes a second to move from Paris’s side to hers.

“He’ll be fine, B’Elanna. The Doctor just revived you first. His injuries aren’t life-threatening.”

Oh, thank god. One more near-death experience for Tom Paris, and B’Elanna would have known for sure that the man lived under some evil curse. At the very least, he was a bad luck magnet. Her attention was diverted when Captain Janeway and Lieutenant Tuvok came rushing into sickbay.

“Doctor, report,” Janeway said. Torres could tell the captain was in lioness mode: two of her cubs had been injured and her protective instincts were in full force.

The EMH, on the other hand, seemed less than indifferent to what they’d been through; his voice was flat and dispassionate. “Their nervous systems suffered trauma from some type of neuro-electric weapon. It must have been extremely painful.”

B’Elanna confirmed his theory. “It certainly was.” Almost as painful as the light he was now shining in her eyes. She was getting a headache.

The captain was hovering. “Do you know why they attacked you?”

Torres shook her head, uncomfortable with all the fussing over her. “No idea. They seemed to be trying to communicate with us, but we couldn’t understand them, then they just lifted their weapons.”

Her physician seemed pretty bored by it all. “Their injuries are treatable. It shouldn’t take long.”

‘Gee,’ B’Elanna thought, ‘glad treating us isn’t inconveniencing you…’

As annoyed as she was with the Doctor’s indifference, she was equally uncomfortable with Janeway’s intensity. She was glad when the captain and Tuvok left in search of their attackers. She knew she’d be even happier when the Doctor finally released her from sickbay. Her agitation was apparently showing; the EMH was getting impatient with her as he finished his examination.

“It would help if you didn’t fidget so much.”

It would also help if he’d get it over with so she could get going. “I’m really feeling better. Can’t I get out of here?”

He scolded her like a child. “When you’re ready to leave, I’ll tell you.” Was he intentionally trying to be more infuriating than normal today? B’Elanna was trying to figure out if holograms could have mood swings when Kes interrupted.

“Doctor, Tom doesn’t seem to be responding to the treatment.” Probably just looking for a way to catch up on a little lost sleep, B’Elanna mused before feeling a twinge of guilt at the cynical thought. Of course, if she believed for a moment something was really wrong with him, she knew she’d feel differently. But Kes said he’d be fine, and she knew Tom had been exhausted long before they’d been injured.

The Doctor was prattling on about something, but B’Elanna wasn’t listening. It had just occurred to her that the little games she and Tom had been playing during their mission might have distracted them from the danger they’d been about to fly into. Maybe they could have seen something if they’d been paying more attention to the sensors than to each other. In a strange way, they’d been lucky; their inattention hadn’t gotten them both killed. Still, she was suddenly feeling embarrassed at the juvenile way she’d been behaving all morning.

She was looking over at Tom, replaying their conversations in her head when she realized the Doctor was suddenly snapping at her again. “Lieutenant, you’re perfectly all right. What are you still doing here?”

B’Elanna considered slugging him, but knew it would be pointless; photons didn’t feel pain. She was thinking of ways to decompile his program as she stormed back to her quarters.

~~

Harry had been studying the Cochran’s sensor readings when Captain Janeway called the briefing. She’d just come from sickbay and was understandably concerned about flying Voyager into a part of space where two of her officers had just been attacked.

It was strange to be having a senior staff meeting without Tom and B’Elanna, and Kim was glad to hear the captain report that his best friends weren’t seriously hurt. It was also strange to think that, after Chakotay and Tuvok, his was the ranking voice at the table. He’d only recently started to get over his fear of contributing new ideas in these kinds of situations, especially without the support and safety net of the ship’s helmsman and chief engineer.

Tuvok began the briefing by playing a reply they’d received to their wideband subspace hails. In addition to an audio signal the universal translator couldn’t decrypt, the message outlined a sensor net which snaked across a vast area of space in Voyager’s path.

Harry listened as Neelix speculated about the significance of the net’s layout. “If these people are who I think they are, I can tell you this is very bad news.” Apparently, there were rumors and legends about this region; ships where known to disappear without a trace, or suddenly reappear with their crews murdered. Conventional wisdom said that they were attacked by an alien race known for viciously protecting their ‘borders,’ which would explain the unprovoked attack on Paris and Torres. But it meant a difficult decision for Voyager’s captain and crew: going around it would add over a year to their trip home, but plunging forward might put the ship and the crew at risk. The picture Neelix painted of the dangers had been grim.

As the officers discussed the problem, they were interrupted by a call from the Doctor. “I’m afraid Lieutenant Paris suffered greater neurological damage than my initial scan revealed,” he reported. “I’m going to have to perform a motorcortex reconstruction.”

The EMH reassured them that Paris was in no real danger and that the procedure was pretty straightforward for a physician of his skill. Still, Kim was feeling very protective of his best friend these days, and he couldn’t believe the way Paris seemed to attract trouble.

Harry wanted to go find B’Elanna, to hear all the details of what had happened to her and Tom. But they were in the middle of another, larger crisis, and he forced himself to focus on the matter at hand: finding a way through this dangerous part of space. Talking to B’Elanna would have to wait.

As he headed back to his station, Harry thought about the close call his friends had survived that morning and the time he’d spent with them in Sandrine’s the night before. There was now very little doubt in Kim’s mind that Paris and Torres were in the middle of some elaborate game of emotional hide and seek, and he wished he could find a way to push them over whatever barriers were keeping them from admitting how they felt.

His mind then drifted home to San Francisco and to Libby, the girlfriend he hadn’t seen in almost two years, since the start of Voyager’s ‘three-week mission’ to the Badlands. He wondered if he’d ever see her again, and—for the first time—thought that maybe he should consider moving on. In light of the danger they all regularly faced, watching Tom and B’Elanna dance around their feelings drove home to Harry how precious time was. How maybe it was crazy—with no way to know when their luck would run out—to waste any time hiding from someone you cared about. Or living for the memory of a person you’d probably never see again.

