Clear as Mud
The P/T Collective

Harry walked into Sandrine's. At first he thought the place was empty, but upon closer inspection he spotted Tom Paris sitting at the bar, studying a datapadd intently. Realizing that Tom was unaware of his entrance, Harry quietly walked up behind him and peered over his shoulder at the datapadd.

"Working on a new holoprogram?" asked Harry, as he got a look at the screen.

Tom nearly jumped out of his skin. He had been so intent on his "project", he hadn't heard the other man enter. He quickly shut down the datapadd, laid it on the bar, and turned to face Kim. "So, Harry, you ready for that game of pool you promised me?"

Harry picked up the datapadd. "What kind of program are you creating?" he asked. He was startled when Tom snatched the padd from his hands.

"It's nothing," said Paris, trying to sound casual. He hoped Harry hadn't seen enough to figure out what he was up to. "Come on, let's rack 'em up for a game."

Harry's curiosity was piqued. "Wait a minute. What's the big mystery?" He crossed his arms, waiting expectantly.

Sighing, Tom realized Harry wasn't going to let this go. "I'm working on a surprise for someone," he told Kim. "It's no big deal."

"No big deal?" Harry's voice relayed his disbelief. "If it's 'no big deal', why are you so reluctant to talk about it?"

"All right, all right," said Paris, caving in. "It's a surprise for B'Elanna. He stood, leaning in close to Harry. "And if you breathe a word of this to anyone, I'll tell Ensign Lamont that you're the secret admirer who's been sending her those love notes."

"But I'm not."

"Ensign Lamont doesn't know that," said Tom as he walked past Harry toward the pool table. "And by the time I'm done, she'll be convinced it's you."

Harry followed him and as they took down their respective pool cues. "Who IS sending those notes to Ensign Lamont?"

Paris, shaking his head, just grinned. As Tom racked the balls, the door to Sandrine's opened. An assortment of crew members started trickling in, putting an end to Harry's plans to quiz Tom further on the subject of B'Elanna Torres. But he resolved that he would corner Paris later and get a straight answer out of him. It had been three weeks since the incident with the Borg ship, and something had happened on that ship between Tom and B'Elanna. The problem was, neither of them had anything to say on the subject. When Harry had jokingly quizzed B'Elanna on it shortly after the Borg and Voyager had gone their separate ways, she had clammed up, and refused to comment on the what had occurred on the ship, which just increased Harry's curiosity all the more. Just two nights ago Harry had chanced to overhear a conversation between Hudson and Simms in the mess hall. They had been discussing "the lieutenants", and although they had never mentioned them by name, Harry was fairly certain they had been discussing Tom and B'Elanna.

As he lined up his shot, Harry thought to himself, I am going to get to the bottom of this. I consider it a challenge. Neither B'Elanna nor Tom was very forthcoming where their personal lives were concerned, preferring not to talk about themselves, but Harry was becoming aware that perhaps those personal lives were more intermingled than he had previously thought.

"Are you going to grin at that ball all night, Harry, or are you going to make your shot?" Tom's voice interrupted Harry's musings. Grinning, Harry took his shot.

B'Elanna bit her lower lip and bent over her console. Damn ship is falling apart, she thought to herself, grimacing. "Carey, where are those transmitters I needed last week?"

Carey ran a hand through his short hair. "Umm, I gave them to Hogan. He should have had them here by--"

Torres cut him off with an annoyed sigh. She had been working non-stop for the past week trying to think of anything but Tom Paris and the Borg ship. Damn him. She growled at the console. "Hogan, I need those transmitters now," she spat out.

Hogan and Carey shared a glance; it was not too often their CO didn't keep her anger in check. "Right here, Lieutenant," Hogan said, and handed her the devices.

Torres stormed over to the anti-matter containment field. And he never even gave me a birthday present.

On the bridge, Janeway glared at the screen. "Are you sure, Mr. Tuvok? Are you positive that's what it is?"

Tuvok raised one eyebrow. "Yes, Captain. I have already confirmed it twice."

Janeway resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Again? she thought, tiredly. "Can we go around it?"

Tom Paris stifled back a yawn. Wake up, Tom old boy, he thought to himself. You don't see Chakotay looking like he just rolled out of bed eleven minutes ago. Jeez, Janeway. These 0600 senior staff meetings have GOT to go. Oh, gosh. Tuvok's got a report. Might as well just go back to sleep now and face the consequences.

"Captain, of course it is possible to go around this magnetic field; there are an infinite number of routes. The shortest journey will take approximately 46 days, 17 hours, 23 minutes and 39 seconds. And it will bring us dangerously close to not one, but two heavily populated Vidiian colonies."

Tom's eyes popped open.

"Mr. Tuvok, I'm not about to let what happened to Voyager the last time we entered a subspace field happen again. We need options."

Tom sat up a little straighter. No matter what Kes said, he still felt responsible for the duplication of the Voyager. Hadn't it been his idea to go into the plasma field?

"I can offer none at the present time. May I remind the captain that our previous difficulties occurred as we left the plasma system? Precautions could be taken. Our shields could be modified."

"What effects can we expect from this disturbance?"

"Its characteristics are unlike any I have ever known. I believe weapons systems would be unaffected. However, it is likely the sensors' abilities will be greatly decreased. Navigational systems may experience some difficulties, as will communications, and perhaps the transporter. Also, the effect of this system on the warp nacelles is unknown."

"Captain," ventured Chakotay, "I've seen a disturbance vaguely similar to this once. I had to hide in it to elude a Cardassian warship. I think the worst Engineering can expect is a few bugs."

"I hate bugs," muttered B'Elanna.

Tom thought for a moment that Janeway might actually laugh at B'Elanna's sullen attitude, but the captain did not. Instead, she turned to Paris.

"You know what to do, Mr. Paris." She smiled slightly  at Tom's affirmative nod. "Dismissed." The senior officers immediately filed out of the room.

As Tom followed B'Elanna through the doors, he wondered if he was the only one who had missed out on valuable sleep the night before. She looked tired and out-of-sorts. Before Tom could speak to B'Elanna, Chakotay tapped him on the shoulder.

"Lieutenant, if you are having trouble staying awake during the morning meeting, might I suggest an early jog around all decks to wake you?" The censure was obvious, despite the commander's pleasant tone.

"A morning run? Sounds like a good idea, Commander. I appreciate your concern for my health." Tom's manner was equally pleasant, but he could not stop the cynical smile that materialized on his handsome features.

Just as Chakotay seemed about to reply, the captain spoke.

"Commander, I'd like to speak with you for a moment."

Giving Paris a warning look, Chakotay turned back to Janeway. Tom made his way to the navigational controls, wondering why he let Chakotay rile him. Tom had tremendous respect for Chakotay as a commander, but often the officer stepped all over Tom's nerves with his superior attitude. Of course, B'Elanna's adoration of the former Maquis leader certainly had not helped his feelings toward Chakotay. Chakotay, B'Elanna's hero and confidante, Tom thought with disgust. Every time B'Elanna needs someone to rely on, she always turns to her precious Chakotay. Tom wondered if he was the only one who got sick of hearing B'Elanna praise the Native American Wonder. Sure, Torres had served for two years under Chakotay when she joined the Maquis. Yes, Chakotay had been a good friend to her, helping her come to terms with her Klingon half. And of course, Chakotay had gone to bat for B'Elanna with Janeway when he had suggested B'Elanna for the position of Chief Engineer, but the man certainly was not perfect. Chakotay was stuffy, rigid, and pompous in Tom's opinion, yet Torres tended to put him on a pedestal.

Glancing  to where his best friend, Ensign Harry Kim, worked in Operations, Tom could almost hear Harry's rebuke. You shouldn't talk about Commander Chakotay like that, Tom. If you want my opinion, you sound jealous. Leave it to Harry, to always see the good in people. Of course, Harry had been lucky enough not to have seen some of the things Tom had seen in his life.

Wait a minute. Jealous? Tom Paris, jealous over a woman? Not likely. Particularly not over a stubborn and difficult woman like Torres, even if I do see fireworks like the Fourth of July every time I kiss her. That does not mean I am jealous of B'Elanna's adoration of Chakotay. I just get tired of hearing and seeing it. Where does Harry get his dumb ideas?

"Stuff it, Harry," Tom said, turning back to his controls, unaware that he had voiced his thoughts.

Ensign Kim looked up in surprise as he heard Tom's words. "What did I do this time?" Harry asked his friend, frowning in confusion. "I haven't said a word in the past ten minutes."

"Never mind. I was thinking about something else," Paris said, ignoring Harry's speculation. Get your mind on the job, Paris, Tom admonished himself and turned back to his controls.

Kim and Paris entered the mess hall for their lunch break a little late. Just when they had been about to take their scheduled break, Voyager had reached the magnetic field. Both had elected to stay at their positions until Voyager had entered the field and, when it had appeared that nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen, the captain had ordered them to take their break. She wanted them back at their posts when Voyager reached the other side of the field. Harry had estimated that it would take most of the rest of their shift for Voyager to complete its passage through the field. They were just sitting down at a table to eat their lunch when a cheerful voice asked, "Mind if I join you?"

Tom grinned at the expression on Harry's face as Jenny Delaney seated herself at the table. He couldn't resist teasing the younger man. "Hi, Jenny. Where's Liz? Harry was just saying that maybe we should try for another double date." Tom nearly burst out laughing at the panicked expression that swiftly passed over Kim's face before he covered it.

Harry shot Paris a dirty look. He couldn't very well deny Paris' statement without sounding like he was insulting the Delaney sisters, but the last thing he wanted was a repeat performance of that disastrous night in the gondola.

Jenny looked at Harry. "Really? That would be great."

Harry shot another significant look at Paris. Tom, taking pity on his friend, said, "Actually, we'll have to get back to you on that, Jenny. Things are a little busy right now." Privately Paris thought  that he really didn't find the idea of a date with the Delaney sisters all that appealing, surprisingly. I'd much rather spend time with . . . He nearly dropped his fork as B'Elanna's name popped into his head. Now where did that come from? he wondered. Sure, I'm fond of B'Elanna, but not in the romantic sense. Or am I? His emotions where Voyager's chief engineer were concerned were a bit muddled. I've been purposefully avoiding delving into those particular  feelings. Why? He knew he enjoyed her company. Even when they were fighting, he enjoyed it. So what am I  afraid of? Shrugging away the disturbing thoughts, Tom turned his attention back to Harry and Jenny Delaney. "I was just going to tell Harry about some ideas I have for shuttle improvements," Tom said.

"Oh?" said Jenny, trying to look interested. Secretly she was disappointed that neither Kim nor Paris seemed interested in pursuing the matter of another double date. It didn't surprise her that Harry was unwilling, but Paris' reluctance did surprise her. She wondered if the rumors she had heard about him and B'Elanna Torres were true. Trying to appear interested, she listened as Paris and Kim droned on about the shuttle improvements.

Kim and Paris stepped back onto the bridge and resumed their stations. Just as Tom sat, he felt a faint vibration run through the ship, then Voyager began to shake in earnest.

"Mr. Kim?" the captain questioned.

Harry quickly scanned the readouts at his station. "We're starting through a dense layer of the magnetic field, Captain. I'm getting some strong ionic readings. The shields are protecting the ship for the most part, but some of the ionization is seeping through. There's no way to determine at this point the potential damage."

Chakotay smiled grimly. "I'm sure we'll be hearing from Lieutenant Torres fairly soon."

At that precise moment, B'Elanna's agitated voice came over the bridge comm link. "Torres to bridge."

Janeway was careful to keep her expression bland, but Chakotay could still see the humor dancing just below the surface in her eyes as she said, "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Captain, we need to get out of this field as soon as possible. It's wreaking havoc with my systems down here."

"Noted, Lieutenant. We should be clear of the field in approximately . . ." she gave Chakotay a questioning look. He consulted his readouts and flashed a full five fingers to her twice. ". . . in approximately ten hours."

"I guess that'll have to do," replied Torres shortly and terminated the comm link before Janeway could comment.

Chakotay raised a humorous brow. "I don't envy Carey and the others in Engineering right now," he commented to Janeway under his breath.

"Me either," muttered Paris, his attention focused on his own readouts.

"You have something to say, Lieutenant?" said Janeway sternly. Paris had a habit of speaking his mind on the bridge, and while his comments weren't always appropriate, Janeway had to admit that he was usually right on the mark with them. Even so, as captain, she had to ensure that the proper discipline was maintained on the bridge.

Paris, without turning, said, "No, Captain. Actually," he quickly amended, "I estimate we will be out of the field in eight hours, rather than ten."

"I'm sure Lieutenant Torres will thank you," Janeway said dryly. Wisely, Paris remained silent this time, keeping his thoughts to himself.

