B'Elanna pushed away her platter of lamb stew and watched Tom enjoy his meal. The apprehension coiled in her gut made eating about as possible as Janeway landing Voyager on the nearest M-class planet and declaring it their new home.
"Something the matter with your food?" Tom asked around a mouthful of his own.
"No," she said, twisting her fingers, "I'm just not very hungry."
Tom shook his head. "It's good stew—Sullivan's makes the best, y'know."
"I know," she murmured.
"Will ye be wantin' dessert, B'Elanna?" Michael Sullivan asked, his darkly handsome profile coming into view.
"No, thank you."
"Ye sure? Cook's got a warm cherry pie waitin'—right out o' th' oven."
B'Elanna met the barkeep's gaze and smiled half-heartedly. "I'm fine, really. But thanks anyway."
As Sullivan moved away, Tom turned to look at her, spoon resting in his stew. "You sure you're all right?"
"Headache? Nausea? Sore throat? Should I comm the Doc?"
"No. I'm…fine." She smiled, with effort.
"Well…if you say so." He craned his neck to see out the window. "Looks to be getting dark—we should head to the stables, if you're through." He grabbed a final mouthful of stew and pushed back from the bar. B'Elanna followed, threading through the maze of tables and chairs to the door. Once outside, Tom threw back his head and breathed deeply.
"Ahh, smell that salt sea air. Invigorating, isn't it?"
B'Elanna managed a tiny smile. "You're right." She felt Tom's eyes on her once more, and she did her best to look perky. Still, Harry's words rang in her ears like a death knell. "I expect you to tell him about this—tonight."
When was the best time to do it? Before they reached the stables? After they were on the beach? And how should she broach the subject? No, Tom, you don't hold your reins like that—you're supposed to thread them through your thumbs and little fingers. How do I know that? Oh, I've taken a few lessons since Monday night. Quit slouching—it makes your saddle sores worse. No, that would never work.
"Nice t' see ye, B'Elanna," a cheery voice called, and Voyager's chief engineer was mortified to see Seamus walking past. With Milo trailing him. Oh…no…
She tipped her lips into a smile, and managed a nod. The pair passed by without further comment.
"That was odd," Tom said, peering back at the ne'er-do-wells. "I didn't know you'd met Seamus and Milo."
"I, uh…haven't. Word must have gotten around about my…first visit. Things like that spread, you know."
Tom nodded thoughtfully, but B'Elanna could tell he wasn't convinced. The perfect opportunity for you to tell him, and you pass it off with a lie.
They reached the stables in silence, Tom entering first.
"Brogan!" he called, glancing at the stalls on either side. When quiet greeted him, he turned to B'Elanna. "I knew I should have put in a request before dinner."
"Are you sure he's here?" she asked, though she knew he was. Brogan never left the stables—not until they were closed for the evening.
"He should be. Seamus said he almost always is this time of day. Maybe he went home for dinner. Let's check the side rooms."
Before they could, though, Brogan stepped out of the tack room. "Someone call me name?"
"Ah, Brogan. Tom Paris—from Voyager. And this is B'Elanna Torres, my date."
From her place slightly behind Tom, B'Elanna gave the stable master a pleading look. Just a little while longer, and I promise I'll tell him. Just let me figure out how to say it first. Brogan gave an almost imperceptible nod, and B'Elanna wilted in relief. Thank you, she said with her eyes.
"Nice t' meet ye. What brings ye t' old Brogan's place?"
"We were wanting to take a couple horses down to the beach, see the sunset. Think you could arrange that?"
"Cert'nly." Brogan gestured, and they followed him down the aisle to a stall holding a chestnut. "This's Shamrock, though we call 'im Sham, mostly. He'll be yer mount," he said to Tom. Angling toward the tack room, he bellowed, "Hey, Kellan! Get Sham and Briley's tack and bring it out here."
A muffled reply sounded, and Brogan gestured to B'Elanna. "C'mon and we'll get ye set up with yer mount." Once they were out of Tom's earshot, he turned to her and, voice more rumble than words, said, "Ye haven't told 'im yet, have ye?"
B'Elanna shook her head.
"Ye're gonna have t' tell 'im sometime," he said, sliding back the bolt to Briley's door. "Grab that lead rope there an' hand it to me." He snapped the rope onto Briley's halter—what B'Elanna had termed a head strap three days ago—and paused to look at her.
"I know—and I will. Just give me time. I have to figure out how to say it."
"It's not quantum physics, ye know." He chuckled at her stare. "A phrase I picked up from little Naomi. She's quite the character."