He wondered when Tom and B’Elanna would finally come to the same conclusion.

~~

After changing her uniform and reviewing the engineering maintenance schedule for the rest of the week, Torres walked into the mess hall—half expecting to see Tom Paris sitting with Harry, downing cups of coffee and exaggerating the dangers he’d faced during their encounter with the aliens in the Cochran. But, when she arrived for lunch, her friends were nowhere to be found.

Pouting a little at having to eat alone, she decided to skip the Bolian pasta and grab a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit instead. She had just collapsed into a chair when Neelix came out from the kitchen.

“Lieutenant, how are you feeling?”

Great: someone else to hover over her. “I’m fine, Neelix, thank you. We really weren’t hurt that badly. I don’t know why everybody keeps making such a fuss.”

She could see from his face that the chef looked confused. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “I was in a briefing with the captain when the doctor called to say that Tom’s condition was worse than he thought and he had to perform some kind of operation…Lieutenant?”

Neelix had found himself talking to her back as B’Elanna headed for the door, her coffee and ‘lunch’ left untouched on the table.

She stormed into sickbay to find Tom on the surgical bed and Kes and the Doctor nowhere in sight. What the hell had happened? Paris was fine when she left; Kes had said he wasn’t hurt that badly. Why couldn’t she turn her back for five minutes without…

“B’Elanna.” She looked up to see Kes’s grave expression and immediately thought the worst. The Ocampan’s telepathy must have kicked in, though, because her face suddenly softened. “Tom’s fine. He’s just resting.”

“But Neelix said…” B’Elanna stopped herself and took a deep breath. Tom was fine; she could calm down. “What happened?” she asked evenly.

Kes moved to check Tom’s vital signs. “For some reason, his tissue damage was more severe than yours. He didn’t respond to treatment, so we had to operate to repair the damage. He was never in any real danger.” She looked up from her readings. “I’m sorry if Neelix worried you.”

B’Elanna tried to look indifferent. “So, why is he still unconscious?”

Kes was running a medical tricorder over Paris as she answered. “He’s under sedation to help his neural pathways stabilize. We’ll probably release him this afternoon after he’s gotten some rest.”

B’Elanna relaxed, then laughed to herself: Tom would get a chance to catch up on his sleep after all.

And she realized that she might have overreacted. Given Tom’s recent history, a little neurological damage from an alien weapon might just as well have been a stubbed toe. Still, she gave Paris a silent chewing out for worrying her.

She was about to head back to work when Kes stopped her. “B’Elanna, could you do me a favor?”

Torres noticed the worried expression she’d seen a few moments earlier. “Sure. What’s up?”

Kes looked over her shoulder and back into the medical lab where B’Elanna could now see the EMH sitting on a stool staring blankly into space. “Something’s wrong with the Doctor. I was hoping you might run a diagnostic of his program.”

“Sure,” B’Elanna said as she moved to the holographic imaging control panel. “What are his ‘symptoms’?”

Kes looked hesitant to say. “Well, he was in the middle of Tom’s operation when he suddenly forgot how to finish the procedure, and…”

“What?!” B’Elanna was shocked. “How could that happen?” She was picturing Tom’s life hanging in the balance while at the mercy of a malfunctioning hologram.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Kes answered.

B’Elanna spent the next twenty minutes running diagnostic subroutines on the sickbay holomatrix. What she discovered was disturbing. They called the captain in and B’Elanna explained the problem.

“The EMH database seems to be experiencing a cascading overload of some kind. Doc’s memory circuits are deteriorating.” Suddenly her morning’s fantasy about decompiling the doctor’s program wasn’t so funny: he was self-destructing in front of their eyes.

Janeway seemed annoyed. “I thought you programmed safety buffers so his circuits wouldn’t degrade.”

B’Elanna knew the captain was only trying to figure out what was happening, but she couldn’t help but feel like she was being blamed for the doctor’s meltdown. “I did, and I installed them, but they’re breaking down.”

Torres could only think of one real solution: reinitializing the EMH program. Of course this would wipe out all of the memories, talents, and enhancements the Doctor had gained since he was first activated. He’d have no recollection of the friendships he’d developed, his interest in music, or his one-and-only romance with the Vidiian, Denarra Pel. He wouldn’t be the same ‘man’.

To his credit, the EMH agreed with B’Elanna’s suggested ‘treatment’. “I can’t say I’d like to lose the last two years. But my primary responsibility is the health and welfare of this crew. In my current state, I am useless to them.” In light of what had almost happened to Tom that morning, Torres agreed. Reprogramming the Doctor seemed like a small price to pay to protect the people she cared about.

But Kes was pleading for more time to look for other solutions; the captain agreed. And B’Elanna was now charged with playing doctor to the Doctor.

They started off in the biolab, running a system-by-system diagnostic of the emergency medial holographic imaging matrix. As far as B’Elanna could tell, there were no glitches in the projection system; the failures were all in the database itself.

While they were working, as she checked a subroutine, Torres had accidentally deactivated the doctor’s visual processor, blinding him for a moment. The already-tense EMH was thrown into a full-fledged panic attack and had the nerve to accuse her of having a bad bedside manner. Did this man understand the word ‘irony’?!

Still, the very thought had led B’Elanna to realize that even she had come to think of the doctor as a man instead of a machine. He had grown and progressed in the last two years. He had become a member of the crew in his own right. And she realized that what Kes said was true: if they could ‘cure’ the Doc—avoid a full-scale reinitialization—they owed it to their holographic friend to try.

But she had pursued every avenue, every possibility she could think of. What she needed, in her new role as photonic physician was…a second opinion, this time from a specialist.

They’d moved to the holodeck, into a recreation of the Jupiter Station programming lab. As she scanned the various consoles looking for inspiration, she heard a very familiar, very annoyed voice.

“Don’t touch that!”

