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Part I: The Messhall

"Damn."

Her door was definitely closed. Very closed. With no possibility of opening in the near future. Ensign Tom Eugene Paris, Greatest Pilot of the Delta Quadrant, was very much alone.

Considering the other possible scenarios that could have played out here, it was actually almost a better of two evils. But that thought didn't help. Much.

Worse, crewmembers passed by, carefully not looking at him as he stared at the door. He wondered what they were thinking.

Hell, I know exactly what they are thinking.

Deck 9, section 12. As Seven, bless her precious Borg heart, had announced. In a way, a way he never, never, never would speak aloud, valuing his life and the continued functioning of his body as he did, it was kind of flattering. He and B'Elanna had hit the big time. They were a legend.

Somehow, he knew, B'Elanna would not see it that way. The proof was the closed door, which he continued to stare at.

Slowly, he walked away, trying to look perfectly at ease, smiling at the crewmen who passed, popping jokes when one had the courage to stop and chat. Not that that was often. He saw their struggle between amusement and fear of B'Elanna. He understood. He entered the turbolift, let the doors close, and wished that he had never seen Seven of Nine, ex-Borg extraordinaire. That he had asked B'Elanna to dinner in his room. Or hers. Or anywhere in the ship that was not the messhall.

Of course, that would have only delayed the inevitable. B'Elanna had been suspicious for some time. But a delay was a delay.

Leaning against the cool metal, he relived every nightmarish second of less than ten minutes ago. He had a talent for self-torture.


"She's watching us again." Aggressively, she speared a vegetable and bit it off the fork as if it was Seven's neck.

He glanced up, saw Seven of Nine, resident Borg, with a casualness he had never seen her display before, walking away, a PADD in hand. That in itself was suspicious. He glanced at B'Elanna. He didn't like what he read there.

"You are imagining things." He put all the persuasion he had ever owned into his voice.

She didn't buy it.

"I don't think so."

He watched carefully; he saw what was coming. She stood up, tossing her fork down.

"B'Elanna." He winced at the sharp sound of metal on porcelain. He saw the plate crack. He did what any other sane man would do. He pretended that nothing was going on. He ate. He tried not to hear. He tried not to watch. It was hard not to. He ignored it, the best he could.

It didn't last long.

"How the hell do you know when we are having intimate relations?"

Oh God.

He dropped the napkin he'd been twisting, stood up, tried not to look like he was hurrying, felt the flush steal up his face. Noticing the sudden flurry of interest in the room, he heard a titter. If he heard it, so had B'Elanna.

"There is no one on Deck 9, Section 12 who does not know when you are having intimate relations." Seven looked vaguely surprised they hadn't known that themselves. Tom was relatively sure he could have lived the rest of his life not knowing that at all. Are we that loud?

Tom came around behind B'Elanna, no other access possible. His first choice, directly between the expressionless Borg and the angry Klingon (half-Klingon, but there was no difference at this point) was taken by Neelix, who had courage indeed to stand that close to B'Elanna when she looked as she did now.

Worse, he heard whispers. A laugh, quickly muted.

Please don't let B'Elanna hear that. Please don't let her hear that. Please--

"I want all the data you've collected." Ultimatum. He could actually see the gauntlet thrown. He swallowed. Hard.

B'Elanna's lovely voice was utterly expressionless, and Tom cringed, caught himself, and tried to look supportive. Never show fear. Klingons could smell fear. Dampness dotted his forehead. He glanced between Seven and B'Elanna.

Intimate relations. Following us around. Making notes...and this, in public. His temper, very slowly, was igniting. The oblivious Borg stood up, and he could swear there was petulance in her voice.

"I haven't completed the study."

Was that ever the wrong answer.

His eyes narrowed at the Borg, who looked, if anything, rather surprised at their reactions. Surprised. Tom wasn't sure what made him more angry, the fact that Seven had been studying them (though why she had picked them was a mystery) or the lack of understanding on why it would be offensive.

Or perhaps it was the fact that Seven had just single-handedly ruined B'Elanna's mood. Thoroughly. I think that is it.

B'Elanna looked very calm. He wanted to take a step back. He knew the signs.

"Study this. Borg provokes Klingon. Klingon breaks Borg nose." Her voice was jaunty. He thought he saw a smile on her lips. He could hear the words. Today is a good day to die. He expected to see a bat'leth appear in her hand. He looked at the floor. No dueling circle yet.

He wondered if he would be the one to draw it.

Neelix, poor, brave fool, standing between the (suddenly not so proverbial) rock and the hard place, looked shocked. Seven was utterly impassive. Visions of broken-nosed Borg danced in Tom's head.

Oh no. Not now.

"Call sickbay. Tell them there is about to be a medical emergency." The little smile had grown. She sounded happy. He could practically see her licking Seven's blood off her hands, after drinking a quart of bloodwine over the fallen body of her enemy.

It was time for Tom to find his courage. It took a little bit of looking. Ah, there it was, hiding in his boots. He fished it up, settling it in place like the armor he desperately wished he wore right now. He grabbed her left arm, catching it as it began a slow upward arc. It stopped. Just barely.

"B'Elanna, let's go have a nightcap." Out of here, I don't care where, just out of this room.

He might as well have never spoke. Her eyes never left Seven. Carefully, quite aware if he showed the slightest hint of uncertainty his loving mate would use him as the apparatus by which Seven would be short a perfect nose, he pulled.