There are days when I wish that I had never set foot in an engine room.  As she entered her personal quarters and dropped tiredly into her favorite chair, B'Elanna Torres decided that this was definitely one of those days. Her entire shift had been spent repeating instructions to her clueless engineering team. On any given day, she would stake her life on her team and had done so in the past, but today, nearly everyone had seemed baffled by the most minute tasks. Carey was slow. Browning was constantly under her feet. Hogan asked dozens of pointless questions, and even Harry, often an integral participant in engineering projects, had spent most of his time daydreaming instead of working on the calculations she had asked for. When she had asked Harry why he was so distracted, he had mentioned his interest in some shuttle improvements that Paris had discussed during lunch. Then, when Harry had also mentioned that Jenny Delaney had been lunching with them, B'Elanna's day had gotten even worse. What do I care if Jenny Delaney thinks that the proposed shuttle improvements are a good idea? What does someone in Stellar Cartography know about shuttle design anyway? Most of all, why should I care if Jenny Delaney was having lunch with Tom? It is none of my business if Tom dates her. Still, did Tom have to pick one of the Delaney sisters? The sisters were known throughout the ship for their "maneuvers" with the male crew members. Poor Harry had even ended up soaking wet with his evasion of the "Delaney Assault".

As if on cue, Harry's voice came over the comm. "Kim to Torres."

"Torres here," B'Elanna said immediately, ready for the next engineering crisis. Major problems in Engineering usually occurred at the end of her shifts, or if she was really lucky, while she was sleeping.

"B'Elanna, I need you to come to Holodeck 2. We have something we'd like to show you." Harry's voice was nonchalant, but B'Elanna's suspicions were immediately aroused.

"We? Who is 'we', Harry, and would you mind telling me what you are up to?" B'Elanna asked.

Harry hesitated for a moment, then said, "We, as in Tom Paris and I, need you to come to Holodeck 2."

"Forget it, Harry. My shift just ended, and I need to go over my report for the morning briefing before I turn in for the night."

"Trust me. That can wait, B'Elanna. You need to see this."

"Some other time, Harry. See you at breakfast. Torres out." Leaning her head back, B'Elanna closed her eyes and wondered why she had been so reluctant to meet with Tom and Harry. They were her friends, after all, even if things were a little awkward between Tom and herself since the whole assimilation incident.

B'Elanna jumped as Paris' voice came over the comm. "Paris to Torres."

"Yes, Lieutenant?" B'Elanna answered, her hesitation evident.

"Chicken, Lieutenant?"

B'Elanna could hear the laughter in Paris' voice. Slowly counting to ten, first in English, then Klingon, she answered calmly, "Me? Afraid? You know better than that, Lieutenant Paris. I'm on my way to Holodeck 2."

As she entered the turbolift, B'Elanna silently scolded herself. You let Tom Paris goad you into doing exactly what he wants. Moments later, as she entered the holodeck, B'Elanna's mouth dropped open.

She was standing on a mountain cliff. Two feet in front of her, the cliff ended in a sheer precipice; the rugged, dark slope went almost straight down, a frozen waterfall of rock. And beyond the precipice -- B'Elanna let out a long, slow breath, forgetting her weariness for a moment.

Below her -- so far that she couldn't begin to guess the cliff's height -- spread the land, a wide, sprawling tapestry of green, richly verdant; and the sharper contrasting brown and black of rock and soil; graced occasionally with twists of deep blue and splashes of other, brighter colors. And above her, around her, there was nothing at all but clear, bright blue sky -- a dizzying, empty infinity. It was beautiful; it was terrifying. And, somehow, it tugged at her memory--

"Pretty impressive, isn't it?"

It was Paris' voice, coming from beside her. "It is that," she admitted honestly, and turned her head to look at him, too dazzled at that moment to remember her wariness. Then her eyes locked with his, and she froze, as that elusive image suddenly came clear. Part of last night's dreams, half-forgotten on waking, now returned in full, vivid force:  Wind on her face, and open sky all about her -- soaring through it, as sure and as strong as if she'd had engines, or wings. Circling, diving, racing wildly through the air, feeling confident and safe and oh gods, free-- And a companion, as reckless and passionate as she, flying beside her, matching her perfectly, move for joyous move. A man with blue, blue eyes.

Just a dream, B'Elanna told herself, and held his gaze a moment more to prove it to herself. But still, it was a relief to turn away from that intent sapphire stare.

She managed to smile at Harry, who didn't seem to have noticed anything. "Nice program," she said in a perfectly ordinary voice, and continued deliberately, "Since there aren't any half-naked women running around in it, I assume it's yours and not Paris'. Where is it set?"

"This is one of my favorite places. My mom and dad used to bring me here every now and then when I was a kid. Later I came on my own," said Kim. "Come with us, Maquis. I want to share this with both of you."

"All right," B'Elanna reluctantly agreed, not having the heart to turn him down. Looking around, she had to admit that the forested scenery was gorgeous and the view spectacular. "Lead the way, Starfleet."

B'Elanna had expected the worst from Paris:  sly comments, innuendoes, whatever -- some "Paris" thing, but he had been remarkably quiet on the hike so far. So quiet that she had begun sneaking glances at him out of the corner of her eye, trying to determine what was on his mind. He seemed preoccupied. Just as she was getting up the nerve to ask him about it, she heard a surprised gasp from Harry, who had gone ahead. As she and Paris rounded a bend in the trail, they caught sight of him. Stopping in their tracks, they both burst into laughter.

"It's not funny," Harry said.

Tom and B'Elanna muffled their laughter, exchanged a look, glanced back at Harry and burst into laughter once again. Finally getting control of himself enough to spit out a few words, Tom said, "Harry, didn't they teach you anything at the Academy?"

"Very funny," Harry said dryly, but his voice held humor. He stood, mud dripping from every inch of him, in the middle of a huge, deep mud puddle in the middle of the trail.

"Harry," said B'Elanna, laughter still in her voice, "why would you put a mudhole into your program?"

Kim gave her an indignant look. = "I wouldn't. It's not supposed to be here. It wasn't here. The trail in front of me was clear when I turned to see where you guys were. Next thing I knew . . ." He held up his dripping arms sadly. B'Elanna and Tom, unable to help themselves, burst into laughter again.

"Sorry, Harry," said Paris, "but you really should see yourself." He started forward to give Harry a hand when a startled gasp behind him made him spin round. B'Elanna, a surprised expression on her face, was sitting in a mudhole similar to Harry's. Paris didn't understand where the mudhole had come from. It hadn't been there moments ago. He opened his mouth to speak, but B'Elanna beat him to it.

"Don't say it, Paris. Don't say anything."

Tom wisely closed his mouth and approached her. He held out a hand. "Here, let me give you a hand out of there." B'Elanna seized his hand and before he knew what was happening, Paris was face first in the mudhole beside her. He sat up, sputtering.

"What did you do that for?" he demanded.

Torres shrugged. "You were too clean?" Getting to her feet, she extended a hand. Paris grasped it and let her pull him to his feet. They all stood staring at one another. Mud clung to their uniforms and dripped from their hair.

Shaking his head ruefully, Paris said, "Harry, I think there are a few holes in your program." Two handfuls of mud hit a second later -- splat! -- against his chest. He looked up in time for a third round of mud to hit him square in the face. Wiping at his face, he said to B'Elanna accusingly, "You enjoyed that." Her smile slipped a bit as he knelt and hefted a handful of mud himself. He eyed her consideringly.

"You wouldn't--" she said.

He smiled.

"Hey, guys," spoke up Harry. "Playtime's over. We're going to have to turn the holodeck over to whomever is next in line." B'Elanna breathed a sigh of relief when Tom dropped the mud to the ground without flinging it.

"Computer," said Harry, "end program."

Nothing happened. They were still surrounded by his holoprogram. Kim tried again. "Computer, end program Kim Four."


B'Elanna gave it a try. "Computer, Torres Omega override. End program Kim Four." Still nothing happened. "Computer, reveal holodeck exit."

When the exit failed to appear, Paris tapped his comm badge. "Paris to bridge . . . Paris to security..." No response. "I think we've got a problem," Paris said. Mud forgotten, they stared at one another.

For the first time all day, the ship seemed relatively calm. Chakotay leaned back in his chair, looking at the viewscreen. He let his mind wander. He thought about Lieutenant Paris' snide comment to him this morning after the meeting. He seems even more touchy than usual lately, at least to me. Ever since the assimilation . . . I wonder what happened to him during that whole incident? And what happened to B'Elanna? There's something different about her now, too, and I know it has to do with Tom. She's been strange toward me lately. Not necessarily in a bad way, though, just different than usual. What did he do? Why would she and he get involved with each other? The idea almost made him cringe. I'll have to ask my spirit guide later. Maybe I should talk to B'Elanna.

His mind hadn't wandered far when his comm badge chirped. He waited for the standard greeting, but all he got was some strange static, and then it stopped altogether. He tapped his badge, and still nothing. "Computer," he said, "what was that?"

"Please be more specific," the computer intoned.

"Who just tried to call my comm badge?"


"Where did the communication originate?"


The other bridge officers looked at him curiously, and glanced down at their own comm badges. Puzzled, Chakotay said to the nearest ensign, "Ensign Lamont, can you detect anything wrong with the computer or the comm badges?"

"No, sir."

"Okay," Chakotay said, "Let's test them." He tapped his badge again. "Chakotay to Ensign Lamont." The message came through, loud and clear.

Smiling, Ensign Lamont said, "Lamont here."

"Chakotay to Engineering."

"Carey here."

"I just received a message on my comm badge, and it immediately terminated itself. Can you detect any problems ship-wide that might cause something like this?" Under the circumstances, Chakotay did not  want to overlook anything that could cause problems later.

Carey's voice came through the comm badge clearly. "Uh, Commander, there's a small glitch showing up in Holodeck 2."

Here we go again, Chakotay thought. "Investigate it."

"Aye, sir."

"Somebody has got to figure out we're in here eventually, don't you think?" said Harry. The three of them, mud drying on their uniforms and in their hair, sat on the ground, contemplating their problem. They had just spent the better part of an hour trying everything they could think of to get out of the holodeck. Nothing worked.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll be missed sooner or later," Tom replied. "If nothing else, whoever is waiting to use the holodeck will report a problem."

B'Elanna sat staring at the ground, a frown on her face. "This makes no sense," she said. "The computer won't respond to us. Our comm badges aren't working. Strange glitches are showing up in Harry's program. And my engineering command overrides don't work."

"Sorry," Harry apologized. "I invited you here to have fun."

"Hey, don't worry about it, Harry," said Paris. "It isn't your fault. Besides, look at her." He nodded in B'Elanna's direction. "She's in her element. You've given her a problem to solve, and she's loving every minute of it. You should have seen her on the Borg ship, digging into their systems. She was great, even if it did turn out to be a simulation. . . ." His voice trailed off, and Harry and B'Elanna looked at him curiously.

"What?" asked Kim.

Paris, looking suddenly uncomfortable, shrugged. "Nothing."

But B'Elanna recognized that brief abstracted expression that had appeared on his face. She had seen it on her own a few too many times in recent weeks. "You remembered something," she said. "From the assimilation."

Tom glanced at her before turning his troubled gaze to the ground. "I get . . . flashes of things every once in a while," he admitted. "They don't always make sense." Still staring at the ground, Paris missed her nod of understanding, but Harry caught it.

"You've both had these flashes of memory from the assimilation, haven't you?" he asked.

Tom and B'Elanna shared a look that was full of introspection. Neither of them answered Harry's question. Worried, he asked, "Have you talked to the doctor about this?"

"It's no big deal, Harry," Paris said lightly, but his eyes said otherwise, as he continued to watch B'Elanna.

"Of course it isn't," Kim agreed. "That's why the both of you have been so prickly lately. B'Elanna's buried herself in her work and you," he turned an accusing glare on Paris, "you've suddenly developed a penchant for spending a lot of time alone. You don't even come to Sandrine's as much as you used to."

Surprised to hear this, B'Elanna's head shot up to stare at Tom. She knew her behavior had been a bit off since the assimilation. She'd been surprised Chakotay hadn't yet cornered her for one of their talks. Being so wrapped up in her own thoughts, she hadn't noticed that Tom's behavior had been out of character for him. Staring at Paris, who was suddenly avoiding her gaze, she wondered if he had dreams too. Dreams of the assimilation, of the Borg, and . . . of her, because he had certainly been haunting her dreams of late.

As if reading her thoughts, Tom's blue eyes lifted to meet her dark ones, but before either of them could say anything, a deep rumbling filled the air. The ground beneath them began to shake as the rumbling grew closer. Alarmed, the trio looked around. "Harry," said Paris slowly. "You didn't program an earthquake into your program, did you?"

"No, but then I didn't program the mudholes either."

They climbed to their feet. Looking around, B'Elanna said, "Where is it coming from?"

Turning toward the hillside at their backs, Harry replied, "It sounds like it's coming from up there."

Shading his eyes, Paris looked up.

"That looks like--" began B'Elanna, then the mudslide hit.

Paris felt himself lifted off his feet and carried along like so much debris. The mudslide carried them all down the mountainside. Paris quickly lost sight of Harry and B'Elanna; it was all he could do to keep his head above the surface of the mud. Moments later, although it seemed like it had gone on for eons, the slide slowly came to a stop. Paris came to an abrupt halt as he slammed into a boulder. He didn't think anything was broken, but the impact had knocked the wind out of him.