B’Elanna was now realizing that her already frustrating day could, in fact, get worse—she found herself face to face with the EMH’s doppelganger: a holographic incarnation of Doctor Louis Zimmerman, the engineer who had created the entire Mark 1 series of holographic supplements—each made in his image, each with his charm and tact.

The hologram of Zimmerman acted as the lab’s diagnostic interface. Torres explained the enhancements she had made to keep what was intended to be a short-term supplemental program running non-stop for almost two years. The technician was outraged. “The EMH is a highly sophisticated program. You shouldn’t go meddling in its matrix when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

B’Elanna thought back to the captain’s questioning of the upgrades she had made in light of Zimmerman’s comments. Now, in addition to her sympathy for the EMH, Torres was feeling responsible and a little insecure about her role in his breakdown. She knew there were gaps in her training and experience—advanced holomatrices were covered in the third year at the Academy; she’d quit in the middle of year two. And no Maquis ship had the luxury of a holodeck. Still, she’d been so sure she’d gotten it right…

Her campaign to berate herself was derailed by a call from the captain; they were about to make the crossing into the alien sensor net and she was needed in engineering. Her work on the EMH would have to wait.

She turned to reassure the physician before she left. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Already aware that she’d let the Doctor down, B’Elanna felt even worse when she saw the frightened look on the physician’s face. “I wish you didn’t have to go.”

Thinking about his comments about her bedside manner, she tried to be reassuring. “I’ll hurry,” she said before turning to go. “I promise.”

~~

Tom woke up to a fairly intense headache and the realization that he’d been out of commission for a while. Not only was his away mission long over, he’d survived a fairly complex medical procedure, found out that the EMH had gone buggy, and discovered that Voyager was about to fly its way through the closely-guarded space of the same nasty aliens who had put an end to his otherwise enjoyable morning of torturing B’Elanna Torres.

It had taken him a moment to remember what had happened, and he was glad Kes was there to reassure him that B’Elanna was okay. After she checked his vital signs, the medic gave him a shot for the headache and told him the captain needed him at the helm as soon as he was feeling up to it. The plan to evade the aliens must be tricky, he realized, since it was standard procedure to give a few hours of transitional leave to anyone who’d just survived a major medical procedure. Amazingly, he was feeling rested and in better shape than when he’d piloted the Cochran that morning. He headed for the bridge right away.

“Welcome back, Mister Paris,” Janeway said as he moved to the helm. “Good to see you on your feet again.”

Tom smiled. “I can think of better ways to get the afternoon off,” he joked. “But thank you.”

The captain brought him up to speed on their plans to cross the disputed region. Luckily, the plan Harry and Chakotay had devised seemed to be working: with a little adjustment to the deflector, Voyager had refracted the alien sensors long enough to slip under the net undetected. Their only challenge for the moment: a sluggish warp drive was making maximum velocity impossible, and their mad dash was going slower than they had hoped. Tom was happy to hear B’Elanna’s voice over the com from engineering as she tried to sleuth down the problem. Even though he knew Kes wouldn’t lie about their friend’s injuries, Paris didn’t mind getting some concrete proof that she was really okay.

Tuvok confirmed that—so far—they were successfully evading detection. Voyager’s early success was raising the bridge crew’s sprits along with their confidence.

“When I was in high school,” the captain told them, “I snuck out of the house a couple of times late at night. I had to tiptoe past my parents’ bedroom. That’s kind of how I feel right now.”

Tom was surprised to hear her talk so openly about her life. He was even more surprised that the prim and proper Kathryn Janeway was admitting to this kind of deception. “You sneaked out of your house? Where were you going?”

“Well, I’ll have to leave that to your imagination, Lieutenant.” Her tone was almost flirtatious, and Tom couldn’t resist flirting back.

“Can I take a few guesses?” he asked suggestively. Tom had a very good imagination.

For a moment he occupied himself with a few thoughts about the upstanding and respectable woman seated behind as a teenaged girl on her way to a tryst with some boy. And he remembered a few times when he’d snuck out as a teenager, himself. A little harmless groping was a necessary part of growing up, and sometimes it called for a stealth maneuver to arrange it.

Hell, a little harmless groping sounded pretty good to him these days, too, come to think of it. Of course, it required a woman who would actually agree to go out with him. And he knew he’d have to change his sights if that were likely to happen anytime soon. Torres couldn’t have been clearer this morning: she wasn’t interested. Still, he seemed to prefer the remote possibility of B’Elanna to the potential reality of someone else.

His little daydream was interrupted by the discovery of a derelict ship in their path. The captain had Tom drop out of warp to check it out.

~*~*~*~*~

The rest of their day had been a frightening lesson about why these aliens were feared across the region. Voyager had barely survived a full-fledged attack by a swarm of small ships. It had taken a bit of teamwork and good luck, but the senior officers had come up with a series of countermeasures and maneuvers that Tom thought were pretty damn inspired to get them out of the mess they’d found themselves in. Harry, in particular, was earning a reputation for using the ship’s advanced technology to give them tactical advantages and backdoor solutions no Starfleet engineer had ever considered when designing her. B’Elanna had once joked to Paris that Kim would have made a decent Maquis, and the ensign’s gift for innovative thinking made Tom agree.

But each of them had played a part, and it was the sense of teamwork—the way they were learning the rhythms and rhymes of working together after two years—that struck Tom. He was getting to like the feeling of being part of something greater than himself and of working with people he could always trust to be at the top of their game.

Today that had meant unlocking the mystery of the swarm’s defenses, surviving an all-out assault, and using the alien’s own protective shielding against them. They’d had more than one close call in the process, but were finally able to get back on course without much fear of another attack. They still had three days before Voyager was totally clear of the disputed territory, but the space ahead of them was clear and their attackers properly chastised.

Of course, in addition to some fairly graceful helm maneuvers, during the heat of the battle Tom had been forced to tackle one of the aliens who’d beamed onto the bridge in the middle of the fight. He’d been pumped with adrenaline at the time, and hadn’t felt a thing. But now that they were out of danger, he could feel the muscle he’d pulled in his shoulder and started wondering if his body hadn’t taken more than its share of abuse for one day.