A hesitation, and he wondered how long it would take the Doctor to fix whatever he broke becoming B'Elanna's new weapon of choice. Then, eyes narrowed, voice low, arm half raised, she stopped pulling. He dared not breathe the sigh of unutterable relief. She might take that the wrong way.

"This time, you've crossed the line." She turned away, missing Neelix's look of unbelieving relief. Tom was thankful.

He glanced back at Seven, even as he pulled his mate away, walking fast, and practically pulled her out the door. Seven watched for a moment, then he saw her glance down, dismissing them from her mind, going back to the PADDs. The door swung shut on this image. And he couldn't help his curiosity. What the hell is on those things?

B'Elanna continued down the corridor under her own power, hauling Tom with her, and he caught himself almost running to keep up with his shorter mate. Crewpeople recognized the danger and got out of their way. Tom tried to look at ease. It wasn't working. They looked wary. Fearful. They drifted to the edges of the corridor, some actually froze in place, as if hoping that by not moving, they would not attract her attention. Several of the latter group were in her engineering department. He pitied them.

But not as much as he pitied himself.

"Deck Nine, Section 12." Her voice was oddly cool. He expected something more-dramatic. He studied her. A flush on caramel skin. A dark glitter in her eyes. Tension radiated from her in waves. He wanted to back away. Show no fear. Hah. That is a lot easier said then done.

The turbolift was empty (there was a benevolent deity watching over angry Klingons and their hapless lovers), and he removed his hand from her arm. It took a moment to pry his fingers loose, and for the first time he realized just how tightly he'd been holding on to her.

He would bet she hadn't disregarded that fact.

He had known B'Elanna for a long time, had learned how to recognize every one of her moods. Rage, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, irritation--he had personal experience with them all. Handling them was a different challenge, but he implicitly believed that danger was the spice of life.

A humiliated and angry Klingon, however, was not one of the moods he had learned to deal with.

He had three options he had at his disposal to handle this situation with.

One, ignore the incident. This particular ploy would work in cases of minor annoyances. Glancing covertly at her face, he knew this option was not feasible.

Two, discuss the incident. He flushed again, remembering what Seven had said. Everyone knew when they...no, no, no, he didn't think discussion would work now. Not unless he actually did have a suicidal streak. B'Elanna had been denied her fight. She might use him as Seven's proxy. B'Elanna throwing things in the spirit of Klingon foreplay was fun. B'Elanna throwing things in the spirit of killing someone was somewhat less attractive.

Three, escape and let her cool down.

He analyzed his choices as they left the turbolift and on the depressingly long walk to her door.

She walked in, turned around, looked directly at him (no smile now) and shut the door in his face.

Ah. Option three it is.

Which led him to his current position in the turbolift.

He meant to go to his quarters, but suddenly Sandrine's sounded incredibly tempting. He changed direction, gave his order to the turbolift, and made his way to the holographic bar.


Part II: Sandrine's

The door opened, albeit slowly, giving the current inhabitants of the holodeck a good look at who was coming in. Tom blinked to accustom himself to the darker lighting and pretended not to notice the looks he got.

Incredible. Ten minutes, and this deck already knows.

Tom knew the speed of the gossip mill. He'd used it more than once himself. But this, this was impressive, and as he walked into the holodeck, he was even more impressed, far more impressed than he wanted to be. Gossip traveled fast.

The crew looked up, saw him, stared. For a full five seconds. Then looked away, fast. Glanced furtively beyond him, to see if he had an angry Klingon in tow. Realized he was alone. Permission to giggle granted. He caught his lip between his teeth, thought carefully, looked around as if he noticed nothing, and wished his parents had not been quite so fair. Then his skin wouldn't betray him at any and every opportunity. Was it hot in here? He pulled at the neck of his uniform and made his way to the bar. Ah, Harry, looking uncomfortable as hell. Sandrine smiled. Harry smiled. Tom smiled and sat down, ordered something, and wondered whether having a hangover was as bad as he remembered.

"So, Tom..." Harry stopped as his friend threw back half the glass. Blinked. He started again. "How...how is everything?"

Tom just looked at him and took another swig, draining the glass. Wise holographic woman that she was, Sandrine brought another without question. This time it was the color of gold. He tried to remember the color of the former beverage occupant of his cup and failed. He tasted the drink. Synthenol. This was one of the times he needed the real thing.

Unfortunately for him, that was not possible.

"You know." Tom didn't let Harry's eyes leave his. The younger man flushed, and Tom was delighted to see that even those blessed with darker skin could betray embarrassment. He didn't feel quite so alone.

"Uh--yeah, you know, news travels fast." Harry was babbling. They both knew it.

They sat in an uncomfortable silence for several minutes, Tom now sipping at his liquor.

"Tom..."

"Don't say it."

"Don't say what?" Harry tried and failed to look legitimately bewildered. Tom turned on the stool and met the wide brown eyes.

"Don't tell me that she didn't mean it. Don't tell me she is adjusting to her humanity. And don't even try to convince me this is a step forward in her development, that she is showing signs of being interested in human relationships. Just drink your drink and I will drink mine, and neither of us will say a damned thing about this."

Now Harry also had a relationship with a moody individual. Two moody individuals, actually. B'Elanna, however, never made a secret of how she felt. Tom took interpretation. He knew every one of Tom's sharply veering moods, no matter how well the older man could hide them. Knew by the slightest twitch of his eye, the curve of his smile, the smallest gesture. True anger was relatively rare, so Harry didn't have to deal with it very often. But he had done it before, and he reviewed his options, much as Tom had his.

