"Oh lover lately I've been thinkin' I might leave you,
As you're surrounded by these fools who do deceive you,
Yes our past is wretched true,
But I'm still in love with you,
That's why I am still refusin' to give in to
All this worry, worry, worry
Caught in an endless maze,
But when the lights go out,
All I can think about,
Is how, we've seen better days"
Amos Lee, Better Days
Planet side, he sees her by mistake. They are on different teams and he knows this is not an accident. The search pattern in his tricorder should have assured them both that they would not have crossed paths but for a moment, he sees her and in that short moment he forgets to be mad. She's standing up on the ridge, looking down over the bluff. She can see most of her crew circling the valley below, scanning plants for foodstuffs, looking for places to mine. An efficient and practiced crew, doing what they need to do to stay alive.
It's strange; in the valley it's windy. Mountains on either side hardly protect them, instead creating a tunnel. Tom's face feels chapped and dry. His eyes sting slightly and the wind cuts through the sturdy material of his uniform with disturbing ease. His fingers are cold against the screen on his tricorder. He looks up, jealous of the alpha team that managed to escape this uncomfortable fate and that's when he sees her.
Her hands are on her hips and the sun hits her just right. She looks ethereal, her hair blowing out behind her bright red in the light. It is the woman from before the demotion that he sees, the woman who knew his father, the woman who broke him free of a life he was sure he would be stuck with.
But then, the moment is lost. She looks down and he would swear that she looks right at him. She catches him staring and turns around abruptly, striding quickly out of view. He returns to his task, determined to do the best job that he can, but like so many other things lately, his heart is not really in it.
On the ship, he sits down at the helm and lets his fingers ghost over the console without touching any of the interfaces. He likes to say hello, even when he's only been gone for a couple hours. Voyager has the most personality of any ship he's ever flown. She is needy and delicate. When something goes wrong, she punishes him for days.
Sort of like her Captain.
He doesn't think about the past much, but these last few months, he's been mired in it – he can't seem to shake free. Every mistake leads back to another and he can't remember a time when he wasn't in some sort of trouble. Perhaps he is right where he deserves to be – lost, demoted, and forgotten.
He can hear her footsteps behind him and then the soft exhalation of air as she seats herself in the command chair. He doesn't turn around and she doesn't greet him. This is the new routine that they share. They are punishing each other still and it doesn't seem fair. But he can't apologize for what he did and she won't admit that how she handled the situation was harsh and so they are stuck here.
Warp six is a happy medium and is generally the speed that they fly. It's fast but not so fast that it drains their energy supplies too quickly. In a densely populated star system he keeps it below warp four and when navigating hostile territories, he pushes them through at warp eight. He's not authorized to go to warp nine without her instructing him to do so and she only does this in times of great peril. Today, he feels contrary and sets their speed at just over warp seven. He is baiting her but she doesn't bite.
"In a hurry, Ensign?" Chakotay asks, instead.
"Yes sir," Tom responds but offers no further explanation. Chakotay won't tell him how to do his job and says nothing else. Any speed change or course correction now has to come from the top but Tom knows she won't break her silence over something so small. In this way, she does not disappoint him.
When he'd gotten out of the brig, he found that his rations account had been reset. This, above all, had seemed cruel. This told him that not only had he fallen from her good graces, but that she was no longer willing to turn a blind eye. Tom knew he got away with too much for life on a Starfleet vessel and were they in the Alpha Quadrant, his behavior wouldn't be tolerated. But out here, she let him have his fun.
He's been eating in the mess for nearly every meal. He's almost through with his dinner; he shovels the last bit of food into his mouth and drops his fork onto the now empty tray. Mostly, he eats alone. B'Elanna has been working the night shift for weeks and at first, Harry had made an effort to spend time with him but after a while, even he got the message. Tom wants to be alone.
There is always a shift in atmosphere when the Captain enters the room. People sit up straighter, the tone of conversation changes. Tom doesn't have to turn around to know that she has come in but he will have to turn around if he wants to leave. He can sit at an empty table and stare at an empty tray but it will just make him feel pathetic so he stands and picks up his tray.
She's there all right, deep in conversation with one Naomi Wildman. Again, he sees her as a ghost. Instead of the stern Captain, he sees the woman beneath. Her hair is still tousled from the wind and her cheeks sport color from her hours on the planet. She's grinning from ear to ear, enraptured by what the child is saying to her. Naomi is holding her Flotter doll, and Janeway pats the blue head before she pats Naomi's red one. When Janeway straightens up, she notices Tom's staring. Her smile fades and slides off her face. Tom doesn't wait around to see if this will be the day that they speak to each other off duty again. When he walks past her, she doesn't make any move to stop him.
That night, he can't sleep. He can't stop thinking of the Captain on the edge of the bluff. For the last few weeks, he hasn't been able to look at her without feeling a stab of irritation and pain. Today was different though – the bad feelings came but they were delayed.
Can it be that his anger is fading?
Tom goes on duty determined to hold tightly to his ire. He doesn't know how she is wearing him down but he doesn't like it. Her behavior has not changed but his reactions to her have. He finds himself nodding at her in greeting before he catches himself and hurries to his chair. She doesn't say anything, but later, when she gives him an order, her voice is almost normal. It has lost that cold, grating quality that she has adopted when speaking to him. When he looks over his shoulder, he can see that Harry has noticed it too.
Harry wants to be the voice of reason for Tom. Harry is always trying to convince him to take the high road. To accept his fate and reinvest himself in his work. Harry wants him to earn back Janeway's trust but Harry can't possibly understand how it feels to have lost it in the first place. Part of Tom doesn't want her trust back. Part of Tom knows he will only lose it again.
He can stand her anger. He can stand the punishments she doles out, no matter how severe. Her disappointment, however, is awfully hard to stomach.
