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The Sweet Science

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B’Elanna thought the whole thing was stupid.

She crossed her arms and stared at the turbolift, trying to ignore Harry and Tom as they chattered next to her. They had been on about the subject for weeks now, and she wondered who exactly she had pissed off to not only be thrown 70,000 light years away from home, but to be stuck on a ship with two of the most shameless gossips she had ever met.

“I’m telling you, Harry. Royalty.”

The word rolled off Tom’s tongue like he was enjoying a piece of particularly juicy meat. Which he probably wished he was, considering he had tried to cajole additional replicator rations out of her this week. Again. Harry, for his part, seemed finally be tiring of the subject despite Tom’s enthusiasm.

“Right,” Harry said flatly. “A princess and everything.”

“Exactly! Can you imagine?” Tom’s eyes gleamed.

“Or,” B’Elanna said, glaring at the tardy turbolift, “you could stop wildly speculating and just ask her.”

“But wild speculation is one of my favorite activities.”

B’Elanna groaned and rolled her eyes. Tom grinned. She slapped impatiently at the control panel.

Kahless save her.

Voyager was now a little over six months into her journey home to the Alpha Quadrant--six months, one week, and two days exactly. And, given her relatively small crew complement and cramped living spaces, wild speculation was fast becoming the regular pastime. The tension between Starfleet and Maquis crew members ebbed and flowed like waves crashing against a breakwater--calm one day, violently explosive the next, but gradually the good days were starting to outnumber the bad. It seemed to B’Elanna that the reality of their situation had finally set in, and most now accepted that there was no way they would all survive without coming together as one crew. And one sure-fire way to build camaraderie was to jabber incessantly about anyone and everyone on board.

No one was immune. The gossip always veered wildly from one subject to the next, from the more salacious topics of who was sleeping with who (something B’Elanna noticed Tom was always in the mix of), to the mundane disputes over duty shifts and who the Captain favored that week. B’Elanna hated it. The constant talk reminded her far too much of her childhood, when classmates would snicker behind her back every time she walked by with a scarf covering her forehead. Luckily, it appeared she wasn’t interesting enough to warrant any lasting rumors. Or the incident with Lieutenant Carey when she first came aboard had been enough to convince most people to leave her the hell alone. Either way, B’Elanna was grateful.

Others, though, were not so fortunate. Tom seemed to live for stirring whatever pot he happened to be sticking his nose in that day. The Captain, by nature of her position, was always an object of fascination. Tuvok also was on the receiving end of some unflattering tales, as unlikely as they may be, and B’Elanna was certain that came from the more disgruntled Maquis, still bitter about his betrayal. And everyone complained about Neelix’s cooking.

But then there was Lieutenant Pentaghast.

Tall, dark, mysterious--of the entire crew, Cassandra Pentaghast remained perhaps Voyager’s most enduring enigma. She was Tuvok’s second-in-command, and was the only officer outside of the Captain that he seemed to hold in high regard. B’Elanna could see why. The security officer was aloof as she was imposing, apparently having no interest in engaging in the same idle frivolities as the rest of the crew. Much like Tuvok.

And of course, mostly because she didn’t participate, Cassandra was subject of the more outrageous rumors to date. The newest one was Tom’s favorite: that Lieutenant Pentaghast was actually a member of the preeminent royal family on her homeworld. B’Elanna had no idea how or why people latched onto that story with such fervour, but she had heard some variation of it at least a dozen times and it was getting exhausting.

Actually, now that she thought about it, none of what she’d heard about Lieutenant Pentaghast seemed very likely. Although B’Elanna could count the number of times she had interacted with the security officer on one hand, she had merely struck B’Elanna as standoffish, yet professional. Certainly not the type to have organized an underground gambling ring while posted on Jupiter Station, or carry on an illicit affair with both Delaney sisters (at the same time).

It probably didn’t help that Cassandra was the only Nevarran on board. Nevarra was a small world located deep in the Beta Quadrant, known as much for its remoteness as its reclusivity of its inhabitants. From what B’Elanna recalled from her Introduction to Federation History class at the Academy--which admittedly, was not very much--Nevarra was relatively new to the Federation. Diplomatic relations had only been established about fifteen years ago, and they joined the Federation several years later. Still there were only a handful of Nevarrans in Starfleet and very few chose to travel off-world. They passed easily for human; the only telltale sign outside of a tricorder scan were their eyes. Always dark and flecked with bright gold, they reflected points of light so vividly it was believed that all Nevarrans had the ability to see in the dark. Of course, whether or not it was true, that same rumor dogged the security officer just like all others. And just like all the other rumors on board, B’Elanna could not have cared less. Cassandra could have x-ray vision as far as she was concerned.