He chose option two. Discuss the situation.

"Tom, I'm sure-"

One graceful hand went up, long fingers slightly spread in warning, and Harry thought about taking the hint.

He who hesitates is lost.

"Tom, she didn't-"

Icy blue eyes met his. The words dried up. Harry looked desperately around the room, saw Megan Delaney.

Thank God.

"Megan!"

She glanced up, saw Harry, noted the unnatural enthusiasm. Saw Tom, noted the lack thereof. Saw Tom sans B'Elanna. Saw Tom drink. Remembered what she had heard only moments before. Added two and two. She was in Stellar Cartography. She could do math.

Megan was not a stupid girl. She waved and made her way in the opposite direction. Fast.

Harry became desperate

"You up for a game of pool?" Harry blurted out, unable to escape the blue eyes drilling into him. Distract him. Let there be a red alert. Alien attack. Exploding plasma conduit. Anything.

Oh God, Seven. That is not what I had in mind.

His panic-widened eyes gave him away. Tom turned around. Seven walked in. Tom stood up. Harry did too, stomach filling his boots. He pulled at his collar. Is it hot in here?

"Let's play." Tom's voice was thoughtful.

Harry enthusiastically knocked two crewmen out of his way to get to the poolsticks.

Tom, eyes following the beautiful Borg as she went around the room, apparently practicing her social skills, waited as Harry frantically racked the balls. Harry noticed the way Tom chalked his cue. It was slow, deliberate. The way Tom's narrowed blue eyes took the measure of the tall Borg, the way he held the pool stick...Harry's eyes filled with images of impaled Borg while Tom danced around yelling about a glorious death. Tom could sometimes think like a Klingon. Harry looked at Tom's glass. It wasn't bloodwine. Not yet.

"Break!" Harry heard his voice reach an octave higher than normal and everyone looked over at him, then, with guarded smiles, at Tom. Slowly, Tom went to the head of the table, eyes never leaving Seven until they flickered down to take the break. Harry watched as three balls went in. He looked at Tom, who was straightening, eyes back on Seven. This called for drastic action.

"Tom, did Neelix tell you much about our visitors?" They'd been briefed thoroughly already. Tom, of course, knew as much about the Kadi ambassador as anyone else. It was all Harry had.

He hoped it would be enough.

Tom looked back at his friend, perfectly aware of what Harry was trying to do. Finally, as Harry held his breath, Tom relaxed. Just a little, but enough. He even smiled. Harry let out his breath in a rush of heady relief. No bloodwine.

"Actually, Neelix was trying to perfect the concept of bland cheese in their honor," he answered, lining up his next shot. Harry took a moment to admire it. No one on the ship played pool like Tom. Clean economy of movement, no flashy moves, just straight to the point, quick and hard. The ball went in perfectly. Every time.

"Bland?" Harry wondered what the Talaxian would think was bland. His concept of spicy was enough to give the Doctor (and incidentally Tom, as his assistant) plenty of work.

They played on, and Harry was relieved to watch his friend relax enough to joke. In fact, Harry forgot Seven altogether...until she appeared, just behind Tom's shoulder.

This is not happening. This is a dream. This is not real. She can't be that stupid.

Apparently, she didn't see Harry's desperate facial expression, though with her ocular implant there was no way she could have missed it. Everyone in Sandrine's stopped breathing. Tom, lining up a shot, happened to glance up and see Harry. Saw the horror. He shot. The ball went in. Tom turned lightly on the ball of one foot, very fast, and met Seven's eyes.

"Ensign Paris." Her very correct diction scraped Tom's already strained nerves. Ensign. Every time she said it, he could swear she was deliberately reminding him of his demotion. Ensign. Not that he cared much, he kept his position as department head of the conn, but Ensign-he drew in a breath, smiled. His best, friendliest smile.

Harry groaned to himself.

Everyone knew that smile.

"Seven," he said, with such ease that Harry felt the hairs on his neck come to attention. "How are you?"

"Very well, Ensign. I wish to speak to you." Wow. She's learning manners. Harry was grasping at straws.

He rushed to Tom, warily eyed the poolstick on Tom's right, and darted to Tom's left side.

"Seven. Fancy meeting you here." Babbling again. He didn't care.

She regarded him quizzically.

"You saw me enter, Ensign Kim." Shut-up, Seven!

Harry closed his eyes. Took one deep breath. Then another. This was a bad dream. She wasn't standing there. It was the work of his paranoid imagination. Then opened his eyes.

Yes, she was still here. Tom was watching them both with that smile, arms crossed across his chest, leaning back against the pool table.

"Shall we sit, Seven?" he gestured grandly, and Harry was forced to follow as the two sat down. The booth was small. Harry sat beside Seven, facing Tom. He peeked at his friend's face, and knew a sense of doom. Tom was cheery. There was no reason for Tom to look cheery.

Unless something was up.

Actually, Tom had a Plan.

"So what brings you to Sandrine's, Seven?" asked Tom affably. Harry noticed Tom had his drink again, and full. The long, graceful fingers played with it. Harry, mesmerized, was reminded of how very pretty a cobra could look before it struck.

"I am attempting to improve my social skills, Ensign..."

"Tom." There was an edge in his voice. Harry leaped without looking.