The end of his shift is the start of B'Elanna's night in Engineering so he decides to go down and catch her to say hello before she gets too busy. By the time he gets down there, however, she's already in the midst of briefing her staff. He has missed his window and turns to go, but she motions for him to wait, so he steps aside.
Before too long, the doors open and Janeway comes in. Tom steps back against the bulkhead, hoping she doesn't see him. Janeway, too, sees that B'Elanna is talking to her crew and steps to the side to wait. It takes her a moment to realize that Tom is lurking in the shadows. It is too uncomfortable, the silence, and so she breaks it.
"Ensign," she says.
"Captain," he responds. He hasn't stood by her side in some time and it almost feels like old times. She comes to his shoulder, not even that without her heels.
"Waiting in line?" she asks, nodding her head toward B'Elanna. He is uncomfortable making small talk – what once used to be an easy rapport has become difficult for them.
"It's her ship, we just work on it," Tom says, and then realizes it's a quip he probably shouldn't make to the Captain, not even the Captain in the best of moods. "I mean…"
"I know what you mean," she says.
She doesn't seem mad, but these days, it's so hard to tell.
Harry has been indulging him. Tom hasn't wanted to do much lately, so when he mentions resuming the Captain Proton program, Harry jumps at the chance. They've done three chapters in the last week alone, and when Tom mentions doing another, Harry gamely goes along even though he seems tired. Tom should let him off the hook, but doesn't.
In his jacket and rocket pack, he feels like he's on another world. Tom has always been good about distracting himself – he can leave his problems behind for a while when he needs to. It's called compartmentalizing and B'Elanna has accused him of doing it far too often these days. The last time he saw her, they fought. He'd accused her of avoiding him and she'd accused him of not caring either way. They were both guilty. Perhaps B'Elanna had gotten used to being without him during his time in the brig. He'd gotten used to being without a lot of things.
The monochromatic settings of the Captain Proton program are soothing. Harry moves around the rocket ship almost as comfortably as Tom does, now. Tom sits back and lets Harry run the pre-flight procedures. He's played this chapter before, without Harry. He already knows what's coming. That is the good thing about Captain Proton. Every time it ends the same.
It's Tom's idea to offer the role of the Queen to Janeway. The first time the character of Arachnia had appeared, Harry had remarked off-hand that she sort of looked like the Captain. Tom had realized that Harry was right – underneath the hair and the outfit, the holocharacter was a slight woman with strong cheekbones. This time, they need Arachnia to be real and to be on their side and when Tom mentions the Captain to Harry, Harry grins and claps him on the shoulder. He is pleased to hear Tom talk about her even if Harry is skeptical.
"She'll never do it," Harry says.
"I'll ask her," Tom says.
"You?" Harry says. "Speak to the Captain?"
"She just needs some charming," Tom says, confidently.
"You know," Harry says, carefully. "Maybe you should go easy on her."
Tom stares at him, baffled.
"I know that the brig was harsh," Harry continues quickly. "But it was hard on her too."
"Her?" Tom manages to squeak but in that one word conveys both disbelief and rage.
"Tom, you didn't see her," Harry promises. "She was devastated. She would go into her ready room and when she came out, it looked like she'd been crying."
"Really?" Tom asks, deflating slightly. Harry nods.
"Don't you think it's time for things to go back to normal?" Harry asks.
"The normal Tom Paris would definitely ask her to be Arachnia," Tom says. If she says yes, he thinks, maybe things really will be on the road to normal.
In the end, it's surprisingly easy to convince her. Ultimately, she wants to do what's best for the ship. In the midst of it, Tom finds he's even having fun. It's been a long time since he's spent any time with her on the holodeck. They used to have a bi-monthly pool date when Sandrine's was popular. Once, they parasailed in the resort program. But then, he'd started dating B'Elanna and dates on the holodeck with another woman didn't seem right, platonic or not. He hasn't thought about how that had made the Captain feel until now. He always had figured that she didn't ask him to the holodeck anymore either, but then, she couldn't, could she?
They walk down the corridor together. Janeway is surprisingly steady on her extravagant heels and though the costume is both tight and bulky, she navigates the space ahead easily. Tom designed the Captain Proton program, but he borrowed heavily from the ships database and this costume isn't his design. He wonders if she knows this. He doesn't offer the information and she doesn't ask. Maybe it's better not to know.
Outside her quarters, Tom hesitates. He did not mean to walk her home, but he has. They both will put on their uniforms and return to the bridge to start the clean up and repair of Voyager's damaged systems and he has wasted time by accompanying her home. He lives on a different deck but when he stepped off the turbolift with her, she hadn't said a word.
"Thanks," Tom says, when she looks at him. She studies his face a little too closely.
"You're welcome, Tom," she says. She disappears into her quarters and he touches the door lightly before he walks away.
During a sickbay shift, Tom overhears the Doctor griping to Neelix about the Captain's stress level. The Doctor is the worst gossip on the ship, which is saying something. In a room with Neelix and himself, no news is safe. He's as bad as the rest of them, moving news along that should be no one's business, especially his. But the thought, on this day, of Janeway's mood being a topic of conversation seems terrible and he catches Neelix before he leaves.
"Let me deal with the Captain," he says, his voice low.
"Really?" Neelix asks. Neelix is silly, sometimes, but not stupid. People confide in him and Tom wonders if Janeway has confided in the Morale officer lately – if Janeway has mentioned Tom. Their falling out has been no secret after all.
"Yeah," Tom says, trying to sound hopeful and not offended – trying to be hopeful and not offended. "Really."
"Of course, Ensign," Neelix says. Tom never noticed how many people referred to him by his rank until that rank changed. It's habit for people to glance at the pips on someone's neck before addressing them. They aren't doing it to Tom to be cruel, but it's pain just the same.
At the turn of the shift, Tom waits a few minutes and then fills a duffel bag with the things they'll need should this work out as he has planned. When he gets to her quarters, he's on the verge of turning back, but he scrapes together some courage and rings her chime.
