Author's note: Been playing in other sandboxes for a little while, but decided to coda the P/T episodes I still have left to do, in hopes of enticing the muse to play again.
He woke to bright lights.
Tom Paris blinked and after a few seconds, his vision cleared and sickbay came clearly into focus. He propped himself up on one elbow, taking a look around.
"Careful, Mr. Paris." A restraining hand, gentle but firm, on his shoulder.
Tom inhaled and lay back down at the biobed.
"I'm alive," he said hoarsely.
"Barely." The Doctor hovered over Tom protectively, one eye on the patient, the other on the tricorder in his hand. "When we beamed you and B'Elanna here, both of you were unconscious. You gave us quite a scare."
Tom had a distant memory of blackness, of stars around them, and of a strange dizziness. He remembered Voyager, a speck against the vast expanse of space, and Janeway's gravelly voice in his ear and his hoarse reply to her query.
"We're here," he had said; every cell in his body had strained for that simple reply and he remembered looking at B'Elanna, wondered if she had heard and saw she had closed her eyes. His reaction, if he recalled correctly, had been to tighten his grip around her and pull her closer to him in the seconds before he too faded into blackness.
"Where's B'Elanna?" Tom asked. He glanced around the sickbay and noticed, with the exception of himself and the Doctor, it was empty. "Is she all right?"
"She woke a couple hours ago and asked to be released." The Doctor sighed. "She threatened to rearrange my matrix if I didn't let her go. Don't worry, she's fine."
Tom grinned. "Sounds like it." Then a thought occurred to him. "Did we get the warp core back?"
The Doctor pressed the cool head of a hypospray against Tom's neck. "This should help with any nausea you may experience. Not to worry, Lieutenant, the warp core is intact, and currently being reinstalled in Engineering under Lieutenant Carey's supervision."
"Not B'Elanna?" Tom asked in surprise. He had thought that B'Elanna would have been down in Engineering, leading the installation process herself. It would be, in her eyes, the only thing that could redeem an otherwise terrible day in an honorable fashion.
Not the only way...
Tom closed his eyes. What had B'Elanna said to him?
"I love you."
Or had she? Perhaps it had been a delusion and he had imagined everything about that conversation. Perhaps he had never told her that she fascinated him, had always fascinated him, would always fascinate him...
"Mr. Paris?" the EMH hovered, hypospray in hand. Tom blinked and held up a hand.
"I'm all right, Doc, really," Tom said. He laughed a little self-consciously. "I was lost in thought, sorry about that. You know, rehashing what I thought were the last moments of my life. Strange, I always thought at the moment of death, I would relive my life in fast forward. You know, the good, the bad, the unmentionable. That didn't happen. Instead, dying like that was... nice, strangely enough."
"Nice?" the EMH echoed, looking perplexed. Tom understood the Doctor's confusion, but didn't feel like elaborating. Truth be told, when he first realized that they were losing oxygen, he had been scared. Terrified, actually, an utterly unwelcome emotion. Never had he been so completely sure of death but that changed when he gazed at B'Elanna; just looking into those brown eyes, he had felt amazingly at peace, grateful that she was the one sharing those last minutes with him. He had known, as they had floated into an awkward embrace, that there was no one else he'd rather be with at that moment. The certainty of that epiphany had startled him, but had also calmed him.
"Maybe 'nice' isn't the right word," Tom said. He considered what B'Elanna had said to him, and could even hear her voice in his head. All of those words, but the three words he was most interested in, the ones that concerned him the most, the ones that had set him at ease. "I don't know how to explain it in a way you would understand. Sorry, I wish I could."
What he really didn't want to explain was the conversation he had with B'Elanna; whether it was real or imagined, he knew telling the Doctor would reveal an emotion he had worked to keep hidden under the guise of casual flirtation.
"What you went through is an entirely unique emotional journey," the Doctor said cautiously and with uncharacteristic concern. "I would like to discuss your experience in greater detail at another time. Lieutenant Torres had nothing to say, of course, when I asked. She threatened to rip off my head."
Of course B'Elanna would react so violently, Tom thought; even when it came to discussing the prospect of her death, it was so like B'Elanna to close herself off and push everyone else away.
But she had let him in for a moment, hadn't she? Tom felt warmth creep into his skin as he once again considered the things they had said to each other, what she had said to him. Out there in space, with nothing left between them and nowhere to run, they had come to an understanding, perhaps even to a conclusion.
Or so he wanted - needed - to believe.
He couldn't bear to think of the other option... that she knew how he felt about her and said those three words out of misguided sympathy, perhaps to soothe him in those last minutes.
But would B'Elanna lie? No, Tom decided, she wouldn't. Complex as B'Elanna was, one thing about her was quite simple: she didn't play games nor was she the type to casually say something she didn't mean. This much, Tom knew, was true.
So if she said it, she must have meant it. So where did that leave them?
Tom winced. There was a sharp pain, just to the left of his clavicle bone, centered somewhere in his shoulders. As he moved, pain shot down his back. "I feel... not good."
"Oxygen deprivation has that effect," the Doctor answered wryly. He adjusted a hypospray and pressed it to Tom's neck. "That should take care of the pain, but other than that, there's nothing wrong with you a little bed rest won't take care of."
Tom nodded. His mouth felt like cotton, his throat dry. When had he eaten last? He flexed his fingers carefully, reveling in the simple action. He noticed the Doctor looking at him curiously.