"We are off-duty, Seven. You can use our names."

She looked perplexed, and Harry could almost see her filing this information away in her incredible mind before continuing.

"Tom. I am currently practicing what the Doctor refers to as 'small talk'."

"Ah." Tom leaned back, looking so normal that Harry was actively frightened. He glanced casually around the room, saw the other patrons were watching as well. This must be better than a holonovel. And they didn't even pretend to be doing something else. Harry took a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Thought pleasant thoughts. He needed them. "Small talk. Casual conversation is so very important for good social interaction, Seven."

"I have observed that humans enjoy speaking of topics of interest in their lives. Describe the intimate relations between yourself and Lieutenant Torres."

Harry lowered his head into his hands. He wanted a drink. Tom played with the glass he'd brought with him and took a sip, then passed it to Harry. Harry gulped and pretended it didn't burn. What the hell is that stuff? The laughter was muted, but there.

Tom was just on the edge of panic. He hid it well.

She is going to kill me. Not in a fun, Klingon way. She is going to dissect me and roast the pieces over the warp-core and then shoot them out the airlock with that damned jaunty smile.

Tom kept his smile. Kept his calm. Thought about how lovely the golden blonde Seven would look floating in the darkness of space. Without the benefit of the EVA suit. It was relaxing.

"Seven," he said, very gently, so gently that Harry lifted his head in disbelief, "that is not an acceptable topic of interest in casual conversation."

"But it is a topic of interest amongst humans." Harry wished she would learn to lower her voice. In the quiet bar, everything she said literally rang to the rafters. What is a rafter, anyway?

"That's right." Tom took a drink. And gave her the most charming smile in his considerable arsenal. He'd gotten women out of their clothes with that smile, in his misspent youth (well, only a few years ago) and more than one very blatant proposition. He watched its effect on her. Not as dramatic, but it would do. This was Seven, after all.

"I have noticed that humans have an incomprehensible taboo on the subject of sex, En-Tom. I do not understand it."

She kept speaking, though she had lowered her voice, which was exactly what he had been going for. Harry was looking between them in shock.

"Yes, they do." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. He hadn't flirted with anyone but B'Elanna in a very long time, but the gift remained. He lowered his voice. "To truly understand complex social interaction, you should do more than research it. You should try it."

"Try it, En-Tom?"

He nodded, leaning closer. It never failed. She leaned forward too. Harry looked as if he would pass out. Took another drink from Tom's glass.

"Pick a guy, ask him out. I am sure Harry here would be willing." He looked at Harry, who seemed to be hyperventilating, then let his eyes go back to Seven.

"Ask someone out." She looked intrigued. My work here is done. Tom smiled and stood up, leaving the glass in Harry's shaking hands, and sauntered out, letting the crew see it. At very least, it might take some of the heat off Seven's earlier Messhall illuminations.

I had no idea we were that loud.


"No."

"B'Elanna-"

"Go away, Tom."

He had had less productive conversations with doors before. Usually, however, he had been intoxicated at the time. But if Tom was anything, he was persistent. Goodness knew, he had had years to practice it, and what his undeniable good looks could not get him, his persistence and determination eventually would.

He was called restless. Rebellious. Impatient. The truth was, Tom was all of those things, but much, much more. He possessed a streak of cold-blooded, utterly ruthless determination that he called on when necessary. He knew how to use it and when. He also had an incredibly fertile imagination, and what had transpired tonight had set it off. The Plan wasn't complete, but it was forming.

He tried again.

"B'Elanna, please-"

Crewpeople were passing, giving him odd looks. Maybe wondering if he and his erstwhile lover would be performing tonight. He suddenly wondered if the people on his floor were-aware as well. It made him flush, but he ignored the embarrassment. Focus.

"Let me make this clear." Her voice had dropped, a very bad sign. "Get the hell away from my door, Paris, or I will call security." He paused, considered his options, remembered the brig, and retreated. And he knew it was a retreat. And a skulk. Back to his quarters, where he spent the roughest night he could remember in the recent past.


Part III: It Comes Together

During his solitary lunch break, Tom walked to the Doctor's office, who was lost somewhere in the wonders of-what was he studying now, anyway? Tom looked over his shoulder and felt himself flush again. Comparative Mating Habits. He really was doing a study.

The day had gone badly for young Ensign Paris from the beginning. He had hardly slept, woke up late, didn't get a decent cup of coffee before being late to the Bridge, where, to his inarticulate horror, the Story of the Messhall was already known. The Captain, hiding a grin beneath her cup of coffee, which he could smell from the turbolift, further deteriorating his mood, did not reprimand him. He caught the furtive looks, Chakotay's outright smirk, Harry's barely restrained alarm, and made his way to his seat with something a great deal less than his usual saunter.

If Seven had been there right then-

I wish B'Elanna had kicked her ass. Hard. And her nose. All the way to the back of her skull.

"How did you sleep, Mr. Paris?"

Captain Janeway was right behind him, one hand on his shoulder, and he could actually feel her amusement. Right through his uniform. The question had several levels and he recognized them all. He stared straight at the screen and hoped the Hirogens were returning to play holodeck-war. Or the Viidians, wanting to perform some impromptu surgery. Or some disgruntled postal worker bringing Delta Quadrant mail and pissed about the trip. Distraction, distraction, distraction...I need a distraction.

