Characters and places belong to Paramount. No profit or infringement intended.
My gratitude to Rocky and Monica for the betas.
Lyrics are from "Hero," sung by Enrique Iglesias.
Would you dance
if I asked you to dance?
Would you run
and never look back?
Would you cry
if you saw me cry?
And would you save my soul tonight?
In the night, my hand brushes up against the cool skin of her thigh; she stirs and then props herself up on her elbow to look at me, that dark hair, tips curling, brushing against her cheeks.
"So you really were going to go through with this crazy rescue plan of yours?" she asks without preamble, continuing an earlier conversation that had been interrupted.
I reach up to cup her jaw with my hand.
"Yeah," I say.
"You were going to disobey the Captain for me?" she sounds curiously pleased. "Subvert the Prime Directive?"
"I couldn't let them lobotomize you," I answer. I shift my position slightly, wrapping my arms around her. "It would have changed everything about you."
"I would have been less violent." Now she is teasing. "You would have had an easier time of it if you had let them go through with it. No more fights. It would have been wine and roses all of the time."
I brush my lips against her cheek.
"Sounds dull, if you ask me," I tell her. "I prefer you now, the way you are, no matter how often we go head to head."
She puts her hand on my chest and leans down to kiss me. It's a light kiss, more of her teeth gently grasping my upper lip.
I want to tell her how she looks to me at this moment, gentle, soft and utterly pliant. I want the Mari to see her now, the way she moves over me, her eyes never leaving my face. I want them to see her as I do, someone more than a bundle of angry energy and fierce thoughts. In this particular moment, as I pull her down to me, we are so far removed from the suggestion of violence.
She may laugh, but I can't think of a better way to tell B'Elanna just how far I'm willing to go for her.
She says she's fine, so I drop the question. I know if our positions were reversed, I'd hate someone hovering over me every single second, but I see little things which make me worry and I can't help myself. For the first time in a long time, I have someone in my life I feel anxious for.
So I keep my mouth shut and try not to get too protective when I see her standing in front of the mirror staring blankly at her reflection.
"B'Elanna?" I ask cautiously. I'm still in bed, having worked gamma shift and B'Elanna, as fate would have it, drew alpha. She turns to look at me, almost confused by my presence in her quarters. For a terrifying second, I wonder if she has forgotten me in the same way she couldn't remember the way to the mess hall last night. But then her expression relaxes and she smiles at me.
"Good morning, Tom," she says. She covers the distance between us quickly and leans down to kiss my cheek. I pull her close, nearly bringing her down in my lap. The material of her uniform scratches against my bare chest, but I don't care. I press my lips against her neck, breathing in the scent that is uniquely B'Elanna. She is quiet today, not furious and fast in her actions.
"What time is it?" I ask, my voice still hoarse from sleep.
"Early," I say. I fall back onto the bed, bringing her with me. She lies on top of me for a moment before rolling over, her hair now in disarray. I grab her hand. "You've got another hour, don't worry. What's the point of being the boss if you can't be late once in a while?"
She grins at me, those wide red lips turning up.
"I like the way you think," she says. "But I've got things to do."
"Hmmm... how about lunch?"
"Lunch sounds nice." She gets off the bed. "I'll see you then." She pauses in front of the mirror again, staring. "Tom..."
Her voice trails off and I restrain myself from asking the forbidden question. I slip off the covers and swing my legs over the side of the bed.
"What is it?" I ask.
"I can't remember where I put my hairbrush," she says it almost child-like. Then realization crosses her face, much to my relief, and she locates the object on her dresser. "I wonder how that got there. Probably, I was distracted..." she is teasing again, perhaps in reference to my arrival late last night when she was combing out her hair before bed.
"That must be it," I tell her. I kiss her on the lips and hold her lightly around the waist for a few seconds before releasing her. "Lunch then?"
She flutters her fingers at me and disappears out the door. I look at the hairbrush; it's plain, silver - more functional than ornamental. My fingers curve around the handle as the brush blurs. I want to believe B'Elanna's forgetfulness is nothing more than a symptom of stress and overwork, that her experience with the Mari has not permanently scarred her brilliant mind. The cynic in me, always my best friend, believes the truth lies somewhere in between.
I step into the sonic shower, the pulse massaging the tension out of my body. As I finish my zipping up my jacket, the door chimes. I frown as I attach the pips to my collar and take a quick look at my appearance and decide I'm presentable.
"Come!" I call as I notice the bed is still unmade, B'Elanna's violet nightgown still on the pillow. I grab the nightgown and throw it into the recycler, just as the doors slide open to reveal Chakotay. "Commander."
"Good morning, Lieutenant," Chakotay says.
To say Chakotay and I aren't close would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. Too much history lies between us, too many things said and more than enough words left unsaid. Over the last four years, we've managed to maintain a professional relationship, one that requires very little in terms of emotional disclosure, an arrangement that satisfies both of us.
"I've come to see about B'Elanna," Chakotay says. He glances past me. "Can I come in?"
I step aside. "Sure and B'Elanna's in Engineering. She drew the early shift." I try not to sound accusatory, but it is Chakotay who makes up the schedule and sometimes I think he fixes it so that B'Elanna and I barely see each other.
"No," Chakotay says. "I wanted to talk to you about B'Elanna." He puts the emphasis on 'you.' The last thing I expected before coffee and peanut-butter toast was a heart-to-heart with Chakotay. I imagine a conversation with me is not necessarily the way he wanted to begin his morning either.
I swallow hard and nod. "Come in then."
I gesture to the sofa and ask him to take a seat. I remain standing though, shifting from foot to foot.
"Aren't you going to sit?" Chakotay asks in a bemused tone. For a second, I think he might actually crack a smile, but instead he nods towards the armchair. I take the hint. "I talked to B'Elanna this morning. I figured I'd check on her, see how she's feeling. It's been, what, three days?"
"She seemed fine to me," Chakotay says. He looks at me closely. "She appeared annoyed when I asked."
I laugh, almost sardonically. Dear God, after all this time, doesn't this man know anything at all about B'Elanna Torres? Or does he really have such poor ability to decipher others? "That was your first mistake. Don't ask B'Elanna. She's always going to tell you she is fine."
"I realize that. Which is why I'm asking you. I thought you might be able to give me an accurate idea of how she is doing, in your expert medical opinion, of course."
I shrug. "The Doctor says the procedure to reverse the engramatic purge went well. He says there shouldn't be any lasting effects and B'Elanna should be back to normal. If you really want an expert opinion, you should talk to the Doctor."
"I want to talk to you." Chakotay shifts his position in the chair. "You spend more time with B'Elanna than anyone else. From the Doctor, I get medical files and lengthy explanations regarding the advancements he's made in engramatic reversals. I figured you'd cut to the chase and give me the bottom line."
"Well, the Doctor is right more often than he's wrong. If he says it's going to take time for B'Elanna to get better, then it's going to take time." I know I sound insolent but I can't help it. Somehow, Chakotay has a knack for putting me into a bad mood. Funny how years of serving together can't remove the underlying tension between the two of us.
"But you disagree?" Chakotay leans forward. Damn, I hate it when he has that look, the one which says he knows exactly what you're thinking; during our first year on Voyager, whenever I saw that particular expression cross Chakotay's face, I knew a reprimand, at the very least, lay in my immediate future. In fact, those were the times when I thought Chakotay was just looking for something to nail me on.
Even now, I'm not always entirely sure his motives are good. When it comes to my relationship with B'Elanna, I get the vaguest sense that Chakotay doesn't approve. I don't know if he thinks I'm going to pull a caveman stunt and drag B'Elanna off by the hair, but I do know he doesn't take me seriously.
"Tom?" Chakotay asks.
"It's not my place to contradict the Doctor," I laugh hesitantly. "I'm just a field medic, remember?"
"I imagine undergoing an engramatic purge isn't something you recover from overnight. Perhaps, we should remove her from active duty -"
"She'd hate that."
"I know," Chakotay says evenly. "Level with me, Tom. Do you think what the Mari did to B'Elanna has left permanent damage?"
I inhale sharply and shift my position in the armchair. Truth be told, I very much enjoy being alive and I know the answer to this question can put my life at jeopardy if B'Elanna ever finds out. I have no intention of wearing a bat'leth on my forehead for the rest of my life.
"I think you might be right. She needs time," I say. "That's all."
"How much time?"
"Commander, as you said, only three days have passed. Who knows how far the Mari were in the procedure before Tuvok discovered what really was going on?" I feel heat rise in my face, along with my frustration. I feel accusatory and want desperately to point out to the Commander if only he had supported my plan to yank B'Elanna out of Mari prison, Prime Directive be damned, we wouldn't be having this conversation. "And she went right back to work. Of course, she's a little disorientated, but I agree with the Doctor. She's fine."
"Are you saying that because she is or because you want to believe that?" Chakotay asks. He gets to his feet. "I need honesty, Lieutenant. I care about B'Elanna-"
I tune him out because his very tone implies I could give a flying fig about B'Elanna's well being. And it makes me angry because he should know, after all this time, that my relationship with B'Elanna is more than lust, more than like. In fact, I'm somewhere in the middle of a four-letter word that terrifies the hell out of me. Sometimes I think I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve for everyone to see but apparently, Chakotay, obtuse as he can be, hasn't gotten the hint.
"I'm not lying to you," I cut him off. "I think we just need to give her time."
Chakotay's expression does not change, but he nods.
"Agreed," he says. "But you will tell me if you think differently?"
"Of course," I say.
After Chakotay leaves, I stand in the middle of my quarters, my eyes on the still rumpled bed. While the Mari held B'Elanna, I had been unable to sleep. Instead, I had conspired with Harry, late into the night, over various plans to break her out. We had even run a simulation or two in the holodeck, but before I could take the proposed plan to Chakotay, Tuvok had already figured out the violent thought industry - if you can call it that - and the Mari set B'Elanna free.
I make the bed quickly, pulling the sheets tight and tucking in the corners in Starfleet regulation, a habit reaching all the way back to my Academy days. Some things, I muse, you never forget. As I pull the blue comforter across the bed, my eyes fall on the box I brought back from the Mari planet, the gift I had yet to give to B'Elanna.
I had picked this particular gift for her while she had been bartering for parts in the main market square. I had seen it in a store window and lascivious thoughts had crowded into my mind. And it also occurred to me, during these first few months together, I had yet to give B'Elanna a present of any consequence. Whether she would want this particular one was still open for debate, but I wanted to prove to her I did think of her at times other than bedtime.
I pick up the box and put it on the bed, running my fingers over the white wrapping paper. I make my first decision of the day; I'll give it to her tonight and it's possible she'll throw it back in my face, but it's also possible she'll love it.