"Come in," she barks and he winces. This might be a very bad idea. This might set them back to square one, but he's really only at square two, so he chooses to chance it. Her quarters are lit low even though it isn't that late. She's still in her uniform and the glow from her desk computer lights her face faintly blue. When he doesn't say anything, she glances up and is surprised to see him. She gives the bag on his shoulder a long look.
"Did you need something?" she asks, finally.
"I was wondering if you had some time to spare," he says. She laughs a dry chuckle.
"Is that a rhetorical questions?" she asks, pushing a button on the terminal. The screen goes dark and her features are now harder to define. He'll have to step closer or read her voice. He stays where he is.
"No," he says. "I have an hour on the holodeck."
"The holodeck," she repeats. He nods, the gesture too hopeful. "And you'd like to spend it with me?"
"Yes, ma'am," he says, though it's hard to bite back the sarcastic comment that wants to come out instead. She sighs, like this is all very inconvenient. "Come on, Captain," he pleads. "What do you have to lose?"
She gives him a look like they both know exactly what is at stake but stands anyhow.
"One hour," she says and he knows that this is the only chance he's going to get.
He'd written this program for B'Elanna but is smart enough not to volunteer that information. He also doesn't tell the Captain that the gear he replicated for the program was supposed to be for B'Elanna too. They are roughly the same size – same shoe size and gear for warmth should be a little bulky anyhow. They stand at the holodeck doors while he calls up the program he wants. She still has a pinched expression, like this is all an elaborate waste of time.
"Maybe it won't be so bad," Tom offers and her face relaxes immediately. He has caught her.
"Sorry," she says. "It's been one of those days."
It's cold when they walk into holodeck, drastically colder than the hallway and she shivers violently once while she scans the new surroundings.
"What is this place?" she asks. He crouches on the concrete sidewalk and unzips the bag. He pulls out the smaller jacket, packed on top so she would be warm first. She doesn't hesitate in putting it on. The sleeves are a little long, but in weather like this, it's a good thing. It's not freezing, not cold enough for snow, but they are used to the same temperature all the time and any departure is an extreme one.
"You don't recognize it?" he says. "It's the Embarcadero."
He can't blame her for the momentary confusion. It is not the San Francisco she remembers. They sky above them is gray and cloudy and the lack of light makes everything look pale and faded. When he pulls out the small pair of ice skates, she balks a little.
"There's no ice rink in San Francisco," she says because this, at least, is something she knows for sure.
"Not anymore," he agrees. "But there used to be."
She doesn't ask when – when is something Tom knows and she just takes for granted. When holodecks had become commonplace, things like real ice rinks became unnecessary.
"From November to January, every year," Tom says anyway. "I can program other skaters if you'd like, but it's more fun to have the rink to yourself."
She doesn't look convinced but follows him gamely. They go through a gate to find the big oval of ice, shining and smooth. She's looking at everything very intently. He has put a fair amount of effort into the program. It isn't very expansive – just the rink and the fence surrounding it but the smell of the water is in the air and in the distance, a view of the bridge.
She sits on the bench and waits for him to remove his shoes before she takes off one of her own. She's no good at lacing the skates; he can see that right away.
"Have you ever done this before?" he asks.
"Once," she says. "As a child."
When he kneels in front of her to lace the skates tightly, she looks massively uncomfortable but allows him just the same.
"I used to play hockey," he says, once he's back to lacing his own. She stands on wobbly feet and lifts her arms to find her balance. He offers her gloves and a hat from the bag and she has to sit down again to put them on. When they are ready, he opens the door to the rink and steps on to the fresh ice. She looks skeptical and nervous. "Keep your ankles straight," he offers. "And hold onto the wall until you feel comfortable."
She steps onto the ice and clings to the wall. He skates away from her, testing the waters a bit and glides with practiced ease. He's always liked skating. It feels a bit like flying. When he looks over at her, she's on her butt, her legs out in front of her. He skates quickly toward her and when he stops, ice shavings fly out behind him.
"Okay?" he asks, offering a hand. She takes it only because she can't get up on her own and he makes sure she's really steady before he lets go.
"Yes," she says, her eyes a little dark. "You made that look easy."
"I can help you," he offers. "If you'd like."
She can cling to the wall, she can leave, or she can accept his help.
He skates backwards and holds on to both of her gloved hands. She glides along, looking slightly frightened but he won't let her fall. The wind on her face turns her cheeks bright and they both have little puffs of visible air around their mouths when they exhale.
When they are alone, her face is an open book. He can read the emotions as they flutter across her features. She is excited by this new sport, these new sensations. She is uncomfortable doing something she is not immediately good at. She is trusting of him, and then not, alternately.
"I won't let you fall," he assures her, leading them around the curved end of the rink.
"I know," she says.
He stops them in the middle of the ice.
"Are you ready to try it on your own?" he asks. She nods and they make slow, jilted progress as she finds her legs. He skates in front of her, making sure he's close enough so that if she starts to fall, he can catch hold. She stops moving when her thighs get tired.
"This is fun. Hard, but fun," she admits.
"Captain," he starts. Her features tighten up then, at the sound of her title. She already knows that he's changing the subject and that she might not like the new direction. "I'm sorry I stopped inviting you to the holodeck."
"I did," he says.
"Yes," she concedes. "But I understood."
It takes Tom some time to warm up after their hour on the holodeck. He's pulling on a sweater when B'Elanna comes into his quarters. She has a habit of entering without knocking first. In the beginning, Tom had liked the intimacy of the action; the familiarity but today, it is irritating. She stands and stares at him, her face neutral, her posture anything but. She is angry, but he can't remember what for. Had they been fighting again? They are always fighting, it is hard to keep track.
"Hi," he says, smoothing out his hair. The wool sweater has left it sticking up.
"Cold?" she asks.
"I went ice-skating," he says. "It was fun."