"Fine, Captain." What, no one toured Deck 9, Section 12 last night to hear the decided lack of action one Ensign Paris was getting from the love of his life? He felt his shoulders hunch. He heard Janeway somehow stifle a merciless laugh. He wanted to crawl under helm control and pretend none of this was happening.

"Very good, Mr. Paris." She walked away, and he heard her say something to Chakotay, who laughed outright. Tom felt his cheeks heat, and began to run a series of aggressive diagnostics on his controls. Aliens -where, in the name of all that is holy are the Kazon?- , an unexpected supernova even a nice little abnormality in space we can't explain, give me that, please, anything.

Space remained disgustingly friendly and open and he stared at his controls as if will alone would make them break, or malfunction, or do something, anything, to get him off this bridge.

You know, Tommy old boy, you were never this touchy about sex before.

That was before it was B'Elanna I reported to.

That quieted the inner voice magically. It understood reality. And truthfully, no matter how blasé he played it, he had never felt comfortable discussing his sex life. Now it was the weekly news. Extra, Extra, read all about it! Hell, you don't even need to read it! Report to Deck 9, Section 12 for further information. Ensign and Lieutenant get it on! Details pending, and it may be awhile, folks, so sit back and enjoy the audio!

The day went downhill from there.

Now, looking at the Doctor's study, Tom found out he had a temper. A temper that had been building since last night, set on slow, but definitely there, and it hit its limit.

Tom declared war. Seven was dogfood.

"Doctor?"

The Doctor spun around, but Tom had already moved away, innocently looking at the desk.

"Ah, Mr. Paris. What do I owe the pleasure?"

Tom pulled out his cheery smile, (not a smirk, he was trying to get on Doc's good side) and sighed dramatically. Don't get too out of character.

"Just seeing how sickbay is. What are you working on?" He was treated to the interesting spectacle of the Holodoc twitch.

"Nothing important. What can I do for you?" The screen disappeared with a touch of Doc's finger.

"You heard about the incident last night?"

Holodoc blinked. Assessed the young man before him. Considered the question from all angles. He never underestimated Tom Paris.

"Yes, I did."

"You are encouraging her to work on her social skills."

"Eh, yes."

"Perhaps you should be a little more-aggressive in the education, Doc."

The word aggressive brought an image of B'Elanna to both, and the Holodoc nodded slowly.

"Perhaps."

"This-unusual hobby she has picked up needs to be channeled into more-let us say, acceptable avenues." Are you getting the drift here, Doc?

Holodoc blinked. Thought about it.

"Acceptable avenues?" Nice Doc. Nice Doc. Take the nice fat bait, Doc. Right there, in front of your nose. "You mean the study of relationships."

Tom Paris sighed. He couldn't just say it out loud. It had to be Doc's idea, or he would never go for it. And the Plan would be in ruins.

So Tom sat down, leaned both elbows on the table, pulled out his manipulative skills, dusted them off, and sent them to work.

"She needs that kind of social interaction. This-awkward event-is an example of the problems she can encounter with her bluntness, as well as her ignorance of the whole concept of relationships." Wow. That actually sounded like I know what I am talking about.

"Yes, that is what I am working on."

"The problem is, she isn't experienced in this sort of thing. She needs-oh, a guide of some kind." Tom looked over Holodoc's shoulder, pretending to be lost in the thought. Peripherally, he watched the Doctor's reactions.

Hook, line and sinker, he never felt it.

Tom saw Seven walk in, look around, and took a deep breath. Perfect timing, Mr. Paris, even if I do say so myself.

"I'll see you later, Doc, I'm due back on the Bridge.

Holodoc stood up.

"I will see you during your shift, Mr. Paris." His attention was on the woman outside his office.

Tom felt like skipping out of sickbay.

When he returned at the end of his Bridge shift, he found the Holodoc busy-again. Tom knocked lightly on the door, received a grunt of acknowledgement, entered, taking the closest chair.

"What are you doing, Doc?" he asked.

"Preparing a lesson in romance for Seven."

Paydirt.

"Oh? What did you have in mind?"

Holodoc looked at his young assistant suspiciously, as can only a man who knows something is up. Tom kept his expression perfectly innocent, with the barest trace of curiosity. This is the tricky part. Careful. Careful.

Holodoc slid the PADD over to Tom, who read it with a grave expression, dancing inside. Poor Seven. Tom wished he had it in him to pity the poor Borg who would learn romance from, of all people, the Doc himself, but ah, well, all is fair in love and war, and he was definitely at war. He passed it back.

"You should use Sandrine's," he said off-handedly, straightening his uniform.

"Why?" Suspicion. Tom began to tiptoe.

"It is a social setting, Doc. You have been there. Crewpeople meet there all the time. Bars are great places to pick people up."

"And you would know from personal experience." Tom glanced up sharply, but the Doc didn't seem to be baiting him, so he let it slide.

"Think about it." He stood up. Stretched.

"I will be at Holodeck 2, Ensign. Preparing my student for her debut." The Doc was gone.

Holodeck Two. Tom looked around the room, smiling.

This could work.


He couldn't help it. He went to Holodeck 2, where indeed Seven and the Doctor were hard at work improving Seven's social skills. She looked-as she always did, utterly imperturbable. Cool. Drinking a drink with a hologram. It didn't look too bad. He made his way to the Doc's side, noticed the satisfied smile. Like a proud parent. The Captain often had that look when she watched Seven do something human.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been touching. But Tom was a man on a mission.