I sincerely hope for the latter.
I meet Harry as usual for breakfast. He's already at our usual table in the center of the mess hall, making short work of pancakes and bacon. I slide into the chair directly in front of him.
"Hey," Harry mumbles at me as he skewers a piece of pancake with his fork. Being Harry, he cuts each piece delicately and with perfect edges; the kid's got talent, raw, real talent.
"Hey," I respond. I contemplate my own plate: eggs and toast. "Sorry about being late. Commander Chakotay decided to pay me a visit."
"What did you do now?" Harry glances up at me, his tone halfway between reproachful and teasing. Harry knows just as well as I do that Chakotay never visits unless I've done something wrong.
"Nothing. Not this time," I tell him. "He came about B'Elanna. He's afraid the Doctor may have not reversed the engramatic purge completely."
"Hmmm." Harry puts down his fork. "What did you say?"
I shrug. "What could I say?"
"She's not herself, Tom."
"I know, but how can you expect anyone to be one hundred percent after undergoing a trauma like that? Good God, a partial lobotomy, it's not something you can just get up and walk away from."
"That's what I figured."
"Yeah, but you didn't hear it from me," I say quietly. "B'Elanna's still trying to sort out what happened on the Mari homeworld."
"She's not the only one."
"What are you talking about?"
Harry glances over his shoulder and lowers his voice.
"Have you spoken to Neelix lately?" he asks softly. I glance at Neelix, who is standing by the windows. I can almost see his glassy-eyed expression, the one he's been wearing since our sojourn on the Mari homeworld. "I'm worried about him."
"No," I say and I'm immediately ashamed. I've been so wrapped up in B'Elanna, it never occurred to me Neelix might still be dealing with Tali's death. "Have you?"
"A little. He's quiet, sad, not like the Neelix we know," Harry says. "Maybe you should talk to him. I think he could use a friend right now."
"Me?" I hold up a hand. "You've got to be kidding. What would I say to him anyway?"
Harry shrugged. "You don't have to talk to him about anything at all, just talk to him."
"Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it."
Harry narrows his eyes at me; the kid can act real intimidating on occasion when he wants to. Frankly, I'm impressed.
"Tom," Harry says patiently, as if I'm a small child. "Neelix has been a friend to you on more than one occasion, and for reasons much more trivial than the death of someone you cared about. I imagine you can find something, anything, to talk to him about."
I sigh. It's not that I don't know what to say, but frankly, when I'm in trouble, I turn to Neelix. Somehow, he always has just the right words for everything, whereas I've been permanently afflicted with foot-in-the-mouth disease - or so B'Elanna likes to say.
"I will," I say finally.
Harry grins. "I thought you would." He pushes his chair back and picks up his dishes.
"I've got to get to Astrometrics," he says. "Seven of Nine is going to let me play with her long range scanners." He winks.
I laugh. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Ensign."
He scowls at me and departs at an amazingly brisk pace. I decide I have no appetite for my breakfast and instead join Neelix at the window.
"Good morning," I say.
"Nice view," I comment. Outside, we have stars, endless stars stretching into forever. Unfortunately, it's the same view we've seen for the last several thousand light-years unless we chance upon a nebula or something equally fascinating. "Anything in particular you're looking at?"
"There are some lovely star constellations," Neelix ventures.
"Star constellations, right."
"You're not interested?"
"Sorry," I say. "Don't mean to sound so jaded, but they are star constellations, Neelix. We see them in every system we enter. Lovely as they are, stars begin to look the same after a while."
Neelix sighs, a heavy one that shakes his entire body. His silence chastises me and I'm struck with a sudden wave of guilt. I reach over and squeeze Neelix's shoulder gently.
"I'm sorry about Tali," I tell him. "She must have been very special to you."
"Thanks, Tom," Neelix says. His expression remains pensive. "She was... an extraordinary person. That must sound ridiculous to you, I imagine, given that I hardly knew her."
"No, not at all. You were obviously struck by her," I tell him. I remember Neelix in the transporter room, dosed with cologne, his eyes sparkling in a way I hadn't seen since Kes ended their relationship.
"Yes," Neelix says. "How's B'Elanna?"
"She's all right," I say.
Neelix gives me a sideways glance.
"Some wounds," he says, "cannot be seen."
I sigh. This time it's my turn to reflect on things we cannot change.
"I know," I tell him. I squeeze his shoulder again. "You're a good friend, Neelix. And I am sorry about Tali."
Would you tremble
if I touched your lips?
Would you laugh?
Oh please tell me this.
Now would you die
for the one you loved?
Hold me in your arms, tonight.
I hear B'Elanna before I see her.
Her voice carries from Engineering out into the corridor and I wonder who has incurred B'Elanna's wrath so early in the morning. As I peek around the corner, I see B'Elanna is verbally lashing out at the one person who refuses to be cowed by my darling's spectacular temper. I smile to myself as I watch B'Elanna shower Seven of Nine with a variety of Klingon epitaphs as well as a few others in languages I had no idea B'Elanna knew.
The other engineers scurry clear of B'Elanna and Seven and Joe Carey raises an eyebrow at me as I pass by him.
"She's on a roll," he says in a soft voice. "Be careful."
I grin at him cheekily. "I'm up for the challenge."
Joe sighs deeply, and turns back to his work, probably in fear B'Elanna will find him lax and break his nose again.
As I approach B'Elanna, Seven of Nine walks away, her head held high and obviously not at all disturbed by my sweetheart's rage.
"Hey," I said, coming up behind B'Elanna. I put my hand on her shoulder. "Rough morning?"
"What are you doing here?" she asks, turning around. I hold my arms out, hoping for a hug, but B'Elanna crosses her arms against her chest. I get the hint.
"I thought I'd come visit my favorite chief engineer and check helm status before reporting for duty."
"I'm the only chief engineer on Voyager," she tells me. "Don't forget that."
"As if I could," I say. I glance in Seven of Nine's direction; the former Borg drone is intent on the warp diagnostic array. "Did someone say differently?"
"You might say so. She -" B'Elanna jabs a finger in Seven's direction - "called my system diagnostics into question and referred to the protocol system as 'archaic' and 'inefficient.' She is constantly going behind my back and changing the systems around; I refuse to allow Voyager to be turned into a mini cube."
"I don't think Seven is trying to do that, B'Elanna. She just wants to contribute."
"Don't tell me you're on her side too!"
"Hey! That's not what I said. I was offering you a possible explanation," I say. I back away a few steps. "It's not about taking sides. I'm suggesting Seven could be a real asset here if you let her be."
"I can do this job, Tom," B'Elanna says in a low but fierce voice. She looks around suspiciously. "I know what people are saying but there is nothing wrong with me. Nothing."
"No one is saying there is."
"The Doctor said I'm fine, and I feel fine. So I have a few lapses on occasion-" she pauses, the color bright in her cheeks. She puts a hand to her forehead and reaches out to me with the other hand. "Tom, I'm sorry. I don't want to start a fight with you."
And even though we're in Engineering, even though everyone can see us, I pull her into an embrace, my lips against her hairline. To my relief, she does not resist.
"Apology accepted," I tell her. "Don't worry."
"I haven't felt this out of control since the Academy." Her lower lip quivers and I sense she is looking over my shoulder at Seven. "I can do this, Tom."
"You just need some rest. You've been going non-stop since you've come back. And -" I cup her jaw with my hand, my thumb gently caressing her skin - "I'd like to change that. So, dinner tonight in the holodeck. And I've left something in your quarters, a gift I picked up for you from the Mari homeworld. It's okay if you don't want it, but I wanted you to see it."
She puts her hand over mine, holding it in place against her face.
"That sounds nice," she says and she smiles the smile that gets me every time: slow, contemplative, and radiant - from the initial turn-up of her lips to the point where it finally reaches her eyes. I lean down to kiss her.
"2100 hours," I tell her. "I'll pick you up."
She is still smiling when I leave.
When I arrive to pick B'Elanna up for dinner, I know instinctively, tonight isn't going to go as planned. She is sitting on the sofa, still in her uniform, knees drawn up to her chest, the light blue blanket draped over her. I sit carefully opposite her.
"What is it?" I ask without preamble. She sniffles a little, a sign of emotion that both startles and frightens me. "Are you sick?"
"No," she says.
"Then what is it?"
"I've been thinking," she says. She glances beyond me towards the bed; I twist around and see the package I left there in the morning. It's still unwrapped. I swallow hard.
"Yes?" I ask.
"You know how you can go years without ever thinking about a person or an event? Then all of a sudden, you do. It's like you can't think of anything else. You have this memory and it won't go away."
"What are you thinking about?"
"I had a friend when I was six years old. His name was Jamie. Jamie Ryder." B'Elanna smiles and shakes her head. "We used to play in puddles together, jumping through them and seeing who could make the biggest splashes. When it rained, we would be out there together, trying to catch raindrops on our tongues. We were best friends."
I settle back into curve of the sofa, careful not to touch B'Elanna. In her most introspective moments, the ones where she's dwelling on the train wreck of her childhood, she pulls away from me as well as the emotional aspects of her memories. I understand this well; sometimes disassociation and clarity of thought are the only things that make certain events bearable.
"One day, he didn't come out to play," B'Elanna says. She inhales deeply. "In fact, he never came again. I found later on that his parents had taken him to a doctor on Nueva Prime, one who specialized in genetic enhancements."
"B'Elanna-" I say in horror, already anticipating where this conversation is going. Genetic enhancements have long been frowned upon in the Federation and are, in fact, illegal. Doesn't mean they don't happen - the black market is out there for parents who, for whatever reason, are unhappy with the way their children turned out.
"Something went wrong," B'Elanna went on, as if I'd never spoken. "He was... damaged."
I blink at the inflection in B'Elanna's voice.
"Last I heard, he is in a assisted living complex on Nueva," B'Elanna says. "He can't function for himself and only has the most rudimentary of language skills. I always meant to visit him, but I never could bring myself to and then, we ended up here-" she waves her arm in a circular motion. "I wonder how aware he is. Does he remember who he was at all?"
"B'Elanna." This time I don't hesitate. I pull her into my arms, holding her closely. "You aren't like that, not at all."
"Tom, I couldn't remember simple things today," she says. "I misplaced a hypospanner and then Carey had to remind me on how to remodulate the plasma field arrays. I remember staring at a variance indicator and not knowing what to make of the information; Seven of Nine interpretated it for me and I, I couldn't help myself."
"Is that when you yelled at her this morning?" I ask. B'Elanna closes her eyes, presses her lips together into a straight line, and nods.
"I didn't know what else to do," she says. "I can only be angry. I don't know what the Mari have done to me, how long it's going to take me to get back- Tom, what if I never get back?"