"I'm happy for you," she says. He isn't so sure.
"Is something the matter?" he asks.
"We were supposed to meet for dinner twenty minutes ago," she says. "But instead you were on the holodeck with Janeway."
"Right," he says. "I'm sorry. She was having a bad day, I offered to cheer her up."
"A bad day?" B'Elanna says, her voice turning hard. A fight is inevitable now. "I spent the afternoon replacing ruptured gel packs! You spent the day administering hyposprays!"
"What do you know about my day?" he snaps.
"I'd know more if you would have showed up when you were supposed to," she says. "Instead you were making nice with the woman who ruined your career!"
"She saved my career," Tom says. He'd still be serving time in prison if not for Janeway, or at least still on parole. He forgets that sometimes.
"Are you defending her?" B'Elanna gasps, horrified.
"You don't know her," Tom says. "Not like I do."
"Why would I want to?" B'Elanna says. "She demoted you! She threw you in the brig like a common criminal."
"I am a criminal," Tom says, quietly.
"Is that what she makes you think?" B'Elanna demands.
"I don't want to fight," he says. "I'm sorry about dinner but I'm not hungry."
"I ate without you," B'Elanna says, turning around.
"Where are you going?" he sighs.
"If you don't want to fight then I have nothing to say," she says and leaves.
Isn't that their problem?
Tom is walking several meters behind Janeway and Chakotay. It's almost time for senior staff and they're heading to the briefing room. He can hear Janeway and Chakotay chatting about something, their voices low and familiar. He doesn't want to interrupt them. He slows even more as they round the bend to the turbolift. He will catch the next ride and leave them to their conversation. They have a way of making anyone else feel like a third wheel.
But when he rounds the bend, Janeway is standing with one foot in the lift and one foot on the deck, holding open the door.
"Come on," she says. "You're going to make us all late."
He hadn't realized that she knew he was behind them. He picks up the pace and steps onto the lift, smiling mildly at Chakotay and nodding at the Captain. She calls out their destination to the computer.
"Thanks," he says. He stands in front of them, closest to the door. He can feel them behind him, smirking about something and a glance over his shoulder confirms it.
"You've never taken me ice-skating, Paris," Chakotay says. Janeway elbows Chakotay in the side, Paris can see him jostle a bit.
"Jealous?" Paris says.
"Maybe a little," Chakotay says. The doors open and they cross the bridge, heading straight for the conference room. Tom steps aside to let the Captain enter first and after she walks in; Chakotay holds him back for a moment.
"What?" Paris says.
"It's a nice thing you did," Chakotay says, sincerely. Tom and Chakotay don't have a lot of sincere moments, so he doesn't make a smartass comment.
"What, ice-skating?" he asks. "Harmless fun."
"Inviting her, I mean," Chakotay says. "I'm glad things are getting back to normal."
"Why is everyone acting like I threw her in the brig?" Tom asks, but then Tuvok is approaching them and there isn't any more time to talk. Throughout the meeting, Tom tries his best to pay attention. B'Elanna's face is stony and she makes it a point not to look at Tom. He's going to have to figure out some way to fix whatever is wrong between them but honestly, he doesn't even know where to start.
At the end of the meeting, B'Elanna is the first out the door. In some ways, this isn't unusual. She doesn't like being away from the warp core for very long but this time, he knows, it's also because she doesn't want to talk to him. Tom watches her go and knows he doesn't feel anything about her action. When he looks around, Janeway is looking at him.
"Everything okay?" she asks.
"Just fine," he says and returns to his station.
"Why don't you ask Commander Chakotay to put B'Elanna back on the day shift?" Neelix suggests. Tom has somehow found himself in the mess hall after hours, sharing his problems with Neelix. It has happened before and he's never quite sure how he ends up here. There's something about Neelix, about his enthusiasm that lends to Tom confessing his secrets.
"It's not my place to change someone else's schedule," Tom says.
"What about your own schedule?" Neelix says.
"Why doesn't she ask Chakotay?" Tom says. He hates the night shift. He hates how quiet the ship is; he hates how the highest-ranking person on the bridge is Harry. He also hates having command of the bridge. He's a pilot and all he wants to be is a pilot.
"I heard you took the Captain ice-skating," Neelix says, changing the subject.
"Of course you did," Tom says. "Gossip on the Captain must be scarce."
"She told me," Neelix said. "She had fun."
"It's a fun sport," Tom says. "She was… terrible at it, actually."
"I've never done it," Neelix says.
"Feel free to use the program," Tom offers. "Anytime."
"Thanks," Neelix says. "Well, I'm going to call it a night."
Neelix leaves him alone in the mess. The hall is dark, save for a dim light coming from the back of the kitchen and light from the outside corridor that filters through the glass windows in the door. He should really go to bed. It's late and he's tired. He's the kind of tired that makes him feel heavy and lazy. He can't find the motivation to stand and walk home so instead he stays seated on the sofa in the corner of the room. Perhaps he'll spend the night here. There's something appealing about the symmetry of Neelix being both the last and first person he sees.
The doors open and he thinks it's because Neelix has forgotten something. He wants to switch that last light off or he forgot to lock the replicator and doesn't trust Tom alone with the device and an account full of general rations. Tom doesn't move in the darkness, lets Neelix do what he's come to do.
The Captain calls out tentatively, like she already knows the cook has left for the night. She doesn't see Tom in the darkness.
"He's gone," Tom says. Janeway jumps a bit, and spins to look at him.
"I didn't see you," she says, explaining her startled demeanor.
"Are you hungry?" he asks. "I could fix you something."
"Can you cook?" Janeway asks.
"Passably," he says.
"I thought if Neelix were still up, but it's not important," she says.
"Ah, so it wasn't food you came for," Tom says. He pats the cushion next to him. "I'm not Neelix, but I will listen."
"I'm afraid that won't work," Janeway says.