“Are you alright, Mister Paris?” the captain asked.

Tom wondered if Janeway was developing maternal instincts; his mother had always seemed to know when he was hurt long before he’d complained. “I think so.” He shrugged his shoulder in a circle, then winced in pain.

“Go have Kes take a look at you,” she said as she walked up behind him. “And while you’re in sickbay, see how B’Elanna is doing with the Doctor.”

Tom nodded, and headed for the turbolift.

~~

As soon as the ship was out of danger, B’Elanna headed back to check on the patient she’d been forced to abandon. She was surprised to find Kes alone in sickbay, the Jupiter Station program in the process of being decomplied, and the doctor nowhere to be seen.

“What’s going on?” she asked when she saw the worried look on Kes’s face.

“B’Elanna, I hope I did the right thing.” The young woman looked a little panicked. “The Doctor’s matrix had totally degraded. I didn’t know what else to do.”

It was unusual for B’Elanna to see Kes looking so unsure of herself and so afraid. Kes was always the voice of calm in any crisis. “Just tell me what happened,” Torres asked, starting to worry a little herself.

Kes explained that she and the holographic Louis Zimmerman had come up with a plan to save the EMH by overlaying Zimmerman’s own sophisticated holomatrix over the Doctor’s—hopefully shoring up the medical program without losing the two years worth of his memories and enhancements. But it was risky. The Zimmerman hologram would have to be overwritten in the process, leaving no one to help if the EMH malfunctioned in the future. And there were no guarantees the experiment—designed by a holographic technician and a nurse with no programming experience—would be any more successful than the reinitialization they’d rejected in the first place.

But it was too late to second-guess the decision. Both matrices, Zimmerman and the Doctor, were offline and recompiling into one, new matrix. She’d just have to wait out the computer and hope for the best.

B’Elanna took a moment to review the raw code Zimmerman had written to process this complex integration. She was impressed. It seemed that, like his medical counterpart, the diagnostic hologram not only irritating but brilliant. Decompiling him was a loss, not only to Voyager, but to B’Elanna; she had begun to consider spending some time on Jupiter Station, brushing up on her holoprogramming skills and figuring out a way to prevent the same degradation from happening to their rebuilt EMH. Now, unfortunately, it seemed likely that another meltdown of his matrix might be inevitable.

Finally, they got the signal that the procedure was finished and Kes reactivated the doctor. It only took a moment to realize that the physician standing before them was the original, unenhanced supplement they’d activated two years earlier. They had a doctor again—just not their doctor.

Yet when B’Elanna asked for something to treat her now growing headache, the EMH prescribed an analgesic, then retreated to his office and began…singing. Something the reinitialized doctor should not have been able to do.

‘Of all the things for him to remember,’ B’Elanna thought to herself, ‘why the opera?’ Still, she and Kes smiled at each other. Maybe some of their holographic friend had survived.

~~

Tom could tell B’Elanna was surprised to see him walk into sickbay, gingerly cradling his left arm in his right.

“Do not tell me you hurt yourself sitting at the helm?!” she teased him. “Push a button too hard?” He was touched by her concern…

“Oh, nothing so exciting. Just a little hand-to-hand combat with an armed alien.” Tom noticed the EMH standing in his office. “So, it looks like the Doc’s feeling better. What did you do to fix him?”

B’Elanna sighed. “I didn’t do anything…except maybe cause the problem in the first place. And I’m not sure you could call him ‘fixed’.”

Tom could tell she was beating herself up about something. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Forget it.” Her mood had been pretty good when he came in, but was rapidly heading south. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it.

Before Paris could dig any deeper, the Doctor came back into the room and took a hypospray from Kes. “Normally I wouldn’t treat anything as insignificant as a headache,” he said coldly as he injected B’Elanna’s neck.

“How about a pulled muscle?” Tom asked.

The doctor rolled his eyes. “Lieutenant, are you sure you wouldn’t like to make the sickbay your permanent quarters?” he joked. “You spend almost as much time here as I do.”

Tom just smiled, but Kes and B’Elanna were rushing toward them excitedly. “Doctor,” Kes was asking, “do you know this man?” A strange question, Paris thought.

“Of course I do,” the Doc said. “He’s Lieutenant Thomas…” They all stood their waiting for the last name. Kes and Torres seemed to be thinking ‘Paris’, as if their concentration would cause the doctor to remember. It didn’t work. “I can’t…I don’t seem to…”

Kes shot B’Elanna a concerned look, then interrupted. “Doctor, this is Lieutenant Tom Paris. Do you want to see if you can treat his arm?”

Tom knew something was going on; clearly the EMH had lost some or most of his memory. Yet the Doc picked up a medical tricorder and began scanning and treating his shoulder. “You have a hairline fracture of your clavicle and a torn subscapularis.” He turned asked Kes to assist him, and made short work of repairing the damage.

Now that both Tom and B’Elanna were ‘cured’, the doctor insisted on shutting himself down, since it was a ‘drain on ship’s resources’ to leave the program running when there were no patients to treat. That was the clincher, as far as Tom was concerned: something was definitely wrong.

“Zimmerman must have missed something,” B’Elanna said to Kes as she moved to the holoimaging controls. “It’s like his memories are there, but he can’t access them.”

“You wanna tell me what’s going on?” Tom asked, still confused at both the EMH’s behavior and his friends’ reaction to it. Kes explained what had happened: the expansion of the Doctor’s original matrix had caused his memory buffers to degrade, and how she and the Zimmerman hologram had tried to fix the problem permanently by overlaying the technician’s matrix onto the program. Things were finally starting to make more to sense to Paris—including B’Elanna’s comments that she might somehow have been to blame.

“Mind if I take a look at the program?” Tom asked.