"That's not going to happen," I tell her firmly. She curls up against me, resting her head against my chest. I stroke her hair lightly. She shudders against me and so I pull her tighter, hoping against hope, that I'm right.
She wakes screaming, her face coated in a light sheen of perspiration, her chest heaving with erratic breaths.
"They're coming for me," she says. "They're going to take everything I know, everything I am."
"No, no," I say. I hold her close; the satin strap of her nightgown slips down her shoulder and I pull it up gently.
She is convinced though and gets out of bed, stalking across the room, checking the corners.
"They're here," she says. "I know they are. They want to erase me."
She doesn't have to explain whom she means; I know who the bogeymen are this time around. I get out of bed and grab her by the shoulders.
"Listen to me, B'Elanna," I say. "There's no one here. You're safe. I'm here."
She stares at me in wild-eyed terror.
"Who are you?" she asks.
I roll over in bed. I can hear the sonic shower and wearily, I stretch my hand out to touch the warm spot on B'Elanna's side of the bed. Her pillow still smells of her shampoo - something light and floral. After a few minutes, the shower turns off and B'Elanna emerges, wrapped in her robe. She smiles at me pleasantly.
"Good morning," she says.
"Good morning," I answer lazily. I stretch out, feeling my muscles relax. To say it had been a rough night would be an understatement and finally, I'd given B'Elanna a sedative to calm her down so she could sleep. "You look much better."
B'Elanna nods as she rummages through her closet looking for her uniform. "I feel better."
"Any plans for the day?"
She glances over her shoulder. "The usual, nothing special."
"If you're feeling up to it, how about that dinner we talked about?"
B'Elanna grabs her uniform. "I think I'm going to be busy."
I arch an eyebrow. "What?"
"You heard me." She goes back into the bathroom and emerges a few minutes later dressed in her uniform, her hair tamed and shiny as it bounces just above her shoulders. "Let's talk later on, okay? Let's see how the day goes."
"Okay, fine." I hate to sound disappointed, but I'm starting to miss B'Elanna. She flashes a bright, brilliant smile at me. "If that's what you want."
"Yeah," she says. "You were great last night, by the way."
I'm not sure I know exactly what she's referring to: the quiet, contemplative sex or the hours I spent comforting and calming her. Either way, I'm not happy with her tone of voice; it's almost as if she's brushing me off, as if I'm nothing more to her than a passing fancy. And it occurs to me then that I want to be more than an occasional afterthought in the life of B'Elanna Torres.
"B'Elanna." I swing my legs over the side of the bed. "About last night..."
The bright, brilliant smile vanishes and her eyes grow distant and hazy again. Damn, I hate that look. It means she's either pulling away from me on purpose or she's falling into that fugue state again where she can't remember her left from her right.
"I know," she says. "But it was nothing-"
"You didn't remember who you were, who I was-"
"It was a dream, Tom," she says. She lays stress on my name as if to drive home the point that yes, in the light of day - so to speak - she does know who I am. "I'm fine."
"It would make me feel better if you stopped by sickbay." I'm on my feet now and grab her elbow. "Indulge me." I brush my lips against her forehead ridges. "Please."
"If I get a moment. You know I'm busy."
"Yeah, I know." I shake my head and release her from my grip. "Make time."
B'Elanna's expression softens and she cups my jaw with her hand lightly. Her touch is soft and delicate. "Sometimes," she says, "you can be a real pain in the ass."
With that, she turns on her heel and leaves. I close my eyes. It occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, enough is enough.
The Doctor is singing something in Italian that requires many hand gestures. He is so caught up in the sound of his own voice that he doesn't even notice when I enter.
"Doc!" I say urgently. He turns, almost embarrassed to see me.
"Ah, Mr. Paris," he says, the color rising in his holographic cheeks. "I didn't hear you come in."
"Sorry," I say. "Didn't mean to interrupt but I wanted to talk to you about B'Elanna."
"Is something wrong? I just saw her this morning."
I blink, almost in surprise. Didn't honestly think - believe - that B'Elanna would actually be true to her word and stop by sickbay.
"She did?" I ask.
"Yes." The Doctor beams as he rearranges some of his supplies on a cart. "My vocal subprocessors were flat, so she came to readjust the modulation. It's wonderful to be able to sing perfectly in key again."
"She didn't say anything at all about how she was doing?"
The Doctor shook his head. "No, she appeared fine, tired, but doing well."
"She didn't sleep last night," I say. "She was up half the night wearing a path in the carpet."
"There's nothing wrong with over-exhaustion. I estimate half the crew suffers from it on a regular basis." The Doctor shakes his head. "I've talked to Commander Chakotay many times about the way he schedules the shifts, but does he listen? No, he continues-"
"It's not just exhaustion," I interrupt. "Look, she's not herself. I know you said it would take time, but honestly, she's not getting better. She can't remember little things. Hell, last night she didn't even remember me."
The Doctor tilts his head to the side. "I understand your pride is hurt, Mr. Paris-"
"Look, I might be a mere medic, but I know the signs," I say earnestly. "She's not getting better. In fact, I think she might be getting worse."
"What?" the Doctor is profoundly shocked, not to mention agitated. He pulls up B'Elanna's medical files and shows me her most neural scans, comparing them to the scans taken pre-Mari and then directly afterwards. "The behavior you claim she's exhibiting is not consistent with what the scans show, Lieutenant."
"I'm telling you, Doc," I say, "last night was not normal and it wasn't because of exhaustion."
The Doctor paces the length of sickbay, looking bewildered. He occasionally glances back at the scans on his console, as if trying to reconcile reality with theory.
"I'd rather not have to order her to come in. Maybe you can talk her into it." The Doctor looks uncertain as he speaks; he knows as well as I do that getting B'Elanna to come within a light-year of sickbay is a task of Herculean proportions. In the past, I've been able to coax her to come in, but given her mercurial personality these days, who knows?
"I'll give it a shot," I say. "We have a senior staff meeting this afternoon. After that."
The Doctor shakes his head. "I don't understand. The last time I saw Lieutenant Torres, all indications were that she was well on the road to recovery."
"Like I said, Doc, I'll give it my best shot. But, it would really help me out if you would just order her to sickbay." I'm already heading out the door; I'm late for my shift and I know Chakotay will have a thing or two or three to say about that. I swear, the man never misses an opportunity to reprimand me.
Or maybe I'm just paranoid.
On days like this, I'm never quite sure.
I can be your hero,
I can kiss away the pain.
I will stand by you forever.
You can take my breath away.
As it turns out, I don't get the chance to talk to B'Elanna before our senior staff meeting as I had hoped. She slinks in just seconds before Janeway sits down.
"Tom," she mumbles as she slips into the chair next to me. For a moment, my heart leaps into my throat. It occurs to me that maybe I went to the Doctor in haste, that there really isn't anything wrong with B'Elanna at all. Without thinking, I weave my fingers with hers. Her skin is cold, clammy to the touch, and after a second, she pulls her hand away as the Captain begins to speak.
Janeway is sitting in her customary chair at the head of the table, leaning forward, her fingers clasped together. Apparently, there's a nebula in our future, quite a large one, and the scientific possibilities are endless and worth yet another detour on our way home. After all, the Captain reminds us, we're first and foremost explorers and who knows when we'll see another nebula of this magnitude again?
I figure the chances of seeing a nebula of this scientific value are pretty good; after all, there are forty thousand light years, plus or minus, between us and the Alpha Quadrant, and each one of those blasted light years probably has a nebula to call its own.
"Any takers?" Janeway asks and I realize she's not merely suggesting sending a probe into the nebula, but an away team. I glance at B'Elanna, who seems curiously detached.
"We will need to modify a shuttle to withstand the stresses of the gaseous atmosphere within the nebula," Seven comments.
"We can amplify the shield resonance frequency," Harry suggests. He looks over at B'Elanna. "I think with a bit of fiddling, we can counteract the stress the ionic particle field is sure to inflict. What do you think, B'Elanna?"
"Sounds good," she says without much heat and still with that distant look in her eye.
"Get started on those modifications," Janeway orders. "Tom, I expect we'll need our best pilot out there."
"Aye," I say. Janeway glances at me sharply; I know she caught me drifting and guilt is something I do exceptionally well. Her lips turn up and I know I'm forgiven. I grin back cheekily and follow Harry and Seven out into the corridor.
"The modifications will require at least three hours," Seven says, "if we work efficiently." Her expression clearly says that she doubts we'll meet her expectations.
Harry gives me a smile, one that demonstrates the depths of his patience. I shrug as he and Seven head down to the shuttlebay.
B'Elanna comes out of the conference room and I grab her by the arm.
"Hey," I say. "How are you?"
"I hate that room," she says. "All we do is sit around and talk."
"Good morning to you too," I tell her. "I missed you at breakfast."
"How about lunch?"
"Sorry. I'm running a full diagnostic in Engineering today. You know that requires my full attention."
I lean in ever so slightly. "What's the point of being a chief engineer if you can't take some time off?"
"Tom," she says in exasperation. "You might take your duties lightly-"
"Hey!" I hold up a hand. "Look, you seemed distracted in the meeting and I wanted to know what was wrong. That's all. I didn't mean to imply you take your duties lightly. I just thought we could spend thirty minutes together. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing's wrong. Stop hovering." She starts walking, quick enough that I nearly have to sprint to catch up.
"You didn't even seem interested in the shuttle modifications."
"It's an easy enough problem, Tom. A first year at the Academy could do it. You could do it."
I pause, almost stunned by the note of condescension in her voice.
"I resent that," I tell her.
"Look, I've got things to do-"
"Yeah, I get the hint. You're busy and I'm irresponsible," I cut her off. "Go run your diagnostic, okay? Do whatever. Just -" I pause her because I no longer know how to continue. I swallow hard. I wonder if this is going to be it, if this is going to be the moment after months of whirlwind where B'Elanna and I finally fall apart. And I hate the way this thought makes me feel; it's not just the idea of another failed relationship, but rather the knowledge that I wasn't strong enough to get through this one too.
*If you let go now, Tom, you can't ever go back.*
So I do the only thing I can do, let my touch speak when words won't suffice.
I cup her jaw in my hand and pull her close, our lips mere centimeters apart. For a moment, she looks startled, maybe even frightened, but she leans closer first. Her eyes close the way they always do when we kiss, and for a single moment, only the two of us exist here in the corridors of Voyager.
"I am sorry," I whisper. "I didn't mean it." I hope she understands my sudden burst of temper, understands that I want my B'Elanna back and I'll do anything to help her. But B'Elanna's eyes remain distant as she pulls away.
"I've got to go," she mumbles. "Engineering."
