Lieutenant Howard began as a shock of bobbed red hair and a flash of long legs, glimpsed briefly through a haze of barroom light. Anna watched the flush that rose in her companion’s cheeks and laughed, lifting her glass.
‘To redheads,’ she chimed merrily. Katie laughed and set aside her padd and stylus.
‘To redheads!’ Her voice was dusky with confidence and alcohol. At least, Anna thought, there was one thing sure to convince Katie Janeway that a bar was no place for problem sets and temporal mechanics.
Lieutenant Howard began, then, as a toast – she became a fixture of late-night speculation, over more physics and ale, between two laughing, brash cadets.
Anna lovingly divined that Starfleet had made its most recent uniform redesign to accommodate those endless legs. Katie made lewd jokes about ‘studying anatomy’ and ‘the healing touch.’ They tallied compliments received on their work in Howard’s exobiology lab. A bet arose: for every five notches in one woman’s medical tricorder, the other owed her a drink. Anna grew credit-poor as Katie’s belly rounded gently out.
From a game played by giddy young women with an inflated sense of their own desires, Lieutenant Howard eventually became the reason Anna spent her evenings in the bar alone. Her temporal mechanics grade tanked as her appreciation for Katie’s tactical skills grew steadily. And she tried not to observe too closely the smile that played on Katie’s lips whenever the doctor’s voice came across the com.
Soon enough, Lieutenant Howard was the excuse Katie gave one night when she tottered home much later than expected, looking dreamy and dishevelled.
Pressed for details, Katie fell into her rack and said only, ‘You know, she also dances?’
Anna sighed as a girlish smile stole across the fine features of her sleeping bunkmate. Wearily, she tipped her coffee mug toward Katie and whispered, ‘To redheads.’
B’Elanna was beginning to find the reception a chore. She hadn’t traveled seventy thousand lightyears to sprain her cheek muscles sucking up to every admiral who felt like congratulating her. Idly, she calculated the risk of decking the next person to offer a trite remark on the valor of Voyager’s crew. Even the Captain’s luminescently diplomatic smile was growing dim. She turned to make an excuse to shove off when a flash of red hair came between them.
The Captain’s lips lingered on the redhead’s cheek precisely two milliseconds too long – two milliseconds that would have been lost on anyone but a decorated engineer who’d spent seven years calculating every one of Kathryn Janeway’s gestures to a dozen decimal places. B’Elanna noted the flush in the Captain’s cheeks, ran her eyes down the lengthy Commander, and raised an eyebrow.
When she looked up, a darkly striking vice admiral stood before her. ‘Indeed,’ the woman smiled slyly.
B’Elanna cocked her head, startled out of what remained of her own diplomatic posture. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Oh, Lieutenant, you’re just the latest in a long line of women who’ve reacted that way to their first sight of Beverly Crusher.’ B’Elanna, flustered, laughed uncertainly. The admiral’s smile deepened, crinkling the corners of her eyes. ‘And if I’m not mistaken, Lieutenant, you’re also wondering just what made your Captain greet her so... lingeringly. Mm?’
B’Elanna guffawed at that. ‘Guilty as charged,’ she said more warmly than she intended, spreading her hands in mock surrender. ‘But I see I’m not the only one who observes my Captain closely.’
The admiral winked. ‘Anna Volkonskaya.’
B’Elanna took the proffered hand. She didn’t fail to remark the pressure of fingertips on her palm. Nor did she fail to return the openly appraising gaze of her superior officer. ‘B’Elanna Torres.’
‘I know. Fancy a drink?’ B’Elanna nodded, wary – but, for the first time this evening, fully alert. The admiral whisked two flutes from a passing tray. Volkonskaya’s gaze followed hers to where the Captain and Commander Crusher stood in close conversation in a quiet corner.
B’Elanna raised her glass.
‘To redheads,’ she sighed.
‘To redheads,’ Volkonskaya smiled, stepping closer as their glasses chimed. ‘And to the women who love them.’