...following the events of "Investigations" and in the aftermath of "Deadlock", late Season 2
A ship without working engines had little need for a helmsman. And so, Tom had found himself playing the roles of heavy lifter, everyman and general gopher over the last three days as the engineering department worked around the clock to repair the damage done when Voyager had been duplicated and bombarded by her sister ship's proton bursts. With much of the ship still in pieces, the crew had spent the last seventy-two hours tripping over each other in Engineering, which had given Tom ample opportunity to become convinced of what he had suspected since his return from his covert mission to flush out Voyager's mole several weeks earlier: a certain chief engineer was actively avoiding him, no small task in the close confines of the last few days. So, when Harry needed someone to take specs from the navigational array to B'Elanna who was working deep within the bowels of the ship, Tom volunteered.
He almost regretted the decision as he mounted yet another access ladder, but he at last emerged to find the engineer sitting cross-legged in the Jefferies tube working through some complicated surgical procedure on her ship that he wasn't even going to pretend to understand.
"B'Elanna, I have some information from the navigational array that Harry said you wanted," he began, offering the PADD.
"Just throw it over there," she responded shortly, shrugging toward her tool kit and not even bothering to look over at him.
You're welcome, he let the thought remain wisely unspoken and crawled off the ladder to place the PADD as indicated. Then he tried again: "Need any help?"
"I've got it. Thanks." Her voice was tight, angry. He hadn't heard quite that tone from her since she had called him a pig for his colorful programming of a certain pool shark. A wiser man would have backed off. Hell, nine times out of ten, Tom would have backed off. It was easier to shrug, smile and walk away seemingly unscathed. But no way was he letting her get away quite that easily.
"We haven't had the chance to talk much in the last couple of weeks," he ventured.
She muttered something that sounded vaguely Klingon under her breath but kept her eyes firmly on the components in front of her.
Taking what was likely a blood insult as a small victory – at least it's one step up from total avoidance – Tom pressed on, "Did I do something wrong?"
She gave a snort and slammed in the module she was working on with more than necessary force. "I really don't have time for this now, Paris."
His eyebrows climbed. "Oh, so we're back to last names now, are we?" He moved a bit further into the tube, leaning into her field of vision and intentionally crowding her personal space. "Look, Torres, you've been avoiding me for the last month. Perhaps you could at least do me the courtesy of telling me why?"
Given little choice, she snapped around to face him, eyes flashing with annoyance and steadily building anger. "Why? Why the hell do you think? You lied to me, Tom. You used me as part of your game." The pilot blanched. He had done a fair amount of intentional blurring of the events leading up to his departure from Voyager, but he remembered their conversation in Engineering with vivid clarity. She had been honest and open, trusting him with pieces of her own past and concerned about his own apparent struggles. Trapped in the persona he had taken on at the Captain's request, he had responded with bitterness and, yes, lies.
She continued, giving a small, derisive laugh. "And, you know, I can't believe that I fell for it – that I even bothered to worry about you. So tell me," she finished, her voice laced with disdain and the intensifying heat of her glare burning at him, "was I as much fun to play around with as poor Chakotay?"
He flinched visibly at the reminder of his ten minutes of fame interview with Neelix and his less than ideal on-air apology to the first officer. Not his finest moment. Not even close. That said... "You know, I was acting under orders. And for good reasons." He heard his own voice, edged and defensive.
"And that's supposed to just make everything okay?" B'Elanna's hands clenched into fists and her volume rose steadily. "That you were ordered to act like a total ass, lie to your friends and then walk out on them?" Her voice caught for a second at that last but then recovered. "Nice that the order was so thorough and specific," she spat at him.
Tom knew he had already lost whatever objective he had had in starting this conversation, and he felt his anger and voice level rising to match her own. "I was trying to help the ship."
"Nice that you could play the hero yet again," she retorted.
Her shot hit home, and he met the fire in her eyes with his own icy stare. "Why do you care so much? You didn't even bother to say good bye."
"You didn't bother to tell me you were leaving."
They held a mutual, deadly glare, neither willing to give a millimeter. She had only been vaguely aware that their argument built into a crescendo of near screams, but, in the contrasting silence, she found herself all too conscious of the heat of both his eyes and his body, still invasively close, and of the heaviness of his breathing. Klingon and human instincts joined in a desire to lunge at him and obliterate, one way or the other, whatever stupidity he might next chose to utter.
Why do you care so much? She breathed once, twice, turned her back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. In the too close space of the Jefferies tube, it was the only retreat she had left. She summoned defenses built over years to keep pain and hurt at bay. She deliberately let herself remember her desperation weeks ago as Tom laying gasping on the mess hall floor, the sleepless emptiness that night when they thought him dead and, lastly, most keenly, her feeling of utter betrayal at hearing second-hand that Tom was leaving Voyager. Leaving without a word. Other, much older memories threatened to boil up, but she fought them, and the shattering panic that threatened to overwhelm her, back down. Why do you care so much? She shouldn't. She couldn't.
Breathe. Just breathe.
It wasn't often that B'Elanna felt fear. Her Klingon physiology ensured that her reaction to even the most extreme danger was much different than that of the average human. But her vulnerability concerning Tom Paris right now was terrifying her. She needed to get back in control, to find some distance.
"Fine," she finally managed, eyes still closed.
"Fine?" His voice was still tight and anger remained, but there was confusion now as well. She dared not consider what had been running through his thoughts in the last moments.
"Yes, fine." And at last she was able to open her eyes and turn to him, though she deliberately shifted away, creating just enough more space as she did so. "You were doing your job. I can hardly fault you for that." She held her voice steady and almost toneless.
He looked at her searchingly at that, and she let him look. She had nowhere near Tom's proficiency at pulling on masks and hiding her thoughts and feelings, but the last year had given her the ability to play the professional when needed, and she drew on that skill now. Tom was a fellow officer, he had done what he needed to in order to save the ship. They were colleagues. They could work together. And that was it.
She ignored the wrenching pain in her gut when she saw the brief, intense hurt in his eyes and then also the twisting of that pain as his face fell into lines of courteous professionalism that mirrored her own. She heard his voice, artificially light and casual as he moved back to the ladder, "Okay, then. Fine. I'd better get back down to Harry."
"Right." She nodded and forced a tight, impersonal smile as she gestured toward the PADD he had delivered. "And thank you for bringing up the specs."
He nodded back as he began to descend. "Any time, Lieutenant."
She waited until she was sure he was at least one deck down and she was again alone before allowing herself to collapse, pulling her knees to her chest and burying her head in her arms, silently cursing herself for her own cowardice.