"I can keep a secret," he promises. "Despite all evidence to the contrary."
"It's not that I don't believe you, it's just that I came to talk to Neelix about you, so…" She trails off, looking guilty. "Why did I tell you that?"
"I'd like to hear it," Tom says. "I think I deserve that much."
"Yes," she says, sitting next to him. "I suppose you do."
But she doesn't launch into some practiced or impassioned speech on her or his actions. Instead she looks tired and slumps slightly in the seat beside him.
"Even Captains get tired of their job, sometimes," she says. This is not what Tom expected her to say.
"More than the most of us, I bet," Tom says. Janeway lifts one shoulder.
"My poor luck aside, I love this ship. I love my crew and I love telling them what to do," she says, "But there are certain members of this crew that I treat unfairly."
Tom says nothing. Janeway is digging a hole for certain, but he isn't sure if she's digging in or digging up and out and he's willing to let her show him which one.
"Take Harry, for instance," she says, looking out at the passing stars. "I treat Harry like a favorite son. That isn't fair to anyone, least of all him."
"He's young – green," Tom says.
"He was, but not anymore," she says. "How is he supposed to learn the hard lessons if I keep protecting him?"
She has a point.
"And Seven," Janeway says, tucking her hair behind her ears in a gesture that makes her look like a young woman, not a hardened Captain. "Any other member of this crew would be in the brig for the crap she pulls but I just keep letting it slide."
Tom has noticed.
"And then there's you," she says. "I couldn't just look the other way."
"So you made clear," he says.
"I would have shot you down," she says.
"Yep," he agrees. "I don't doubt that."
She turns her head to look at him, to witness his glibness with her own eyes. Under her watch, though, his bravado falters.
"I sent you away for 30 days but it didn't help," she says, turning her face away from him again.
"Didn't help what?" he asks.
"I still hurt," she says.
Tom, now, has become slightly obsessed with easing her pain and in doing so, eases his own. He has forgotten what it is like to focus on someone else. So long he's been consumed with his own life, his own suffering and indignation, but now it's easy to dive into the task of making another person happy.
He starts with the basics – every shift on time. It's a small thing to do but one he's never put much effort into. He's the type of person to generally be on time, give or take a minute or five. Now, he's already in his seat the second his shift begins. Chakotay seems pleased and Janeway, though she doesn't say anything about it, seems grateful. This goes for his sickbay shifts, too. He tries not to complain to the Doctor and when he heals wounds and broken bones he does so gently.
When Janeway comes in with a nasty gash in her left palm and a lump on her brow the size of a golf ball, Tom is on duty. The Doctor is out and about and Tom has spent the last two blissful hours alone. Janeway doesn't come in by herself. She has Seven with her, holding on to the Captain's bicep. Seven is half aiding the Captain and half dragging her.
"I'm fine," Janeway is saying but it is clear that she is anything but. Seven practically rolls her eyes and manhandles Janeway onto a bio bed.
"What happened?" Tom asks, opening his tricorder.
"There was an accident in Shuttle Bay one," Seven says.
"You've severed a ligament," Tom says. "I'm going to have to do minor surgery."
"Where's the Doctor?" Janeway asks, holding her hand close to her chest.
"Do you trust me?" Tom asks, impulsively. She hesitates for just a moment. The moment seems both too short and too long.
Janeway extends her hand.
When Tom is done healing her, he orders her to rest for at least an hour. He busies himself while she stretches out on a bed. He isn't sure if she sleeps, but her eyes are closed and they don't bother one another. When she wakes up, there is a hot cup of coffee by her bed and a PADD full of departmental reports catching her up on lost time.
Janeway finds Tom on the holodeck. He's running Captain Proton and is in costume but he isn't playing a specific chapter. Instead he has merely called up the interior of the rocket ship. When Janeway steps onto his bridge, he's sitting in his chair, flipping random levels and twisting arbitrary knobs. He's been considering dismantling the program all together. Not only has the pastime put Voyager in danger but the novelty is wearing thin. Nothing in life is black and white and it is silly to think it ever could be.
"I guess without Arachnia, this program is kind of a bust," Janeway says. Tom looks up, gives her the once over. He's used to monochromatic look of the program, but Janeway in black and white is still hard to get used to.
"I'm thinking of getting rid of it," he says. "More trouble than it's worth."
"Oh, I don't know about that," she says. "You may change your mind later when a little time has passed."
"Maybe," he says. "But I don't feel like defender of the universe any more."
"For what it's worth, I'm glad to have you on our side," she says. She is being nice to him and he can't help but be slightly suspicious.
"My hour is almost up, so I'll get out of your way," Tom says, standing.
"I didn't come here for holodeck time," Janeway says, tilting her head slightly.
"No?" he says. She shakes her head like he is young and naïve and he supposes to her, he may seem that way but he hasn't felt either in far too long.
"Walk with me," she says.
It's easy enough to shut the holodeck down and leave that fake world behind.
In the corridor, he walks with his goggles pushed up on his head and she keeps glancing over at him, smirking.
"Where are we going?" he asks, finally.
"Well, you see, I've agreed to something," she says. "But it turns out, I need a little help."
"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" he asks.
"Neelix is doing tactical training tonight, and Samantha Wildman is working a double shift," Janeway says.
"And?" he says, uneasily.
"And, as I understand it, Naomi requested a specific babysitter and seemingly won't take no for an answer," Janeway says.
"Me?" Tom asks. She rolls her eyes.
"No, me," Janeway says. "Something to do with Captain's Assistant?" Janeway shrugs. "I told Sam it was no problem."
"Then why am I here?" Tom asks.
"Moral support," Janeway says, stopping outside the Wildman quarters. "Also, I don't know a thing about children."
This is the way that Janeway works. Tom recognizes her style – she is a resourceful woman who is used to getting exactly what she wants. She doesn't ask for favors or permission, she merely takes what she needs and refuses to acknowledge the fact that there could be consequences. Had she asked, Tom would have gladly said yes. The problem is that she knew that all along and skipped a step to save time. It is in the skipping of the steps that makes trouble Janeway's loyal companion.
