6.

"It's … fine. I'm not mad at you."

It wasn't fine, though. Was it? She was mad at him… wasn't she?

The typical signs - the aura - that preceded the loss of control didn't seem to be imposing upon her. The rapidly increasing heart rate, the tightness in her jaw, the heat building from her chest and racing up her neck until she felt her mind was likely to spontaneously combust unless she vented her rage … she was experiencing none of those. Something was wrong. There was no caustic remark ready to trip off her tongue. No urge to clench her fists tightly around her knife and fork and slam them down on the table in front of her. She hadn't even dropped the cutlery in order to fold her arms across her chest. This reaction – lack of reaction – wasn't normal. Not for her.

Tom looked unconvinced by her assurances. "Really? You're sure you're not angry?"

No. She wasn't sure. Confused, yes. Sure, no. "I'm not angry," she said, hearing surprise now in her tone that complemented the scepticism in his. Maybe she was coming down with something. Flu, perhaps. Though it was only a few days since she'd last dropped by sickbay. Surely the Doctor would have detected if she were incubating a virus?

"It's OK if you want to yell at me," Tom said, appraising her carefully.

But she didn't. She really didn't. It was as refreshing as it was confusing.

It couldn't be the meditation. It had been a couple of months since her last session with 'Counsellor' Tuvok. She was supposed to be practising the techniques he'd taught her, but sitting cross-legged on the floor, visualising a flame and counting backwards, was not her idea of anger management. When her mandatory sessions had all been completed, she'd hardly given Tuvok's advice another thought. Yet, here she was calmer than a sleeping Vulcan, feeling nothing more than slight irritation at what Tom had just confessed to her. Raising an eyebrow at him, she waved her fork to direct his attention to the other diners present. "We're in the mess hall. I'm not going to start yelling."

"Having an audience hasn't stopped you in the past," Tom quipped, raising an eyebrow himself.

At that she did feel a surge of something more intense than slight irritation. And it was reassuring in a way. After the disturbing numbness she'd experienced following the news of the Maquis back in the Alpha Quadrant, feeling anything again had been preferable to remaining in that state. There would always be a small worry at the back of her mind that she would suffer a relapse. It would be better to be lose her temper every day of the week than to fall back into another such emotional coma.

But, by the time she'd set down her knife, the surge had passed, replaced with genuine amusement. Not that Tom needed to know that just yet. Holding what she hoped was a neutral expression, she dropped her fork onto her plate with an exaggerated clatter. The occupants of the nearest table who happened to be the ever inquisitive Delaney sisters, glanced over at the noise then quickly averted their gazes. Tom looked to be reconsidering the wisdom of his 'audience' remark. She let the silence hang between them for a long moment, thinking carefully.

"Would you feel less guilty if I'd overreacted?" she asked, careful to keep her voice low. They were out of earshot from most of the other diners with, perhaps, the exception of Vorik with his exceptional hearing. The engineer sat on the other side of the room reading from a PADD whilst he drank a mug of something – Vulcan spice tea, most likely.

Tom frowned. "I don't get it."

Slowly, pointedly, B'Elanna crossed her arms, holding Tom's gaze all the while. "If I lose my temper and yell at you, you'll get cross with me for overreacting. And if you're cross with me, you'll feel less guilty about what you did." She couldn't help smiling a little. Whilst she didn't want to make him suffer as such, it wouldn't harm for him to sweat a little. Tom appeared even more baffled.

"It's … an interesting theory," he acknowledged. "But … it doesn't really sound like you. Are you feeling all right?"

"I think I am, actually," she said, directing a habitual scowl at Jenny Delaney over Tom's shoulder before looking back to him. "I just … don't feel like getting mad at you this time. You owned up before I had to go accuse Seven of carrying out 'research' by spying on me again. So, it could have been worse."

"Yeah, I've done worse," Tom agreed, resuming his attack on whatever Neelix was calling lunch today, some kind of greeny-brown slop. B'Elanna had chosen breakfast leftovers instead. At least the pancakes and scrambled 'eggs', whilst a little soggy, resembled food rather than something that might ooze from the innards of a Malon export vessel.

"Oh, don't think I'm letting you off the hook," she countered. "Just because I'm not losing my temper doesn't mean I'm not annoyed with you."

Tom paused, slop dripping from his spoon back onto his plate. "You just said it was fine!"

B'Elanna shrugged. "Well, fine was a poorly chosen word. But I'm not angry."

Tom shook his head ever so slightly, eyes narrowing. B'Elanna picked up her cutlery again and resumed eating. "I just can't understand what possessed you to tell Seven of all people," she muttered between mouthfuls.

"I was making conversation. I didn't think she'd go telling anyone. Seven's hardly the biggest gossip on the ship. She doesn't really go in for chit-chat."

"But she's taking social lessons with the Doctor. And you know damn well that gossip is the one social skill that he excels at."

"Again, I had no reason to think Seven would mention it to anyone. If she hadn't told the Doc then it would never have gone any further."

"You know what she's like. She can't get that enhanced Borg brain of hers to understand why us mere mortals do some of the more … illogical things that we do. She probably asked the Doctor to explain it to her."

Tom sighed. "And he told a couple of people, and they each told a few more."

"And now it's all over the ship."

"Which is why I can't understand how you're not more … angry."

Neither could she really. Though, Tom had been through a particularly difficult time in recent weeks having been one of the worst affected by the artificial memory engrams projected from the monument on Tarakis. Traumatic memories of atrocities were something she could definitely relate to and she'd made quite a few allowances for Tom's erratic behaviour. Thankfully he seemed to be over the worst of it now. Perhaps the unusual degree of tolerance she was exhibiting now was a result of the extra care she'd had to take with him as he recovered. It had given her a timeout in her lifelong battle with her short temper. It was too much to hope for that she'd broken the habit of losing her composure at the slightest provocation, but it was a start. "Getting angry won't make everyone forget what they've heard, will it?" she said. "I don't think ranting will make me feel better this time either."

"I really am sorry."

She nodded. "Then you'll be happy to make it up to me, won't you?"

"Of course."

"I can think of a few things you can do for me already."

Tom smirked. "I'll bet."

"Things that I'll enjoy and you won't," she added quickly.

His face fell. "Oh."

No doubt that ruled out every form of compensation he'd had in mind. This could be a prime opportunity to get him to go sunbathing with her on holographic Fiji. He'd managed to dissuade her the last few times she'd suggested it claiming that it was too boring. Even better, he could help her write up those crew performance reviews that Chakotay kept hounding her about. Not that she'd have much fun doing those, but with Tom's help the task would take half the time. He'd only be helping her with the wording. It wasn't as if she'd be shirking her responsibilities as head of department.

Smiling wickedly she told him, "I'll let you know when I've decided." To which he pulled a decidedly unenthusiastic expression. "And next time you feel the urge to tell anyone what I pack for an away mission, maybe you could tell them about the qhonDoq or the stun grenades instead of the stuffed targ? I do have a reputation to maintain."