Author's Note: A companion piece to "Reparation" and, not quite a bookend, but somewhere down the shelf from "Raw". Though, as always, it can stand on its own as well.
Thank you to TB for slogging through an early read of this and to Photogirl1890 who is simply awesome.
I don't own them and never will. That is a privilege reserved for Paramount/CBS and possibly Starfleet captains, depending on one's point of view...
lotlhmoq (n), a bird that swoops into the water in order to catch food, but cannot swim
She had to admit that the program was growing on her, at least when it wasn't actually running.
That first night, she had come almost without thinking, unsure what she was looking for. Answers, comfort, escape? All or none of the above? She had thought at first to vent some frustration in one of her old Cardassian combat simulations. But, then, she knew all too well that her holodeck activity was still being quietly monitored, and the last thing she wanted was another heart to heart with Chakotay. She had flipped over to Tom's files out of habit and found the program still paused where he had left it.
Where they had left it. After her only prior visit to Captain Proton's monochromatic universe.
"Well, for what it's worth, I'm proud of you."
"Thanks, but Captain Proton's not going to be able to save the day this time, is he?"
"What about Tom Paris?"
She had returned a couple of times since then. Sleep was elusive, her quarters stifling. Any of the ship's public areas were out of the question, and even engineering lacked its usual ability to soothe her raw nerves. In contrast, somewhere between the bubbling of what appeared to be a water-based coolant system and the background whirl of the rocket ship's main computer, she was able to find, if not peace, a level of calm. A calm that she had sorely needed again after that afternoon's senior staff briefing...
Ordinarily, she had no problem with Ensign Culhane. She found him to be both competent and professional. Ordinarily. But ordinarily he was not sitting in on senior staff briefings as the acting chief conn officer.
Her humor had already been black as she sat down at the far end of the briefing room table, arms crossed and eyes fixed ahead. Chakotay glanced her way, opened his mouth and then closed it again with a small half-shake of his head. Harry steered clear of the seat next to her. (It was eventually filled by an oddly quiet but otherwise unperturbed Neelix.) When Culhane entered, her head snapped up, and her eyes fastened on the unlucky ensign. He nervously took a seat to the Captain's right where the engineer could conveniently continue to glower at him. When Janeway began the meeting with detailed and effusive praise of Culhane's efforts at the helm earlier that day, B'Elanna's mood darkened yet further.
Culhane, on the other hand, seemed to almost glow with pleasure at his commanding officer's compliments to his flying skills.
"...so I want to thank you for stepping up to the challenge today, Ensign. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions you'd like to add in case of future encounters with the Ariens?"
Utterly at ease now, the ensign grinned broadly and leaned forward with his arms resting on the briefing table. "Well, I did have a couple of thoughts on helm efficiency..."
At his words, B'Elanna bristled back to attention; even Seven, seated next to Culhane, raised an arched eyebrow as the ensign listed out several suggestions for 'improvements'.
"...and, also, the lag time on the maneuvering thrusters seems a bit slow, particularly when switching from the port to the starboard thrusters.."
"That's because you were flinging the ship back and forth like a wounded targ," B'Elanna finally snapped. "There's no way that the helm can compensate when it's being flown by someone with the subtlety of a first year cadet."
The room went silent.
"Lieutenant Torres is correct," Seven's voice, cool and undisturbed, broke in after a beat. "The fault was with Ensign Culhane's overly aggressive piloting, not with the efficiency of Voyager's helm control."
B'Elanna's eyes shifted over to the former Borg, and she offered the smallest nod of acknowledgment.
"Tuvok, did we gather any more information about the Ariens' tactical capabilities?" Chakotay broke in, wisely redirecting the conversation, but not before throwing a warning glance in the engineer's direction. Folding her arms to her chest and slumping back in her chair, B'Elanna retreated into her own disgruntlement until the briefing finally ended and the staff began to file out of the room.
"Lieutenant. A word, if you would?"
That in itself was odd. Usually, Janeway sent Chakotay to deal with his erstwhile Maquis shipmate when her temper flared. B'Elanna stopped short on her way to the briefing room door, turning sharply.
"I'd like to know what just happened here."
"I lost my temper, Captain." Her voice sounded reasonably even to her ears. "It's been a long day, but I know that isn't an excuse. I'll apologize to Ensign Culhane."
The Captain nodded but seemed unsatisfied. "If this is about Mr. Paris..."
Ensign Paris, B'Elanna barely held back the snide correction. "This is not about Tom."
It wasn't. And it was.
Another long look with those piercing blue-grey eyes. B'Elanna weathered it without comment. She was getting practiced at that. Not finding whatever it was she was searching for, the Captain switched tactics, softening her look and nodding. "Make things right with Ensign Culhane." Relieved, the engineer turned to go before being halted by the added, "And, B'Elanna? No more outbursts during senior staff briefings, hmm? No matter who might or might not be in attendance."
She gritted her teeth. "Yes, Captain," and made her escape.
...She drew her knees to her chest and leaned back against the rocket ship's control console. The smallest of smiles ghosted across her lips when she felt its surface vibrate as the computer whirled. She wondered if, while the ship was in flight, Tom – or Captain Proton – could tell its speed by the vibrations of the metal floor. She knew that she really didn't even need to wonder.
Gods, she missed him.
It wasn't about Tom. Except it was, in part. Because it always had been.