Not in Front of the Children
He should have realized something was up when the Captain started the briefing wearing an ermine robe.
Things had been going along okay ... well, as relatively okay as they could, seventy years from home, with a curious and unpredictable omnipotent being who had a romantic interest in Captain Janeway tagging along and popping in at odd moments. Three days ago had been the latest little visitation, and Q had appeared distracted, annoyed, almost ... afraid. He'd snapped into being out of nothingness, as was his habit, in the middle of the bridge, teased Janeway about some sort of parade, mock-shuddered at Torres, studiously ignored Tuvok, floated over Chakotay and Harry Kim as if they were beneath his notice, and stared for an uncomfortable amount of time at him, Tom Paris, pilot of the gallant Voyager. Or at least, that's what Q had called it.
He had stared at Q for a long moment, seriously tempted to tell him what a complete twit he was and only stopping his tongue by remembering what had happened the first time a Q had visited the ship. He had no wish to end up in limbo or tethered to a huge bush again. So he'd bit his tongue, but inside he was muttering every vile imprecation he had learned in fifteen years of sneaking into bars. Some of the terms on the list were pretty colorful. For an instant he thought he heard a high pitched giggle, but when he shook his head and listened again, it was gone. So was Q.
Q hadn't returned, and after the first jumpy nerves began to die down it was business as usual. Until the morning briefing.
Janeway had been standing at the head of the table, going into one of her soliloquies about the sanctity of the Prime Directive, and Paris had been forcibly reminded of his father when he got into one of his grandiloquent moods. Trying to distract himself, he started to dwell on how regal Captain Kate looked, her head thrown back, eyes flaming, jaw thrust forward. Apparently someone else had the same idea, and Q had to be lurking somewhere in the background, because between one word and the next, the Captain's slender form was enveloped (smothered?) in a floor length ermine cape, a glittering crown tipped precariously atop her bun, and a polished gold scepter waved dangerously close to Chakotay's head as she swung her right arm around.
Chakotay ducked, sending him sideways into B'Elanna, who dived to avoid the incoming commander, knocking Tuvok out of his chair and sending Harry flying into the far wall. He watched interestedly as half the bridge crew went down like toppling dominoes.
It had to be Q.
Janeway let out a noise that in anyone less dignified would have been called a squawk, and dropped the scepter, which got tangled up in the flowing hem of the robe. As she bent to disentangle herself, the crown slipped forward over her eyes, and she continued forward. Only Tom's quick reflexes kept the Captain from landing face first on the floor. Of course, this meant he ended up with an armful of Janeway, but he wasn't complaining. It had all the earmarks of an historic briefing. He'd enjoyed it more than any he'd ever attended.
Once the excitement had worn off and the briefing was finished, they made their wary way out to their work stations, once again on high alert for the presence of Q. The crew manfully ignored the Captain's muttered comments on the ancestry, mating habits and lack of intestinal fortitude of certain beings who were too malicious and frightened to show their faces. Tom bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood to keep from laughing out loud. It was the most fun he'd had in weeks.
Reports and technical manuals. He wasn't an engineer. True, he knew about everything there was to know about navigational systems, and rebuilding machinery was a hobby of his, not to mention something he'd gotten really good at in prison, but the things B'Elanna Torres was having to do to keep Voyager's engines running had more to do with arcane magic and super glue than mechanics. He didn't know how else he could help, but if Janeway wanted him down here in Engineering, down in Engineering was where he would be. He gave a single, somewhat paranoid thought to wondering if this was her way of training Ensign Seril to take his place, then shook it off at the sound of Torres' growl.
"I said the tetraspanner, Paris, not the parallel fuser!" Her patience was running thin. Sure, he was decorative, and could be useful on some tests, but his attention span was much too short for this sort of work. He started guiltily and began to rummage through the toolbox. She winced at the sound of delicate tools tumbling against one another.
"Paris to the bridge!" Captain Janeway's voice sounded rather strident.