B’Elanna didn’t seem sure that was a good idea. “He’s a little more sophisticated than Sandrine’s,” she said, the dig in her voice implying that Tom was in over his head when it came to the highly specialized subroutines that made up Voyager’s doctor.

“I promise not to turn him into a bartender, Lieutenant.” This time it was his turn to ‘pull rank,’ but it was more from hurt feelings than a desire to flirt: he was a little disappointed that she had such a low opinion of his abilities.

B’Elanna nodded, grudgingly and stepped away from the controls.

~~

The last thing Torres wanted was to have Tom Paris find hard evidence of the mistakes she had made in trying to turn their short-term medical supplement into a permanent member of the crew. But she didn’t have any legitimate reason to keep him from just looking at the program—especially considering that the repairs to the doctor were incomplete.

She watched as Tom scanned the database then opened the source code itself. “Hmmm,” he said under his breath as worked his way through each subroutine. “Uh-huh… Interesting… Okay…”

“Will you stop that?!” she said, annoyed at his running commentary. “What do you see?”

Tom looked up at her and smiled. “I see a chief engineer who needs to calm down and let me concentrate for a minute.” Then he looked at the display for another few seconds before turning it off and calling out, “Computer, transfer the EMH to the Holographic Imaging Lab.”

He turned to B’Elanna. “Let’s go.”

She stood there for a moment with her hands on her hips. “Why?”

Paris was getting annoyed with her; the feeling was mutual. “The lab console has a better programming interface—and room for two operators. I’m gonna need your help.”

“To do what?” she asked impatiently.

Tom was already heading for the door. “To fix him.”

They didn’t say anything on the short trip down to Deck 6; instead, Tom hummed to himself, and B’Elanna let out the occasional exaggerated sigh. This day, which had started with a fun and flirtatious shuttle trip, seemed to be turning into a test of wills and of holoprogramming one-upmanship.

When they were finally behind the lab’s programming console, Tom recalled the EMH parameters file and started working though the code line by line, concentrating on those functions that interfaced with the database. He had B’Elanna cross reference each subroutine with its corresponding memory buffer—occasionally suggesting alterations—but always allowing her to make the decision about what to change.

They’d been working for almost fifteen minutes when he got to a tweak she had made almost ten months earlier. “What’s this?” he asked casually.

She seemed a little embarrassed. “It’s an—enhancement—the doctor requested. When the Vidiian woman was here. It’s a…well it’s a…”

Paris smiled and interrupted her. “It’s a sexuality subroutine,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Good for him.” Tom suddenly got a wicked look on his face. “Did you program the, uh, physical parameters yourself?”

B’Elanna was blushing. “No. I left that little detail up to the doctor and his ‘girlfriend’.” She couldn’t believe they were having this conversation.

“Oh,” Tom said, nodding his head. “Well, then, good for her.” Despite herself, B’Elanna smiled.

Paris moved on, jumping ahead to the interface for the enhancements to the memory buffers Torres had made over the last two years. “I think I see something,” he said. “Take a look at this…” He changed her display to mirror his. “Look at the safety overflow settings. I think we might have found our problem.”

‘Our problem,’ B’Elanna thought as she looked at the screen. ‘You mean my problem.’ She looked at the code, but it was within specification. “I don’t see it,” she said flatly.

Tom moved to stand over her shoulder and indicated a particular line of code. “The safety protocols you put in place aren’t recognizing the expanded memory buffer. Every time the Doc tries to access something in the enhanced buffer, the safeties kick in and deny him access. If that went on for a while, it could cause a feedback loop that would gradually overload his matrix.”

B’Elanna’s just shook her head. “I can’t believe I didn’t catch that.” She got quiet as she silently beat herself up for the limitations of her training.

Tom could tell she was punishing herself. “B’Elanna, it was an understandable mistake. Actually, I think it was almost unavoidable—the entire matrix is laid out in a confusing way. Whoever did the primary programming wasn’t very good at annotating the file.”

B’Elanna realized that he was trying to let her off the hook. But she also remembered the disheveled appearance of the Zimmerman hologram and his cavalier assumption that no one could do what Torres had done: make his 1500-hour supplement run non-stop for two years.

She looked up at Tom sheepishly. “Thanks,” she said softly. “Now help me fix it.” She entered her clearance code. “So I need to reset the safeties to kick in at a higher threshold, run a data integrity check, and restart the program.” She said the steps aloud to give Paris a chance to point out anything she might have missed. Instead he just moved back to his console and started assisting her with the changes. It took them about ten minutes to finish.

“Well,” he said. “Do you want to do the honors?”

B’Elanna took a deep breath and crossed her fingers. “Computer, activate the EMH.”

The Doctor zimmered into shape in the middle of the lab. “Please state the nature…oh. Where am I?”

Tom and B’Elanna exchanged glances. “Doc, do you know us?” Tom asked.

“Do I know you? Mister Paris, considering your talent for abusing your body, I’ve taken the guided tour of your anatomy on more occasions than I’d like to recall. What’s going on?”

B’Elanna stepped out from behind the console. “What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.

The Doctor considered the question carefully. “I was in the holodeck…arguing with the most annoying diva. We were rehearsing ‘La Boheme,’ I believe. And then I was here.” He looked a little frightened. “Is something wrong with my program?”

Tom smiled. “Not anymore. Kes can fill you in on what you missed, Doc. She’ll be happy to see you.”

“Thank you,” the Doctor said. “I think.” He looked at his two ‘physicians,’ then said, “Computer, transfer the EMH to sickbay and reactivate.” In a second, he was gone.

Tom called the bridge. “Captain, I just wanted to let you know that the Doctor is back online and seems to be doing fine. He’s in sickbay with Kes if you want to see for yourself.”

They both heard Janeway’s reply, “Thank you, Mister Paris. And congratulate Lieutenant Torres on the good job.”

B’Elanna stood there for a second looking at the empty space where their holographic friend had been standing a moment before. “Thank you,” she said to Tom without turning around.