Although. B’Elanna did admit that her eyes were rather striking. They had met during her second day on Voyager. Cassandra had been assigned to interview each of the new Maquis addition to the crew, apparently to assess experience and skill, and make recommendations as to an appropriate assignment on Voyager. B’Elanna remembered wondering why Tuvok wasn’t spearheading the process--after all, he had actually served with them, albeit under false pretenses--but when she met with Cassandra, she quickly realized why. The woman had every detail of B’Elanna’s file memorized, including her Academy record and complete psychological profile. She learned later that it was Cassandra who had originally been tasked with infiltrating Chakotay’s Maquis cell, but the assignment had fallen to Tuvok when Cassandra had been injured during a training exercise.

B’Elanna had found out after that meeting that Cassandra had immediately recommended her for the vacant Chief Engineer position. She also remembered leaving the meeting feeling more intrigued then irritated, idly wondering what it would have been like to have someone that insightful on board the Val Jean, as opposed to some of the hardhearted idiots she’d served with

She slapped at the control panel again, Harry and Tom still chattering happily behind her. B’Elanna muttered under her breath. If she was going to have to supervise a shipwide diagnostic of the entire turbolift system on top of everything else, she swore she would--

The door opened. B’Elanna swallowed the complaint forming on her lips, as Lieutenant Pentaghast stepped out of the turbolift. Obviously coming from the gym, she was dressed in tight black athletic pants with matching sleeveless top, bangs damp and a thin sheen of sweat across her neck. Tossed over her shoulder was a towel and a pair of boxing gloves. Looking at Cassandra’s biceps, B’Elanna found herself wondering if the one about Cassandra knocking out a Andorian classmate at the Academy with one punch actually was true.

Dark eyes caught them each in turn, lingering on B’Elanna for a brief moment, before she pushed past them. “Lieutenants. Ensign.” Cassandra nodded at Tom and Harry, then glanced at B’Elanna again.

B’Elanna nodded back and Cassandra turned away, affording B’Elanna a full view of the jagged scar that cut across her left cheek. As B’Elanna stepped into the turbolift, a strange feeling came over over her--a tight, twisting sensation that began in her stomach and traveled upwards to settle her throat. She shoved it back down, suppressing an agitated growl, and focused her attention to the PADD she was holding. Behind her, Tom picked up right where he left off.

“See? Royalty.”

Harry snorted. “Sure.”

***

For as long as she could remember, B’Elanna never really needed sleep. It had been that way ever since she was a child. She supposed that was her Klingon side. Her mother certainly had taken a perverse pride in it at least, brightly crowing about how her small puqbe’ had the stamina of a full-grown warrior. B’Elanna couldn’t recall her father saying anything on the matter, but surely whatever opinion he had would have been drowned out by Miral’s aggressive enthusiasm. Of course, after her sixth birthday, his opinion hadn’t meant a damn thing anymore.

The trait carried on throughout her brief Academy stint and when she joined the Maquis. Her non-existent sleep schedule had been a distinct advantage on board the Val Jean, where keeping a 39-year-old engine running demanded most of her time and attention. Voyager was beyond compare--such a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship that she felt practically gluttonous whenever she stepped into Main Engineering. With the resources and staff she had at her disposal, simple maintenance and upkeep did not require her constant supervision, and she had the luxury of taking the long view. Her job was to anticipate problems and design methodologies for keeping the ship running as efficiently as possible for as long as possible. And she relished the challenge. Even if it meant sleeping only a few hours each night.

At 0300, B’Elanna swept into the mess hall, clutching a stack of PADDS in one hand and an empty mug in the other, wearing a loose grey sweater thrown over her standard uniform pants. She headed straight for Neelix’s kitchen and jabbed at the coffee maker, hoping that whatever came out was at least a close approximation of a caffeinated beverage. A rich, almost chocolatey aroma soon rose from the machine and B’Elanna allowed herself a pleased hum. When she turned around, though, a scowl immediately darkened her face.

