AN – This piece insisted on being written despite the fact that I was tempted to throw it out the nearest airlock on several occasions. More than the usual thanks are due to Photogirl1890 both for her wonderful-as-always beta and research assistance and for putting up with weeks of complaining about the state of this while it was a work in progress.
And, of course, all the usual disclaimers and apologies to The Powers That Be.
"You don't have to stay, you know."
B'Elanna's voice, coming from the main room of their living quarters, is muffled as she pulls on her uniform tank top. Catching sight of her in the bathroom mirror, Tom pauses his shaving, captivated, as always, by his wife's lithe figure.
"You're going to need someone on the bridge and a pilot for the test flights," he responds, grabbing a towel to dry his hair and face as he moves to the open door between the rooms.
B'Elanna snorts, none-too-delicately. "They're dilithium alignment tests: mid-level warp speeds. Straight line. Anyone could do it." Reaching into their closet, she pulls out her jacket. "Ayala could do it. He's been itching to get his hands on the helm more often."
Dropping the towel on the bed, Tom crosses the small distance between them and places hands on both of her shoulders. "But I want to do it."
While the majority of the crew, including the command team and most of the senior bridge officers, are taking some rare and much needed shore leave on the planet Yosia, B'Elanna and Seven have decided to take advantage of the near-empty ship as well as a large patch of friendly space to fine-tune the dilithium articulation frame in order to improve the efficiency of the plasma conversion – a process which, according to B'Elanna, will be significantly easier without the demands that a crew of a hundred and fifty regularly place upon the EPS network. A skeleton crew of engineers will be rotating back up to the ship to assist; Chakotay had set up a similar rotation for bridge duty before Tom offered to remain aboard for the duration of the tests.
B'Elanna raises a brow in disbelief. "You want to sit on the bridge for hours on end while Voyager is in orbit and then take her on a couple of straight shot there-and-back-again trips to the neighboring system? Didn't you used to volunteer for leola root gathering duty just to get out of assignments like this?"
Pulling a face at the unfortunate reference to his personal Delta Quadrant nemesis, Tom counters, "First of all, I did not volunteer. I was drafted. In violation of several Federation Charter articles, I might add. Not to mention I was then forced to eat the stuff, which is cruel and unusual punishment – hitting a few more of those articles." B'Elanna rolls her eyes at his whining and would have pulled away from his hold to continue dressing, but his practiced fingers find and begin to knead away points of tension in her neck and shoulders, causing her to relax back into his embrace. (There are, after all, certain advantages to having over three years of intimate physical knowledge of one's mate.) Dropping his feigned petulance, Tom holds her gaze. "More importantly, that was before I had the inducement of a wife who would also be staying on board." His hands begin to work their way lower down her back and he bends his head for a lingering, promising kiss.
For a moment, he feels her giving in, both to the immediate suggestion that his hands and lips are making and to his plan to stay aboard, but then, groaning, she pulls slightly away. "Tom. I'll be working. A lot."
He's undeterred. "Even you can't work twenty-four hours a day." Denied her lips, his mouth moves down to those shoulders and collarbone, left enticingly bare by the uniform under-layer. How long do they have before their shifts start anyway?
"And when I'm not working, I'll be exhausted."
He catches sight of the chronometer out of the corner of his eye: thirty minutes. Breakfast is a highly overrated meal... "Then I'll take great pleasure in watching you sleep," Tom assures in a whisper, having worked his way back up her neck to her ear.
She sighs heavily as his hands now begin to undo what progress she previously made at getting dressed. "You're impossible." She does not, however, sound entirely displeased. Not at all displeased really.
"Yep. But you knew that before you married me."
By day two of his self-imposed exile on the bridge, Tom is willing to concede that B'Elanna has a point about the inherent drudgery of his task.
Yosia fills the viewscreen before him – a perfect blue and green orb hanging in space, its pristine atmosphere a testament to the advanced technological prowess of its inhabitants. Much like humans had on Earth, over the last couple of centuries, the Yosians developed the means to heal the environmental wounds that the early stages of industrial development so often leave upon worlds. Additionally, as on Earth, they worked to establish first a united planet and then, as their trans-light ships made their way to the neighboring systems, peaceful relations with several nearby sentient races and eventually an 'Interstellar Union', a political alliance not unlike a mini-Federation.
The result of their efforts is several parsecs of well-patrolled, friendly space: a rare luxury in the Delta Quadrant and one for which Tom is grateful. But it does make for spectacularly boring bridge shifts.
However, since his wife was, in fact, not entirely exhausted the night before, he is far from ready to regret his decision to stay on board.
His left thumb strays to his ring finger, rubbing against the gold band there, an action that is quickly becoming an unconscious habit.
"You're sure about this?"
The air of the Delta Flyer is still electric from the residual ionization of overloaded conduits and consoles.
"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't sure."
"It's just that..."
"Well, I know this will sound odd since I've never been a big follower of Klingon customs and it's not something I would expect you to have considered before you asked. And obviously it might make a difference..."
"B'Elanna." He stops her rambling by the best possible means before asking again, "What is it?"
She looks down, biting at her lower lip, before meeting his eyes again and finishing in a rush, "Klingons mate for life. If we do this, you'd be stuck with me – possibly for a very long time."
This he knows. Has known since she first bit into his cheek in those Sakari caves.
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
A ping from a routine altitude check pulls his attention away from the memory and back to Voyager's bridge.