I lick my lips, understanding so clearly how Engineering means so much more to her than I do. Or perhaps, I'm simply going through a self-flagellation phase, but either way, her brush off hurts.
"I understand," I say but I know she doesn't hear me.
Harry and Seven are completely engrossed in the shuttle modifications. The way they're working, you'd think Voyager had never come across a nebula before. Neither notices my arrival as I slip up behind them. For a moment, I admire their synchrony, the way the two of them have established a unique if not silent partnership.
"What can I help with?" I ask. Harry glances up, a lock of black hair flopping down across his forehead. His skin is flushed pink. Seven, on the other hand, looks calm and collected, barely breaking a sweat.
"You could recalibrate the EPS sensor grid," Harry says. "Here are the specifications. Seven found a way to align the grid with the main sensor relays. That way, we can regulate the EPS flow without drawing excess energy from the engines and also use the grid at the same time."
I let out a low whistle as I look at the PADD. The specs are a mess of numbers and various figures, garnered from calculations. I don't necessarily understand it all, but I know quality when I see it.
"You do good work, Seven," I tell her. "If this works, we can permanently add this to the shuttle protocols."
"You'd have to check with me first."
We all whirl around to face B'Elanna, who is standing with her arms akimbo. She looks angry and damn, I know that look. Someone is going to wear his tongue as a belt and I get the sinking feeling that it won't be Harry. Both Harry and Seven back away just a bit.
"It was a thought," I say weakly. And then I offer her the biggest smile I possibly can, the one I know which can melt away any of her bad moods. B'Elanna barely glances at me as she grabs the PADD away from me. "I thought you were running a diagnostic in Engineering."
"I thought I would check on the progress here," she says. She tosses the PADD back at me and I grab it with the tips of my fingers. "The way the wiring is set up on that schematic, it's a fire risk. It only takes one spark to set off a chain reaction. I wouldn't advise making these modifications."
"You barely looked at it," I point out. B'Elanna tosses me a withering look.
"I'm an engineer," she says. "I know what I see. This-" she jabs her thumb towards the PADD - "this is dangerous."
"I have run simulations on the holodeck. The wiring is safe," Seven counters. Harry's eyes widen as B'Elanna takes a step closer to the former Borg drone. "In fact, it reduces energy consumption by point zero three percent."
"Why didn't you check with me first?" B'Elanna asks, her voice very calm, but I get the feeling she's on the verge of wrapping her hands around Seven's throat.
"You did not seem interested-"
"I am always interested. I'm the chief engineer on this ship-"
I catch B'Elanna's arm. "No one is forgetting that, B'Elanna, believe me."
She whirls around to face me, color rising in her cheeks. "So you're going along with it too?"
"I don't see the problem," I tell her.
"You're not an engineer."
"No, but I know how an EPS sensor grid on a shuttle works and this is going to work, B'Elanna."
She glares at me, her eyes narrowing, her lips parting slightly to reveal those sharp teeth that so often puncture my skin in bouts of fierce lovemaking. For a moment, her lower lip trembles and then she recovers her composure.
"If you say it's safe," she says, but her voice is shaky. Seven nods.
"I would not take unnecessary risks, Lieutenant."
"Then, go ahead." B'Elanna waves a hand and then turns to walk out the door. I consider going after her, but recalling B'Elanna's admonishment to me to "stop hovering," I turn back to Harry and Seven.
"Shall we get going on this?" I ask brightly.
"What was that all about?" Harry asks as the door close behind B'Elanna. "It's not like B'Elanna to get so uptight about slight modifications to the shuttle."
"You know how she is, protective of anything that comes under the sphere of Engineering," I say. I choose a phase link coupler from the toolbox. "Though lately, she has been uncommonly fond of reminding me that I'm not an engineer, not to mention reiterating that she is an engineer, that she knows better than anyone else what is going on on this ship."
"Is she well?" Seven asks cautiously. I sigh. Damn. Now I'm really going to die. In fact, I ought to turn around and just tell Harry to get started on planning my memorial service.
"She does seem unusually angry too," Harry says. He pulls out his tricorder to examine the modulating frequency on the EPS array. "She lashes out at every little thing, it seems. Her temper has everyone in Engineering on their toes."
"I'm sorry," I tell Seven and Harry. Truth be told, I don't know what I'm apologizing for, but where B'Elanna's concerned, I have no other options. I can't tell them how B'Elanna woke up last night, confused and utterly terrified. I can't tell them how I wrapped my arms around her while she cried against my shoulder. "It's probably just stress. That's all."
"Well, I hope it passes soon," Harry says grimly. He passes me the tricorder. "Take a look at that variance. It's just outside the acceptable boundaries."
I frown. "Is it because of the rerouting in the EPS array?"
"Negative," Seven says from her console. Her long fingers run over the keys quickly and then she looks at me. "I'm noting an energy drain from the impulse modulators."
"Damn," I say. I scramble over the seats and head to the back, to lift up the floor panels where the modulators are. Harry is at my side and when we open up the panels, we see that some of the fuses leading into the modulators have been burned to a crisp. I sigh and sit back on my heels. "Who's going to tell the Captain?"
"Get B'Elanna down there," the Captain says. She paces the length of her Ready Room, her agitation apparent. "She should have been working on this project already."
"Yes, ma'am," I say. I look at Harry and Seven; none of us want to be the one to drag B'Elanna out of Engineering to fix what she terms an 'easy engineering problem than any first year could take care of,' especially after her latest outburst.
Janeway recognizes our dilemma and she says, "Don't worry, I'll talk to B'Elanna."
I hope my sigh of relief isn't audible, but I also know that no matter how angry she is, B'Elanna would never bite off Janeway's head, at least not with the same tongue-licking lip-smacking relish she reserves for me.
"Harry, Seven, dismissed. Tom, if you have a moment?"
After Harry and Seven are gone, Janeway indicates her sofa. "Have a seat, Tom."
"Thanks." I make myself comfortable on the sofa. Janeway leans toward me, her expression making it evident that at this moment in time, I'm the only one who exists in the world of Kathryn Janeway. In a way, I'm unusually close to my captain - owe her a debt of gratitude, one that I can never completely repay and while I'm not good with words, I think - I'd like to think - she knows how I feel about what she's done for me. If not for her outstretched hand, if not for her, likely I'd still be in New Zealand, deemed by Starfleet to be utterly unredeemable.
"I think it would be a good idea if you took Neelix on this mission," Janeway says. She sits opposite of me, sitting nearly sideways and leaning her head on her hand. "He could use the change in scenery."
"What about Harry and Seven? I assumed they would be coming along."
"No, it's a routine mission. You'll be fine with Neelix."
I quirked a smile. "Is this your way of helping Neelix come to terms with what happened to Tali?"
"I suppose. Not too subtle?"
"I don't always know how to help my crew when they need it, Tom," Janeway says seriously. She leans forward. "But I do know when I see someone who needs a distraction, for whatever reason."
"Does Neelix know?"
"I've already told him, yes."
"Good." I rise. "I'll just let him know the mission has been delayed. It's going to take time to figure out where the surge is. Hopefully, it's only in the spare power supply that runs the modulators; otherwise, it could be anywhere and we'd practically have to take the shuttle apart to find it."
"I'm aware of that, Lieutenant."
"Captain, if I may ask?"
"What is in that nebula that's so important?"
She quirks a smile that reaches to the edges of her eyes. "Perhaps a way home. There is an inert gas in that nebula. I've been running complex reactions all night and with a slight change in its chemical structure, I think we can add it to the warp drive for a little added punch."
"Have you told B'Elanna?"
Janeway's face takes on a guarded expression. "I mentioned it briefly to her earlier when the initial scans came through; she didn't seem particularly interested. In fact -" Janeway pauses - "I don't think she really grasped what I was talking about." The Captain rouses herself. "The plan might not work, Tom, but I would like to try it. Our way home could lay in that nebula. A long shot, I know."
"Aye, ma'am." I take a step towards the door and then look back at the Captain. "I'm going to do my best for you."
"I know you will, Tom," she says quietly. That wistful expression - the one that crosses her face any time 'home' is mentioned - returns. "You all do and I know, one day, we'll be home again. I may be grasping at straws, but we can't let any opportunity pass us by."
With that, I head back to the shuttlebay to continue working on the modifications. Whether Janeway orders B'Elanna to the bay, I don't know; my Klingon sweetheart never shows. When I ask the computer where she is, the crisp voice informs me that B'Elanna has taken shelter in EPS conduit 13A. I sigh. Well, I think, she knows where to find us. If she wants to find us.
Would you swear
that you'll always be mine?
Or would you lie?
Would you run and hide?
Am I in too deep?
Have I lost my mind?
I don't care...
You're here tonight.
Neelix is noticeably subdued as he boards the Delta Flyer. I wouldn't use the word 'disgruntled,' but his expression is pretty damn close to it. I let him get comfortable before I start the pre-launch sequence. Correcting the Delta Flyer's various system issues took Harry, Seven and me a good three hours; we'd worked pretty much in silence, each of us handling our own parts of the repairs, though occasionally, my mind would drift. Truth be told, once we had finished up the repairs, I was itching to get away from Voyager.
*Running away again, Tom, aren't you?*
I hear Neelix stumble around the shuttle going through some pre-flight checks and the noise he makes provides a welcome distraction.
"Welcome aboard," I tell him genially as he finally settles down in the seat next to mine.
Neelix offers me a tentative smile; if I didn't know better, I'd think he didn't want to go nebula exploring with me. I'd be insulted, but I'm not that enthusiastic about this particular mission myself. I watch as he buckles himself into his seat and then nods at me.
"Ready for a little trip?" I ask in a tone that sounds more cheerful than I really am. I try not to think that B'Elanna didn't bother to come to the shuttle bay to see me off. In fact, she had told me in our last conversation just thirty minutes previous that she was busy. I hate it - absolutely hate it - when she uses the word 'busy' because my B'Elanna translomatic turns on and I know she's avoiding me. And it occurs to me that perhaps space is good for us while she pulls herself together.
"Whenever you are," Neelix says amicably. I glance at him and then begin the pre-flight launch sequence. These are mundane tasks that I have done time and time again and could probably do blindfolded.
"Paris to the Bridge. Ready for departure."
"You're clear to go, Mr. Paris." Janeway's voice is scratchy over the comm. The shuttlebay doors slide open. "See you in a few hours."
"Aye, ma'am. Paris out."
Neelix isn't particularly talkative and after a few failed attempts at conversation, I give up. He is obviously in his own world, one haunted by the vision of Tali, blood spreading in a halo around her golden head.
"The nebula is straight ahead," I say. This gets Neelix's attention.
"Sensors are clear," he says.
"Are you picking up that inert gas the Captain was referring to?"