His message to B'Elanna had been, of all things, returned to him. No answer. He studied Seven.

"Looks like Sandrine's is under new ownership." He glanced around, noticed the omission. "Who deleted my pool table?"

"Shh! School is in session."

Tom glanced at Seven, then the male hologram, and couldn't help a smirk.

"More social lessons?"

"Watch. You might learn something."

Ooh, Doc, you are looking for a reprogramming from hell. Tom watched as she flirted. If this painful conversation could be called flirting. He stood back, and worked at not laughing.

Doc looked satisfied. Tom stepped closer. Phase II had begun.

"He's a hologram, Doc."

"Your point?" My, you are testy. Interesting.

Tom played with his drink and stepped on the tightrope. Timing was everything. Now each word would be important.

"Well, you programmed him to interact with Seven." He continued his explanation, delighted with the way the Doctor was falling into the trap, set so perfectly, so innocently.

Holodoc made it clear he thought Seven was perfectly ready to take her intrepid skills on a man-hunt. Tom took a deep breath, smiled, and set the final hook.

"Put your latinum where your mouth is. If Seven brings a date to the reception, and leaves with the same date, on good terms, without causing a diplomatic incident? I will work double shifts in sickbay for the next month."

You never felt the hook, Doc. Though, come to think of it, I don't think B'Elanna and I could manage it. I am going to like having a month off.

Tom watched Seven abruptly leave her holoman, who was till talking, and go to the Doctor.

This could be interesting. He took another drink. Very interesting indeed.

Tom left another message for B'Elanna and went to his quarters, accessing the personnel list, and began by eliminating all the people Seven would not date. The list, surprisingly enough, was not long. I just hope its not Harry. Tom pushed aside such trivialities, no matter how much his stomach clenched. To remind himself why he was doing this, he looked at his bed. Neatly made up, because he hadn't been on it the night before. He looked at his couch, where he had tossed, then at the floor, where he finally slept. He thought of B'Elanna's face, thought of the looks he had gotten in the corridors, on the Bridge, at Sandrine's last night, and took a deep breath. For B'Elanna.

He sat back for a moment, thinking of her. He missed her, and didn't like it. Yes, she was on duty right now, but they always had lunch together, dinner together. Left notes for each other.

Closing his eyes, he remembered other things about her. The way she smiled. The way she fixed her hair. The way she had looked after the first time he had made love to her. In that bed.

That is definitely not the way I should be thinking, considering the current situation.

More, the way she looked at him.

I miss her. I want her here. I don't give a damn if the entire ship lines up on her deck to listen every damned night. Or my deck. Or anywhere.

But she does care. And I have a duty to avenge my mate. It sounded almost noble when he put it that way.

Tom thought of B'Elanna again. She had lately been confronting more of her Klingon heritage, with bat'leth, with interest in the rituals-rituals. She's getting interested in rituals...

One ritual in particular caught in his mind. Klingon Right of Vengeance. He swallowed.

I need to talk to B'Elanna. Soon.


"Sorry I am late, Doc." Tom had volunteered to work an extra shift, to keep his eye on the situation, and because B'Elanna had yet to respond to any of his increasingly desperate messages.

The Doc, too high on cloud nine, anticipating Seven's date, merely grinned.

Seven has a date. Ensign Chapman. Thank God.

Tom sat back and laughed, from sheer relief. The Doc started.

"Chapman!" He couldn't help it. Relief and giddy success, all in one moment. He saw the month ahead clearly. Free and clear.

More, he saw vengeance, served thick with a slice of pickle. Cold. Shared with B'Elanna, whenever he could get her to talk to him.

"Good luck."

The Doc apparently didn't like that. Tom toned himself down. So close. Don't screw it up now or you will be out one Klingon girlfriend and an extra month in Sickbay. Even better, you'll have time for those extra duties, sans said girlfriend. Keep to the plan.


Part IV: Finis

That evening, Tom fixed the dislocated shoulder of Ensign Chapman with ill-disguised glee.

Tomorrow the reception.

"Ensign Paris?"

"Yes?" He put down the tricorder as Chapman rotated his shoulder.

"You know Seven quite well."

"Yes." Tom didn't elaborate. Didn't need to. He wanted to hear how this had come about, and so far young Chapman had been quite reticent about his adventure.

"Is she always so-abrupt?" That is certainly one way of putting it.

Tom pulled up a chair as Chapman, on the biobed, looking more bedraggled than ever, began his story, lulled into trust by the guileless face of his medic.

"It started-she looked incredible-and we sat down to eat-lobster, I've always loved it-she never ate it before..." The disjointed conversation went on, detailing how exactly poor Chapman had gotten lobster on his shirt ("she broke it in half with her bare hands...") and The Dance. Where, during a bad turn, his shoulder and his arm parted company.

Tom controlled himself. He looked sympathetic. He commiserated with the unfortunate young man. He wanted to dance with joy.

Tom, after the poor Chapman had left, let himself fall on the biobed laughing.

Freedom, here I come.


Tom walked to B'Elanna's quarters well before the reception began, staring at the door, noticed crewpeople were no longer staring at him, and sighed. They had seen him standing here in his patheticness for two days now. It was no longer exactly news.

His looks weren't looking. Persistence wasn't working. Patience wasn't working.

"Computer, location of Lieutenant Torres."

"Lieutenant Torres is in her quarters."