"Just checking to make sure everything still works," Tom said lightly. "Appears all systems are a go." He grinned cheekily at the Doctor. "So can I be released?"
"Yes," the Doctor said. "But you're off duty for the next two days."
"Yes, sir," Tom said. He slipped off the biobed gingerly. His first steps were wobbly, but the Doctor reached over and steadied him. "Thanks."
"Would you like some assistance to your quarters?" the Doctor asked.
Tom shook his head. "No, just give me some time. I'll be okay."
Out in the corridor, Tom placed one hand against the walls for support. He knew he must look strange, in his blue Starfleet pajamas, and his awkward gait. He had to pause to breathe every few steps, but he delighted in the simple act he had once taken for granted.
He took in the corridors of Voyager as if he was coming aboard for the first time. He noticed the carpeting, the gentle curvature of the walls, the bright lighting radiating down. All of it seemed new, warm and utterly welcome.
Once in the turbolift, Tom leaned against the sloped wall and closed his eyes. He felt tired, unusually tired and even, slightly introspective.
Life in Starfleet, and hell, life on Voyager, was always fraught with danger, occasional exciting and always terrifying. Out here, in the Delta Quadrant, where rules and conventions did not exist, risks abounded in every nebula and star system. Confronting one's mortality, Tom mused, was simply part of the job.
Tom had accepted the fact he could die at any moment and until this moment, had chosen not to think too carefully about it.
The loose ends in his life had never troubled him before; he had always considered himself too much of a nuisance to others to believe someone could care for him, let alone love him. Tom opened his eyes as the turbolift lurched to a stop and the doors slid open. As he walked down the corridor, he tried to recall what he said to B'Elanna in response to her declaration.
"You picked a fine time to tell me," he had said. He tried to remember the tone of voice. Flirty? Teasing? Loving? Reassuring? Whatever it was, he regretted those words now. He should have said something else, something more concrete. B'Elanna would want that - firmness, directness, those were attributes she appreciated.
He had to hold back a cynical chuckle; even at that moment, he had been unable to respond properly to an honest declaration. Hell, he had been so hard on B'Elanna, accusing her of distance and pushing him away and what had he done?
This was one loose end he needed to resolve.
Tom paused, knowing that he was only a few doors away from B'Elanna's quarters.
It would only be natural, he thought, to check in on B'Elanna, ask how she was doing, perhaps get some clarification on whether she really meant what she had said...
Tom grinned as he approached B'Elanna's door, his heartbeat skipping just a little quicker as he contemplated looking B'Elanna in the eye and telling her - tell her what? He froze.
Keep it brief, Paris, he thought. Just ask how she's feeling and get out of there. Don't give her time to tell you she didn't mean it.
He pressed the chime lightly, the button barely indenting beneath his touch. No answer. He was about to try again, when he heard voices. Tom stepped hastily away from the door, almost colliding with Jenny Delaney and Gerron.
"Sorry," Tom said. Jenny and Gerron looked at him curiously and suddenly, Tom was aware of how he must look, still clad in pajamas, and his hair, dear God, he didn't even want to think about his hair. "Didn't see you coming."
"It's all right," Jenny said. She glanced towards B'Elanna's door. "I heard Lieutenant Torres' mood has improved."
There was a teasing note in Jenny's tone, one that caught Tom off guard. Did Jenny suspect something?
Don't be ridiculous, there's nothing to suspect, nothing for them to talk about. But you want there to be, don't you?
"I suppose after what we went through out there, anyone would be in a good mood," Tom said lightly. "I thought I'd check on her, see how she was doing."
"Ah," Gerron said. He clapped Tom on the shoulder heartily, sending shooting pains down Tom's back. "It's good to have you back with us, Tom. And as for Lieutenant Torres, you just missed her. Believe it or not, she's in Engineering. She heard that Carey had started the warp core reinstallation process without her and I swear, she nearly knocked us over in her haste to get to Engineering."
Tom sighed. He should have known better. Nothing could keep B'Elanna away from her beloved warp core. Not even Doctor's orders.
"Thanks," Tom said weakly. Engineering seemed very far away from where he was right now, though on most days, he could make the jaunt from his quarters to Engineering in a few minutes, provided the turbolifts were functioning smoothly. "I guess that means she's feeling better."
"I'd think so. But you, you don't look so good, Tom. Are you okay? Do you need some help?" Now Jenny's tone had abruptly changed to one of genuine concern. Tom shook his head.
"No," he said. "I'm fine. I just need to catch my breath."
"All right," Gerron said. He winked conspiratorially and lowered his voice as he leaned towards Tom. "I wouldn't wait around here too long, if I were you. Some people might get the wrong idea."
"Thanks, um, for the advice," Tom said, wondering when the tables had turned. When had Gerron become the expert on romance? Better yet, were his feelings for B'Elanna so obvious that both Gerron and Jenny took a casual visit as something more? "I'll consider it. Carefully."
"See that you do," Gerron said. He winked again and then he and Jenny disappeared around the corridor.
Tom sighed and glanced at B'Elanna's door again. Despite his exhaustion, he decided to make the trip to Engineering, but only after a change of clothes and a sonic shower.
He took a deep breath, exhilarating in the rise and fall of his chest. His step lightened as he continued down the corridor.
Some things, simply put, were absolutely necessary to life.
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