"In trace concentrations, yes." Neelix glances at me. "You think her idea is going to work?"
"I have no idea," I say. "But some hope is better than none at all." I check the sensor readings just to assure myself that all is well in the nebula. Experience has taught me that nebulas are wild and strange creatures, prone to moodiness and the occasional temper tantrum. "If the Captain is right and the way to get home is that nebula, then it'll be worth the trip."
Neelix nodded. "Have you considered what you'll do when you get home?"
I look at him in surprise. "No, frankly, I haven't thought about it. In fact, I was actually looking forward to spending the next seventy years here in the Delta Quadrant. Appeals to the vagabond in me. Plus, I have no desire to return to New Zealand. Beautiful country, but not much to do but sit around."
"I've thought about it," Neelix says wistfully. "Especially over the last couple weeks."
"Yeah?" I check the directional readings and satisfied, I turn my full attention to Neelix. "Any particular reason why?"
Neelix shrugs. "Just little things, you know."
"You'll laugh at me-"
Neelix inhales so deeply his body shudders with the action. I remain quiet as he pulls himself together.
"I guess I never thought of the Alpha Quadrant as home before," he says finally.
"Why would you?" I ask. "I'm not even sure I consider it home."
"But I would listen to all of you and I'd get excited about the prospects of a new life in a new place. It's exciting to hear you talk and I'd convinced myself that I wanted to be there also."
"But something changed your mind."
Neelix nods. "Yeah."
I start to put the pieces together, but Neelix doesn't let me speak. His next words come in a rush, as if he's afraid he'll back away from what he really wants to say.
"I really liked Tali, Tom," he says earnestly. For a moment, an expression of intense sorrow crosses his face. "She was sweet, like Kes, and gentle too. And we were hitting it off. For a moment, I had the fantasy of settling on the Mari homeworld with Tali, living the life I should have had with Kes. I had never even considered the possibilities of meeting someone else until Tali, never thought I could move past what I had with Kes."
Neelix raises his hand. "You don't have to say it, Tom. I know, it was a foolish-"
"No, not at all," I tell him. "We all have thoughts like that, when we first meet someone. You consider all of the possibilities and if you're deep enough into like, you can even sketch out an entire lifetime with that person."
"Have you done that?" Neelix's question is soft, pensive. "Thought about building a life with someone when you've only just met?"
"Yeah," I say finally. "I've done that. And it's not wrong, Neelix, to care so deeply about someone, even if only after such a short time. Some people have that effect, you know?" I chuckle. "They walk in one day and nothing ever looks or feels the same again. Falling in -" I pause and change direction. "Somehow, that person becomes your first thought when you wake up, the last thought before you go to sleep. And it's not the quantity of time, Neelix, but rather the quality of the attraction. So what you felt for Tali and how you feel about her death, it's understandable."
Times like this, when I wax philosophical, I occasionally terrify myself. B'Elanna says it's because I like to hear the sound of my own voice; I'd like to give myself a little more credit than that, prove to her, prove to everyone else around me that there is indeed depth to Tom Paris, that I can eclipse the womanizing, self-absorbed, wise-cracking persona.
"I didn't realize until Tali just how much I-" Neelix stops. I wait. After a moment, he resumes. "It's different without Kes, isn't it? The ship isn't the same without her."
"I imagine she is growing in ways she never thought possible, reaching out for new opportunities," I say carefully.
Neelix nods. "I suppose you're right, but I- I do miss her."
"What you two shared, that was very special," I tell him. "Whatever else, you'll remember that."
Neelix shakes his head wistfully. "I'd like to think Kes felt the same about me as I did for her, but in retrospect, it's hard to tell. I only have my feelings, but I know that before she left Voyager, she thought of me only as her friend, nothing more."
"I wouldn't say that."
"I've always wondered what someone like Kes would see in me," Neelix says, almost sadly. His tone of voice surprises me. Neelix isn't the type to sink into despondency and I can only think that his short relationship with Tali stirred up emotions and thoughts he had pushed away. "Maybe all she felt for me was a debt of gratitude."
"Kes wasn't like that and you know it. She never did anything half-hearted and more importantly, she cared for you. She didn't believe in manipulating people," I tell Neelix as forcefully as I dare. "I think you can take comfort in the fact that when you were together, your relationship was as real as anything else and just as meaningful to her as it was to you, if not more."
Neelix runs his fingers over the console, adjusting the sensor logs ever so slightly. I recognize the gesture for what it is: an opportunity to do something, no matter how insignificant.
"It bothers me that I'm not over her."
The honesty of his words surprises me greatly.
"It takes time," I tell him. "It's only natural that you still have feelings for Kes. When you truly care about someone, it's impossible to just walk away without some lingering emotions. It would be unnatural if you felt nothing at all."
Neelix sighs, obviously relieved. "On the other hand, I've never been to the Alpha Quadrant." He laughs, a little hesitantly. "I've always enjoyed visiting new places."
Neelix falls into silence as the console beeps a warning at us. I pull up short-range scans.
"Entering the nebula in about thirty seconds," I announce. "Sit tight, Neelix, it might get a little rough."
"Yes, sir," Neelix says, and already he sounds a lot better. "Tom?"
"Yes?" I take my eyes off the viewscreen for just a second to look back at him.
"Thanks," Neelix says.
"Anytime." I flash a smile at him. "I understand."
Disasters occur when you least expect them. In fact, they start slowly, sort of like a trickle and you don't notice until the floodgates burst open.
It started with the fuses in the EPS modulators, the same ones Harry, Seven and I had replaced prior to departure. By the time we smelled the smoke, the modulators were already gone.
"Damn," I say out-loud as I crouch over the defective components. "We replaced every single one of these and tested them too."
Neelix hovers just off to the side. "Looks pretty bad, doesn't it?"
"Depends," I say. I nod towards a small cabinet at the rear of the cabin. "There ought to be a box of fuses in there." I reach down and yank out the burned fuses, singeing my fingers in the process. I can just imagine B'Elanna's voice in my head reproaching me for not following proper safety protocols. Damn it, I think. At this point, in the middle of some nebula, I'm so far removed from B'Elanna and all of her problems, I simply can't bring myself to focus on her at this particular moment.
*You're going to have to make a decision, Tom. Sooner, not later. You know that.*
Neelix hands me the box of fuses just as I see the hairline crack in the power supply grids leading into the fuses. I sit back on my heels. Neelix looks concerned.
"Well?" he asks.
I point. "We missed this earlier. I don't know how, but we did." I sigh. I can almost visualize the sequence of events; my own impatience with the repairs and my frustration with B'Elanna - somewhere along the line, I must have forgotten to do the power supply diagnostic.
"So, what next?"
"Well," I say. I think this through. A crack in the power supply is, technically, not the biggest problem we could have, but on the scale of things, it's pretty damn serious. "This is my fault."
"Don't say that," Neelix says. He looks at me with compassion and his expression is such I just feel the need to wallow in self-pity even for a few seconds.
"I was so caught up in my problems," I tell him. "I wasn't thinking clearly. I shouldn't have been the one in charge of the repairs. Damn."
"Don't." Neelix rests his hand on my shoulder lightly. "Tom, it's not your fault."
I appreciate Neelix's kindness, his understanding, but in truth, times like this, I get into a mood of self-flagellation. Can't help it; masochism and undue suffering from guilt runs in the Paris family blood. I take a deep breath, knowing that chastising myself will not get out of this situation.
*Calm, Paris, calm. You've been in worst situations. You can deal with this too.*
"We're dead in the water, Neelix, unless I can figure out a way to rewire this system," I say. I shake my head. In truth, this is pretty much the first time, my personal life has interfered with my duties, and I'm not sure I like how off-balance that makes me feel. I sigh. "All right, um, we're going to have to switch to auxiliary power and then take the main power supply offline."
"Right." Neelix nods.
"From there, we'll need to reroute all of the wiring in that section through the auxiliary power source. That should hold it until we get back to Voyager."
"I guess this mission is over?"
I look at Neelix grimly and nod. "Yeah, I think that's a pretty fair assessment of the situation."
"What's going on, Tom?" Janeway asks briskly. Her face fills up a good part of the tiny viewscreen in the shuttle."
I give her a quick run down of our status. "On a positive note, the Brussard collectors are still working. We have been able to gather several liters of that gas you were interested in."
"Excellent work, Lieutenant," Janeway says, "but I'm more concerned about getting you two out of there."
"Can we tractor them out?" Chakotay asks.
"No," Tuvok says. I frown. Damn Tuvok, always the harbinger of doom and gloom. "I'm detecting increased volatility from the nebula; using the tractor beam may spark an explosion."
I sigh. "Thanks, Tuvok. We'll try to fix it here on our end."
"In the meantime, I'll have Harry work with B'Elanna to come up with a solution," Janeway says. "Don't worry, Tom, we're going to get you out of there."
I glance back at Neelix who is diligently trying to seal the crack in the power supply. I frown; cracks in power supplies don't just happen. "Neelix, check the connectors between the power supply and the main generator."
Neelix is on the floor, flashing a light over the generators. "Tom..."
"What is it, Neelix?" Janeway demands. I'm out of my chair to look. The connectors look like they are overstressed, to the point that there are microfractures in the metal. I can only imagine that the stress from the connectors caused the crack in the power supply. I sit back on my heels. A crack I can jury-rig, but this is something else. In my mind, it's evident that the problems Harry, Seven and I worked on were only the tip of the iceberg.
*How the hell did this happen?*
I glance out the shuttle windows at the nebulous gases swirling in shades of purple and pink. Honestly, if it wasn't for our current situation, I'd love it out here. So peaceful, so calm, so far away from the stresses of the last few days. And I think, almost selfishly, that maybe it's not such a bad thing that I'm stuck out here. I never really get much time to think or regroup; I'm either on the Bridge or with the Doc or with B'Elanna or with Harry on the holodeck.
I realize that Neelix is staring at me. "Tom?"
"Sorry." I blink. "Okay, what do we do?" Now I'm thinking out-loud. I run through the schematics in my head - red to blue, green to yellow, positive to negative. "All right, um..."
*Think, despite what B'Elanna says, Tom, you can do this.*
I clear my throat. "All right. Well, I think we have spares of most everything in the back toolkit. Let's, um, get that out."
We haul out the long box with spare parts out and open it. Thank goodness, everything we need is inside. I grin at Neelix and clap him on the back. "We're going to be okay."
Oh, I just want to hold
I just want to hold you.
Am I in too deep?
Have I lost my mind?
I don't care...
You're here tonight.
Neelix returns to hover over my shoulder.
"What did the Captain say?" I ask without looking up.
"She's concerned. Harry and B'Elanna are still working on a solution. So far nothing."