Tom took a deep breath. Raised his courage, from where it was hiding again (for the sake of variety, it made a run for his stomach, to upset it with, but Tom caught it and put it in his place.) Checked his uniform for wrinkles. Checked his hair. Looked down either side of the corridor.

No one now. This could be bad. If a medical emergency occurred, he would need assistance. Actually, I'd be on my own anyway. I don't know of anyone, except maybe Chakotay, who could face B'Elanna down. And he'd probably stomp all over my body in a merry polka.

Tom reminded himself, if he survived, to find out exactly what a polka was.

When one is walking into the lion's den, one does want to look their best. I guess today is a good day to die. No, amend that. Today is a good day to die. How the hell does that go? I had better know, I am facing a Klingon.

He took another breath and took his life in his hands.

"Computer, override privacy lock, authorization Torres Beta 4 Omicron."

The door opened. Tom went in, re-engaged the privacy lock. Met the eyes of an enraged Klingon.

He was ready. Why are my palms so sweaty?

She moved, her whole body promising pain that wasn't fun at all, and wouldn't be fun for a long time, and he caught her wrists, remembering a thousand other encounters, remembering how to turn, to twist, make her lose momentum. Of course, those had been done in the spirit of fun and games. I hope her approach is the same. Before she could catch her balance, he pushed her into the wall, trapping her wrists against the cool metal and pressed up against her before she could think to knee him in the groin and win dishonorably. And she would. And she has. And it hurts.

She looked like she would kill him. Not a good way to begin.

"How the hell did you get my codes?"

"I looked it up. I have been dating a brilliant, beautiful engineer for almost two years, don't you think I would know some of the tricks by now?".

Flattery. Usually doesn't work. Try anyway.

It didn't work. She struggled. Tom knew he wouldn't be able to hold her long, he had better cut to the chase.

"You were in Sandrine's with the Borg. Talking. Flirting."

Tom promised himself he owed Megan Delaney big time. He took another breath, wishing he worked out more. He told her what he had done. Told her what he was going to do. Prayed.

Oddly enough, she softened. A little bit.

"You did that?"

"Yes."

She had stopped fighting (he had to wonder how he had held her so long, she was as strong as he was). He cautiously let go her wrists. They looked at each other.

"I've missed you," he said quietly. She shrugged that away, moved to the couch. Let him sit by her. Not touching. Better than he had expected.

"Tell me details."

Chapman's experience did it. She laughed until tears came, and finally leaned over to put her head against his shoulder. Then her head turned, and he closed his eyes, realizing she was smelling him. A brush of her lips against his cheek.

"You did this for me?" She was purring, moving gracefully into his lap. He took a deep breath. Tried to find his thoughts, put them together, make some kind of coherent answer...her scent was intoxicating. Truthfully, before B'Elanna, it had not been something he noticed. But dating a half-Klingon, who had a sensitive sense of smell, seemed to have made him more sensitive to it as well. He never, for example, would have been able to distinguish the soap she used, the shampoo, plasma coolant, and her own natural scent from each other before. One caramel hand slid up his chest, around his neck, and she leaned in, brushing lips against his collar.

"Will you go to the reception with me?" he asked, trying to keep his thoughts straight. The touch of her lips against his jugular was doing odd things.

That stopped, and he caught the sigh before it could find air. She twisted around, both hands on his shoulders, facing him. At least she wasn't moving away.

"No."

He hadn't figured she would. He knew her sensitivity to rumor. Hell, he had just discovered he had a sensitivity to rumor himself. But he had to be there. Just to see what happened.

Seven would go...with some poor, unfortunate soul, if the Doctor had to drug the man in question into somnolence to achieve it. It was a matter of honor.

"Are you going?" she asked.

"Yes." He looked at her warily. Waited. He had learned when to push and when not to. This was not a pushing situation.

"You should." She looked into his eyes. "But when you're finished...perhaps you could come back here for a nightcap?" It was as close to an apology as he had ever received from her. It was heady. He caught her chin, pulling her down for a kiss.

She let him have his way for a moment, then pulled back.

"You missed me."

"Oh, yes." You have no idea.

She looked pleased. He was relieved. He slid a hand up and down her side and, like a cat, she curled up against him, placing her head against his shoulder.

"B'Elanna-"

"Hmmm?"

"It's still several hours until the reception."

"Really?"

He took a deep breath, thought of Kahless, who smote enemies by the score. Odd, he would think of a Klingon. Thought of Alexander the Great. Men with great courage, great strength, great cunning.

He wondered how they would have fared against B'Elanna Torres.

And smiled.

No contest. She'd have them on their knees in minutes.

The hands stroking her waist were abruptly pinned to the couch beside his head. He looked up into endless dark pools of sable. Ah. That kind of mood.

"B'Ela-"

"Hush."

He, as any wise man would, obeyed.

The kiss was over almost as soon as it started, and she stood up. He never tired of watching her move, though he did wish in this instance, she hadn't.

"Finish, helmboy."

"Pet names?" He tried cocky. Hmm. She tilted her head. And he sighed, standing up.

"After?" he asked, walking to the door.

"After," she confirmed, following him. There was a smile on her face, that was definitely good.

In the corridor, on his way to the turbolift, he whistled. Crewmen took double takes. He winked merrily, and climbed in.


Tomin, the Kadi ambassador, was drunk. Tom, always a convivial soul, joined him, carrying his own drink, and covertly watching for Seven and her date of the night.