<Saved by the bell> shot through both the pilot's and the engineer's mind. Paris flashed her an apologetic smile and hurried from the room, acknowledging the captain's command as he went. B'Elanna sighed with a mixture of relief and irritation and began to pull herself out from under the access panel to get into her toolbox. As she did, her hand fell on a small instrument lying beside her. It was a brand spanking new tetraspanner, wrapped in a bright gold satin ribbon. Her head dropped back and an unwilling smile curved her lips. Leave it to Paris to lighten her mood.
Ensign Seril was being helped to sickbay by two brawny security guards as Paris bounded onto the bridge. All five of his eyestalks were weaving in different directions and he was gibbering about dancing controls and little purple monsters eating his fingertips. Tom looked hard at him as they dragged him through the lift doors.
"Weird," he muttered to himself. "What happened to Seril?" He tossed the question at Harry as he swung around the side rail and settled into the conn.
"Dunno," Harry half-whispered back. "Something about never wanting to pilot this cursed ship again." The young Ops officer looked a bit spooked himself.
You just never knew, Paris mused to himself. Guess he won't be after my job after all.
Neelix looked around the unusually quiet mess hall and decided that morale definitely needed improvement. His crew was just too uptight after their recent adventures. Time for a little entertainment and happiness. Unfortunately, the Talaxian version of entertainment was roughly equivalent to the Human definition of extreme annoyance.
In the middle of the seventeenth verse of the Great Canto of Lost Treasures (dubbed by Tom as the Poem that Never Died) Neelix suddenly developed complete and total laryngitis. Vocal cords froze up like cat gut in liquid nitrogen. Kes hurried him down to sick bay and all forty eight of the crew members currently trying to eat lunch kindly waited until the doors were firmly closed behind the couple before bursting into spontaneous cheers.
Paris grinned to himself. Timing was everything in life, and every once in awhile Neelix's was perfect.
Kes reported back in ten minutes that Neelix would be all right (a collective holding of breath in the hall) within a few days (rush of air as everyone breathed a sigh of relief). Saved from the Poem. Life was good. Paris, gazing at the rather confused face of his small Ocampan friend, felt a rush of affection for her. True, she was adorable, and she was taken, but she was also just plain nice. He'd met too few people he could honestly say that about.
As she turned to walk back into the cramped hydroponics bay behind the kitchen, she paused in the doorway and let out a choked squeak. Tom noticed her frozen figure in the doorway to the bay, and got up hurriedly to make sure she was okay. Coming to a stop behind her, easily able to see over her head because she was so short, his eyes widened at the sight of the shelves.
Roses. Hundreds of them, yellow, white, palest pink and vivid red, streaked and swirled with color, light purple and powder blue. He grinned and lightly clasped her shoulders. "Neelix must've been working on this one for awhile. What's the occasion?"
The large blue eyes looking up at him over her shoulder were a mixture of pleasure and bewilderment. "There isn't one, that I'm aware of, anyway."
He grinned at her. "Ah, he just wanted to say he loved you. Smart man," he grinned softly down at her. "Lucky one, too." With another friendly squeeze he let her go, leaving her to stare in wonder at the riot of blooms filling her hydroponics trays.
The afternoon shift was uneventful, a small blessing for which everyone except Paris was heartily thankful. Tom was just heartily bored. Heading for Sandrine's to try to generate a little excitement before taking himself off to bed, he spied Harry carrying his clarinet case and hurried to catch up.
"Hey, Harry!" He grinned down at his buddy.
"Hey, Tom," Harry responded playfully.
"Where you off to with the horn?" Tom gestured at the case and tilted a brow in query.
"I need to practice, but I didn't really feel like going back to my quarters yet. I thought maybe the aft observation bay-"
"Why not Sandrine's?" Tom interrupted enthusiastically. "It's midweek, probably won't be too crowded, and the acoustics are great. You could have people around you but they wouldn't interfere or bug you ... well, no more than I usually do, anyway." Harry met the hopeful look in those big sapphire eyes and found himself caving in, as always. Tom read surrender in his friend's face and whooped in victory, urging him on toward the holobar.