She was not alone. Lieutenant Pentaghast sat at a corner table, dressed just as casually as B’Elanna, engrossed in a PADD. An unattended mug was her elbow.; next to the mug sat a pair of small, black earbuds. The only acknowledgement B'Elanna received was a single glance in her direction.

B’Elanna huffed in annoyance. She wasn’t used to sharing the mess hall at this hour, and she definitely wasn’t used to feeling trapped while doing so. Cassandra had taken her preferred seat; that corner table was the only one that afforded an unobstructed view of both exits, as well as clear access to the only Jeffries’ tube hatch. She considered returning to her quarters, but something about yielding to Cassandra’s presence annoyed her even further. B’Elanna filled her mug, added a healthy amount of cream and sugar, and then stomped over and sat down at the table next to Cassandra.

“Couldn’t sleep?” B’Elanna asked, a little more pointedly than she needed to.

The security officer didn’t look up. “Yes.”

B’Elanna frowned at the clipped answer, but turned to her stack of PADDs. As much as she had been thrown by the unexpected company, B’Elanna was soon engrossed in her work. The silence was companionable, in a way, and she almost forgot there was someone else there as she methodically plowed through diagnostic reports. In fact, she did forget until she heard a heavy sigh and the creak of chair.

B’Elanna’s head snapped up in time to catch the scowl on Cassandra’s face. “I’m sorry, am I bothering you?”

Cassandra reached for her earbuds. “No, there is just a high level of ambient noise on the ship. Although, with all your muttering, I’m rather confident that even I will now be able to reprogram the main deflector.”

B’Elanna stood abruptly, her chair scraping loudly against the deck. Cassandra winced. “Great,” B’Elanna snorted. “I’ll keep that in mind next time the Kazon are feeling ambitious.”

She stalked back over to the coffee machine to refill her mug. If she was honest with herself--which B’Elanna didn’t necessarily feel inclined to do--she did have a habit of mumbling under her breath while working, but she never thought it was that noticeable. Just then, she remembered another rumor-- one about how impossible it was to surprise Lieutenant Pentaghast, to the point where she must possess some borderline psychic ability. Irritation gave way to curiosity.

“Just how sensitive is your hearing?” B’Elanna asked.

Cassandra remained focused on her PADD, but the scowl appeared again. “Let’s just say the sound dampening on this vessel leaves much to be desired.”

That made sense. Voyager’s design specification would not have taken such crew comforts into account on starship not intended for deep space exploration. But that still didn’t answer her question. “How sensitive?”

Cassandra heaved a sigh and finally looked at B’Elanna, dragging her eyes away from her PADD as if it were a exceedingly tedious chore. “Generally, I can hear in a frequency range from fifty-five hertz up to eighty kilohertz.”

“Ultrasonic? Impressive.”

“Not when someone incorrectly programs a sonic driver.”

For some reason, the dry comment caught B’Elanna off guard. A short bark of laughter erupted from her chest, surprising herself so much she took a full step back. Cassandra’s eyes widened briefly, as if also surprised, then the corner of her mouth twitched and her cheeks reddened just enough to be noticeable. She returned to her PADD. B’Elanna bit her bottom lip and looked away. She refilled her mug, slamming the carafe down with probably a bit too much force, and walked back to her table. Instead of returning to her seat, though, she found herself hovering in front of Cassandra, tapping her index finger against the side of her mug.

“So, are you really royalty?” she blurted out suddenly.

Cassandra groaned. She threw her PADD down and leaned far back in her chair, shooting B’Elanna a glare. After a long moment she exhaled, as if admitting defeat, and gestured to the seat next to her. B’Elanna slid easily--almost eagerly--into the chair, amazed that Tom had actually been right about something.

“Sweet Andraste,” Cassandra muttered to herself, then heaved another sigh. “Yes, I am a member of the preeminent royal family of Nevarra. I am the fourteenth cousin to the king, nine times removed. Currently, I remain seventy-eighth in line for the Nevarran throne.”

If it wasn’t for the dead serious expression on her face, B’Elanna would have thought Cassandra was joking. And yet, as B’Elanna took in the dark eyes and sharp jaw, the broad shoulders and commanding presence, she supposed she could see something regal in Cassandra’s bearing. Not that she had to acknowledge it.