"We're doing okay, Neelix," I tell him. "When you next update the Captain, let her know that. We're going to be fine." It's bravado talking now, but I figure, that's as good as anything. I'm not as quick as Harry, B'Elanna or Seven would be, but I'm pretty damn proud of my handiwork. I sit back on my heels and survey it.
"I think that will hold us," I say. "At least until we get to tractor range."
"And if it doesn't?"
"If it doesn't, well," I consider, "that will be the least of our worries. The explosion is sure to be spectacular."
Neelix doesn't look happy at the prospective of being scattered into tiny particles across a nebula. More I think about it, the less appealing the idea is to me also. I sigh and get back into my seat. A quick diagnostic shows that all crucial systems are up and running, though a couple are lingering in the 'red zone', meaning that failure is imminent.
"Just need three minutes, that's all," I say. I pat the console lightly. "All right, easy does it. Let's go."
The shuttle chokes to life, shuddering with the exertion, but I steady it to impulse. Next to me, Neelix is gathering information on the various critical status ststems and recording the stress points. He says nothing, but the thin line of his mouth reveals his anxiety.
"It's going to be fine," I say, saying the words as much for him as for me.
"Yeah," Neelix says. He glances at me. "It better be, because I've got a birthday party coming up in two days."
"Right," I say. "For Ayala. Yeah, you'd better be there."
"And don't forget about you," Neelix goes on. "People depend on you. A lot. The Captain, the Doctor, Harry, B'Elanna..."
"If you say so."
"No." I glance at the sensor logs. We're making slow but steady progress. Fortunately, the nebula is relatively stable. "Just concentrating."
"You've seemed on edge this whole trip. That's not like you, Tom."
"I've got a lot on my mind."
"Yes, of course. You're a very busy man. Chief pilot and medic? Not many people on this ship have such diverse responsibilities."
"You can say that again." I flip a couple switches. "Can you check on the exhaust levels? I want to make sure the leakage levels are within acceptable parameters."
"Looks like it's at point three." Neelix frowns. "That's cutting it close."
"Too close," I agree. "Cut the flow to the regulators. That might do the trick."
Neelix complies and then settles back into his chair. "I'll keep an eye on it."
"You didn't say what you'd do when you got home."
"Like I said, haven't given it much thought. Not much in the Alpha Quadrant for me anyway. Probably will try to get a piloting job of some sort. Not Starfleet, I don't think. Not sure they'd want me."
"Sure they would."
"You don't really know how I left things, Neelix." I sigh. "I pretty much left my self-respect in the Alpha Quadrant and I'd like to think I left the Tom Paris of Caldik Prime back there too. Not sure I really want to go back, knowing how people feel about me. Including my father."
"But you've made something of yourself here on Voyager. How can you even say something like that?"
"I've changed, but I don't think people believe that. Not even Chakotay. They all see the Tom Paris I used to be."
"It is hard, isn't it?" Neelix's voice is soft and pensive. "I know what you're talking about, Tom."
I say nothing, giving Neelix the opportunity to speak.
"Before Voyager, I was-" Neelix pauses -"an addict. A friend helped me break the addiction. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was cold and hot, in pain and flying, all at the same time. When I finally came to, I realized who I had been, who I could be. Someday, I would like to go back and show all those whom I came into contact with when I was on the crystals and show them what I've become. Don't you want to show others what you've done with yourself?"
I glance up at the viewscreen, once again marveling at the beautiful colors in front of me, the deep, swirling purples, pinks and grays. "I'm not into humiliation for humiliation's sake, Neelix."
"Ah," Neelix says. "So you just want to keep moving. You don't want to stand still."
I glance at him, wondering where he's going with this. Sometimes, Neelix can be sneaky with his points, but other times, he's about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
"How does B'Elanna feel about all this?" Neelix continues.
"I don't know. We haven't talked about it."
"I assume she wants to go back."
"Not particularly." I shrug. "Voyager's mission is our mission."
"So do you think she'll go with you?"
"Can't answer that."
Neelix nods. "Ah, so that's how it is." There's a note of sadness in his voice that surprises me completely. "You're letting her go."
I look at him in surprise. Where the hell did that come from? And then I remember that Neelix is more perceptive than we usually give him credit for.
"I'm not letting her go, Neelix," I say finally. I check the readings one more time. More of the systems are hovering in the 'red zone.' "But I can't be the only one holding us together."
"Like I said, you're a busy man. You need to make your priorities," Neelix says. "Understandable." He leans to the side to check out a panel. "We're back up to point five percent on the fumes. I'm going to try to prolong the circulation period before venting."
"Do that and the all of the coils will heat up to critical temperatures," I point out. Neelix nods. "Neelix, you make it sound like I'm running away, that I'm giving up on her."
"No, I'm making an observation, that's all. Relationships are hard, especially if one person isn't in the same place as the other. That's what happened with Kes and me," he says. "How much time do you need? I need to measure the coolant levels for the calculated bursts."
"About ninety seconds." My fingers fly across the panel to readjust our trajectory to get us beyond the nebula in ninety seconds. Still, cutting it close, I think. "That should get us through."
Neelix tips his head to the side. "All right. I'll put this on a timed fifteen second cycle. That should keep the coils cool enough."
"Right," I say. "Sounds like you've done this before."
Neelix nods. "Yes. Back in my trading days. I was hiding in a nebula from some, um, angry customers. Though, if it wasn't for that incident, I wouldn't have met up with Kes."
"Hmm?" I'm amused. It's rare that Neelix will touch on his past, especially anything having to do with Kes. For some reason, he's close-mouthed about his life pre-Voyager and I don't like to pry, but I admit, my curiosity is piqued. "Angry customers?"
"I put working components on top of defective ones. However, the Ubeans figured out the trick soon enough," Neelix shrugs. "Doubled my profit on that one, but lost valuable time for the next trade because I was hiding in a nebula. I was on the run from then on, which is how I eventually ran into the Kazon six months later." He laughs and I think, from the trace of sadness in his voice, that there is more to the story than he is telling me. "Some of the best days of my life."
"Yeah?" Me, I wouldn't classify any encounter with the Kazon as 'some of the best days of my life.'
"But things are better now, don't you think?" Neelix grows pensive. "I'm grateful Captain Janeway agreed to take me and Kes. Who knows, left to my own devices, what would have happened. I'd probably still be running from those Kaerians, trying to coax life out of failing engines..."
"All right," I say. "Clearing the nebula now." And not a minute too soon either. The readings show that nearly all vital systems are now in serious danger of failing in the next five minutes. B'Elanna's going to kill me but I can't think of a single thing I can do now that will save this shuttle. "Paris to Voyager. Two to beam out."
I have never been so glad to see Voyager. There are times when this ship makes me crazy, when I feel antsy enough to jump out of my own skin. But right now, in the transporter room, I feel an almost peculiar emotion, a realization that I've come home. And it occurs to me, I never considered Voyager to be anything but temporary before this moment.
Neelix turns to me, relief evident on his face. "Good work, Mr. Paris."
"No problem," I say. I step off the transporter pad and nod at Gerron, who apparently drew transporter duty this shift. "Piece of cake."
Neelix hurries to catch up to me as we pass through the doors and out into the corridors. "You know, you were extraordinary, very calm, very collected. I was - am - impressed."
I shrug. "Nothing they don't teach you in the Academy. There's a whole class on 'fear management' and thinking under pressure."
"Still," Neelix says, "you handled yourself beautifully. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have been stranded in a shuttle with."
I raise an eyebrow. Color rises in Neelix's cheeks.
"You know what I mean," he says, clapping me on the back. "Thank you, Tom, for saving my life."
"Like I said, no problem."
"And more importantly-" Neelix's features softened - "thank you for listening."
I look at him in surprise. "Hey, again, no problem. That's what friends are for, right?"
Neelix stops. "You're a good friend, Tom. A very good friend. Until you asked, no one had really talked to me about Tali at all."
I almost feel guilty; it was Harry, after all, who had pushed me to bring up the subject with Neelix.
"Even with your own problems, you took time for mine," Neelix says. He leans forward, almost conspiratorially. "You're a good man, Tom Paris. Don't let anyone tell you differently."
The kindness in his tone takes me off guard momentarily. No one has said something like that to me, not in years, if at all. For the most part, in the eyes of many, I'm still Tom Paris, womanizer, cheat, thief, vagabond - you name it. Over the past four years, I'd like to think I've become more than that, that I could become a man someone could fall in love with - but until this moment, this very moment - damn. Never thought it would be Neelix telling me. Yeah, the Captain maybe, even Chakotay if he bothered to speak to me or B'Elanna in one of her tender moments, but dear God, never Neelix.
But then again, why am I so surprised? When I 'left' Voyager in an attempt to trap the spy onboard Voyager, it was Neelix who had cared the most. He had been the only one to reach out while everyone else had probably been planning a 'Good Riddance to Tom Paris' party.
Even though I know circumstances have changed and opinions as well, it still feels good to hear the words, to know Neelix has seen what I have felt all these years.
I clear my throat. "It means a lot to me to hear you say that. You know, it's not easy to leave the demons of the past behind."
"But you're doing a good job at reinventing yourself," Neelix says. He resumes walking again. "I imagine you could do anything, be anyone, if you set your mind to it. Though, if you do want to move on after Voyager returns to the Alpha Quadrant, that would be understandable. It's hard to cure wanderlust. I know."
"Neelix?" I ask uneasily. He glances at me.
"What-" I swallow hard again - "what made you change? You could have left Voyager anytime. You didn't need to stay."
Neelix smiles, almost beatifically. "Some things," he says quietly, "are worth sticking around for."
"Even when it's hard?" I ask hoarsely.
"Especially when it's hard." Neelix sighs. "You appreciate it more when you have to fight, Tom. The easy things, you take those for granted. But-" he pauses, a keen introspective expression lighting up his face - "you already know that, don't you?"
There have been so many things in my life, so many of these little hurts and festering wounds - yet somehow, I'm still here, I'm still standing.
"Think about it, Tom," Neelix urges. "And if you need to talk, you know where to find me."
I stare after his retreating figure and even after Neelix disappears into the turbolift, I remain in place. Finally, with a shake of my head, I turn and walk in the opposite direction towards the Bridge.
The Captain is waiting.
Oh please tell me this.
Now would you die
for the one you loved?
"So what happened out there?" Janeway's voice is dangerously calm.
"Massive systems failure," I say. Next to me, Harry looks slightly nervous and I've never seen B'Elanna so pale before. Only Seven remains unperturbed. "It was a cascade reaction, one right after the other. Luckily, we had some spare parts and I was able to jury-rig the affected systems for the three minutes necessary to get out of the nebula."