“For what?” he asked as he walked over to her.

She finally looked up at him. “For finding my mistake. For not rubbing my nose in it.” She looked away again. “For covering for me with Captain Janeway. You know there are some days when I think… Well, if the captain ever finds out all the things I don’t know about being chief engineer on a starship…” Her voice trailed off.

“B’Elanna, you did an amazing job on those enhancements. The oversight you made would never have happened if the jerk who programmed the thing had done his job right. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

She looked up at Tom, wondering why she was always surprised when the compassionate man emerged from behind the cynical pain in the ass. Then she remembered something she’d been meaning to ask him for a while.

“You know, for a hot-shot pilot, you’re one hell of a holoprogrammer. Where did you learn to rip apart code like that?”

It was Tom’s turn to get introspective. “I used to hide out in the hololab at the Academy whenever my father was on base. The Admiral didn’t think holodecks were good for anything besides tactical or training simulations, so I knew he’d never think to look for me there.” He smiled sadly. “And it was the one place where I could do or be whatever I wanted without having to ask his permission. After a while, I got pretty good at making new programs. Advanced holographic design was the one engineering track I took all the way through at the Academy.”

B’Elanna wondered for a moment how she had been friends with Tom for so long without knowing the depths of his talent. Then she remembered the carnival program he’d taken her to—god was it almost a year earlier? She’d been impressed by the level of detail, but somehow never thought about the engineering talent behind the program. It reminded her of a conversation they’d had in Sandrine’s the night before. “So when are you going to tell me about this new secret program you’ve been working on?” she asked. “Or do I have to dump a beer on your head this time.”

Tom suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Well, I invited you this morning, but you didn’t seem interested.”

She tried to think of what he was talking about. Then she remembered: Freddie Bristow, Parisses Squares, Tabran Monk…Lake Como.

“The sailing program?” she asked, suddenly feeling a little embarrassed. Tom had finally gotten the courage to tell her about his secret project and she had dismissed him out of hand. “I thought you were just teasing me. I didn’t know you were serious.”

Tom wasn’t sure what to say. But he knew she was giving him an opportunity he thought he’d lost for good. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “we’re both off duty. We could run it now, if you want.”

Why did time always seem to slow down while he was waiting for her to take him up on an invitation?

“Sure,” she said tentatively. “But only if we have dinner while we’re there. I haven’t eaten anything all day.”

Tom worried for a moment that he was smiling too broadly. He didn’t want to look as excited as he now felt.

“I know just the thing,” he said, moving back to the control panel. After making sure to grab the next three hours of time in Holodeck 2, he punched a series of commands into the replicator interface and initiated the program. “Let’s go,” he said as he moved to the door.

They walked down the corridor, and Tom entered his access code. The doors opened to reveal an old-fashioned marina on the edge of an expansive lake. There was a tall mountain range in the distance, and hills rising up along every side. Tiny villages dotted the shoreline, and the design of the buildings suggested they here hundreds of years old.

Tom walked to the control panel, then turned around. “It’s the middle of summer here. If we’re staying long enough for dinner, we’re gonna roast in these uniforms. Do you mind…?”

B’Elanna laughed. “I usually don’t let strange men dress me,” she said. “But what the hell.”

Tom smiled and entered in a series of codes, looking back over his shoulder once or twice as if trying to picture her in each outfit. “Tom, I swear, if I’m standing here in a bikini in a minute, I’m leaving and never coming back.”

He laughed. Not that the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Trust me,” he said reassuringly. He turned around before activating the controls. Suddenly, B’Elanna felt the deck shift slightly as she changed from her uniform and heeled boots into khaki shorts, a tank top, and a flat pair of canvas shoes. Tom’s outfit matched hers in style, but the colors were slightly different and he was wearing brown leather shoes instead of sneakers.

“Not bad,” she said—though making a mental note that her shirt was tighter (and Tom’s looser) than she would have programmed herself. Tom seemed proud of himself for showing some restraint.

She couldn’t help but look around as they walked to the shoreline. This was an incredibly intricate program that showed a level of detail and craftsmanship that was almost stunning. And the scenery itself was inspiring. “Where are we?” she asked as they walked.

Tom took a deep breath of the mountain air. “An Alpine lake in Northern Italy.” He stopped walking for a second and turned to face her. “What do you think?”

She knew this wasn’t the time for a joke. “Tom, it’s amazing. How long have you been working on it?”

He seemed relieved that she was impressed. “About a week,” he answered. “Since Harry and I got back.” He didn’t say from the Akritiri prison, but she knew what he meant.

Tom led the way down to the docks and stepped into a sailboat that was tied up there. He reached up and took her hand, helping her down. “She’s not quite ready to sail,” he said, a little disappointed. I need to make some adjustments to the jib design, and I haven’t finished rigging her properly. A few more days, though, and she’ll be all set.”

B’Elanna was confused. “Couldn’t you have the computer calculate all that?”

Tom shook his head. “Well, I could, but that’s half the fun. I’ve always wanted to design my own boat.” His mind started to wander, and B’Elanna thought she’d remind him of their deal.

“So, what’s for dinner?”

Paris turned to her and smiled. “Oops. Right. Wait right there.” He stepped over to the hatch and disappeared into the boat’s tiny cabin. When he came up, he was carrying a picnic basket. “Well, I’d like to tell you that it’s four courses from one of Italy’s best restaurants…but Harry and I blew through most of our replicator rations last week. So, instead we’ll be having assorted breads and cheeses from the region, and…” he was reaching into the basket “…a lovely Bellavista pinot noir.”

B’Elanna was impressed. “What, no beer?” she teased.

He put the wine back into the basket. “Well, if you’d rather…”

“No!” She laughed. “I just didn’t picture Tom Paris having such sophisticated tastes. Sometimes you really surprise me.”