“Oh, only seventy-eighth? That barely even counts.” B’Elanna sipped her coffee.

Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “It certainly counts enough to have kept me in a life of unearned wealth and privilege. Which most of my extended family chooses to do.”

“But not you.”

“No. Not me.”

“Why?”

A frown crossed Cassandra’s face, but somehow B’Elanna understood that it wasn’t a show of displeasure--more that she was in fierce contemplation. Slowly Cassandra leaned closer and placed her hands on the table, fingers lacing together. Small, white scars criss-crossed her knuckles, standing out in stark contrast to tan skin. A particularly jagged stripe ran down the back of her left hand and disappeared up the sleeve of her sweater, an obvious knife wound that matched the one on her cheek. Scars that could easily be healed, yet instead were worn as badges of pride.

“I was raised by my uncle,” Cassandra said. “He had very specific ideas and expectations for how a girl of my station should behave. Unfortunately, I was quite the disappointment to him. Living in opulence while being waited on hand and foot, surrounded by vapid women and soft men--that is not how I wished to move through the world. I was not sad to leave it behind.”

B’Elanna cocked her head. Imagining a life of such comfort and luxury was nearly impossible. It also sounded achingly boring. “So what did you want to do?”

The corner of Cassandra’s mouth curled upwards, the barest hint of a smile. “Truly? Be a dragon hunter. Like my brother.”

B’Elanna choked on her coffee. “Wh-what? Dragons don’t exist!”

“Have you ever been to Nevarra?”

“No!”

Cassandra spread her hands wide, allowing B’Elanna a view of her long, lean fingers. “Well. There you have it,” she said, as if the matter was obviously closed.

Aggravation flared briefly in her chest, and B’Elanna leveled at look directly at Cassandra. “Dragons. Really.”

“Nevarra is known for its unique ecosystem; both flora and fauna grow at exponential rates. We survive in spite of our environment, not because of it. Dragon hunting is a large part of Nevarran culture, and my family in particular has a long history of renowned dragon hunters. Unfortunately, many of my ancestors were overzealous, and the beasts are nearly extinct.” Cassandra voice turned almost wistful and she looked away.

“That sounds...utterly medieval.” B’Elanna shook her head.

“Some of our traditions could be called that.” Cassandra nodded once, conceding the point. “But one could say the same about most other species’ rituals, yes? And yet we are also known for our deeply artistic culture, as well as all manner of scientific disciplines. We were the first to obtain warp travel in our sector.”

B’Elanna shifted in her seat. Cassandra didn’t have to name what other species’ rituals she was referring to. Yet, B’Elanna was grateful that Cassandra did not make an explicit comment as to her heritage, unlike most other people. She decided to change the subject.

“So…now that there’s no more dragons to hunt, you decided Starfleet would be your backup plan?”

B’Elanna had meant the question lightheartedly, but Cassandra bristled as soon as she asked. Her hands tightened into fists, knuckles whitening. The scars became even more obvious.

“My brother was murdered when I was twelve. Dragon hunting was not an option after that,” Cassandra said.

Shit. B’Elanna pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned. “I’m sorry, I--”

“It is fine.” Cassandra’s voice was cold, but her hands relaxed slightly. “It was a long time ago. After Anthony’s death, my relationship with my uncle became even more strained and it was clear there was no place for me there. Nevarra had just officially joined the Federation. Starfleet seemed like a reasonable option.”

B’Elanna half expected Cassandra to get up and walk away. But she didn’t move, hardly blinking, just sitting in her chair and looking right into B’Elanna’s face. As if waiting for more questions, or a clear indication that the interrogation was over.

As the silence passed between them, B’Elanna found herself surprised again. There was something familiar in Cassandra’s eyes, a look she had seen in her own reflection countless times--pain, distrust, sadness. But mostly anger.

“It must have been hard for you, with your family. Even before your brother died.” B’Elanna sipped at her coffee, now far too cold to be palatable. “I know what that can be like. Expectations, I mean.”

She hid a wince behind her mug, recalling a young, awkward girl both too smart and too angry for the world around her. Who was yelled at when she locked herself in her room to study algebraic equations, then yelled at again when she defended herself against her classmates’ taunting. Who was never the right amount of human or Klingon.