But this is not a fight that Tom wants to pick at the moment. Naomi opens the door and when she sees Janeway standing there, her happiness is a tangible thing. It makes the air smell sweet; Naomi is deliriously happy in an instant.
"Captain," she sighs. "Come in."
"I brought Ensign Paris," Janeway says walking in. She doesn't apologize for her extra baggage. Naomi looks at Tom like he is just that – a suitcase left on the doorstep. Janeway is already speaking with Samantha so Tom lets himself in and wishes he wasn't wearing such a ridiculous outfit. He can hear Samantha alternating thanking the Captain and apologizing. Maybe Janeway is too busy to watch a small child but Janeway has already said yes so Samantha should just take the gift and run.
"Sam," he says, unable to stand it any longer. "Go to work."
"Right," Samantha says but still she's talking until the moment the doors close behind her.
It occurs to Tom that Janeway is still punishing him. But instead of ignoring and avoiding him, she is dragging him into all sorts of crazy situations where neither of them belongs. Naomi, because she is young and small, sees nothing bizarre about this situation – it is not strange that Janeway is there with Tom or that Tom is dressed oddly. Tom unzips his jacket and takes it off. Naomi is already deep in conversation about the things a Captain's Assistant should learn how to do and Janeway is nodding along, her face serious but her eyes bright.
"Naomi," Tom interrupts. "The Captain doesn't get a lot of off-duty time. Why don't you forget about work and show her your bedroom?"
Naomi looks hesitant, but the lure of showing Janeway her rocking horse, her toy box and closet proves to be too much.
"Okay," Naomi says, setting the PADD down. Tom has done his fair share of babysitting Naomi – he knows her pretty well by now. Naomi often wants to prove being a valuable member of the crew so badly that she forgoes childlike wonder and fun. She has to be continually reminded that she is a child and is allowed to like childish things.
When Tom glances into her bedroom to check on them, Janeway is perched on the bed almost primly and Naomi is sitting on the floor by her open trunk, surrounded by toys. Janeway looks lightly overwhelmed – Tom thinks it's safe to assume that she hasn't spent a great deal of time with children.
"What do you think," Tom says, interrupted Naomi's steady flow of conversation.
"About what?" Janeway asks.
"You want to go to the holodeck?" Tom asks, waggling his eyebrows.
Naomi, it would appear, is having the best day of her life.
Tom carries Naomi out of the holodeck. It is a full hour past her bedtime and she is heavily asleep in his arms. Her little face is against his shoulder and her legs dangle down by his sides. She's growing like a weed – soon she will be too old for rides.
Beside him, Janeway looks tired, too. She's walking, but isn't really paying attention. She's not walking a straight line and every fifth step she brushes against him. He can't feel her. She nudges Naomi, actually, but he does feel the shift in pressure.
"You're so good with her," Janeway says, suddenly.
"Hmm?" he asks, trying to see her over Naomi's head.
"With Naomi," she says. "She listens to you."
"She idolizes you," Tom says. They are speaking softly, hushed, and their voices blend nicely with the hum of the ship settling into its version of night.
"It's not the same thing," Janeway says. She's been in a melancholy mood all night. She hid it well, played hard and kept up, but there's something off with her and it's been off for a while. Tom isn't sure if he's the only one who can see it or not. She's got them all so trained to hold their tongues but Tom has always ignored that instinct for self-preservation.
"No," he agrees. "But she doesn't know you that well. Just as a figurehead."
"She knows you?" Janeway asks. He nods.
"There's a babysitter rotation roster," Tom says. "I get her about once a month."
"A roster?" she asks. "Did Chakotay make it?"
"No," he laughs. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you don't oversee everything on this ship, you know." She makes a stern face. "It's voluntary. People sign up to watch her, to help Sam out."
"I should sign up," she says, firmly, as if making a command decision.
"How about you take my rotation with me next time?" he offers.
"You think I need training," she says. "Sam called me tonight, you know."
"Because Chapman has a cold," Tom says. "And you got me to go with you. You think you need training too."
She can't argue, so she doesn't. But he knows better than to think he's won any points by besting her.
He's going to focus on B'Elanna now because he's pretty sure that something is not right with her. It seems like the moment he gets one part of his life in order something else falls apart. Janeway no longer looks at him like he has failed her and the sound of his rank prefacing his name does not twinge quite as badly.
But B'Elanna – it's a slippery slope, his life with her, and he's never really been in control. Janeway sees it too, maybe before he does. Her brow furrows at the mention of her Chief, and Janeway will take a lot of attitude but apathy is out of the question. Janeway tries to corner him a few times, tries to ask him about it but Tom evades her with vague answers and visible, squirming discomfort. He wants to tell her that he doesn't know and doesn't want to talk about it, but he can't. He can be honest with Janeway about a lot of things, but not about B'Elanna.
B'Elanna comes home bruised and scarred, limping and sore. She comes home late, she leaves early, and when Tom mentions a particularly nasty bruise at the base of her neck, she stops sleeping with him all together. Tom should follow her home and demand some answers, but he knows the answers already. They are trapped on this ship, maybe forever, and they all have their own ways of finding escape.
Janeway walks with a confidence born of years of being right. She's made some bad choices, she'll be the first to admit, but over all, she's right where she wants to be. Queen of her castle, Captain of her ship. Tom walks next to her, though when he tries to adopt the same sort of swagger, he just looks cocky and slightly drunk. Tom knows a lot more about being drunk that being right, at any rate.