Most days Tom would have taken the opportunity to make a flirtatious joke, but he was still very aware of their ‘friendship’ deal—despite her protestations that morning about Bristow—and of how close he’d come to missing the chance to bring her here at all. He’d be on his best behavior tonight, he decided. Besides, he felt a kind of pride and sensitivity about this whole program, and didn’t want to start a competition to see who could outmaneuver the other. Not tonight.

They sat down on the same bench seat, sharing the view of the lake and their casual dinner. Their conversation wandered all over the place, from their near miss in the shuttle that morning, to her frustrations with the ship’s inadequate maintenance layovers, to the uncharacteristic level of cooperation between the Maquis and Starfleet crews ever since Hanon IV. It was a relaxed, easy conversation—the first time they’d had the luxury since their regular ‘briefings’ during Tom’s brief stint as first officer.

They’d also talked about how late they’d stayed at Sandrine’s the night before, which led B’Elanna to blurt out something she hadn’t planned to say.

“You must have been tired this morning. You screwed up the stardate in your official log.”

Tom realized the implications of what she’d revealed. “You were reading my logs?”

B’Elanna wasn’t sure what to say. She couldn’t tell him that she’d actually wandered through his files on a fairly regular basis these days. If she did, he’d want an explanation—and she’d have to finally explain it to herself. She decided to play down the significance of her spying. “Only the official ones. Besides, you were unconscious, so I thought I might need to finish it. And I wanted to see what you said about our little mission. I have a reputation to uphold, you know.”

“Really,” Tom said, surprised at her provocative tone of voice. “Well, I’ll keep that in mind.” He also decided to keep in mind the way she seemed to feel comfortable strolling through his personal database. He’d beef up the encryption on his personal logs as soon as he got back to his quarters.

Ultimately, the subject got around to Harry Kim. Tom was hinting around, trying to find out what his two friends had been fighting about that had left them barely speaking for the last week. There was no way B’Elanna could be honest without opening up a can of worms that was best left closed. But it did lead them to discuss their time in Sandrine’s the night before—and Tom’s evasion about the Lake Como program they were now enjoying.

“So why wouldn’t you tell us about this place?” B’Elanna wondered. “Or are you hiding that holographic bimbo here?”

“Ricky?” Tom asked, laughing. There was a time when his holographic ‘girlfriend’ was a regular feature of all of his holodeck programs. Not these days. “Nah, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Ricky again.”

He got quiet for a moment and B’Elanna forced herself not to press the issue.

“So what was the big secret?” she asked.

“It’s not really a secret. I just wanted to keep it…private.” Tom hesitated for a moment as he decided how much he wanted to share. “When I was a kid, my dad was in between postings one summer and he brought the whole family here for a month. He’d been away for a while on a deep-space assignment and he and my mother had barely seen each other in over a year, so I think they were looking for ways to keep me from tagging along everywhere they went. So they let me take sailing lessons. My dad even went out with me on the boat a few times after I’d passed my certification.”

She could see this was a happy memory for Tom, and it confused her a bit—she knew Paris’s relationship with his father had been problematic, and she’d always assumed the men had never gotten along. “How old were you?” she asked.

“Thirteen.”

B’Elanna smiled. “I can’t picture you at thirteen,” she said. Her own first-hand encounters with thirteen-year-old human boys had come at a time in her life when she did little more than go to school and hide out in her room. In those days, she’d tried not to look at them, much less get to know them.

Tom laughed at the memory of himself at that age. “I was tall and skinny—all arms and legs. And by the end of the summer, I was one big freckle.”

She giggled at the mental picture that was forming. “And a big hit with the local girls, I bet.”

He laughed, and considered lying to her. “No, actually,” he admitted. “I fell in love that summer, but not with a girl.” His eyes were unexpectedly sad.

It took her a minute to realize what he meant. “Sailing,” she said softly.

He just nodded. “Being out on the water. A lake, the ocean—it didn’t matter. But before today, I hadn’t been on a boat like this in…god, I can barely remember…eight years?”

Some of the reasons were obvious, B’Elanna knew. Not a lot of chances to sail in the Maquis or in a Federation Penal Colony—much less the Delta Quadrant. But that didn’t account for all eight years. “Why so long?” she asked.

He took a drink of wine before he answered. “Let’s just say it brought up some memories I’d just as soon have forgotten.” He looked out over the water.

“Until now?” She finished the sentence for him.

He supposed it was true. For some reason, he’d decided to go back to this place and time, to relive his last family vacation. The last time he’d felt like his father cared about his interests and his feelings and his dreams. Tom had no idea why he suddenly seemed drawn to this place and the connotations—good and bad—it had for him.

But this conversation was bringing up a whole slew of memories and emotions Tom wasn’t anxious to share with anyone, even B’Elanna. So he decided to change the subject.

“So,” he asked, “what do you think? Does it merit your engineer’s seal of approval?”

Suddenly it was her turn to retreat. “I think you figured out today that holoprogramming isn’t exactly my biggest strength as an engineer. I’ll stick to warp engines from now on.”

Clearly this was a sore spot for her. Tom knew she was feeling responsible for what had happened to the doctor, and he thought back to his own courses at the Academy. With the exception of holographic imaging—where his interest carried him well past the limits of his natural talent—Paris knew he was a marginal engineer at best. Surely B’Elanna would have aced those classes.

Then it occurred to him. “I keep forgetting,” he said, shaking his head at his own stupidity. “You didn’t finish. The advanced stuff would have come later on.”

She looked embarrassed, but Tom hadn’t meant to make her self-conscious—quite the opposite. “B’Elanna, the enhancements you made to the Doc’s program showed a real gift for this kind of work. They never would have occurred to me. You just need to finish out the coursework to teach you some of the higher-level tricks. Trust me, two more classes and you’d wipe the floor with me.”

She looked flattered—but unconvinced. “Well, Starfleet Academy is about 65,000 light years away. Besides, I’ll just tell the captain that you’ll be the ‘doctor’s doctor’ from now on. I mean, you spend so much time in sickbay anyway…”

He knew she was changing the subject, but her mood seemed to be improving, so he let it go.