Cassandra cocked her head, jaw softening, and gave words to B’Elanna’s thoughts. “Yes. Too much of one thing, not enough of another.”

“Exactly.”

This time, the silence that fell was perfectly companionable. B’Elanna took it as a rare victory in her spotty record of interpersonal interactions. Her gaze drifted across the table, to Cassandra’s discarded PADD. The display screen was covered in blocks of text; the obvious pages of a novel. B’Elanna twisted her head to catch the title.

“What are you--”

“Nothing!”

A distressed squeak, one that closely resembled a newborn targ, came from across the table as Cassandra’s arm shot out and scooped up the PADD. B’Elanna was amazed that such a sound could ever come another person--let alone the usually stoic security officer--but she bit her tongue. Cassandra had acted fast, but not quite fast enough, and B’Elanna had spied just enough to know what the book was about. Whatever camaraderie she had been feeling now blossomed into full-blown kinship.

B’Elanna scanned the mess hall, ensuring they were still alone, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper. “That’s one of my favorites.”

Cassandra brightened, and for the first time B’Elanna saw the flecks of gold in her dark eyes. She also glanced around furtively, then leaned in. “Isn’t it astounding? I cannot believe Tethras never finished the series. I almost sent him a message--I simply must know what happens to the guard captain.”

“I know!” B’Elanna exclaimed. “When it ended right after she was falsely arrested, I threw the damn PADD against the bulkhead and it shattered all over engineering. Nicoletti avoided me for two weeks.”

“I broke mine in half,” Cassandra said solemnly.

B’Elanna laughed. Her eyes fell again to Cassandra’s hands, now curled tightly in excitement, and B’Elanna was certain she was capable of such a thing.

“Have you read Women Warriors at the River of Blood?” B’Elanna asked, leaning in even closer. The comical widening of Cassandra’s eyes was the only response, and B’Elanna laughed again. She stretched out her arm and pawed at the stack of PADDs left at her table. Eventually she came up with the one she was searching for and handed it to Cassandra. “Here, I think you’ll like it. There’s a whole series.”

Cassandra eyed her warily. Then, much quicker this time, Cassandra’s hand shot out and snatched the PADD. “Thank you. Does the ship’s library--”

“No, no, no.” B’Elanna waved both hands emphatically. “Take this copy, it’s saved locally. Never use the library--the records aren’t encrypted and anyone can see when the files are accessed. And by whom.”

Cassandra blinked once. Very slowly.

“What.”

“Don’t worry, I can show you how to delete the file access records,” B’Elanna said quickly. “I wrote a program the first week I was on board.”

Cassandra turned the PADD over in her hand, a slight frown now darkening her features. She stood. “Thank you. This is...very kind. I shall return it to you shortly, I promise.”

B’Elanna arched her neck to look up, struck again by how tall the security officer was. She waved a hand. “Take your time. The entire series is on there.”

“Ah. Well.” Cassandra held both PADDS in one hand, tapping thoughtfully against her thigh, before neatly tucking them both under her arm. “Thank you. Again. I’ll leave you to your work.”

She gave a small bow and turned to leave. As B’Elanna watched her walk away, all tightly wound muscle, back ramrod straight, she finally understood what Janeway meant when she told people to relax before they sprained something. Before Cassandra reached the door, she leaned back in her chair and called out.

“Wait, so how many dragons have you killed?”

Cassandra turned, a small grin playing on her lips. “Good night, Lieutenant.”

B’Elanna chuckled to herself as Cassandra disappeared into the corridor. She stood, refilled her mug in the kitchen, then returned to the pile of work at the table.

It wasn’t until an hour later that she realized she was still smiling.

***

B’Elanna smelled breakfast well before she reached the mess hall doors.

That was not a good thing.

She had followed her usual routine for the rest of the evening after Cassandra left, working steadily in the empty mess hall until just before Neelix started prepping for the shift changeover. She always slid out before he arrived, returning to her quarters to either continue her work or indulge in a small amount of downtime, then showered and headed back for breakfast. This morning, her stomach was already churning the moment she stepped off the turbolift.