Janeway's jaw is firm. "Get down to Engineering and analyze every aspect of this incident. I want to know exactly what went wrong. I assume all of you went over this shuttle before you left, so how something like this could be missed is beyond my comprehension. Dismissed."
We file out of Janeway's ready room silently. The woman is not that big in stature, but damn, she has the ability to reduce all of us to a quivering mass of gelatin with a single look. In the turbolift, I turn to the others.
"Let's meet in about thirty minutes. I need to get cleaned up," I tell them.
"Sounds good. I'll meet you in Engineering," Harry answers. B'Elanna nods. It's only when the doors slide open and I walk out, B'Elanna speaks.
"If you've got a minute, Tom," she says.
I look at her and think, dear God, for her, I've got minutes galore. I'll take what she'll give. Amazing. The Tom Paris of Caldik Prime could walk away so easily from this woman and it both scares me and excites me that I really do want to stay.
*Even if it is so hard, Tom?*
"Yeah," I say hoarsely. She practically flies out of the turbolift and as the doors close, she presses me against the wall, kissing me hungrily. After a breathless moment, she pulls away, her fingers lingering lightly over my lips.
"I'm so sorry," she says. She speaks in a rush, the words flowing into each other, almost without pause. "Really, I'm so sorry, Tom, so sorry."
"It's all right. I fixed it."
"It shouldn't have happened in the first place."
She takes my arm as we start walking. Her grip is unusually tight and as I glance down at her, I notice for the first time that her eyes are rimmed with red and are even a little watery. The B'Elanna Torres I know rarely cries and this display of emotion startles me. I gently run my thumb across the bottom of her eyelid, even as I notice the quiver of her lower lip. She presses her lips together into a straight line and quickens her pace.
"I'm fine, B'Elanna," I tell her.
"You could have died," she says. Now we're in front of my quarters and she punches in the codes angrily. The doors slide open and she leads the way inside, choosing to slump bonelessly onto the sofa. "It would have been my fault."
"Hey," I tell her. I strip off my jacket. "Enough already, okay? It was an accident and you have enough on your mind as it is."
"Or maybe not enough." She looks at me intensely. "Tom, do you think- I mean, I've been thinking. What if I'm not the same person? Does that make- does that make us different?"
I stare at her as I take off my t-shirt. "What are you talking about?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. That's the problem. Maybe it's everything, maybe it's nothing. I don't know, but I feel different. And maybe you're different."
"You mean because of the Mari?"
I unzip my pants and step out of them. "Look, we've been over this a million-"
"You don't understand," her voice raises to a feverish pitch. "You could have died out there and it would have been all my fault."
The note of hysteria in her voice catches my attention. "What are you talking about?"
"When you were with the Captain, you and Harry and Seven, I went back and rewired the shuttle." B'Elanna's eyes take on a distant look. "I didn't trust Seven's work so I went back to realign the configuration and restore it to its original specifications. I- I'm not sure I did it properly, Tom."
I can't even speak at this moment. The room feels cold and the tiny blond hairs on my arm stand up.
B'Elanna shakes her head, rubbing the back of her hand against her eyes. "I thought I checked the system properly. I swear, I scanned everything according to regulations and everything seemed in order. It was only after you reported the microfractures-" her voice breaks - "the Captain asked me to come up with a solution and I, I couldn't even think of anything to tell you. I went back over the shuttle data and it might have been written in Vulcan, for all the good it did me."
My mouth feels dry as I run my tongue over my lips carefully. Still words fail me.
"Say something," B'Elanna says softly. Her eyes are wide, watery, and her lower lip trembles. I wonder if she's going to cry and I'll have to say, except for the time when she was split into her Klingon and human halves by the Viidians, I've never really seen B'Elanna cry. "Tom?"
"Why did you make the repairs when we weren't there? Were you avoiding us?" I ask finally in a tone more harsh than I intended.
B'Elanna sniffs. "Yes." She clutches at the armrest. "I wasn't sure I could help you, so I-"
"You made up the story about the diagnostic in Engineering," I finish the sentence flatly. I stare up at the ceiling. "Damn it, if you needed help, why didn't you ask for it? I had no idea, B'Elanna, that things had gotten so bad."
"I thought I could do this on my own. Just a matter of time. That's what the Doctor said."
"But you have to let us know." I pound my fist into the palm of my hand. "B'Elanna, it isn't a sign of weakness to tell people when something is wrong. If you don't want to tell me, tell Chakotay. God knows, enough people were worried about you. Hell, Chakotay even came to me to find out exactly what was going on and I told him you were fit for duty. You made a liar out of me."
I sigh. In a way, I share responsibility for what happened; I tend to want to see the best and push away all of the bad. While I'd been aware of what was happening to B'Elanna, I didn't push as hard as I should have.
"I know you are," I tell her. I'm cold, so very cold, but unable to move, unable to grab more clothes. "Look, I know you didn't want anyone to know you weren't a hundred percent, I know how that made you feel, but good God, B'Elanna, we could have died out there."
"You think I don't know that?" B'Elanna's lower lip quivered. "Tom, I-"
I grab her shoulder, pulling her close to me. I can never handle a lady in distress and honestly, tears have a way of knocking me sideways. B'Elanna finally pulls away, rubbing her hand across her watery eyes. She looks unusually vulnerable now, soft, and oh so irresistible. I realize she's frightened, that I'm frightened, and before the Mari, this relationship was easy. Yes, we bickered, but nothing serious, nothing that would pull us in opposite directions.
It occurs to me then that we are two damaged people, both of us beaten in our own ways. What would be another hurt to throw onto the pile of already smoldering resentments? Going our separate ways has got to hurt less than where we are now - this much I'm sure of. But there is something about B'Elanna, something in those dark eyes that makes me grab at her hand.
And damn, despite my passivity over the last few days, my utter inability to move where B'Elanna is concerned, I know instinctively - I know I can't let her go.
*Even if it is so hard, Tom?*
And I silence the voice in my head. Damn right, I think. I don't have a reason for staying, not one I can vocalize, only a feeling. Somehow, that's going to have to be enough and I think - no, I know - that a feeling is enough and for now, I can feel enough for the both of us.
"Don't worry," I tell her. "We're going to work through this together."
"We are?" B'Elanna looks almost stunned.
"Yeah," I say. "I'm going to take a shower and then we'll go see the Doctor." It sounds almost ordinary, as if we're discussing breakfast.
"I didn't think you'd stick around. I mean, after I told you. Why would you?"
Good point. Sometimes it's so hard being with B'Elanna, so hard that it's easier to walk away. But I know, at this very moment, Neelix is right: some things are worth sticking around for. The Tom Paris I used to be, well, he used to run at the first sign of difficulty. Yeah, it would be easy to go back to that kind of life, but truth be told, I kind of like the idea of staying in one place for a while. So, no, I can't explain why I don't leave, only why I stay.
"You're going to have to try a lot harder to get rid of me," I tell her. It's a joke, but I can tell by B'Elanna's expression that she doesn't take it as such.
"Were you going to break off our relationship?" she asks very softly. I stare. "You know, in the corridor, earlier today. You, you were angry, but I don't think you finished what you were going to say."
I run my hand through my hair. "B'Elanna, this isn't the best time for this conversation."
"I knew it," she says flatly. She gets up from the sofa. "There I go again, doing that thing you hate the most. Pushing you away when you mean so well. I- I understand, Tom, and I think I'm even okay with it. We've had fun together-" Her voice trembles slightly and a shiver runs down my back and I know I'm not cold. "Maybe it is better this way. You know, we're too much alike. Too-"
I catch her by the wrist, pulling her close. "B'Elanna." Her hair is soft against my cheek, and it smells sweet, floral. I press my lips against the nape of her neck, feeling her arms encircle me. She is warm against me. "I'm not letting you off that easily."
She glances up at me. "What?"
I quirk a grin. "You heard me. And if I recall correctly, we have to meet Harry in a few minutes, so, if you'll give me a second-"
B'Elanna is still staring at me in disbelief. "I'm fine, Tom, really, if you want to end-"
"Don't say that," I tell her. "I know you're unsure of yourself right now. Hell, I don't even know which way is up myself, but I'll be damned if I let you wallow in self-pity."
B'Elanna's cheeks flush. "I'm not wallowing in self-pity."
"Then what do you call this?" I ask. "B'Elanna, I've tried everything I can to help you, but somehow, I can't reach you."
"What do you want?"
"Everything," I say automatically. It surprises me by how much I really mean that. "Let me in, B'Elanna, that's all I ask."
She nods. "Yes."
I grab her fingers and kiss them lightly. "I'll always be there. No matter what."
"Damn you, Paris," she says, but there is no heat underlying her words. Her eyes glisten and dear God, I'm afraid she's going to cry. I can deal with various incarnations of B'Elanna, but the soft, weepy B'Elanna is not one I'm real sure of. I pull her close to me and she rests her head against on my chest. "I nearly kill you and you're still... you're still here."
I like - no, love - the sound of her words, the sound of her voice. My fingers stroke her hair lightly and I think she knows, even without the words, I think she knows.
I'm not going anywhere.
The Doctor has relieved B'Elanna of duty, pending further examination. Amazingly, she accepts his verdict meekly and returns to her quarters, not even fussing at me for 'hovering.' As she crawls into bed, I notice just how tired she really looks. I lie down next to her, wrapping my arms around her.
"I really am sorry," she says softly. She has been saying those words over and over, a constant refrain.
"It's all right," I whisper into her ear. Her hair is soft against her cheek and I gently brush it away with my fingers. I love the way her skin feels beneath my touch and I realize I'll never get tired of feeling the way she softens beneath my fingers. "But next time..."
She laughs. "Next time, I'll listen to you."
"You know, Chakotay is upset with me."
I quickly tell her about the visit Chakotay made earlier in the week and my assurances to him that B'Elanna was just fine. B'Elanna appears concerned.
"He didn't put you on report, did he?" she asks.
"No," I say. "Like everyone else, he was just concerned about you. He saw the signs so he asked some questions. Unfortunately, I probably should have been more truthful."
B'Elanna sighs. "I guess I thought if I admitted to myself what was happening to me, I would have given in to the fact that I wasn't okay, right?"
"I didn't want to be like Jamie, Tom." B'Elanna turns onto her back and stares straight up at the ceiling. Her lower lip quivers. "How long is this going to take?"
"I don't know," I tell her. I squeeze her hand gently. "But I'll be here as long as it takes."
She fingers my palm lightly. "I don't like how this makes me feel, how... much I don't know."
"It's only temporary," I tell her. I smile, knowing what she wants to hear. "And yes, I do know you're the only chief engineer on Voyager."
She smiles up at me as I lean over to kiss her on the lips. Her hand snakes to the back of my neck, pulling me down. And for a time, we both forget everything.