Harry pulled himself to his feet. He was bruised but seemed none the worse for wear. He scanned the area but saw no signs of B'Elanna or Tom.

"B'Elanna! Paris!" he called. Listening, he heard nothing, but he caught movement out of the corner of one eye and turned toward it. Several yards away someone was moving. He or she was so covered in mud that, until he got closer, Harry wasn't even sure if it was B'Elanna or Paris.

"You okay?"

Tom looked up to see Harry approaching. "Yeah, I think so," he replied as Kim reached his side and hauled him to his feet. "Where's B'Elanna?"

"I don't know," Harry's voice was concerned. "I spotted you first and headed over this way."

Tom scanned the mud-covered hillside. In the near distance he spotted her, leaning against a large uprooted tree. "There she is," he pointed her out to Harry. "Come on."

As they approached her, it became obvious that she was injured as she was favoring her left ankle. "Broken?" Paris asked as they reached her and he knelt down to examine the ankle.

"Either broken or badly sprained," replied B'Elanna. "What happened to the holodeck safeties?" she demanded, frustration evident in her voice. "They're supposed to prevent accidents like these." She winced as Tom prodded at her injured ankle. "Ouch!"

"Sorry." Tom stood. "I can't tell if it's broken or not with your boot on, but the way it's swelling, I'd say it needs tending to as soon as possible." He placed a supportive arm around her waist so she could avoid putting weight on the injured ankle.

Sighing in exasperation, B'Elanna peered at the other two through her mud-covered features. "First we have to figure out how to get out of here."

Janeway met Chakotay and Carey outside the holodeck doors. "What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?"

Chakotay turned to her. "We think that B'Elanna, Harry and Paris are trapped on the holodeck."

"You think? Don't you know for sure?"

For an answer, Chakotay addressed Voyager's computer. "Computer, location of Lieutenant Torres, Lieutenant Paris, and Ensign Kim."

"No such individuals exist aboard this ship," replied the computer.

Brows raised, Janeway said, "Computer, who is in Holodeck 2?"

"No such holodeck exists," intoned the computer.

"So far, those are the only three crew unaccounted for," Chakotay told her. "We're assuming they are in Holodeck 2, but we've been unable to contact them directly. Carey's working on forcing the door open as we speak."

Janeway asked, "What did you mean by 'so far'? Are you expecting more trouble?"

"We've had reports of other minor difficulties around the ship, Captain. Nothing too serious, just . . . disconcerting. And the number of incidents, though minor, seems to be escalating."

As Kes walked into Neelix's kitchen, she felt a certain sense of uneasiness. Every time the ship was in danger, she was always on the edge of her seat. She thought maybe a chat with Neelix would relax her a little.

"Hello, Neelix," she said as she stepped behind the counter. "What are you working on?"

"Oh, hello, Kes! Come here. This," he said, pointing into the giant pot sitting in front of him, "is a Talaxian treat. I can't believe I never thought to make it for the crew before."

Looking into the pot, Kes tried to sound enthusiastic. "Um, what is it?"

"Talaxian Vegetable Pot Cake. It's delicious. Would you like to know how I'm making it? It's quite an interesting process. It took me forever to get the replicator to produce the right vegetables, though. I had to manually put in the commands."

"Manually? That's interesting. Why?"

"It wouldn't accept my voice commands. I don't know why, but it probably has to do with that phenomenon we're so blindly sailing through right now. I knew it was a bad idea. Would you like to try some?" He motioned toward the substance in the pot.

"Um, maybe later." Kes knew there was something she should have been doing, but she couldn't remember what. There is something wrong, she thought to herself, distracted. "Did you say the replicator won't respond to your voice commands?"

"Yes." Neelix tasted a spoonful of his concoction. "Mmmmm."

Kes remembered. "Voice commands! The doctor! I have to get to sickbay! I'll talk to you later, Neelix," she said as she hurried out the door.

On the holodeck, Tom and Harry were trying to find something to stop the swelling of B'Elanna's ankle. "You're sure there isn't a glacier or something in this program of yours?" Tom said to Harry.

"No, no glacier. Well, maybe. See, this," he said, gesturing around him, "is not my programming. However, I do remember a pond up ahead. If it hasn't turned to mud, like everything else in this blasted program, it should be pretty cold."

"Well, why didn't you say so sooner?!" Tom asked tiredly, half-exasperated.

"Sorry. Slipped my mind. It's hard to think when there's mud crusted this far into your ear canal."

Tom snorted. "I know the feeling. Well, let's go back for B'Elanna, and see if the pond is even there. Maybe we can wash some of this mud off when we get to it."

"Sounds like a plan."

Meanwhile, B'Elanna had tired of sitting under a tree with nothing to do. Tom and Harry hadn't even been gone that long, but she was restless. She hated that Tom had insisted they go and find something for her ankle. It hurt, but she could handle it. And besides, wouldn't it be better if they were all putting their minds together to come up with a way to get out of here? Then they could just go to sickbay and take care of her ankle there. But wasn't it just like Tom to try to be the hero. B'Elanna quickly pushed away the thought of the sight of his face when he had seen that she was injured. She saw Harry coming towards her; Tom was not far behind.

"How are you doing?" Tom asked, concerned. He knew it was stupid to be concerned about B'Elanna; she could fend for herself perfectly well. He knew she could handle almost anything just as well or better than he could. Still, he couldn't help but be concerned. He knew she'd hate that he was concerned for her, and he was right.

"I'm fine," she said, irritated.

"There's supposed to be a pond not far from here, where we can put your ankle in some cold water and wash off this mud," Harry stated. "Can you walk?"

"Can I walk?" B'Elanna muttered. "Of course I can walk." She got up, took a few limping steps, and winced slightly, but not slightly enough, because Tom noticed.

"Here." Paris offered himself as a human crutch.

"No thank you," B'Elanna snapped, but she ended up taking his arm anyway, and discovered that it did hurt less when she leaned on him, although it was a bit awkward to walk. She noticed the I-told-you-so smile that flashed across Tom's muddy features. "Shut up, Paris."

"You're welcome," he said coyly, as they headed in the direction of the pond.

As Kes hurried into sickbay, she noticed a few people waiting there, but no doctor.

"Oh, Kes, I'm glad you're here," Ensign Rockwell said to her. "We can't get the computer to turn on the doctor. It seems he isn't responding to voice commands."

Kes walked over to a panel, and pushed a few buttons. Nothing happened. She pushed a few more. "So, what do you need?"

"I've just got a scratch on my left arm, no big deal or anything," Rockwell said to Kes. "My cat is in a bad mood."

"I've got two on my right hand. Rockwell's cat doesn't like me even when its in a good mood!" said Lieutenant Gabrielle, laughing.

Kes continued at the panel, and after a few more tries, the holographic doctor appeared. "The please emergency state of the nature." A confused and annoyed expression crossed his face. Kes, Rockwell, and Gabrielle tried to suppress the laughter they felt rising in their throats. The doctor tried again.

"Nature the please state the emergency of." He looked distressed this time, and Kes ceased to laugh inside.

"Doctor?" she inquired.

"Something with wrong program is my!" he exclaimed. "Going what on is?"

"Doctor, Voyager is traveling through some sort of magnetic subspace field," answered Kes.

"Activate my why did program then you?" he asked. Kes looked confused for a second, then said, "Ensign Rockwell and Lieutenant Gabrielle need your assistance. And I wanted to make sure you were okay, and tell you what's going on."

"Well, not I okay am." The doctor took one look at the officers' wounds and said to Kes, "Treat them you can while I to fix try my program." She stared at him, and he handed her a medical tricorder, pointed to the equipment nearby, and went into his office. She shrugged, switched on the tricorder, and went to work with her fears confirmed.

Yes! said Harry to himself. He called over his shoulder to his two friends lagging behind. "It's still here! Hurry up, you guys!"

"Yeah, yeah," muttered B'Elanna. "We GUYS are going as fast as we can."

"Take your time, guy. Looks like we're in here for the long haul," said Tom.

The pond, when they got there, was deliciously cool. B'Elanna sat down on a rock by the edge, pulled off her boot, and eased her damaged ankle into the greenish water. "Harry," she said, glancing up at the sun, "how long does this program run?"

"Oooh, good question. Well, I only set it for about an hour. I figured we'd be ready to quit hiking by then."

"Oh, we've been in here longer than that, easy," said Tom. "The computer must have kicked out your command." He also glanced at the sun, then his uniform, then took a look at Harry, and a longer look at B'Elanna. "I need a bath," he announced to no one in particular.

"Nothing you can do about that now," she said, splashing water up over her calf.

"And I would like to know why not," he retorted. "If we're going to be stuck in here, I want to be clean. I'm already wet, and we don't have much daylight left." He sat down, pulled off his boots and slid off the low bank into the water.

"Hey, this pond is pretty deep. Dang, Harry, this water is COLD."

Captain Janeway had just stepped out of the shower, a hot water shower, not a sonic one, a rare treat she felt she deserved, when the door chime sounded. Wrapping her pink robe around her, she hurried to the door, expecting Lieutenant Tuvok, but finding instead her first officer. "What's happening, Commander?"

"B'Elanna is still trapped in Holodeck 2 with Paris!" he said, then added, "and Kim. The doctor is malfunctioning, the replicators are malfunctioning, the transporter is malfunctioning. . . ." he sighed. "EVERYTHING is malfunctioning."

"Time to rethink our shortcut, then." She automatically reached for a comm badge that was not there, making them both smile for a moment.

"Allow me," said Chakotay grandly. "Chakotay to Hamilton."

"Hogan here, Commander."

Chakotay glanced down at Janeway. "Uh oh," he said to her. "Never mind, Lieutenant. As you were. Chakotay to HAMILTON."

"This is Hudson. Go ahead, sir."

Janeway interrupted. "Maybe you should just go and tell him, Chakotay."

"Right." Chakotay turned to leave, and strode straight into the door which did not open.

"Hudson? Are you still there?" demanded Chakotay. Great. Just great.

"Yes, Commander."

"Good. I want you to go to the bridge and tell Hamilton to plot a course to take us out of this disturbance. Also, find Lieutenant Tuvok and tell him I'm stuck in the captain's quarters. Find Kes and make sure we're ready in case of physical injuries. Get Lieutenant Hogan in Engineering to get the doctor back on line. Then, I want you to tell Chief Cooper to report to Transporter Room 1 and see if we can't beam Kim, Torres and Paris out of Holodeck 2. If that doesn't work, go and see if Carey has the commands overridden and the door opened. If he has, go in there and bring out our missing crew. Better take someone with you. Got that?"

"Yes, sir." Good grief, now there is an unhappy commander, Hudson thought to himself sleepily.

Janeway strode to the replicator. "Hot coffee for two," she ordered, adding to Chakotay, "I think it's going to be a long night." The replicator hummed and a few objects appeared. Chakotay sniffed.

"Your coffee smells like mushroom soup to me."

Janeway lifted the lid of the pot. "Looks like it, too. I told you I can't cook. Well, we don't want it to go to waste. Dig in, Commander."

"How's the ankle?" Kim voiced his concern for B'Elanna.

"I don't think it's broken. It doesn't hurt quite so bad, and the swelling is leveling off. I'll live. He looks like he's having a good time," she said nodding towards Tom, who was splashing and sputtering.

"Kim! Come on in! You too, Torres."

B'Elanna looked at Harry doubtfully, then complained, "Will you look at the way mud is coming off him and polluting this beautiful water?"

There was a sudden plop. Something landed close by B'Elanna's rock, and both she and Harry whipped around, alarmed, to investigate. Tom's uniform lay half-in, half-out of the water.

"Torres," he called, "spread that out for me and let it start drying, okay?"

Harry opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get the first word out, Tom's turtleneck came out of nowhere and hit him on the side of the head. Plonk! Two socks landed nearly in B'Elanna's lap. "That stuff too, please."

"Oh, my God," said B'Elanna. "Harry, I'm not even going to look. Thomas Eugene Paris, I had better not see any more of your clothes come out of that pond."

"Don't worry, you won't," laughed Tom.

"B'Elanna," Harry said. "Tom's right. We are wet already, and there just isn't enough Betazoid in me to enjoy being covered in mud."

"Go ahead, I'll hold down the fort. It's-- " she gasped as Paris suddenly came up from under the water right in front of her. "Don't do that! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Hop in, Ariel," he said.

"What? Who? Lieutenant, you are practically naked, and you're having entirely too much fun. You can completely forget it."

"Oh? You think I'm enjoying freezing my -- oh, never mind. Ah, come on, Torres, lighten up. We're all friends here. You're one of the guys, remember? Look, if it makes you feel better, keep on your undershirt. You want to wash off, don't you? Think you can do that standing on one foot in the shallow part? Come on, B'Elanna, let me help you." He then added a hopeful, "Please? Besides, this water is too damn cold for any but the most pure thoughts."

B'Elanna hesitated. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was not a smart thing to do, but deep inside she wanted to. I want to do something dangerous again, she thought. Something  Maquis. Something not Starfleet.

Tom unknowingly clinched it for her. He reached out and said, simply, "Trust me."