Neelix greeted everyone with his typical enthusiasm, chatting away as he filled the crewmembers’ plates, oblivious to the pot boiling over behind him. Today’s selection was even more unpalatable than usual; a thick, grey, lumpy concoction he was touting as his newest recipe. B’Elanna guessed it was an approximation of oatmeal or porridge. It seemed as simple a dish as there ever was, but the fact that the entire deck now smelled like damp gym socks was sheer culinary anarchy. She fell into line behind Lieutenant Chapman and groaned as she watched a ladleful of slop hit his plate with a wet slap.

Another groan echoed from over her shoulder, and B’Elanna turned to see Cassandra sidling up behind her. A jolt of excitement shot through her, pleased that she was seeing Cassandra again so soon. Cassandra nodded in acknowledgement, somehow managing to both snarl and yawn at the same time. B’Elanna couldn’t help but notice the rest of the line slowly inching away, offering the looming, surly security officer a wide berth

“Andraste preserve me, what did he make now?” Cassandra muttered so only B’Elanna could hear. It was the second time she had heard the expression, and B’Elanna wondered what or who Cassandra was invoking with the strange phrase. However, there were more pressing matters to attend to.

“I can’t eat this,” B’Elanna said. “Coffee? I’ll buy.”

Cassandra grumbled again, one that B’Elanna interpreted as agreement, and lead them away from the line to the replicators on the opposite side of the mess. She ordered a triple espresso for herself, then raised an eyebrow at Cassandra request of a raktajino, extra hot. B’Elanna had never understood why the drink was so damn popular. She’d rather drink an oil slick.

Cassandra took a sip and let out a long sigh. “Thank you. I will need every bit of this today. I was up far too late reading that novel you loaned me.”

“Really?” B’Elanna leaned easily against bulkhead and looked up into Cassandra’s face. She looked just as bright and alert as she did last night. If Cassandra hadn’t said anything, B’Elanna never would have guessed she was anything less than optimal. “How far did you get?”

“Chapter five.”

B’Elanna grinned. “That’s when it starts to get good. Did you get to the scene with the dagger yet?”

Cassandra coughed into her drink and then--in what must have been a poorly thought out act of subterfuge--quickly sucked in a mouthful of scalding coffee. B’Elanna bit her lip as Cassandra took a long, obviously painful swallow.

“There’s-there’s a dagger?” Cassandra managed to choke out several moments later.

B’Elanna’s grin widened, even as she tried keeping it concealed behind her mug. “Uh huh.”

Cassandra glanced over her shoulder, then took a step closer. Her eyes held the same guileless look as last night when B’Elanna had first told her about the novel. It was almost endearing. “Is that, um, a reoccuring theme? In this series?” she asked in a hushed, awed whisper.

B’Elanna leaned in and whispered back. “Just wait until you get to the sequel.”

“Oh.”

A distinct flush blossomed just above the collar of Cassandra’s grey undershirt and traveled rapidly up to her cheeks. B’Elanna crossed her arms over her chest and just smugly sipped at her espresso, revelling in Cassandra’s almost prudish reaction. But then their eyes met. B’Elanna’s throat tightened as Cassandra continued to blush furiously. She turned away and looked out over the crowded mess hall, suddenly hoping that no one had noticed the exchange.

She was wrong, of course. The seating arrangements had remained the same ever since the two crews had merged; Maquis on the left side of the mess hall, while Starfleet claimed the right side. At the table closest to B’Elanna sat Seska and Bobby Ayala. The former was eyeing her suspiciously, while the latter was one of the few happily shoveling Neelix’s porridge mixture into his mouth--obliviously, of course. Seska waved her over. B’Elanna glanced back at Cassandra, who was intently studying the a speck on the rim of her coffee mug.

“I’m just--I’ll see you--”

“Yes, of course.”

Cassandra took off at a near sprint towards the Starfleet table in the farthest corner away from B’Elanna. B’Elanna watched her retreat with a frown, then slid into the empty seat next to Ayala.

“Uh oh.” Seska had her chin propped up in her palm and was giving her a knowing smile, rocking slightly back and forth in her chair like a child handed an unexpected treat.

B’Elanna’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“I’ve seen that look before.” Seska’s smile now dripped with smugness. “Lieutenant Pentaghast better watch out.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” B’Elanna snapped. “She’s hardly my type.”