They are walking to the shuttle bay to get the Delta Flyer. There is something out there – Janeway thinks it's a nebula and Seven disagrees – with readings of mineral deposits that are off the charts. Tom doesn't care what the phenomenon is; he's just there to fly. Seven is already in the shuttle halfway through his pre-flight routine all in the name of efficiency, he's sure. At least she doesn't argue when he climbs in, merely moves aside so he can take over. He hears Seven and Janeway take up the discussion they'd been having earlier over the comm. Tom doesn't pay more attention than necessary. They are scientists, he is a pilot and all he really has to do on a mission like this is fly and take orders. When Janeway sits in the seat over his left shoulder, he feels a pang. In a class two shuttle, she'd be seated right next to him and Seven would be nowhere near.
Actually, Seven would be flying and he'd be left behind on Voyager. He pats the bulkhead of the Flyer affectionately.
"Easy now," Janeway says, the smile evident in her voice.
In open space, Tom feels a little more free. Even with the Captain and her protégée just behind him, the monotonous hierarchy is left behind on the ship for a while. Janeway's orders sound more like friendly suggestions and he's happy to follow them. His flight pattern is an arc – he leaves a wide berth between the shuttle and the anomaly.
Janeway tells him when to stop and he leans back in the seat while Seven runs her scans. They will be at this for hours now. This is the deception of away missions – they seem exhilarating, different, and new, but really, they are slow and time consuming and the enclosed space gets more unforgiving with every passing hour. It doesn't take long for Tom to turn on the autopilot and slip into the back of the shuttle to use the head and see what he can do about lunch.
Seven, he imagines, will turn down anything replicated and she doesn't disappointment him, saying something about not needing nutrients at this time. Captain Janeway is just as flighty.
"Something I can eat from a mug," she mutters, her attention on the data in front of her. Tom bites back a sarcastic response about how coffee isn't food and instead nods.
He brings her an enormous mug of hearty stew. The mug is more of a deep and wide bowl with a handle but when he hands it to her, she laughs and grins up at him.
"Every bite," he says.
"Yes, sir," she agrees, taking the mug with two hands so it doesn't slosh over everything. Seven watches them, clearly confused. "Only Tom," she tells Seven. This is clearly not the explanation Seven wants or expects but she doesn't inquire further.
But away missions on shuttles can just as easily go the other way. After hours of scanning and searching, neither Seven nor the Captain can figure out a way to get close enough to the anomaly to collect its treasure without putting lives in danger. Tom has spent his time maneuvering the shuttle back and forth, just out of reach of the borders that ebb and flow. Tom hears Janeway's flat hand come down too hard on the edge of the console and when he turns to look at her, she looks murderous. She's like a cracked rock that water has seeped into and when winter comes, she will fly apart – nothing around her will be safe.
"We've collected enough data," Tom ventures. "Let's take it back and let B'Elanna have a look. Maybe she'll see something we don't."
He makes an effort not to offend the Captain, but it's Seven's feathers that get ruffled. Seven honestly believes that there is nothing B'Elanna Torres might see that she has not. Janeway doesn't allow petty bickering and knows that 140 odd heads are better than three so she allows Tom to steer them back home. It takes an hour at impulse but he doesn't want to try to build a stable warp field so near to the anomaly. He probably could, if he spent a little time on the calculations, but Janeway seems content to take the long way home. When the course is laid in, it's Seven who disappears into the back of the vessel.
"I didn't mean to hurt her feelings," Tom offers.
"Feelings are irrelevant," Janeway says. Her voice is still stony and when he looks at her, he sees her eyes are blue as ice. He doesn't know if she means to Seven or if she means the sentiment universally.
"Oh," Tom says, softly. "If only that were so."
Voyager can be a prison. Tom is never alone – even when he's in his quarters, there's people only a room a way. There are thousands of active comm. lines and the internal sensors chart his every move. What he wouldn't give for a little peace and quiet, a little time to himself.
It's ironic, actually, that the best place to be alone on a starship is in the brig. When no one is being held, the brigs are left deactivated. They require too much power to stay on all the time. After 30 days there, Tom thought he'd never want to go back, but only a few months later, he finds himself standing inside the holding pen, looking around and feeling only slightly foolish.
Someone could easily find him, should they try, but no one will stumble across him by accident here. When the force fields are deactivated, the bench inside doesn't look frightening. He takes a seat and looks around. He just wants to be alone with his thoughts.
He's surprised when Janeway finds him. It means she is looking for him, has tracked him down to this low deck. She stands and looks at him with an eyebrow cocked.
"What the hell are you doing in here?" she asks.
"Thinking," he says. He doesn't have to explain to her – this is his off duty time and he isn't breaking any rules by being in an empty room. She seems to accept this and steps into the cell. She sits next to him, letting her back rest against the bulkhead.
"I never came to visit you," she says, looking around.
"I didn't want you to," he admits.
"The only prison cell I've ever been in was Cardassian," she says. Officially, her service record states that her first ship was the Al-Battani but Tom knows well that her first ship was the Icarus, also with his father as Captain. Tom's never asked what it was like for her to serve with him because he has a pretty good idea already. His father tended to run his household like a Federation vessel.
"I've been in a fair few," Tom admits. "They're all the same, basically. Federation prisons are cleaner than most."
Janeway sighs heavily.
"You can't think somewhere else?" she asks.
"Why do you care where I think?" Tom retaliates.
"This looks…" She shrugs, tossing a hand up in the air. "This isn't where you belong, you know."
"I don't need a pep talk, Captain," he says. "I'm not here because of some psychological need to self-destruct. I'm here because I thought no one would find me."
"Fine," she says. "I'll leave you to it then."
"No," he says. "I'm sorry."
She was halfway standing and now hovers, bent at the waist before finally settling back down.
"Did you need me for anything specific?" he asks.
"I've been thinking a lot about you, lately," she says. He should make a joke, some mild innuendo because that's what the old Tom Paris would do, but sitting in a brig makes him feel honest. He doesn't want to play any more games, he's too old for that and no matter what has happened between them in the past, she knows him too well now.
"I've been thinking about you, too," he says.