"Oh, all right, for heaven's sake." She pulled off her other boot and tossed both her boots down next to Tom's. "Just until I'm clean, though." Reaching out she put her hands on his shoulders and let him gently pull her off her rock.

He was right. The water was deeper than it looked; she could just barely stand on one foot. With Tom's help, she eased out of her jumpsuit, swished it out, and tossed it up to Harry on the bank. "If either of you ever breathes a word of this to anyone I'll have you both--"



Tom burst out laughing. Harry chuckled, and sat down on B'Elanna's vacated rock, pulling off his boots. "Do you two think you could--" he was cut off as a transporter beam grabbed him, taking Tom's and B'Elanna's uniforms, comm badges still attached, as well.

Mikel Hudson was furious with himself. True, he had been sound asleep when the commander had called, but that was no excuse. Now he waited by the stubborn holodeck doors with Ethan, too ashamed to admit to Lieutenant Carey that he couldn't remember all his orders. He tried to concentrate. THINK Mikel! Report to Tuvok, report to Hogan, find Kes, report to Cooper, report to Carey. He gave me another order, right at the very beginning. What was it, dammit?!

"Try again, Mik," said Ethan, concerned.

"Hudson to Chakotay."


When Harry materialized, he was sitting on the deck in someone's quarters, holding one of his muddy boots in his hand.


Ever so slowly, Kim looked up. He had apparently beamed into the captain's quarters, and not only was she there, but so was Commander Chakotay. They stared at him in surprise. Still holding the boot in one hand, Harry climbed to his feet.

Concern etched on her face, Janeway rose from the table where she had been having dinner with Chakotay. She approached Ensign Kim, Chakotay close behind. "Harry, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Captain," replied a confused Kim. Looking down, he suddenly realized he was still covered with mud. He must look a sight. "I had a slight mishap on the holodeck."

"We've been trying to get you and B'Elanna and Paris off the holodeck," said Chakotay. "They must have tried to beam you out and you ended up here." He knelt down to pick up something off the deck, straightening with two uniforms in his hands, one red and one gold.

"Don't worry, they weren't wearing them at the time of the beam out," said Harry, then he colored as he realized how that must have sounded. "I mean," he stammered, "they, uh, well, you see . . . They were in the pond trying to wash some of the mud off," he ended lamely. "Tom said--"

Janeway placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Ensign. I think we get the picture."

Chakotay frowned, livid. He wasn't so sure he "got" it.

"Permission to go to my quarters and change, Captain?" requested Kim.

"I'm afraid not, Ensign. We've been having a few problems since you entered the holodeck. Erratic communications, computer glitches, turbolifts, doors. As of this moment, we are trapped in my quarters. You may very well be spending the night here."

Chakotay covered his smile at the look of dismay that flitted across Kim's features.

Janeway could empathize with an ensign who was uncomfortable being in his captain's quarters, but she was determined to make this as painless as possible. Still, something seemed strange to her, besides the fact that her pilot and her chief engineer were on the holodeck minus their uniforms, and the only person there who might possibly keep them in line had just beamed into her quarters, covered the mud!

"Ensign Kim, this mud is from the holodeck. Why is it still on you?" she asked quizzically.

"I have no idea, Captain, but believe me, I wish it wasn't. Perhaps a malfunction with the holodeck matter generators. Instead of holographic mud, they must have used the matter banks to create real mud. Don't worry, as soon as the program ends, if it ends, then I can see that the matter used to make the mud is returned to the matter banks so we won't run low."

Smiling, she said, "Why don't you go make use of my shower, Ensign? The commander and I will see if we can get the replicator to work long enough to get you a clean change of clothes. Then you can tell us what's been happening on the holodeck while we eat dinner."

Hudson's comm badge chirped. "Neelix to Hudson."

Now why would the Talaxian be contacting me? Hudson wondered, then aloud he said, "Hudson here. Go ahead."

"Ensign," came Neelix's voice, "Chief Cooper tried to contact you to update you on the holodeck situation, but he was unable to reach you. He did however get through to Kes and she was able to contact me and now I am forwarding the message to you."

Hudson looked at Simms. Ethan just shook his head in exasperated annoyance. The malfunctions aboard the ship seemed to be escalating.

"And what is the message, Neelix?" asked Hudson patiently. "We finally have access to the holodeck. I need to go."

"Oh, yes, the message. Chief Cooper wishes you to know that he believes he beamed someone out of the holodeck. In fact, he may have beamed all three of them out, but he's not sure. He's still unable to establish contact with Paris, Torres, or Kim, and he feels it would be prudent if you were to take some emergency supplies into the holodeck and check on the status of things."

"Understood," replied Hudson.

"I'm going to the bridge to alert Mr. Tuvok to the situation," Neelix advised him. "Or Hamilton, or whoever is in charge up there at the moment. I will be certain to let them know that you have gained access to the holodeck. Good luck."

Hamilton? thought Hudson. Hadn't Commander Chakotay said something about Hamilton? Try as he might, he just couldn't remember.


Hudson looked at Simms. "I thought I had remembered what else it was the commander told me, but . . ." He shrugged.

Ethan hoisted his pack and patted Mikel on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it," he said. "If it was important, I'm sure you would have remembered. Come on, let's check out the holodeck and make sure no one's still trapped in there."

As they entered the holodeck, the door that Carey had forced open slid shut behind them. Stopping, Hudson said, "Wasn't the door supposed to stay open?"

Eyes wide, Simms replied, "That's what Carey said. You don't think . . . surely--?"

Speaking up, Hudson said, "Computer, reveal exit from Holodeck 2." Nothing happened. Harry's holoprogram was still up and running. The exit didn't magically reappear as they hoped, and the computer remained silent, not even acknowledging their repeated requests.

"Mik," said Simms slowly, "this could get really embarrassing. I mean, we're supposed to be the rescuers. If we end up being the rescuees . . ."

Hudson shook his head. This had definitely not been a good day. And it had just gotten worse.

B'Elanna Torres couldn't believe she was standing shoulder-deep in a holographic lake taking a bath with Tom Paris. Well, she thought to herself, it's not really a bath. More like a swim. Except he's doing all the swimming, and I'm standing here in five feet of water on one foot like a stupid flamingo.

Tom, on the other hand, was thoroughly enjoying his "bath". The cool water felt good and the mud had come off easier than he'd thought it would. He looked over to B'Elanna, however, and noticed that she didn't look like she was having such a great time.

"You okay?" he asked her.

"Yes, I'm okay! I wish everyone would quit asking me that!"

"Okay," he said in mock hurt.

She splashed him. He looked at her, smug, almost smiling, so he splashed her back. She laughed out loud this time, and a giant splashing fight ensued until finally, after dunking him underwater and getting no retaliation because he was concerned about her injured ankle, B'Elanna was laughing so hard that she almost choked on the lake water. Tom was laughing too, and they stood there holding their stomachs laughing, B'Elanna almost losing her balance trying to stand on one foot. After his own laughter had dwindled down to a chuckle, Tom watched her and realized he hadn't seen her so lighthearted in a long time, maybe never. She was strikingly beautiful, all wet in the water, smiling.  He wished she would smile like that more often, because he'd never seen this particular smile before, and he felt almost honored to have been there to hear her laugh.

B'Elanna, calming down, glanced at Tom and realized she hadn't had this much fun in a very long time. "Harry, maybe this program isn't so--" she started, but when she turned to speak to Harry she discovered he wasn't there.

Tom turned and was also surprised to find that Ensign Kim was nowhere to be seen. "Where did he go?" he asked, not really expecting an answer.

"I don't know, he was just here," B'Elanna said, confused. "Harry! Where are you?" Her voice echoed in the surroundings and no reply came.

Tom swam to the bank, stood in the waist deep water, and looked around. "Hey!"

"What?" came B'Elanna's curious reply.

"Our uniforms. They're not  here, and neither is Harry! Is this some sort of joke? I must confess, I didn't think he had it in him!"

B'Elanna dog paddled as best she could into the shallower water by the rock, and Tom helped her out. Her sudden concern for Harry was reflected by her near panic over her state of undress. She looked around for where Harry might have dropped her uniform, but the garment was gone. Sitting again on the rock, she then lifted her foot up to examine her ankle, and noticed that the swelling had gone down a little, and the pain was easing off a bit, but she still couldn't move it. Tom took a look at her ankle and noted, as if to confirm what she was thinking, "It looks a little better."

"Yeah, but where are our uniforms? Joke's over, Harry! Come on, give 'em back," she said, furious. "Where is he? With the program malfunctioning, Harry wouldn't have just wandered off. The program could have deposited him anywhere in this make-believe forest, if he had. Harry!" she shouted, nearly frantic.

Tom, for his part, was too busy noticing a wet B'Elanna to worry over a missing Harry. The cold water had pasted her slate blue turtleneck to her body like a second skin. Whoa, Tom. An officer and a gentleman, remember? Don't cause the lady any further embarrassment. He backed off, hoping to regain some control before she spotted him gaping at her and drowned him in the lake.

B'Elanna turned back to Tom and her concern for Harry was, for a moment, pushed aside by the sight of a bare chested Tom Paris. She was horrified by the thoughts that came unbidden to her mind. This was ridiculous. They were stuck half-dressed in a holodeck, Harry was missing, and she was behaving like some kind of out-of-control 15-year-old kid, not a starship Chief Engineer. She snatched up her boots and snapped crossly, "Now what?"

Harry would have preferred to get himself clean in a dry way, but the captain's sonic shower was, of course, malfunctioning. He wouldn't really have minded the old-fashioned water kind, though, if the water hadn't also been stuck at a temperature that he was sure was only one degree above freezing. But the choice was either use the shower or stay filthy, so he gritted his teeth, stripped off his muddy uniform, and stepped into the icy water, determined to make this as quick as he could.

As the mud came off, he thought, shivering, I should have stayed in the holoprogram. The pond was warmer than this, and it would've been more fun. I mean, Paris and B'Elanna were sure enjoying themselves, even if they were bickering like little kids half the time. Once again, he wondered exactly what was going on with those two. Maybe--

His speculation was painfully interrupted when the water streaming down on him suddenly went from icy to burning hot. "Aaagh!" he yelped. Trying to scramble out of the scalding spray, he slipped on the wet surface, lost his balance, and fell, cracking his head against the wall on the way down.

Captain Janeway looked up, startled, at a strangled yelp from the next room, followed in quick succession by a bang, a thud, and something that might have been a groan.

I'm almost afraid to ask, she thought, but-- "Mr. Kim? Is anything wrong?"

More noises, then Harry responded, sounding slightly dazed, "No, it's okay, Captain. Uh, the shower is operational, but I think the temperature controls could use some adjusting."

"Noted, Ensign."

"I'm afraid the replicator isn't working very well either," Chakotay called from beside her. "We've got fresh clothing for you, but it's not exactly regulation."

"As long as it's dry, Commander, I don't care."

Chakotay picked up the pile of clothing in front of him and tossed it into the shower area. "Here, this is what it gave us when we asked for a Starfleet uniform."

Janeway heard quick movement and the rustle of cloth, then a pause so loaded she could all but see the look on Harry's face as he got a good look at the outfit.

"And before you ask," Chakotay continued, "the civilian clothes came out worse."

Walking along the trail, Simms said, "Do you think they're still on the holodeck?"

At his side, Hudson shrugged. "I don't know. Nobody answered when we called." Looking around, he commented, "This is a nice program. Reminds me of Earth."

"I'm all for nature walks, Mik, but you do realize you woke me out of a sound sleep for this?"

Hudson shrugged again. "I figured since we did such a bang up job helping out the lieutenants last time on that Borg ship you'd jump at a chance to improve on our performance." Privately, Hudson thought that Paris and Torres had done a better job protecting himself and Simms on that Borg ship than the other way round, and that they had let the lieutenants down. Lieutenant Tuvok had assured him that given the situation, there had been nothing more they could have done. But Hudson still wasn't happy over the whole incident.

"Well, at least it's not the Borg this time," Simms commented.

Hudson's face clouded over. Noticing this, Simms frowned. "You still having those dreams?"

"Not every night."

"But you're still having them?" Simms pressed, concerned about his friend.

Hudson shrugged. "It's getting better. I just wish I could make more sense out of them." Hudson was about to comment further when the ground beneath his feet suddenly disappeared. With shock, he realized that the trail next to the hillside had crumpled. Hudson felt himself going over the side. His hands flailed out in hopes of finding a purchase but nothing but the slippery hillside came to his fingertips. Then a strong hand clamped on to his, halting his progress down the hillside. Hudson looked up to see Ethan laid out flat on the ground above him.

"I've got you, Mik--" The whole trail suddenly gave way and they both went over the side, tumbling down the hillside. About halfway down, just as Hudson thought he might be regaining some control, the grassy hillside turned to mud. Both men's tumbling bodies picked up speed, sliding uncontrollably down the hillside.

B'Elanna looked up and around. She would have swore she heard voices. "Did you hear something?" she asked.

Tom, still standing in the water, said, "No, what?" He trailed off as two blurs slid down the hill on the other side of the pond, heading straight  for him. He quickly moved for the shore where B'Elanna stood. The blurs landed in the pond with a loud splash. Two heads shot to the surface, sputtering.