“Tall, dark, and beautiful? Sure.” Seska made a show of returning to her meal, having wisely made the choice to replicate her breakfast. She pierced two potatoes, then waved her fork at B’Elanna. Ayala continued to eat in silence. “When was the last time you even got laid? Dear Prophets, I hope it wasn’t that guy on Athos IV, what was his name--”

“Shut. Up.” B’Elanna growled.

Ayala finally glanced up from his plate, which shockingly appeared to have two servings heaped on it, and nudged Seska with his elbow. She relented.

“All I’m saying is that seventy-five years is a long time.” Seska waved her fork again, then dropped the subject and continued eating. Ayala sighed and rolled his eyes.

B’Elanna pressed two fingers to her forehead, just below the curve of her brow ridge. Seska, as usual, was too damn smart for her own good. Yes, it had been awhile, but that was hardly any of Seska’s business. Nor did it mean B’Elanna was attracted to Cassandra that way. They had simply shared a conversation and discovered something in common. Besides, B’Elanna knew she was better off just avoiding relationships entirely--they all had a habit of ending poorly and full of resentment. Getting involved with anyone on this ship was just asking for trouble. And yes, seventy-five years was a long time, but she had every intention of figuring out a way to get back to the Alpha Quadrant much faster than that.

She glanced across the mess hall to the Starfleet table where Cassandra had pulled up a chair. Cassandra sat with her profile to B’Elanna, and once again B’Elanna’s eyes were drawn to the scar on her face, noticeable even from across the room. Sitting next to her was Ensign Josephine Montilyet, a sharp communications officer. Sharper than Harry, even, if B’Elanna was being pressed. And definitely sharper than Neelix when it came to issues of diplomacy, his supposed experience notwithstanding. To Josephine’s right was Lieutenant Leliana Nightingale, who B’Elanna was fairly certain was assigned to stellar cartography. Or was it operations? Security? Come to think of it, B’Elanna had no idea what exactly Leliana did onboard Voyager, other than that she had an unnerving knack for showing up at just the right time whenever something was needed.

Crewman Cullen Rutherford, a member of the security team, sat across from Cassandra, staring sullenly at his plate. He seemed to do most things sullenly, from what B’Elanna could tell. On Cassandra’s left was Ensign Everly Trevelyan, the Engineering officer in charge of night watch. B’Elanna scowled. Brilliant, rambunctious, and prone to inattentive errors, Everly was an utter pain in the ass. B’Elanna usually spent the first hour of day shift fixing whatever had been fucked up the night before. Still, despite her professional shortcomings, she was popular enough. Cassandra seemed to like her, at least.

B’Elanna studied the table. It was an odd assortment of personalities, ones that B’Elanna would not have initially guessed that Cassandra would be drawn to. From the easy, casual way they all interacted, it was clear Cassandra spent a fair amount of time with that group.

She looked down at her cup, staring into the inky black of her espresso. The odd feeling was back again, tightness curling in her stomach. As before, she pushed it away. Her jaw twitched. When she looked back up again, Everly was sprawled across the Starfleet table, almost elbowing Cullen in the face, enthralled with something Leliana was saying. Everyone else at the table seemed just as interested except Cassandra, who instead was staring at what must have been a very compelling spot on the wall.

Suddenly, Everly bolted upright, still laying across the table, and spun around to gape at B’Elanna. Irritation flared in B’Elanna’s chest, and her lip curled back in a snarl. Just before B’Elanna could say something, Cassandra reached over and smacked the ensign upside the head. Everly made a face and scampered back into her seat. Josephine and Leliana shook their heads in unison. Cullen just kept eating as if nothing had happened.

Seska snorted at the display. “I swear, they let anyone into the Academy.”

B’Elanna shot her a look.

“Present company excluded,” she quickly added.

Now Tom and Harry appeared at the Starfleet table, Tom hovering just over Cassandra’s shoulder and talking animatedly. Cassandra sighed, resting her elbow on the table and pressing two fingers to her forehead, mimicking B’Elanna’s earlier gesture. She looked over at B’Elanna’s table. Their eyes met again, except this time neither of them looked away. Cassandra gave her a small, fleeting smile. Over the mess hall chatter, B’Elanna heard Tom’s voice carry across the room.

“So, Cassandra, I heard something interesting the other day…”