"Yes…I know," B'Elanna murmured, and longing tinged her voice.
A knowing gleam lit Brogan's eyes, making B'Elanna's second stomach leap-frog over her first. "I s'pose ye'll want me t' tack 'er up for ye."
It needed no answer. Brogan nodded and led Briley from her stall. They reached the grooming stall in time to witness Tom's insistence that he could saddle Sham.
"Look—I can do it. Trust me," he coaxed, holding out his hands for the saddle in Kellan's arms.
Kellan looked to his father, confusion and humor coloring his expression.
"Go ahead an' let 'im, son." Then a look: He'll learn soon enough. Kellan nodded and surrendered the leather.
Tom accepted the weight easily, and hoisted it onto Sham's blanketed back. As Brogan made quick work of Briley's abbreviated grooming and saddling, Tom fumbled with the tangled clasps and buckles in Sham's saddle and bridle. Meanwhile, B'Elanna struggled to keep her amusement at bay as she watched Tom puzzle over the very things she'd fought with the past three days. Life had a funny way of throwing things back at you like that.
Tom cinched the saddle girth and passed it through the restraints, nodding happily. B'Elanna opened her mouth to tell him that Sham had puffed out his belly, the same trick Briley had played on her Tuesday afternoon, but she held back. Though she knew a few dozen paces down the beach would tip the saddle and send Tom into the surf, right now didn't seem the best time to disclose her secret. Turning, she caught Brogan looking at her. "What?" she mouthed, but he just raised an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes and turned back to Tom.
"Yep. Riders up!"
Not in this barn, you don't! she wanted to say, but deferred to Brogan.
"If ye want t' knock yer head against the ceilin' on yer way out, by all means, do. Otherwise, follow me. On foot."
Tom shot her a look and rolled his eyes, and B'Elanna fought a smile. If only he knew. He will soon enough…
A few minutes later, following Brogan's customary thirty-second crash-course in horseback riding, they were on their way to the beach. Though B'Elanna knew the way, thanks to her final riding lesson that afternoon, she let Tom take the lead, and followed beside him.
"You're awfully quiet tonight," he remarked as the horses ambled onto the sand. The sun was just setting, clothing the sky in raiments of red, orange, gold, and purple.
B'Elanna smiled, a breeze playing through her hair. "Is that a bad thing?"
"No. But you had me wondering if it had anything to do with the company."
She glanced at him and wondered when the saddle would slip. He was sitting surprisingly well for someone who'd never ridden a horse before. "I'll never tell."
He laughed gently, and the sound sent shivers down her spine. She loved him. Ach, she loved him. But…did he love her? She looked at the sky again, resplendent in its fiery hues, softened with its scarves of purple.
Silence enfolded them until the sun dipped below the horizon, sending a final spray of sparks across the water. It wasn't until the moon's rising glow lit the wave-tops that it happened.
"W-w-whoa!" Tom cried, and then disappeared. Immediately after, B'Elanna heard a wet thunk.
"Tom!" She pulled Briley to a stop and swung down, catching Sham's reins in her left hand. "Are you okay?"
Tom grimaced and rubbed his backside. "Yeah, I think so. But what happened?"
Maybe it was the sand all over his clothes, or the seaweed dangling from his hair, or just the fact that he'd had the same misfortune she had, but all of a sudden, B'Elanna was laughing. And not just snickering, either. These were full-on belly-laughs, doubling her over and incapacitating her vocal cords. Finally, she understood why Brogan had laughed.
"What's so funny?" Tom demanded, sitting up. Then he saw the saddle, seat hanging under Sham's belly and saddle blanket adorning his flank, and began to laugh as well.
When at last her convulsions ceased and B'Elanna could stand upright, she pulled Tom to his feet. As she brushed him off, bursts of giggles escaped her lips every few seconds. The face he pulled when she showed him the seaweed nearly paralyzed her anew.
Once her date was as clean as he was going to get without a sonic shower and recycler, she turned her attention to the saddle. Surveying the all-too-familiar mess, B'Elanna suddenly knew what to do. Still chuckling occasionally, she stepped up to Sham and loosed the saddle girth, pulling it off with one arm and straightening the blanket with the other. Within minutes, she'd re-saddled the chestnut gelding and handed the reins to Tom. Only then did she allow herself to notice his shocked expression.
"W-where'd you learn to do that?"
Her heart fluttered, whether from nerves or the sight of him standing in the moonlight, she didn't know. "I've been taking lessons since you asked me out."