"Damn!" exclaimed one as he popped to the surface. "This is cold!"

Paris, recognizing them, grinned. "At least it'll wash the mud off," he called. "What are you two doing here?"

The ensigns waded to shore. "We're here to rescue you?" Simms made it sound more like an inquiry then a statement.

Tom looked over to B'Elanna, who answered his grin with one of her own. It seemed lately that wherever they were, Simms and Hudson had a habit of popping up.

As they slogged onto the bank, Hudson glanced at Simms. He could tell that Ethan was thinking the same thing he was. Where in the world are the lieutenants' uniforms . . . and did we interrupt something here? Lieutenant Paris stood there in a pair of black briefs and nothing else, and Lieutenant Torres, well, she had on a pair of briefs and her turtleneck that was, at the moment, revealing quite a bit of her.

Aware that she was standing there in very little, B'Elanna shifted uncomfortably. "We were caught in a mudslide," she started to explain. "Since it didn't look like we were getting out of here anytime soon, we decided to clean up a bit, only Ensign Kim and our uniforms have disappeared."

Hudson looked at Simms. His expression clearly said, Yeah, a likely story.  Suppressing a grin and dropping his pack, he said, "Chief Cooper tried to beam you out of here. Maybe he beamed Ensign Kim and your uniforms?"

B'Elanna nodded. "That makes sense." Well, at least that explains Harry's absence. Relieved, she turned to Paris, just now becoming aware of the fact that he was standing next to her in nothing but his briefs. She tried to fight the urge, but just couldn't resist. Her eyes slipped downward, doing a quick survey. Then her gaze flew upward to find that Paris was watching her, a grin on his face. Damn the man! He'd caught her looking! Very embarrassed, she felt the heat rising into her face.

"Um, sirs?" Hudson hated to step into the silent by-play taking place between the lieutenants, but the sun in this holoprogram was beginning to set and they needed to decide what their next step was to be. Not to mention that the lieutenants were liable to get a little chilly after the sun set if something wasn't done about it.

At Hudson's voice, B'Elanna broke eye contact with Tom, but was very aware that he continued to watch her. She looked at Hudson, who was digging in his pack.

"I don't suppose you have an extra uniform in there?" she asked hopefully.

Hudson shook his head. "Not exactly, Lieutenant."

B'Elanna's eyes narrowed, "What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"

The ensign shrank back, "Well, uh, the replicators aren't working that well, and we didn't exactly think you would need uniforms."

B'Elanna wished  fervently for a hole to open up under her feet, or even one of those darn mudslides, as long as it covered her up. Great. Here I am, half-naked, with three men. Boy, if this ever gets out, I'm going to be thought of as the Delaneys' third wheel.

If Paris was embarrassed at the thought of two ensigns seeing him in his briefs, watching those same ensigns look at B'Elanna was downright infuriating. He quickly stepped in front of her, covering her from their sight.

"Fine, then. What do you have?" he asked.

Hudson looked at Simms, who immediately began searching in the bag again fervently. Finally, he pulled out two bundles and gave them apologetically to Paris. "Uh, like I said, the replicators aren't working that well."

Paris handed one of the bundles to B'Elanna, who shook it out. "Are you trying to tell me that all you have is hospital gowns?" she asked incredulously. Not the modest kind either, but one of those flimsy ones I've always hated, she thought bitterly.

Hudson nodded. "It's either that or blankets."

Paris sighed. "Come on Lieutenant, it's better than blankets," he sputtered out. Although he was trying as hard as he could not to look at her, the temptation was really getting to him. To his mind, the more covered up she was, the better.

As Harry looked at his reflection in Captain Janeway's bathroom mirror, he took a deep breath to steady himself, then headed out to the main living room of the captain's quarters. Both Janeway and Chakotay tried to keep themselves from smirking at the poor ensign, but they couldn't quite keep the sparkle out of their eyes or the humor out of their voices. "It's very, um, very, nice. Ah, um, it's your color at least," Chakotay noticed, while suppressing a grin.

"Yes, yes, it is your color, Harry," Janeway replied. "At least it's a dry piece of clothing," she pointed out, trying to keep a straight face while watching a very uncomfortable and very embarrassed Ensign Harry Kim, come out of her bathroom wearing one of Kes' dresses. Trying to put poor Harry at ease, she told him, "We won't tell a soul, will we, Commander?" turning to give Chakotay a pointed look.

"Not a soul!" agreed the first officer, while still trying not to laugh.

Determined to make light of the situation, Janeway turned to her Ops officer and said, "At least this didn't happen while you were in Lieutenant Paris' quarters. Then you would never hear the end of it!"

For the first time since Harry's unexpected beam in, he relaxed. Deciding to make the ensign even more at ease, the captain gestured toward the table, where Chakotay had resumed his seat, and returned his attention to his soup. "Why don't you sit down and join us for dinner, since it looks like we'll be here for awhile. You can tell us what happened in the holodeck, while we wait for someone to get the doors to open."

Harry started to become flustered again. "What is it, Ensign?" Janeway asked.

"Well, Ma'am, umm, ah . . . I don't mean to insult or embarrass you, but umm, you're a woman, and I'm a man, and, ah, well . . ."

"What is it, Harry?", asked Janeway, puzzled.

"How do you sit down in one of these things?" he asked gesturing to the skirt of the dress.

At the same time, Chakotay nearly choked on his soup, while trying not to laugh. "Sorry," he gasped, "bad mushroom."

Once they had slipped into the flimsy lightweight hospital gowns, B'Elanna's fierce expression forbid further comment. Although he was glad his boots hadn't beamed out with the uniforms, Paris knew he presented a comical picture in a hospital gown, which fell to his knees, and boots.

"Sirs," said Hudson, who like Simms, was beginning to get chilled due to his wet uniform, "I suggest we look for some kind of shelter for the night."

Simms, who had been scouting the area while the lieutenants dressed, spoke up. "I think I spotted what might be a cave not too far from here."

"Let's give it a try," Paris decided.

Ten minutes later, the group came upon the cave Simms had found. It was more like a hole carved in the side of a bluff than a cave, but it would do. Simms started a fire while Hudson looked through their packs for anything that might prove useful. As they only had two blankets, it was decided that Torres and Paris would share one while Hudson and Simms shared the other. As the group sat around the fire, trying to keep warm, with Hudson and Simms sitting on one side and Paris and Torres sitting side by side across the fire from them, B'Elanna's stomach let out a loud rumbling. Tom looked at her, half in amusement, half in concern. "Didn't you eat before coming to the holodeck?"

B'Elanna frowned. "No. I was busy in Engineering all day with emergencies. I had planned to grab a late night snack after our hike."

Simms held out a RBRE. "Ration bar, ready to eat. I know they're not very appetizing, Lieutenant, but I'm afraid it's all we have."

B'Elanna eyed the ration bar in distaste, making no move to take it from Simms. When her stomach growled loudly again, Tom reached out for the ration bar. "Thanks, Ensign." He unwrapped it and handed it to B'Elanna, who grudgingly took it.

Simms pulled another ration bar out of his pack and held it out to Paris, but Tom shook his head. "Thanks, Simms, but I'm still trying to digest Neelix's dinner." He eyed both Hudson and Simms critically. "Your uniforms are still wet."

"I'm sure the fire will dry them out quickly, sir," said Hudson hurriedly. He had no wish to join the lieutenants by stripping down to his underwear. Looking at Lieutenant Paris, he caught the gleam of amusement in his eyes and realized that Paris was having a little fun with him.

"How did you guys get roped into coming onto the holodeck to look for us?" asked Paris curiously.

"Commander Chakotay was trying to contact Hamilton, but communications are really a mess and he got me instead," Hudson said. Grinning a bit, he added, "I'm afraid the captain and Commander Chakotay were having their own difficulties, last I heard."

"Don't tell me systems all over the ship are crashing?" said B'Elanna glumly.

"No, nothing that drastic," replied Hudson. "It's just that the computer has developed some odd quirks."

"We've noticed," Paris said wryly. "So, if Chakotay wanted to talk to Hamilton, why didn't he just go to the bridge?"

"He's, uh, he's trapped in the captain's quarters with the captain."

Paris heard B'Elanna choke on her ration bar. Grinning, he leaned in closer to the fire, trying to absorb some of its heat. "Oh, to be a fly on that wall." B'Elanna elbowed him, hard, in the ribs. "Ow!" Giving her a feigned injured look, he said, "Come on, Torres, you got to admit--"

"I don't have to admit anything," she retorted. Encompassing Hudson and Simms in her glance, she said, "I suggest we get some sleep. Something tells me it's going to be a long day tomorrow." She pulled the blanket up around her and leaned back against the rock wall. "Well?" she challenged.

"Well what?" Paris shot back.

"Are you waiting for an invitation or what?" She flipped up the blanket at her side, indicating he should settle in for the night. Shrugging, Paris joined her under the blanket.

"Don't get any ideas, Paris," she warned.

"Me?" said Tom, all innocence. "I don't know where you get your ideas about me. I'm perfectly trustworthy."

B'Elanna snorted, but she allowed him to settle in next to her.

Some time later, Paris awoke. The fire had died down some but still shed enough light to see by. Hudson and Simms were both asleep under their blanket. Feeling B'Elanna shiver next to him, he realized that was what had awakened him. Being careful not to wake her, he placed an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close so they could share their body warmth. Still asleep, B'Elanna snuggled right in against him, readjusting her body to fit in against his.

Looking down, Tom studied her sleeping face. He knew those who didn't know her, like Hudson and Simms and some of the Engineering staff, thought she was a cold person with an easy-to-flare temper. But when he looked at her, Tom saw something different. He saw a vulnerability that she tried to cover by keeping her distance from others. He wondered at that vulnerability, at what hurt she had gone through to cause it, and he wondered what there was in himself that let him see that vulnerability in her when so many others never saw it. With those thoughts rolling around in his head, Tom fell asleep, his arm wrapped protectively around B'Elanna.

Tuvok was approaching something that almost resembled an agitated state. I must be centered, he thought. Nothing on the ship was going right -- every voice activated system was malfunctioning, and some, like internal ship's communications, were entirely off line. Tuvok had assumed command when it became obvious that neither the captain nor the first officer was in a position to fulfill his duties. Now he had his hands full. The chief engineer, the operations officer, and the pilot were all missing, and the sensors were reduced to 39%.

"Mr. Hamilton, how long until we clear the magnetic disturbance?" he asked tersely.

"At present speed, 2.6 hours, sir."

"Increase speed to warp factor 7."

"Sir, I'm trying to comply, but . . ." Hamilton swiveled around in the pilot's chair. "Sir, warp engines just went off line. It looks like it was done deliberately from Main Engineering."

Tuvok allowed his eyebrows to show his displeasure. "All stop. Ensign Lamont?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Go down to Engineering and see what's happening."

"Yes, sir."

"Ethan, are you asleep?" Hudson murmured into his friend's ear.

"How can I possibly be asleep with your elbow stuck in the middle of my back?"

"Oh. Sorry. God, this is awful. I'm freezing to death. I'm wet, I'm cold, I'm dirty. I hate it."

"Think happy thoughts," snapped Simms.

"'Think happy thoughts'?" asked Hudson in disbelief. "Did you actually just say 'think happy thoughts'? Happy thoughts about WHAT for crying out loud? Neelix's latest leola root delight? What kind of a security officer says 'think happy thoughts'?!"

"The same kind who says if you don't shut up I'm gonna phase you down like so much Kaz--"

"Shh! Shut up! You'll wake 'em up!"

"Well, you started it." There was a pause. "Mikel?"


"You know if anyone finds out through you about those . . . notes I sent to Lamont, I'm gonna have to kill you."

"I know, Ethan. They won't. I can keep my mouth shut if I have to," he said, nodding toward the huddled shapeless mass that was Lieutenant Torres and Lieutenant Paris. "You know that. You know, Ethe--" The rest of his words were cut off when a transporter beam pulled them both out of the holoprogram.

Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres had a healthy dislike of transporters. True, as an engineer she appreciated their complex operating mechanisms and pinpoint precision. She just didn't like the way they made her dizzy. The sound of a beam in her immediate vicinity brought her instantly awake. "Paris, wake up. It's--" Another being shimmered into shape just where Hudson and Simms had disappeared.

Tom was also instantly awake. "It's you!" he exclaimed.

The doctor bristled. "It's yes, me." He rolled his eyes and snorted. "I'm having some programming with my trouble. It's actually better than it was. Lieutenant Hogan almost fixed had it when he was away called to Engineering. Your engines, Lieutenant," he said to B'Elanna, "properly aren't working." He held off her onslaught of questions with a raised hand. "I can't stay; I'll be recalled in 22 seconds. I have wounded for to care. I brought you some clothes, a dermal regenerator, and some food. And some food." He looked confused at this last, but shrugged it off. "Would you like to hear a joke?"

"Did Harry tell you we needed clothes?" I'll kill him, she thought.

"No. Kes it was. I don't know how she knew. Now I'm going. Be good." And with that, he dropped a large duffel at their feet and fizzled out of sight.

"Be good?" asked Tom. "Do you suppose he meant 'good-bye'?"