"Is this seat taken?"
I look up from my PADD to see Chakotay. He is standing, a little self-consciously, at the edge of my table, a food tray in hand. I shake my head.
"Go ahead, have a seat," I tell him.
"Thanks." Chakotay pulls out a chair and places his tray on the table. I notice he's eating Neelix's special today, an interesting concoction of leola root sprinkled liberally with some of the fruits and vegetables procured from the Mari homeworld. I, on the other hand, used precious replicator rations for pepperoni pizza. "Catching up on some work?"
I nod. "Navigational charts for the next star system. A good pilot always needs to do his homework."
Chakotay begins to eat and then makes a face. I hide a smile at his expression and after a few more valiant attempts, Chakotay surrenders and puts down his fork.
"I guess you heard that the Captain was unable to change the basic structure of the gas to work with the dilithium," Chakotay says.
"Yes. I did hear. Too bad," I say. "It would have been nice."
"As the Captain says, we can't leave any theory unexplored."
"No, indeed," I say. "Though, to be honest, I'm starting to like it out here."
Chakotay glances at me speculatively. "I thought you might."
I bristle. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Only that you seem very comfortable here in the Delta Quadrant. Can't say I disagree. I don't know what's waiting for us in the Alpha Quadrant but I can tell you, Starfleet won't greet the Maquis with open arms."
"You're probably right. Look on the bright side. Maybe in seventy years, they'll have forgotten all about the Maquis," I offer. Chakotay presses his lips into a thin smile.
"I'm still holding out hope," he says. "The Captain wants to get this crew home and she wants to do it in less than seventy years. I intend to support her in that."
"I didn't say I wouldn't," I say. God, I hate the way Chakotay manages to get under my skin. I suppose this is why we never spend time together outside of a professional environment; we probably annoy each other way too much.
"How is B'Elanna?" Chakotay asks. Strangely enough, B'Elanna is neutral ground for us these days.
"Better, much better," I say. It is true. A couple days of rest and B'Elanna is slowly starting to regain everything she has lost. She occasionally has her non-lucid moments and still gets frustrated over minor details she can't remember. "She wants to get back to work."
Chakotay shakes her head. "I can imagine. I honestly didn't believe it when the Doctor told me she had agreed to be relieved of duty."
"Don't worry. She'll be back with her engines soon enough." I smile. B'Elanna is already wondering what Seven is up to and whether Engineering will be completely 'Borgified' by the time she returns. I tell her not to worry about it; Seven is a competent individual and will do the most efficient possible job. Unfortunately, this does not comfort B'Elanna in any way.
Chakotay clears his throat. "Neelix told me that you really handled yourself well under pressure out there."
I shrug. "The alternative wasn't much better."
"It's a scary situation for anyone."
I pluck a piece of pepperoni off my pizza. "I'm just glad everything turned out for the best."
"I agree." Chakotay eyes me intensely. "Tom, I know we don't talk often. Too much water under the bridge, I suppose, but I'd like to think we're friends now."
I blink. Friendship with Chakotay is not something I've really thought about. I've always had B'Elanna and Harry, and Chakotay always managed to keep his distance. But then again, I never tried to breach his thin veneer of formality.
"No need to go over old ground," Chakotay goes on. "I know we've had our disagreements and maybe I haven't trusted you or respected you in the manner you deserve. I'd like to change all that, if you're willing."
I nod, still in shock. "Yes."
"I want you to understand that I couldn't make a decision about going in after B'Elanna without violating the Prime Directive. You know we're duty-bound to obey the laws of individual worlds," Chakotay says. He sighs heavily. "That doesn't mean I didn't want to do it, Tom. If I could have found a way that would have minimized risk and still upheld Starfleet's principles, I would have. Putting you off, well, that was hard. B'Elanna's one of my closest friends and I don't want you to think I was treating her situation lightly. On the contrary, in this particular instance, I couldn't be ruled by impulse."
"And if Tuvok hadn't figured out what was really happening?" I ask softly. I'm not being belligerent and to my relief, Chakotay considers my comment thoughtfully.
"Whatever plan you'd come up, we would have done that," he says. "I wouldn't have left B'Elanna down there."
I won't disagree with that comment, but it's nice to hear Chakotay acknowledge what happened on the Mari homeworld. In a way, I had been aghast at his utter distance from the situation, his calm and collected demeanor. It had made me wonder, at the time, where had the Maquis in Chakotay gone? The one who wouldn't hold back for any reason in order to save a friend?
"Glad to hear it," I say finally. My throat is hoarse, almost scratched with emotion.
Chakotay pushes back his chair. "I'm going to find something else to eat." He grimaces. "Maybe drop in on B'Elanna."
"She'd like that," I tell him. Chakotay walks away and I return my attention to my navigational charts. On his way back from the recycler, Chakotay stops by the table, his fingers lightly brushing against the edge.
"I haven't given you much of a chance, Tom. Maybe I didn't want to. I'm protective of B'Elanna, understand that, and I didn't know what to think when you two paired up," he says softly. "Whatever else remains between the two of us doesn't change what you do for B'Elanna. I think you're good for her."
With that, Chakotay exits the mess hall, leaving me to pick my jaw up off the floor.
B'Elanna doesn't twirl her hair. She doesn't fuss with her appearance. She, for all intents and purposes, presents herself as is. Occasionally, she dresses up for me, and always appears in a new dress with a certain amount of shyness. Tonight though, she twirls for me, the skirt of green velvet flaring up around her knees. Her fingers are at her throat, running lightly over the delicate gold chain and its sparkling pendent. The necklace is the gift I brought back from the Mari homeworld for her, the one I'd almost given up hope she'd ever open.
"You- " I pause as I stand by the table, my hand on the back of the chair. "Do you like it?"
"It's beautiful, Tom. Thank you," her voice is soft.
"So are you," I tell her. I pull her close, running my fingers over the ribbon trimming the top of the bodice and then upward, to the little straps holding the dress up. It amazes me how she has the ability to take my breath away so completely. "You're beautiful."
Color rises in her cheeks.
"I'm glad you opened it," I whispered. "I hope, I hope it wasn't too much. I saw it, and thought of you."
"Thank you." Her hand cups my cheek. "It's perfect, Tom. And I'm sorry about taking so long to open it."
"As long as you did eventually."
She glances at me intently. "Maybe it's not the gift, Tom, but the idea behind it that scares me so much."
I know what she means; it's so much easier to give than to take. And her acceptance of my gift tells me something that words never could and that knowledge makes me almost giddy. I lean down to lightly swipe her lips with mine.
And then, my soft, self-conscious B'Elanna recovers herself. "So, you said you had something special planned tonight?"
"Holodeck," I tell her. I extend my arm and she takes it, but only briefly; in the corridor, she lets go, though our appearance makes it clear to our fellow crewmembers we are certainly off duty.
I picked an old Chicago hotel - the Driskill - for our dinner. Inside the wide arching doorway, our feet sink into the deep red carpet. Steps spiral around the lobby, leading to the second level. As we walk up the staircase, I run my fingers over the cool brass railing and take a look around at the dark wood paneling and the gentle glow of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A quick look at the elevator, the doors closing on a couple, reminds me of something.
"We have a room on the top floor," I whisper. B'Elanna tosses me a glance, one that promises delicious and unimaginable things later on. "Imagine a view of Chicago at night from our very own rooftop terrace."
Dinner is already waiting in the Mezzanine, a marble-floored hall with Ionic pillars reaching up to the ornately carved ceiling. White china, with gold edging, and crystal wine glasses make up the table settings. White roses - twelve of them - surround a single gold candle. B'Elanna grabs my arm. Off to the side, a string quartet plays softly.
"It's beautiful," she says. "You must have spent hours on this."
"Something like that." I grin and pull out a chair. "But for you, it's worth it."
Our dinner conversation is soft, occasionally wistful. We've come to a point in our relationship where we no longer feel the need to fill every silence with words. Sometimes, I adore looking at her, taking in every detail of her face, from the peak of her hairline to the curve of her jaw. It amazes me that I can never tire of looking at her and I wonder if she ever looks at me with the same awe.
Once, before the Mari, I woke up to see her staring down at me.
"What are you doing?" I asked. "It's a little spooky, you know, the way you're staring at me."
She pressed her lips into a tight straight line and I wondered if I had said something wrong, but then she had stroked my chest lightly with her fingers.
"I wanted to make sure you were still here," she said. "Make sure you're real."
"I'm here," I answered. "And I'm real." Not the most poetic of answers, but not the moment to be glib either. B'Elanna smiled and snuggled back down under the covers, resting her head against my chest.
Now, B'Elanna looks up at me. "Tom, I know these last days have been difficult."
"Let me finish. I was scared, Tom, and I took a lot of that out on you, on everyone around me. I appreciate you hanging in there."
"Anytime," I tell her, but my voice is hoarse, catches in my throat, and I can only extend my hand. She takes it, curling her fingers around my palm; her skin is cool next to mine. "I mean that, B'Elanna."
Her lower lip quivers ever so slightly and then she nods. "So you're going to be stuck with a mean-tempered Klingon for a long time, Tom. Be careful what you wish for."
I lean forward. "You said that to me awhile ago, and I've got to tell you, it hasn't been so bad."
"Really?" B'Elanna quirks a smile. "Not so bad, Lieutenant?"
I lean back in my chair, more comfortable now than I have been in days.
"Well, you know..." I let my voice drift off as I swallow hard. She leans towards me, her eyes bright and large; the gold chain around her neck catches the light as do the little pearl drop earrings at her ear. There's something about the way her hair curls up just at the jaw line, and the way her lips press together, full, wide and utterly inviting. Words, for the first time in my life, fail me. "It's been..."
"Yeah," B'Elanna says. She reaches over and covers my hand with hers. "I know."
I'm relieved that she's saved me from dissolving in a puddle of goo on the marble floor. I push back my chair.
"Care to dance?" I ask. She smiles at me.
"I'm not a very good dancer," she says.
"Doesn't matter," I tell her. I pull her to her feet. In the background, a band has replaced the orchestra. Originally, I'd planned for swing music, but now I know I want something more contemplative, gentle and soothing. "Computer, delete band and replace with orchestra."
B'Elanna looks amused. "Any reason for the change in music?"
I smile at her and extend my hand. "Why do you keep trying to change the subject?" I ask. She puts her hand in mine and we step out onto the dance floor. As the orchestra plays softly in the background, I wrap my arms around her. For the first time in days, I feel completely at peace. We are, I realize, no longer moving away from each other, but for once, are in perfect motion.
I can be your hero,
I can kiss away the pain.
I will stand by you forever.
You can take my breath away.
~ the end ~
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