"You and I, Tom," she says. "We're very similar."
"If this is about my father…" he starts but she shakes her head.
"It's not. It's about you and me," she promises. "No one else in the room, got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he says.
"We have to figure out a way to work together without hurting each other," she says. "I think it's because we're so much alike. We know just which buttons to push."
"I don't mean to push your buttons," he says.
"I know you don't," she says. "I give it right back to you, though, don't I?"
He laughs a little, and it's as good as a yes.
"We were doing well for a while, Tom, but we lost it," she says, seriously. "I want it back."
"I do too," he says. "I don't want to hurt you anymore. I don't want to be hurt."
"So what do we do?" she asks. She's not asking as his Captain, this much is clear. Her face is wide open, her eyes big and sincere. It's dark in the cell and her pupils are dilated to the point where all that's left is a thin ring of blue. They're sitting too close – he can smell her shampoo, the lightly floral scent that clings to her skin. Janeway has a bad habit of invading personal space. He knows why she does it – she compensates for being small by not backing down.
But now, her face is so close to his that he can feel her breath on his cheek. He can see her dark eyelashes, her dusky lipstick, the way her neck contracts when she swallows.
He doesn't mean to kiss her.
Tom is prepared for another thirty days locked up. He's prepared to spend the rest of his life locked up. The look on Janeway's face is priceless. Her shock is so sincere, so precise. He closes his eyes, waits for the thrashing that is to come. He has kissed the Captain. He has kissed Kathryn Janeway and now she's staring at him like he has lost his mind.
They stare at each other when she doesn't say anything. He isn't going to be the one to break the silence, that's for damn sure. But Janeway just keeps staring at him, that dumbstruck look on her face. Something has to be done because they can't spend an eternity looking at each other, refusing to acknowledge the last sixty seconds. Tom isn't sure if he leans closer to her, but he suspects it is Janeway that moves in slightly. It's almost imperceptible but it's enough to give him permission to kiss her again, so he does and to his infinite surprise, she kisses him back. It's not epically passionate, but her lips move against his tentatively and softly. Their noses bump and he tilts his head and she breathes out, slowly, through her nose.
Kissing another person just feels good. It's been a long time since Tom has kissed someone for the first time and the sensation is thrilling and foreign and new. He opens his eyes and can see her eyelashes resting on her cheekbones. His heart is pounding relentlessly in his chest and his palms are sweaty like he is a teenager, like this is the first time. Maybe it's just the first time that counts for anything.
The ship shudders with something that can only be enemy fire and they leap apart. Janeway has her hand to her mouth and looks terrified, frightened absolutely beyond belief.
"We have to go," Tom says, his voice calmer than it has any right to be.
"Yes," she says and they leave the brig behind. In the turbolift, the ship shakes again and when she steps onto the bridge, that paralyzed look disappears and she's the Captain again, through and through.
Janeway moves like a woman with a secret. She stalks across the bridge, lithe as a jungle cat. She seems to be glowing, her cheeks always rosy as if she'd just come in from the cold or a hard run. She smiles more, laughs with the crew and teases her bridge officers. She's in a good mood, Tom realizes.
Somehow, their balance has been restored. The anguish and angst they have felt toward each other in the past months has evaporated into good cheer. He doesn't know why because they certainly don't talk about what happened in the brig that night. He figures he'll let her bring it up but she never does.
Instead, she baits him in the presence of others. She leaves him the perfect opening for a joke or jibe and he always takes it, making Harry laugh and Tuvok frown. Their banter is perfect, like a complicated dance. They put on a little show.
It takes several days, over a week in fact, for Tom to find himself alone in a room with her again. He's early to the senior staff meeting and is waiting in the conference room for the others to appear. When she comes in, she's got her nose buried in some report and doesn't see him.
"Good morning," he says softly, as not to startle her.
"Oh," she says. "Good morning, Ensign."
There's a table between them – she came in from the opposite door and he doesn't sit until she does. It's not like they haven't spoken to each other but here they are alone and the silence is hardly quiet.
"Having a good day?" he presses.
"Yes," she says. "You?"
"Pretty good," he says.
Janeway is bad at small talk, bad at pretending like nothing is wrong. She sets the report down and leans back in her chair with her arm crossed.
"I just wanted to… thank you for setting me straight the other day," she says. "In the brig."
"Thank me?" Tom asked, surprised. "Because honestly, I've been thinking about myself as Crewman Paris for days."
"I wanted you to find some way to break the tension and you did," Janeway said. "A bit unorthodox, but it seems to have worked."
"Well," he says. "Anytime you need to be set straight again, you just let me know."
It's a mild invitation, but an invitation nonetheless. What surprises him is she actually seems to consider it for a moment.
"Not on this ship," she says finally. "But maybe someday."
Chakotay comes in and the moment is over. He looks at them both with a little suspicion but Janeway starts demanding information from him and Tom is saved any explanation. Chakotay has never been very good at reading a room, but this time he seats himself between Tom and the Captain and angles his chair to face hers so Tom has a view of Chakotay's back and shoulder. The message is clear – the First Officer is staking his claim and that's just fine. Chakotay can have her while aboard this ship. He can have her best years, while she young and witty, while her hair still grows out that deep and luscious auburn. He can have her while her waist is small and her uniform still strains across her bosom.
Tom will wait his turn. He's spent a great deal of his life waiting for Janeway and he will spend a great deal more doing the same thing. He's in no hurry. Their balance has been restored and it will hold until the end of this journey. It will hold through bridge battles and memorial services. It will hold through holidays and meager times. It will hold through ice-skating on the holodeck and promotions, ill-fated weddings and future generations. Tom is a patient man and he will wait for the someday that hovers on the horizon.
When he thinks of Janeway, she's standing at the top of the ridge looking down at him, the light in her hair giving her an ethereal glow. Except this time, when their eyes meet, she doesn't walk away.