Swinging through the doors, the only crewmembers they saw were B'Elanna and Tuvok, playing a quiet game of pool in the corner, and, surprisingly, the Doctor, a beret covering his balding pate, discussing vodka martinis with Sandrine. They exchanged waves and Harry went to a semi-dark corner and opened his case.
"Doc sure seems more at home here since his romance with that V'Dian scientist, doesn't he?" Tom was watching Harry put the pieces of his clarinet together. In the background, B'Elanna's triumphant crow signaled another Vulcan loss. Tom could picture Tuvok's calmly disgruntled-but-not-admitting-it expression. At least it was easier for him to lose to a Klingon/Human than to a Talaxian. Tom grinned. Now, *that* had been funny. The rattle of the cue stick in the rack diverted his attention from Harry, and he turned to see Tuvok gazing at the clarinet with something like desire in his dark eyes.
"Care to join us?" Tom asked lazily. Tuvok considered it for all of a split second before settling into the vacant chair. "You ever play?"
"On Vulcan, musical instruments are considered a tool to aid in centering the mind, focusing the thoughts. The mathematical precision of music is highly admired." Tom sighed, and Tuvok nodded slightly. "I played both the lute and the lyre."
"My mother played the viola," Torres put in softly from behind Tom's left shoulder. "She taught me from when I was a small child. It was ... one thing we had in common." Tom reached up and caught her hand in his and she smiled briefly down at him.
"Too bad you don't have instruments. We could have quite a jam session. You play anything, Tom?"
Paris ran through several highly inappropriate possible answers to Harry's question before contenting himself with a simple, "No, not really." He somehow didn't think ragtime piano playing and mouth harp prison blues were precisely what his friend meant. His train of thought was interrupted as the holographic Doctor stomped up to the table.
"If you're going to have some sort of concert in here then you really should take care of your own instruments." He carefully, but forcibly, set a Vulcan lute and a viola case on the table next to Harry's clarinet case. "I was involved in a very interesting conversation regarding the relative curative properties of wood grain alcohol on-" Long red fingernails curved around his jaw and a delicate white hand covered his mouth as Sandrine's wide, painted eyes peered over his shoulder.
"We were just leaving, cherie," she laughed to Tom.
He nodded, not bothering to hide his own grin as she dragged the not particularly protesting doctor away. Tuvok was fingering the lute very thoughtfully, examining it thoroughly before playing a few exploratory notes. B'Elanna was exclaiming with enjoyment as she put a beautiful, darkly shining viola to her shoulder, drawing the bow gently across the strings to pause and listen to the deep tones spilling from the strings. She saw the tiny, sparkling gold ribbon tied around the end of the bow and grinned with delight at Tom.
"Thank you! This is wonderful! How did you know to program this? This is great!"
Tom tried to tell her that he hadn't been responsible, but before he could get the words out, Harry began to play. Tuvok picked up the counter harmony, and B'Elanna joined in happily. Tom stared at the gold ribbon on the end of the bow and thought about the spanner he'd seen earlier on his way out of engineering. Something began to whisper in the back of his mind. Something very odd was going on here.
Three hours later when the musicians had called an end to the jam session and the program had ended ... and the instruments remained ... he *knew* something weird was happening.
That night, instead of dreaming about Caldik Prime and lock-picking in prison, he dreamed of roses and ribbons and lutes and ermine.
He wasn't sure. And he didn't want to sound delusional. And while Tuvok and Torres had been understandably confused about the instruments, he'd managed to come up with a line about replicator rations and gifts and Harry that hadn't made much sense but they'd bought it. For now. He *had* to find out what was going on.
So he ran a little experiment.
Chakotay had really been getting on his nerves lately. Authority, power, all that sort of thing, combined with still being irked at not getting in on the plot to trap the traitor (not to mention getting knocked on his can by Paris during the course of the ruse) had given Chakotay an attitude with regards to the pilot. So he was, in his own stoic way, picking on him.