“Oh, yeah, me and Doc. There’s a pair you want to see working together on a regular basis. I can see the crew’s next betting pool: does he sedate me before I can decompile him? No thanks. He’s all yours.”

Tom noticed that the sun was starting to set, meaning their time was almost up. He couldn’t believe three hours had flown by so quickly. B’Elanna was sitting quietly now, looking at the water as it changed color, gazing up into the hills as the light started to fade. She was wrapped up in her thoughts—so much so that she didn’t seem to notice that Tom was staring at her. The changing shadows on her face highlighted her beauty, and he couldn’t help but feel what was becoming a familiar rush of desire for his friend. His heart and his body were conspiring against his mind, and he knew he was on the verge of taking another foolish chance.

But for some reason, Tom held back. He’d invested so much in this place—this program—and it was already laden with so many conflicting emotions. If he took this risk here, and she rejected him again, he’d never be able to separate his disappointment from the scene of his failure.

Instead, he decided to burn this image into his memory: of B’Elanna—here, on his boat, watching the sunset—and of himself, happy in her company. When he was sure he wouldn’t forget the moment, he added it to his file of happy memories of this place and declared another victory for himself at Lake Como.

He heard his combadge chirp the warning: their time was almost up. “Do you want to get going?” he said gently.

“No,” B’Elanna answered before turning to look at him. “But I guess we have to.” She smiled sadly before downing the last sip of wine and handing him the glass. He packed up the remains of their picnic, then took one last look at the lake.

Tom stepped onto the dock then offered her a hand out of the boat. As was his custom, he waited until they were in the corridor before deactivating the program. B’Elanna realized they were still wearing the casual clothes Tom had replicated for their ‘sail.’ She was glad; it would save her the trouble of recreating them again when she got back to her cabin; these were keepers. A reminder of an evening she’d like to remember for a long while.

He considered offering to walk her home, but Tom knew he had to be careful about how much he assumed these days. Instead, they stood in the corridor for a moment, neither one sure what to say.

“Well,” B’Elanna finally started, “thanks for finally letting me in on your little secret.”

Tom smiled, wishing he’d really be able to do just that. “Thanks for agreeing to go,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And they headed in opposite directions.

~~

When she got back to her quarters, B’Elanna saw the flashing message on her computer. She opened it to find pointers to two texts bookmarked in Voyager’s Starfleet database. Opening the file, B’Elanna smiled: they were textbooks from the final two Academy courses in advanced holoprogramming, along with a note from Tom offering to be her tutor.

It was a sweet gesture and it made her smile.

As she got ready for bed, B’Elanna thought about what an absolutely insane day it had been. And she couldn’t help but wonder if she was once again misreading her entire relationship with Tom Paris. They’d made a deal only a week earlier to limit themselves to friendship. She’d stepped out of the way of Tom’s relationship with Megan, and had made a conscious effort to avoid reading things in to the things he said and did.

Yet she’d watched him ignore Megan to have dinner with her and Harry the night before, he’d spent the morning flirting with her in the shuttle, and they’d just shared what anyone else would have considered a romantic night on his new sailboat. The pieces didn’t fit.

And she knew her own behavior was in question. Tom seemed fixated on her interaction with Freddie Bristow, and B’Elanna knew she had, in fact, gone on two dates with the ensign, despite her claims that she’d been tricked into them. And she had been the one to push Tom away—more times than she cared to admit. But the real mystery had been the incredibly sexy dream she’d had about Paris the night before, and her lingering feelings for him after she woke up that morning. Her body was trying to tell her something, she knew. And her heart was going along for the ride.

But it was late, and no amount of agonizing over things would answer her questions tonight. Torres tucked her new shoes into her wardrobe, then threw the shorts and shirt into the refresher. She looked forward to a time when she could wear them again, to taking a long sail out on the lake when it was finally ready.

She climbed into bed and fell asleep, her evening with Tom and the gentle rocking of the boat still fresh in her memory.

~~

Tom finished sending the message to B’Elanna, then sat at his desk for a while, lost in his thoughts. Something was changing inside him, he realized, but he couldn’t quite figure out exactly what or why.

For the first time since before he’d started at the Academy, Tom was developing a kind of self-assurance—and a feeling of belonging some place. He was no longer Thomas Paris the Admiral’s child prodigy, or Ensign Paris the young officer hiding from the truth, or Paris the drunken Maquis mercenary, or Inmate Paris, the Federation prisoner. He wasn’t even a nameless, rankless observer, hated by both the Maquis and Starfleet around him.

Somehow, with the faith of a strong-willed Captain, the courage of an open-minded young ensign, and the on-again/off-again affection of the most beautiful Klingon he’d ever seen, he’d become Lieutenant Tom Paris. Voyager’s helmsman. Harry’s best friend. B’Elanna’s…

Okay, well that was probably not the best place to let his mind wander. But he wasn’t going to let it get to him tonight.

And suddenly his compulsion to recreate Lake Como was making more sense. Tom was once again feeling the kind of peace and confidence he hadn’t known since that summer so many years ago when he’d been a happy thirteen-year-old boy who just discovered he had a talent for sailing. Tom had forgotten about that boy. And was slowly being reminded of the life he could have had if things had gone differently for him. Of a life he might actually get to create now—65,000 light years from all the other failed versions of himself.

He shut off the computer and headed for bed. As he lay there in the dark, he decided to call up the memory he’d saved earlier that night: B’Elanna, looking happy and relaxed as she watched a holographic sun setting behind the Italian hills.

Tom realized in that moment that his fantasy life was still incomplete. He’d have to resolve his feelings about B’Elanna before he could slip comfortably into his new identity. But they were at least sixty years from getting home. Plenty of time. And, for the first time in a long while, he wasn’t in any hurry.

~*~*~*~*~

To Be Continued…

“The Swarm” written by Mike Sussman

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