Chronologically, it was almost six years since the first time he walked onto this bridge; by any other measure, it has been at least a lifetime. Tom Paris, Captain Janeway's hand-picked 'observer', was the ultimate outsider, replete in his chosen isolation. In all likelihood, he would never have made it to the bridge or even to Voyager's airlock had he not somehow ended up with a spring green Ensign Harry Kim in tow (...does Harry even realize how much Tom owes to him?) Without rank or position, enjoying a brief respite from prison which was bought with his last shred of decency because he no longer really believed that decency existed...
...it had taken the sacrifice of a pip and a month to regain what he traded away in Auckland...and almost two more years to acknowledge that his own life was worth enough to offer to share it with another person...
'Contentment' was perhaps not something that the temporarily-probated Tom Paris of six years before might have considered a possibility – or even an aspiration. But contentment is what he has found – and Tom wouldn't trade the happiness that he feels sitting on this empty and uneventful bridge, looking forward to another evening alone with his wife, for any number of quasi-historic trans-warp test flights.
Besides, never let it be said that Tom Paris cannot entertain himself. The display of the conn station (Tom's preferred command seat while alone on the bridge) is currently divided between readings of Voyager's steady and stable orbit, the half-finished next chapter of Captain Proton's adventures (Proton Pursues the Pernicious Protopirates of Pluto) and a just-conceived program that will allow him to display one of his holodeck 3-D movies on the main viewscreen of the bridge. The last he is hoping to finish by this evening – and then, with the proper persuasion, he might be able to convince B'Elanna to come up for a look...which could possibly lead to a reenactment of their back-of-the-theater antics and some very pleasant memories to fill his solitary bridge vigil tomorrow...
Grinning at the possibility, Tom begins to work on configuring the comm speakers to the proper balance for that authentic twentieth century theater quality experience.
:Seven of Nine to Lieutenant Paris:
Seven's voice sounds slightly tinnier than usual and Tom quickly resets the speakers to the standard configuration before answering, "Paris here."
:We are ready to begin the first test flight. Please stand by:
"Already?" Tom asks, checking the time. "I thought we weren't scheduled for go until 1330."
:Working without the distraction of the full crew has proven to be most efficient: Seven's approval is evident. Given that that means B'Elanna will likely be done on time and with some energy to spare again tonight, Tom has to concur with the sentiment.
Shutting down the Proton and theater programs, Tom restores the helm to its usual functions. "Ready when you are. I'll keep an open comm line."
Phase Two of Operation Routine Test Flight is about to begin.
"For once, everything is actually going better than expected," B'Elanna gives Carey a smile of appreciation – even after six years a rarity for her within the confines of engineering – and hands back the PADD that outlines their progress.
Carey returns a wry smile of his own. "What is it that makes engineering chiefs such pessimists?"
Seven, returning from her call up to the bridge, raises an eyebrow. "Engineering is rarely the source of Voyager's inefficiencies. It would have been reasonable to assume that with the rest of the crew off-ship, the realignment would progress rapidly."
B'Elanna looks at Carey, mouth slightly agape, and then back at Seven. "Was that a compliment to the engineering department, Seven?"
The former drone has already turned her attention to a nearby console, but a corner of her mouth quirks ever so slightly upward in response. Carey chuckles as he returns to his own workstation.
As her crew makes the final preparations for the test flight, B'Elanna takes a moment to survey the steady hum of activity taking place around her. Whether as well as should have been expected or better, the last two days have been...good. And not just in engineering.
Memories from the evening before intrude and she has to resist a rather silly grin which might threaten to ruin her reputation with her team permanently.
Yes, she is definitely glad that Tom decided to stay on board.
"Lieutenant Torres?" Nicoletti calls from the other side of the warp core. She and Mulcahey have just finished the final reconfiguration of the articulation frame. "The chamber hatch is secured and we are ready to go here."
"Right," B'Elanna nods back. "Are the impulse engines off-line?" In order to get a clear read on the efficiency of the conversion rates, feedback from the EPS grids powered by the impulse drive needs to be minimum; hence, the draw of completing these modifications with most of the crew on the planet below.
"They are," Carey confirms from the drive station where he is working with Tabor and Swinn. "We'll be running on warp drive only."
"Mendez, are the plasma conversion monitors set up?"
Mendez replies affirmatively, and B'Elanna taps into the comm line to the bridge. "Tom, you're ready there?"
:Ready and waiting:
B'Elanna looks over to Seven for one last check and, at her nod, opens a comm line to the planet's surface. "Torres to Janeway."
:Janeway here. What's your status, B'Elanna?:
"We're about to head out for the first test flight, Captain."
:Sounds like everything is going well then. Bon voyage. And I look forward to hearing your results when you return. Janeway out:
Closing the surface line, B'Elanna again calls up to the bridge. "Okay, Tom: take us out, starting at warp 2."
:Yes, ma'am. Engaging warp drive:
The subtle, steady vibrations from the core confirm his words. B'Elanna turns back to Mendez. "How are the conversion rates looking, Ensign?"
"Efficiency looks to be increased by just over three percent."
"As predicted," comes Seven's cool addition as she joins Mendez at his station.
"Okay, good," B'Elanna nods. "Tom, let's begin gradually increasing velocity up to warp 4.2."
:Acknowledged. Increasing to warp factor 2.7:
B'Elanna looks over at Seven and Mendez. "Conversion rates are holding steady," Mendez reports.
:Now at warp factor 3.2:
"Once speeds increase beyond warp factor 3.5, we should see an additional .5 percent increase in efficiency," Seven intones.
:Warp factor 3.7:
"Showing another .5 percent increase," Mendez confirms and then risks a grin and the slightest hint of mimicry as he looks over at his chief, "as predicted."
B'Elanna's brows climb and she is about to respond when she is thrown across the room as Voyager slams suddenly – and definitely unpredictably – to a dead stop.