Finding the most boring checklists for Tom to go over again and again and again (all in the name of readiness, of course). Finding excuses to run him all over the ship on mundane errands that could have been handled by courier, just to make his feet hurt. Questioning and double checking everything that Paris did until the younger man felt like knocking him on his keister just for the sheer joy of it. Tom gave careful consideration to just what he would do to Chakotay if he had the chance and the resources. Before he could completely form the thought, he heard the unthinkable. A Vulcan gasped.
Chakotay spluttered. And Janeway squirmed, fighting an attack of the chuckles.
Tom swallowed, slowly turning, not really sure he wanted to see what he had a nasty feeling he was going to see. He was right.
Chakotay sat, glued to his seat, wearing nothing but a loincloth, a wreath of jungle vines in his hair, strange symbols painted all over his chest, tied into his chair by any number of strange flowering plants. He looked like a holiday arrangement, except for the rapidly reddening face and the gaping jaw. An extremely confused wolf sat at his feet, looking for all the world like it had been wolf-napped from the forest and plonked unceremoniously onto a starship, and it wasn't too happy with the whole situation. Of course, from the increasingly apoplectic look on Chakotay's face ... neither was he.
"Captain," Paris managed to choke out, "I think ... we have a problem."
Janeway stared in fascination at her first officer. "Um-hm. I'd say we do, Tom."
"Ma'am," he tried a little harder, "I *really* think we have a problem." She managed to tear her eyes from the paint running down Chakotay's chest and looked bemusedly at Paris. "I think ... it's Q."
The bemusement left her eyes as if she'd been dunked head first into a bucket of ice water. Her face paled and she looked around somewhat wildly. Chakotay saw her right hand flail again and tried to duck, expecting another scepter to appear, and only succeeded in choking himself on an hibiscus vine. As he was trying to catch his breath, the object of their conversation appeared.
"You!" Q thundered, pointing accusingly at ... Tom Paris. The pilot looked around even more wildly than Janeway had.
"What? What?!" he half-screamed. "I didn't do it! It wasn't me! I didn't put the roses in the bay and take away Neelix's voice and make the instruments and dress her in ermine and I *certainly* didn't make Chakotay into a big flower pot!"
The entire bridge crew stared in disbelief at Paris.
"Did I?" he asked in a small voice.
"Well, no, not really," came an equally small voice, off to his left. All eyes swiveled to see a young being, a boy no more than seven or eight, looking contritely at Tom. "I suppose I did."
"This is all your fault," Q grumbled, marching past Paris to sweep the youngster up into his arms, settling him onto the side of his hip as if he was a bag of potatoes. "You and your colorful vocabulary." Tom stared at him in complete lack of comprehension. "Don't think just because you didn't actually *call* me all those names you were thinking about that I didn't hear them!! And so did he! Don't you know better than to say things like that around children?!"
Paris was at a loss. What had he said? "I didn't say anything!"
"No, but you were thinking it!" Q accused. "That's just as bad! Little Q's have big ears, you know!"
Tom stared from the irate adult Q to the abashed small Q in his arms and felt an insane desire to laugh. "Are you trying to say that he heard me calling you a ... uhm, twit ... in my head and decided to stick around and see what else there was going on in my brain?"
"Yes!" Q was beginning to calm down. "I'd been looking for him for eons, and he decides to play hide and seek *here*, of all places, with *you* as a guideline, of all Humans. It's a wonder you're still alive to talk about it!"
Tom had a brief mental image of the entire bridge crew in their underwear, and fiercely squashed the thought.
"Exactly!" Q crowed.
The little Q looked very interested.
Adult Q looked at him quickly, then sketched a hasty bow in Janeway's direction. "I will leave you to it, then, Madam Captain."
With no fanfare, he disappeared, leaving the bridge crew sighing with relief. Finally, Tuvok stared at the captain and nodded toward Chakotay.
"About the commander, Captain?"
She looked at the utterly embarrassed man, then the now-napping wolf. "Somebody, get me some hedgeclippers." Paris took one look at the wicked smile on her lips and turned to look determinedly at the star field, trying desperately to ignore the small yelps and groans behind him.
If nothing else, the adventure had taught him one thing. You could never be too careful, with kids around.