Maybe she gave up on the concept.

A drunk Kadi was easily amused. Tom pulled out the worst jokes he had ever heard (ironically enough, some were Doc's, but that was neither here nor there), and watched as Tomin laughed himself into airlessness. Neelix, looking distressed, brought coffee. And more coffee.

No Seven yet. Ah, but there was Neelix, in consultation with Commander Chakotay. Tom did feel some pity for Neelix. The Kadi were an extremely religious race, very into discipline. Which explained the fact that young Tomin had become Dionysus here in the middle of the decadence that was Voyager. Tom had to laugh at the image that provoked.

And then came Seven.

On the Doc's arm.

That is playing dirty, Doc. Really, really dirty.

He stood up, hesitated, brought up the image of B'Elanna. And exactly what he would be doing in a few hours if this worked. Girded himself. Set forth on intercept course.

"Well, well, what have we here?" He let his surprise speak for itself. Doc looked smug as hell.

You think you can control this little experiment, Doc? Let's just see, shall we?

"Mr. Paris, I believe you know Seven of Nine-my date for the evening."

Mr. Paris looked them over. Doc might win after all. Not as long as I breathe, my holographic friend.

"Oh, you don't say?" He dragged out his worst attitude, his most cutting sarcasm, desperate.

"Well, your last date ended up in Sickbay. I hope this one goes a little smoother."

Doc winced, and Tom grinned. Gin, he was fully aware, did not have a good effect on his attitude. One of the reasons he rarely drank. But tonight was special.

While Seven went off for drinks. Tom set himself to finish. There was no time. Tomin spotted him. And Tom wished, quite sincerely, that Tomin would pass out.

He watched the interaction between Doc and Seven. This was going badly for the home team. Seven proposed a toast. And Tom, watching her, watched the flush on her cheeks, the Doctor's smile, and closed his mouth.

I think I just lost.

"I've got to admit it, you've done wonders. All right, you win."

"Win?" Seven's voice came as if from a distance. Tom braced himself. This is harder than I thought.

"I know when I'm licked. You tell me when you want me to start those double shifts."

And Tom looked at Seven. Waited. Listened to the Doc drone about her progress. Waited for the inevitable.

She gave him what he expected.

"You made a wager regarding me?" Her voice was utterly expressionless. Tom waited. Glanced at the Doc. Who suddenly realized who was in earshot.

And how very useless explanations were.

Looking into the blue eyes, clouded with confusion and dawning hurt, Tom caught his breath. Real hurt. Human hurt. I wouldn't have done this to anyone on this ship. But I did this to her.

Scene in the Messhall, forgotten. Embarrassment, forgotten. B'Elanna-ooh, not forgotten. He steeled himself.

It only got worse.


In Sickbay, Tomin, Kadi Ambassador Extraordinaire, was ill. Very ill. Tom, despite his discomfort and the Holodoc's dirty looks, was amused. But not when he looked at Seven. The set expressionlessness was in evidence. She was mad.

No, scratch that. She is hurt

.

And Tom, unwillingly, remembered when he had spoken to Seven that long ago day in the turbolift, telling her he would be her friend. This wasn't the act of a friend. Hell, this wasn't the act of an friendly acquaintance.

As they fixed the converted Kadi decadent, who in between bouts of sickness waxed quite drunkenly lyrical on the perfections of yonder Borg, Tom saw something interesting. The way the Doc's eyes lingered on Seven. As he took Seven's nanoprobes to help the Kadi assimilate his alcohol (Tom couldn't help the reference, at least in his own head, quite aware the crowd here would be difficult) Doc apologized to Seven, and Tom had a revelation.

He is in love with her. I didn't see that coming.

Apparently, neither had the Doc.

Tom's only advice. Tell her.


B'Elanna was sitting quietly on her couch, drinking gin, a drink Tom had tried unsuccessfully to convince her to mix with other things. She liked it straight, commenting that with Tom's obsession with the ultimate tomato soup, he should be understanding of other people's quirks.

Her door buzzed.

"Enter."

Tom, looking somewhat the worse for wear, despite dress uniform, walked in, and B'Elanna patted the space beside her.

"So, do you have your month off?"

"Oh yeah." He leaned back, placing his hands behind his head. Sighed. Despite the warm sense of satisfaction emanating from her lover, B'Elanna realized all was not well in Tomland.

"What is wrong?"

Internal debate. To tell or not to tell, that is the question. He looked carefully at his mate, weighing the pros and cons. All this he did in a second, before he spoke.

"Nothing. Just a little tired." Some things not best revealed to Klingons with a vendetta. At least, not now. Let her enjoy her short spurt of triumph. She leaned over, kissing him on the mouth, before smiling. It never failed to take his breath away.

She knew he was lying, but didn't bother to call him on it at the moment. There were ways to get Tom to talk that didn't involve a full-out argument, and B'Elanna, though she would never admit it, had missed him.

"Gin?" she asked, indicating her glass.

"Had some, thanks." He looked at her. Studied her face. The blue t-shirt. The fact they were alone and had a long while until Alpha shift. It had been four days since the last time he had touched her.

Apparently, she was thinking the same way.

"Do you want anything?" Her voice had dropped to a throaty growl. He felt himself react, leaning closer, raising one hand to curve around her jaw, thumb stroking her cheek.

"You." He brushed his lips against her cheek, took in the scent of her throat. Heard her purr.

"That can be arranged."