"Knowing you, he probably did mean 'be good'," said B'Elanna. "Oh, Tom, my engines," she sighed, dropping her head into her hands, and added, "I've got such a headache you wouldn't believe."

"Trust me, I understand what it feels like to have a hell of an ache, in certain areas anyway," Tom said wearily.

B'Elanna gave Tom a shocked look, so he quickly clarified himself. "I meant my back was sore from sleeping on the ground, B'Elanna. Get your mind out of the gutter, Lieutenant," Tom teased. He then gently pulled B'Elanna by the arm until she stood mere inches away from him.

"What are you doing?" B'Elanna stammered out the question as Tom's hands moved to her shoulders.

"Turn around." Surprisingly, B'Elanna immediately turned around. Well, well, maybe the lady is actually starting to trust me, thought Tom. She didn't even hesitate. "I'm going to help with the headache problem."

As Tom's strong but gentle hands began to massage her neck and shoulders, B'Elanna struggled to keep from groaning in pleasure. Tom Paris was a wicked man. There was no doubt about it now in B'Elanna's mind. A handsome, charming, and caring man, but wicked nonetheless. "I'm going to kill Hogan, if he does anything bad to my engines," B'Elanna threatened as she struggled to stay focused.

"I'm sure Hogan is trembling with fear as we speak." Paris smiled as he realized how close B'Elanna was to forgetting all about Hogan and Engineering.

"Are you saying that my Engineering team doesn't respect me?" B'Elanna asked sharply, though her knees were trembling as Tom's fingers worked their magic on her tense shoulders.

"You know better than that, Lieutenant," Tom assured her, seeing past her sharp tone to her fear of relaxing. Oh yeah, he thought. This is definitely getting to her. Abruptly dropping his hands from B'Elanna's shoulders then moving toward the fire, Tom said, "It looks like the sun's coming up. I think we should work on that sore ankle again, then change into those clothes. This hospital gown isn't exactly the most comfortable thing I've ever worn."

Agitated that Tom had stopped his heavenly massage, B'Elanna stopped herself just as she was about to protest. Pride, Torres, pride, she silently told herself. Tom probably stopped massaging your shoulders just to see if you would protest. He should know better than that.

As she picked up her change of clothes, B'Elanna glanced over to where Tom was attempting to put out the fire. She silently cursed as she noted his nonchalant manner. While B'Elanna was preoccupied with Tom, instead of worrying like a good chief engineer about how things were going in Engineering, he was acting like he was a kid away at summer camp.

The starship Voyager was in a state of semi-chaos. In Engineering, various crew members were trying to figure out what to do with the warp engines that wouldn't cooperate. Hogan was especially agitated. "You! Try remodulating the transconfigurations! No, use THAT panel, the other one is for the transMODulations! Pay attention!" And then to another officer, "Get that reading for me.  Now!" And to another, "Have you figured out what to do with the transponder frequencies for the quantum vertion converter?" Then again to the first, "Aren't you finished yet? No, transCONFIGurations!" Hogan barked out all of these orders while working a panel of his own, and thinking to himself, if I screw up down here, Lieutenant Torres is going to KILL me!

A man driven by fear can be a scary thing to watch, as the officers under his command were just finding out. He had given up for the moment on the holodoctor's program, as he found more important problems arising in Main Engineering, but he hoped the doctor had been successful in his "mission" to the holodeck. He wanted Torres to get her butt down here and solve the increasing number of problems that kept popping up. Lucky lieutenant, she gets to play on the holodeck while I'm stuck down here doing her job, he thought, disgruntled.

I really wish I was in Engineering doing my job. Why couldn't Hogan get stuck on the stupid holodeck? thought B'Elanna Torres as she changed into the clean uniform the doctor had delivered. She had had another one of those dreams last night, and this one was even more vivid than the last one. It was making her slightly uneasy. But it did feel good to be in a clean uniform. At least now she wouldn't be getting those looks from Paris, maybe. Once she was completely dressed, she went back to where Tom, also in a clean uniform, was sorting through the bag of supplies the doc had left them.

"Anything interesting in there?" she asked nonchalantly.

"Besides the uniforms and the dermal regenerator, not really. Are you sure we used that regenerator thing correctly on your ankle? It's been a long time since my Academy days." A long time, he thought.

B'Elanna moved her ankle around and shrugged. "It feels almost as good as new. I think we had it right."

"Still, I wish the doc had stayed long enough to do it himself," Paris said to her, digging through the large bag again.

"If it makes you feel any better, I'll go into sickbay and have it checked out once we get out of here," she said. "Is there anything you're looking for in there, or are you just bored?"

"I'm trying to find something edible in here."

"What about that?" she inquired, pointing to a container sitting on the ground next to him.

"That? I said edible. That looks like some of Neelix's leftover leola root soup. I guess the replicators aren't working either."

This made her want to get back to Engineering even more. She sighed.

"Something wrong?" Tom glanced at her.

"I'm just sick of being in here."

"Well, I'm not saying I'd like to build a summer home here or anything, but the trees are actually quite lovely."


"Never mind. Too bad there aren't any marshmallows in here, we could toast them over a real holographic campfire."

This made B'Elanna smile, which made Tom smile. "I had the weirdest dream last night."

"You too?"

Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay, and Ensign Kim, just finishing their dinner of mushroom soup, were startled by the sight of a transporter beam and two figures appearing in the captain's quarters. Simms and Hudson untangled themselves from each other and climbed to their feet, turning to face them.

"Captain, we--" Hudson abruptly stopped speaking as he caught sight of Ensign Kim, who appeared to be wearing one of Kes' outfits. His mouth dropped open. He wanted to turn and look at Ethan, but knew he didn't dare. He would never be able to keep a straight face.

Kim felt a deep blush traveling up his face. He just knew he would never hear the end of this, especially once Paris heard about it, and he would hear about it. Tom Paris always seemed to know what was happening on this ship, whether it concerned him or not.

Understanding empathy crossed Janeway's face. Hoping to divert some attention away from Kim, she spoke. "Mr. Hudson, did you locate Lieutenants Torres and Paris?"

Hudson dragged his attention from Kim and stood at attention before the captain. "Yes, Captain. They appear to be well--"

Hudson's report was cut off by the sound of his comm badge chirping. The sudden sound startled everyone. Hudson tentatively tapped his badge. "Hudson here."

"Ensign," came Tuvok's voice, "we attempted to beam you and Ensign Simms off the holodeck and to sickbay; however, the doctor reports that nobody has beamed in. Might I inquire as to your current location?"

Hudson started to reply, but Janeway, stepping closer, took the initiative. "Tuvok, Hudson and Simms beamed into my quarters. Ensign Kim is also here. What's the status of getting us out of here?"

"We are working on it, Captain. It was a struggle just to achieve communications with you."

"And Paris and Torres?" she quizzed.

"The doctor was on the holodeck shortly after we beamed Ensigns Hudson and Simms out. He reports that they are doing well, and he has delivered medical supplies, food and fresh uniforms to them. We also delivered new comm badges to them, but as of yet, we have been unable to contact them or pick up their signals for a beam out."

"What's the status of the ship?" Janeway had been growing increasingly concerned at being out of touch with the rest of the ship.

"Engineering is encountering several problems," reported Tuvok. "The warp engines are currently off line. We are attempting to move the ship out of the magnetic field, which I believe is causing most, if not all, of the problems; however, at only impulse--"

"Very good, Mr. Tuvok," interrupted Janeway, sensing his distraction with the continuing problems Voyager was encountering. "It sounds like you're on top of things. Please keep me apprised of the situation. Meanwhile, I know you're extremely busy, but if you could find some way to release us from my quarters. . . ."

"Of course, Captain. I will do my best. Tuvok out."

Janeway frowned a bit. Tuvok was sounding a bit frazzled, an uncommon occurrence for the Vulcan. She turned back to the others and couldn't keep a slight smile off her face as she imagined Paris' and Torres' relief at having fresh uniforms. Harry was looking a bit envious at the moment. She met Chakotay's gaze. His eyes held humor. While the situation was serious, they couldn't help but be amused as Harry had told them of his holodeck adventures while they ate dinner. She was glad Chakotay was finally seeing the humor in it.  She suspected he was a bit upset over the burgeoning relationship that appeared to be developing between Tom and B'Elanna. Privately, Kathryn Janeway was delighted. She thought they were well suited and, being fond of both of them, she wanted them to find some happiness out here in the Delta Quadrant.

"Well, gentlemen," said Janeway, "we appear to have some time on our hands. Any suggestions?"

As Tuvok ended his transmission with Captain Janeway, he tried desperately to center himself. Calm. Emotions are not logical, NOT logical, he kept repeating over and over in his mind, hoping not to give into the chaos that the present crisis had brought on.

"Mr. Hamilton, keep trying to get in touch with the doctor to see if he succeeded in getting into the holodeck. Ensign Lamont, try to send repair teams to try and get the doors of the captain's quarters working." The sooner, the better! added Tuvok to himself. Although he felt that he was more than capable of handling any normal crisis, a captain's place WAS on the bridge.

Just as Tuvok was turning to check one of the displays at the Conn position, Hamilton's voice rang out in alarm, "Sir, I think you better look at this!" As Tuvok whirled around to look at the viewscreen, he took another deep breath as the one thing that he didn't want to see appeared. A Kazon ship.

"Red Alert! Shields up! Mr. Hamilton, scan them for weapons status," Tuvok ordered. At the same time, instead of the red alert klaxon sounding, the remaining bridge crew heard "Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y  M-O-U-S-E. Mickey Mouse . . ."

"What is THAT? Turn it off," Tuvok asked and ordered, trying to figure out how to defend the ship when it seemed all of the vital systems on board were malfunctioning.

As if in answer to his question, Hamilton's voice rang out in warning, "Sir! They're firing! Shields are not functioning!"

"All hands, brace for impact!" Tuvok managed to get out before stumbling into the captain's chair, while watching the torpedo come closer and closer to Voyager.

"Three seconds to impact," warned Hamilton. The tension on the bridge increased threefold, while everyone braced for the torpedo hit. It never came.

"Mr. Hamilton, report," ordered Tuvok.

"I can't explain it, sir. I can't pick up the torpedo on any of our readouts. I just don't understand . . ." Hamilton stopped, stunned by the scene on the viewscreen. The Kazon ship suddenly changed into a Cardassian Galor class warship, then just as quickly, into a Federation Excelsior class vessel.

"Curious. If the 'attack' was part of the ship's malfunctions, how were we able to receive any information from our scans?" puzzled Tuvok.

"We didn't, sir. Things happened so fast, I didn't realize that the scans revealed that there was nothing out there, but they're scanning that 'ship' out there now, and we're getting positive results," replied Hamilton, more than a little confused himself.

This problem was getting too much for even Tuvok to handle by himself. "Ensign Lamont, any success in getting repair teams to the captain's quarters?"

"Not yet, sir," she replied, "but I've finally been able to get through to the doctor. He said that he was able to successfully get on to Holodeck 2 and deliver his supplies to Lieutenants Torres and Paris."

One thing happened the way that it was supposed to, thought Tuvok. Now if they could only shut that annoying music off. "Cancel red alert," he commanded. The music continued unabated.

"I'm sorry, Sweetheart," Ensign Wildman crooned to her baby. "It has to go. Mommy just can't think of anything else to do." Sighing, she commanded, "Computer, permanently delete program 'Wildman Babysongs Three'." Mercifully, the music stopped, but the baby kept screaming. "Shh, hush, honey. It's all right now. It stopped."

"Well, it's about time," snapped a furious Jenny Delaney. "God, I can't believe I've been stuck in here for seven hours. Seven hours! Do you know how many diapers you've changed in the last seven hours?"

"Four," answered Samantha calmly.

"Four!" said Jenny, too busy with her own tantrum to even notice that Samantha had spoken. "Next time, you can jolly well come down to Stellar Cartography and pick up your own reports! Can't you shut her up?"

"If you can't shut up, why should I expect HER to shut up?" asked Ensign Wildman calmly.

Jenny looked daggers at her. "Motherhood is definitely NOT my cup of leola root juice. If I ever get out of this stupid nursery, Tom Paris is not getting within five feet of me ever again."

I'm sure he'll be just crushed, Sam thought to herself. But she had more class than to say so aloud.

"Now I'm sorry I put the fire out," said Tom dejectedly.

"The rain would have put it out anyway," pointed out B'Elanna.

"Yeah, I guess."

They sat huddled together as far inside the little rocky alcove as they could get, covered with their blanket, staring out at the rain pouring down from the gray heavens. Damp, chilled and miserable, Tom still could not be completely sorry he was stuck in Harry's program run amok. Not as long as the company was good.

"Paris, I--" she started, then hesitated.

"What?" he prompted.

"Tom, I have to talk to you about something."

"Lady, you have my undivided attention."

"No, this is serious."

Tom raised his eyebrows. "What's wrong?"

Get it said, Torres, she chided herself. "I, well, I've been having these dreams. About you."