The apprehension slithered into her gut once more, hissing at the question and stopping the words in her throat.
"I expect you to tell him everything—tonight."
"Ye're gonna have t' tell 'im sometime."
How to explain what she'd felt the minute he'd asked her out? How to convey the blazing embarrassment she suffered whenever someone mentioned Fair Haven, or describe the nausea roiling in her stomachs at the thought of going back there?
"I—I don't know," she said finally, deflating. But you do know, Torres. Go ahead—tell him. No? Why not? Are you afraid? "Wait—I do know. It's because…well…"
Tom moved closer, his eyes brushing hers tenderly. "It's okay, B'Elanna. You can tell me."
But I can't. What if you're like my father? What if I tell you everything, and trust you with my heart, and then you walk out on me? Knowing that she couldn't avoid seeing him on such a small ship only made things worse, doubled her heartache.
"Bee?" he asked, and the endearment melted her.
"I—I was afraid."
His brow furrowed. "Afraid? Afraid of what?"
"Afraid…that I'd disappoint you."
He smiled softly, letting a laugh catch in his throat. "B'Elanna, we're all gonna disappoint each other sometime."
"So…you're saying it would have disappointed you?"
"Then…what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that something as trivial as horseback riding won't change the way I feel about you."
"And how's that, Tom?" she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
He gazed at her, blue eyes luminous in the moonlight. Then, with his right hand, he brushed her hair back from her cheek and leaned close, touching his lips to hers.
As he pulled back to search her eyes, he whispered, "Does that answer your question, B'Elanna Torres of Voyager?"
Her tension melted away, and she smiled, kissing him back. "Yes," she whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I believe it does." They held each other for a long moment.
A snort broke the stillness, and then a velvety nose pushed in to lip B'Elanna's hair. "Hey!" she cried, pushing Briley away, "Way to ruin a mood."
"I'd almost forgotten about them," Tom laughed.
"Guess that's her way of telling us to get on with the ride." She tossed Sham's reins to Tom and ran Briley's over her head. "Give me a boost?" she asked. Once in the saddle, something occurred to her.
"You called me B'Elanna Torres of Voyager. Where'd that come from?"
"Well, your name is B'Elanna Torres, and you are from Voyager, right?" Tom's tone was innocent enough, but she'd known him too long to be fooled. She narrowed her eyes.
"No, I'm from Kessik IV, and you know it. So spill it, flyboy."
Tom looked up at her, eyes dancing. "All right, you caught me."
No…he couldn't have— "You knew! But—how?"
He grinned. "Let's just say a certain sidekick let his partner know of some troubling news oh, about…fourteen-thirty hours this afternoon."
"The little petaQ!" she growled, twisting her reins. All that tension, the stress, the agonizing over what to say— "Just wait till I get done with him!"
"Hey now, he was just worried about you. Don't get all bent out of shape, Bee."
"I'll worry him—right out the nearest airlock!"
"That's not fair. Plus, he made me promise not to tell anything until after you'd spilled your guts."
"Ohh!" she wheeled Briley around, prepared to try out her new galloping skills, but Tom drew Sham up beside her and stopped her with a sound kiss.
She pulled away, breathless.
"Besides," Tom grinned, "I've been taking lessons, too." He frowned, looking down at the saddle. "Just not the grooming and tacking part. Too impatient. Brogan didn't like it much, but…he got over it."
Brogan? "But—that means…he knew the whole time! And he didn't—" The rest of her words blurred into a growl.
Tom flashed his Captain Proton smile and gathered his reins.
For a moment, B'Elanna felt read to fly apart. But then, despite her anger and frustration and the shock of Tom's revelation, she laughed. And it was a beautiful sound—a freeing sound.
She crouched in the saddle and slid her hands up Briley's neck. "Catch me if you can, flyboy!"
With that, she gave a good squeeze and was gone, galloping down the beach. With a shout, Tom gave chase, and their laughter spilled into the moonlight, fading, but never ending, as silver as the trail of hoof-prints etched into the sand.
Further down the beach, two men, one brawny and bearded, the other young and uniformed, stepped from behind a sand dune and smiled, silently congratulating each other on their success. Score one for true love, they thought.
With a little help from friends, of course.
For Annika, who brought this story from sentence to seedling, and adorned its stem with characters like Brogan, Briley, and Bridget, who has yet to see the cobblestone streets of Fair Haven. You're the best, and I'll forever come to you when in need of a brainstorm. Let the pens be unleashed!