The Vyarri commander sat staring at the empty viewscreen. Had it really even been there? The beautiful, mysterious warship had disappeared as fast as it had materialized out of the magnetic "fog" he had taken his ship into. A stupid move, he saw that now. They could probably have outrun the Vidiian vessel, or out-maneuvered it. Still, with Vidiians, one could take no chances. They did not leave survivors.

Yet now he had another problem on his hands. This blasted stuff! How many times have I been warned by my superiors not to go into these fields? Now, with my warp drive off line and my major systems incapacitated, I am a sitting egret should that ship come out of nowhere, firing. But what a prize if I could take them!

"Power up whatever weapons are operational," he barked to his primary attendant.

Tom opened his mouth, a wisecrack on the tip of his tongue, but looking at B'Elanna, he saw the deadly serious expression on her face and snapped his mouth shut without uttering a sound. After a long moment, Tom took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm listening," he simply said.

B'Elanna looked at him as if doubting the sincerity of his words, but he returned her gaze steadfastly. Trying to swallow her nervousness, she said, "I've been having strange dreams ever since the assimilation and they almost always seem to involve you in some way." She stopped, unable to go on.

"What kind of dreams?" Tom's voice was gentle, encouraging.

B'Elanna shrugged self-consciously. "In the dream I had a couple of nights ago, I was soaring through the air like a bird. I remember feeling a freedom I'd never felt before, and I felt safe. I had a companion during that flight. It was you, Tom, and it just felt . . . right somehow, as if that was the way it was supposed to be."

When Tom remained silent, B'Elanna was afraid to look at him and see the expression on his face. Talking rapidly, before she lost her nerve, she finished what she had been saying. "Last night I dreamed about the Vidiians. You were there, protecting me. You were holding me close, not letting the Vidiians get near me. It seemed so real. I could feel your arms around me." She looked away in embarrassment.

Unsure how B'Elanna would take what he had to say, Paris shifted uncomfortably. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the onslaught of anger that was about to be hurled at him. "When I woke up last night, you were shivering, so I pulled you closer. To share body heat," he added defensively. "I had my arm around you. I think you must have been aware of it on some level while you were dreaming."

B'Elanna knew she should be angry, but looking at him, sitting there seemingly contrite, she couldn't find it in herself to be angry. Tom had been concerned about her. He always seemed to be concerned about her, B'Elanna noted. She wasn't accustomed to having another person watch out for her. She found, to her surprise, that she rather enjoyed the sensation of being cared for.

Paris, waiting for the harsh and angry words to fall, was so surprised to hear B'Elanna speak to him softly, her tone gentle, that he almost forgot to listen to what she was saying.

"You know, when I was a little girl, I used to wish someone would put their arms around me and hold me. My father was already out of the picture, and my mother, well, she wasn't exactly the demonstrative type."

Tom was surprised to hear B'Elanna talk about her past, particularly her childhood. He didn't know much about it, but he had perceived that it had been an unhappy time for her. Feeling braver, since she hadn't jumped all over him for liberties taken the night before -- real or imagined -- Tom slipped an arm about her shoulders and squeezed gently.

"I'll always be here for you, B'Elanna. Anytime you need a hug or just a friend to talk to."

B'Elanna surprised him by leaning into his embrace, as if she craved the physical contact. Tom's ego wasn't so large that he mistook her motion to mean she craved physical contact with him specifically. Right now, she just needed to feel the comfort of another warm body next to hers.

B'Elanna settled into Tom's embrace. Caught off guard by his unexpected gentleness and understanding, she realized that whatever attraction she possessed for him had been held at bay by her refusal to acknowledge it. B'Elanna gave in to it, letting it blossom like a flower, filling her senses.

Tom, looking down at the top of her head, was surprised when B'Elanna tilted her head back to look at him. Their faces were mere inches apart. Then she surprised him even more by reaching up and pulling his head down, their lips meeting.

This was no gentle kiss, but one full of hunger unabated. They explored each other's mouths, both ravenous for the taste of the other.

Finally, they pulled back from one another. Both were breathing heavily.



They both spoke at the same time. As they gazed at one another, acknowledging that somehow something had just changed with that one kiss, a deep rumbling noise filled the air. As they gazed outward, mud began pouring in great sheets down the bluff they were sheltering under, making escape impossible. The last thing Tom remembered was throwing himself on top of B'Elanna in hopes of protecting her from the onslaught.

For a moment, B'Elanna felt as though all the air had been removed from her lungs. Then, as she felt the reassuring warmth of Tom's body, she relaxed and allowed herself to breathe. Though her body was protected for the most part from the painful impact of the torrent of mud, B'Elanna could still feel a cold stinging sensation as mud splattered her arms and legs. Tom's reflexes had been quicker than hers, and had he not covered her face, she would probably have been choked by the deluge of mud.

Burrowing her head deeper into Tom's shoulder, B'Elanna wondered if the mudslide had been a curse or a salvation. Her desire to know if Tom had been having the same type of dreams she had been having since the assimilation, had turned into more than she felt ready to handle. Yet, for the first time in her life, when she reached out to someone to hold her, that someone had been there. Not even Chakotay, the only person whom she had ever allowed herself to depend on, had ever made B'Elanna feel so safe and secure. Safe and secure, yet excited at the same time. It was an incredible feeling, and she was terrified of it.

B'Elanna was used to fighting the volatile Klingon side of her, but the strength of her emotions as she kissed Tom had been stronger than even her Klingon rage. With no safeties on the holodeck, there was no guarantee that either of them would make it out of this crazy mountain setting alive. B'Elanna made a promise to herself. If they got out of here, she would stay as far away as possible from the dangerous emotions that Tom Paris evoked in her. That meant staying away from Tom Paris.

After the mudslide came to a halt, Tom remained still a moment and tried to figure out what was happening. Another mudslide. He silently cursed this doomed program. And just as things were starting to look like they might take a turn for the better.

B'Elanna did not move. He shifted so that he could see her. She was breathing. "B'Elanna?" he whispered. "Are you all right?" She didn't look at him.

"I'm fine. What happened?"

"The mud is back."

"Great." Then B'Elanna was silent.

"Is something wrong?" Tom asked quietly.

"Nothing's wrong."

"Because if something's wrong, you can tell me. You know that," he whispered, disquieted.

"I know."

As if aware of B'Elanna's troubled thoughts or of some hidden danger, Chakotay's amused smile disappeared. A feeling of unease gripped him. Pressing his comm badge, he said, "Chakotay to Transporter Room 1." It was no surprise when Hogan in Engineering answered instead.

"Hogan, here, Commander. As you can tell, we have not cleared the magnetic field. I have not been able to establish direct contact between Engineering and the bridge. Engineering sensors also indicate an alien vessel approaching us. That reading could be part of the numerous malfunctions." Static began to creep into the voice transmission.

Chakotay silently cursed as Hogan's voice began to fade. "Hogan, before we lose contact, I want you to try a site-to-site transport, beaming me to . . ."

Damn, Hogan thought. Beam Commander Chakotay to where? A transport was not likely to work at this point, anyway. The commander  probably wanted to attempt another rescue for the lieutenants. Hogan thought security had certainly not been successful in their attempts, but it was worth another try. Quickly setting up the transport, Hogan hoped that Commander Chakotay did not end up in Neelix's kitchen or somewhere equally terrifying.

One second, Chakotay was in the captain's quarters hoping that Hogan could get him to the bridge, the next he was sliding down a huge embankment. Closing his eyes against the waves of mud, he braced himself for impact and possible death as he neared the bottom.

He felt himself flailing in the air for mere seconds, then he hit the ground with a painful landing on his face. Winded for a moment, Chakotay continued to lay on his stomach unable to think or breathe. As air was suddenly forced into his lungs, he gulped, then sputtered as he tasted mud.

Mud? Thinking of Harry's appearance when he first beamed into the captain's quarters, Chakotay decided he must be on the holodeck. If he could open his eyes, he could verify that. Unfortunately, his entire face was coated with mud. Gathering his strength, he attempted to roll over onto his back. As he moved, Chakotay's body came into contact with a what seemed to be a wall. Reaching out, he touched the wall and was surprised to feel what appeared to be . . . cloth?

Quickly trying to remove as much mud as possible from his eyes, Chakotay opened them and through blurry eyes saw what appeared to be a body. Sitting up abruptly, he put a hand on the inert body hoping that the person was still breathing.

Seeing a tiny strip of red and the size of the body, Chakotay surmised it was Paris. "Paris, can you hear me?"

Tom jumped as his dazed mind registered the hand on his back and the sound of his name. Moving away from B'Elanna, he turned over and sat up. Recognizing Chakotay, Tom smiled. "It's good of you to join us, Commander."

After registering that Paris was perfectly okay, or at least healthy enough to be his usual cocky self, Chakotay glanced to where B'Elanna was now sitting up and attempting to restore her dignity. Though she was not as drenched by mud as Paris or himself, she was frantically trying to brush off huge splatters. Her face, with only a small amount of mud covering it, was glowing bright red.

"I don't want to know," Chakotay told B'Elanna, and if anything the red hue of her face became even darker.

"No, you don't," Paris agreed and despite being covered in mud, his blue eyes danced merrily, and his white teeth gleamed with mirth.

In the captain's quarters, Hudson and Simms, having heard the explanation given by Harry, Captain Janeway, and Chakotay, (before his sudden beam-out) for Ensign Kim's unusual attire, were seated and almost enjoying themselves. If either one of them had been alone there with his commanding officers, he would have been quite uncomfortable, but now that the three ensigns were in it together, they were all much more at ease. Although Hudson and Simms both felt extremely sympathetic to Ensign Kim both of them could barely keep from snickering when they thought of him in there with the captain and commander, wearing that dress. The officers were actually having a friendly chat with one another when the subject of Lieutenant Paris and Lieutenant Torres came up.

"What exactly IS going on with them, anyway?" Harry inquired, sounding almost as curious as he felt.

"Well, I'm not really sure, to tell you the truth," Simms replied, and looked at Hudson. "Mik?"

"Don't look at me!" Hudson said, grinning.

"Come on, you were on that Borg ship with them, AND you were stuck in the holodeck with them; you guys know something. And I want you to tell me!" Kim said to them, laughing. This made Janeway laugh, and she realized she seldom got to watch her officers interact in such a casual way. She enjoyed it, and they almost seemed as if they had forgotten she was there.

"Okay, well, there IS something going on. What, I don't know. But, I mean, these looks they keep giving each other. It's almost like THEY don't even know what's happening between them," Simms continued. "Who would have thought the two of them would have something going on? Go figure. Harry, you know them the best. What do you think?"

"What do I think? I think they're both in denial and won't admit to anything!" Harry seemed much more comfortable now that everyone had almost forgotten about his dress. "I know Tom, and I can't even figure him out lately. But really, the commander knows B'Elanna better than any of us."

Tom had felt a hand on his back and heard Chakotay's voice speaking to him. That had been about an hour ago, but the short dialogue between him and B'Elanna was still running through his mind. There was something in her tone of voice that had seemed strange. He glanced at her and noticed that not once since the most recent mudslide had she looked him straight in the eye. He was confused and almost hurt by her actions at avoiding his gaze and the shortness of her words toward him in that brief conversation.

Now they were sitting with Chakotay on a fallen tree in the woods away from the mud, discussing the ship's current situation. The commander had said something about the possibility that there was a hostile ship out there in close proximity, but Tom couldn't seem to concentrate. He looked at B'Elanna. She was all muddy again; not half as muddy as he and Chakotay were, but he didn't think that was the reason for the change in her mood.

"Paris, are you listening?" Chakotay's exasperated voice intruded on Tom's thoughts. He jerked his attention back to the present and looked at Chakotay. Tom tried a grin, but it failed miserably.

Chakotay stared at Paris for a long moment. He didn't understand the younger man at all. Every time he thought he had him pegged, he turned around and surprised him. It had quickly become obvious to him that Paris had covered B'Elanna with his own body to protect her from the mudslide at risk to himself. And just now, when he had been prepared to berate Paris for not paying attention, Paris had flashed that lame excuse for a smile at him. He looked about as down in the mouth as Chakotay had ever seen him. And B'Elanna had completely withdrawn, not saying much of anything and refusing to look at either of them. Heaving a sigh, Chakotay spoke.

"Listen you two, you could slice the tension in here with a knife. Now, I don't know what happened before I got here . . . did Paris do something to offend you . . . ?" Chakotay was surprised when B'Elanna spoke, her voice defensive.

"Tom didn't do anything. Why do you always blame him for everything?"

Chakotay quirked an eyebrow. This was definitely a new twist. Torres coming to Paris' defense?

"Okay," Chakotay acknowledged, "Paris didn't do anything." He turned to Tom, who had leaned forward in interest when B'Elanna spoke. "Anything you want to add?"

Paris immediately pulled back, withdrawing. He shrugged. "Not really. I'd just like to get off this holodeck." Tom suddenly found himself flat on his back on the ground. No, that wasn't right. It was the deck underneath him. Looking around, he saw that the holoprogram had disappeared to be replaced by the black holodeck walls with the yellow grid pattern. The exit!

Swinging his head around, he saw that B'Elanna was already headed in that direction. Chakotay followed and Paris was not far behind. The door slid open and they stepped out, catching Carey, who had been quietly cursing the computer under his breath, by surprise. Carey's eyes widened at the sight of the mud-covered trio.

"Hey, shouldn't this mud have disappeared when the program shut off?" asked B'Elanna, always the engineer.

She's always thinking technically, isn't she? Tom thought to himself, amused. He hadn't thought of that, but the mud should have disappeared, shouldn't it? Tom took a quick look behind him. Holodeck 2 appeared to be awash in a sea of mud. It was all over not only the floor, but the walls as well. And as he watched, more was synthesized.

"Well, we'll worry about that later. For now--"

"I suggest you work on getting the captain out of her quarters," Chakotay said to Carey. "Unless that's already been done?"

Carey shook his head. "No, sir. I'll get right on it."

As Carey strode down the hall, Chakotay turned to Torres and Paris. Taking in B'Elanna's slight limp, he said, "You should go to sickbay and have that looked at."

"All I want to do is go to my quarters and take a long shower," B'Elanna replied.

"It wouldn't hurt for you to check in with sickbay either, Paris."

"Me?" Paris sounded surprised.

"You were semi-conscious when I found you," Chakotay said. "Make sure you both have the doctor look you over before you report for duty."

Chakotay headed down the corridor.

The door to Kathryn Janeway's quarters slid open just as Carey reached it. At the same moment the ship's yellow alert sounded. Janeway turned to look at the other occupants of her quarters. "Ensign Kim, I'd like you on the bridge." She paused at his stricken look.

"Like this?" he asked uncertainly, indicating his choice of clothing.

Taking pity on the ensign, she said, "Paris' uniform should be dry by now. Put it on and get to the bridge as soon as possible."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She didn't correct him. For all she knew, this was crunch time. She bolted from her quarters and headed for the turbolift. As she reached it, the door slid open and Chakotay, a mud-covered Chakotay, stepped out.

"Commander, I could use you on the bridge," Janeway said briskly.

"Like this?" replied Chakotay, indicating his mud-covered state.

Janeway smiled, thinking, Didn't I just have this conversation with Kim? "I'll take you any way I can get you, Commander. Let's go." They stepped into the turbolift.

Carey stood in the corridor outside the captain's quarters. Paris and Torres were out of the holodeck, Chakotay with them, which had been a surprise. The captain was out of her quarters. Hudson and Simms had also exited her quarters and Kim, in a red and black uniform, had just raced by, heading for the turbolift. And Carey still didn't know why everything had locked up in the first place, let alone why it had unlocked. Shaking his head, he headed for Engineering, sure there was something there that needed doing.

Tuvok's eyebrows raised ever so slightly as Captain Janeway and a mud encrusted Commander Chakotay bounded out of the turbolift and onto the bridge. He respectfully vacated the captain's chair, and took up his own station at Tactical Systems.

"Tuvok, report."

"An alien vessel is maintaining a parallel course, Captain. Subspace communications are off line so it is impossible to determine if they have attempted to contact us. Sensors are at 62% and fluctuating. Warp engines are off line, but  Mr. Hogan hopes to have them back on line in a matter of minutes. The transporter is functional, and we do have impulse power."


"Captain," Tuvok intoned. "Weapons are operational, but I cannot recommend the use of either the phaser banks or the photon torpedoes. I do not know if we could adequately control them."

"Then let's just hope these beings are friendly. Can we hail them?"

"We will need to wait for a window of opportunity, Captain."

"Maintain yellow alert. Can we get a visual?"


"On screen."

The yellow alert klaxon stopped B'Elanna in her tracks. She whirled around, abandoning hope of a shower, and tore into a clean uniform. She ruthlessly yanked a brush through her hair, removing most of the drying mud, and tossed it over her shoulder. The doors slid shut behind her before it even landed on her bed.

Tom Paris, who had also ignored the commander's advice to report to sickbay, had been a little faster than the limping B'Elanna. With his spare uniform in a muddy heap at this feet, and his other one who-knew-where, he pulled on civilian clothes and headed toward the bridge.

Harry, embarrassed at his sudden promotion to Lieutenant by proxy, flew out of the captain's quarter's at warp speed and charged into the former occupant of the uniform.

"Well, good evening, SIR," smirked Paris. "My, you look good in red."

Harry was in no mood for it. "Shut up, Paris. I've had a long night."

"A long night in the captain's quarter's? No, don't tell me, I don't even want to know."

"Tom, shut up, or  so help me I'll--"

"You'll what?" Tom retorted. "Let me guess. You'll--" He broke off as the turbolift doors whooshed open. Tom's eyes shifted first, as they often did, to the viewscreen. A sudden terrible memory flitted into his mind, but disappeared just as quickly. Whoever they were, Tom was certain these were ruthless enemies. Harry raced to his station, but Tom stood at the top of the bridge, staring at the vessel, transfixed.

"Mr. Kim, have the readings of the unknown vessel changed?"

"Well, right now it's reading as a cross between a Klingon freighter and a Vulcan medical ship. Looking at the screen, it doesn't look like either. I'm running diagnostics on the systems now."

"Can we at least tell if their weapons are powered up?" demanded Chakotay.

"The systems indicate negative at the moment, sir," replied Harry.

"Mr. Tuvok," the captain turned to her tactical officer, "stay on yellow alert and keep an eye on our own weapon systems."

B'Elanna marched into the nearest turbolift. "Engineering," she practically growled while the doors shut. What was happening to her lately? In the middle of a crisis and I'm playing games with Tom on the holodeck! He's the one who goaded me into going there in the first place. He'll pay for this, she thought bitterly. After today, Chakotay would definitely corner her for one of his 'talks'. I'll get him back for this, she thought, then I'll stay as far from him as possible on a ship this size. Even as she said it to herself, she knew that it would be easier said than done.

It was absolute chaos when she walked into Engineering. People were running into each other, everyone was shouting to be heard over the others. Lieutenant Browning was the first to see her walk in.

"Sir, are we glad to see you." His smile looked too relieved and his comment was made too loud. B'Elanna knew she would be here for hours. Upon hearing Lieutenant Browning's comment, everyone stopped what he or she was doing and turned to her. Oh well, she thought, it's not as if I had anything else to do. She began barking out orders while she moved to her console and demanded status reports from everyone around her. Chaos broke out again almost immediately, but at least it was the kind of chaos she could command.

"Mr. Paris," said Janeway evenly, "you are out of uniform."

"Yes, Captain," said Tom, still staring at the viewscreen. "I had to . . ." His voice trailed off as everyone on the bridge glanced around at him curiously. "That ship. Those creatures," he said softly. "Captain, I don't know how I know, but I can tell you, they mean to kill us all and take the ship!"

Janeway rose from her seat and her eyes narrowed. "You'll have to do better than that, Lieutenant. We cannot act aggressively toward an unknown ship. You know that."

Tom looked extremely uncomfortable. "I've seen them before, Captain. I know I have. We need to power up our weapons and raise the shields! We need to get OUT of here!"

Janeway gave Tom a long, steady look, which he returned without wavering. Janeway started crisply, "Mr. Tuvok, raise the--"

The concussion from the sudden burst of phaser fire knocked everyone on the bridge out of his seat. Janeway fell to her knees; Tom did a flip over the bridge rail, whacking his head on Chakotay's data station. Kim toppled over backwards into the imaging array, cracking his skull as well. Hamilton crashed into the conn, bounced off into the floor, and remained there stunned. Tom stumbled forward into the pilot's position. Chakotay scrambled to his feet holding a useless right arm.

"Red alert!" he barked. "Tuvok, raise the shields!"

"Captain," reported Tuvok, hands flying over the tactical board, oblivious to the green blood oozing from a gash above his eye, "that volley nearly destroyed our main weapons array. Shields are now in place but falling--" Voyager rocked as another volley hit the ship, "--to 64%."

"Mr. Paris, get us out of here!"

"Warp engines are still off line, Captain. Impulse engines at 41%. Initiating evasive maneuver Lambda 3."

"Reports of injuries coming in," exclaimed Kim.  "Captain! They've just launched a photon torpedo!"

Janeway was fast with her comm badge. "All hands, brace for impact!"

What had been chaos before in Engineering was now bedlam. Torres was jumping toward the console adjacent to the warp core when the torpedo struck, destroying the remaining shields. She collided with Lieutenant Browning, and they both went down in a tangle.

"B'Elanna!" came the captain's voice, "we need warp power!"

"I'm working on it, Captain. Browning, get off me! Just give me five minutes!"

"Lieutenant, we don't have shields! We don't have weapons! We don't HAVE five minutes!"

Back on the bridge, Chakotay snapped at Harry, "Ensign, hail that vessel. I don't plan to get blown out of space today!"

"No response, sir. But I've got sensors back on line. Their shields are down. They are launching a shuttle craft. Several life forms aboard."

"Oh, they won't destroy us," muttered Tom. "They want the ship. Next they'll try to board us and kill us."

"Well, I don't plan to get executed in a muddy uniform," retorted Chakotay.

"Think people!" commanded Janeway. "We need options!"

Tom, facing away from Chakotay, rolled his eyes. Like it matters what you look like when you die. Then he whirled around. "Captain," he said, "we have transporter power. We have sensors; we could zero in on their bridge and their shuttle control consoles." He paused, and a slightly evil smile creased his face. "And we have a holodeck full of mud. It . . . well, it has to go somewhere."

Janeway smacked her comm badge. "Janeway to Torres. Lieutenant, I think we just found your five minutes."

While not exactly standard procedure, the suggestion proved satisfyingly effective. Immediately after the transporter room performed "the dirty work" -- Paris' label, acknowledged by groans and muffled snickers from everyone on the bridge -- the enemy ship's shots first began to go wildly astray, then ceased entirely, and Tuvok reported that he was getting what he referred to as "greatly diminished and extremely erratic energy readings" from it.

"It is possible, Captain," he added, "that the plasma field also created weaknesses within their systems, the effects of which have now been exacerbated by Mr. Paris' . . . strategy."

"Nice to know it's not just us," Chakotay commented dryly, and Janeway nodded silent agreement.

Still, the ship was doing better than its shuttlecraft -- the mud had evidently caused a severe malfunction in its piloting controls, and it was now spinning end over end in space, apparently helpless to maneuver. The resulting display was more than a little funny, and most of the bridge crew were grinning (except, of course, for Tuvok). Paris in particular looked almost vindictively pleased, and Janeway reminded herself to ask him later about his "memories" of these people.

Just then B'Elanna's voice came over the comm link. "Captain, we have warp drive."

"Mr.  Paris, warp six." He didn't even bother to acknowledge, just tapped out the commands, and the speed and smoothness of his movements convinced her that whatever other worries she might have about him, there was nothing wrong with his performance. The stars on the viewscreen began to streak past, and Janeway sat back and breathed a well-concealed sigh of relief. Things were finally going right--

--until about thirty seconds later, when the lights went down and the bridge shook with a jarring thump -- one much less violent than the last impact, fortunately. The lights came back on, revealing a slightly shaken bridge crew and normal space outside the ship.

"We've stopped," Paris said unnecessarily.

"Engineering to Bridge," came B'Elanna's voice. "Warp drive is down -- again."

"But we've left the alien ship behind, Captain," Ensign Kim added. "I'm no longer detecting them on scanners. And we're completely out of the plasma field."

"That, Mr. Kim, is the best news I've heard all day. All right, everyone--" the captain stood, "--it's time to start cleaning up."

B'Elanna Torres was later getting to the mess hall than she had planned. She had told Harry she would be there an hour ago. She hoped he had waited for her, but she wouldn't mind going back to her quarter's and getting some sleep.

She heard voices inside before she even opened the door. Everyone off duty must be here, she thought as she began searching the room for Harry. She saw him talking with Tom Paris at the other end of the room. Although she didn't relish an encounter with Tom at the moment, she picked her way through the crowd and tapped Harry on the shoulder.

"I see you didn't give up on me," she smirked, "I got caught in Engineering."

"I figured you were working on something. I've been all over the ship today fixing miscellaneous malfunctions. After yesterday, I can only imagine what your department looked like," Harry said as he moved over one seat to let B'Elanna sit down.

"Carey and Hogan did a good job keeping things above water while I was stuck in the holodeck, but they made a mess trying to keep power up. You wouldn't believe what I had to re-route today. All that on top of staying up all night with Lieutenant Browning keeping the matter/anti-matter containment field stable . . . manually! And everyone wants to know when the main power grid is coming back on-line. As if I've been sitting around doing nothing! We're lucky to have life-support operational, and with the system wide glitches, I thought preventing an explosion was a priority. After that, we had to make sure we had shields and weapons. If they think I can just snap my fingers and it will all magically work, they can kiss my . . ."

She stopped mid-sentence. Both Tom and Harry were staring at her with a look that was half comical, half defensive on their faces. "Anyway, enough of how my day was. Did you find out what exactly was wrong with the holodeck, Harry? The mud was still in my uniform when I went to wash it this morning."

"I've been so busy with repairs around the ship, I haven't been able to look into it fully. I think the electromagnetic field caused more than one program to run at once. The computer tried to compensate for the surges and keep with the original program. As to why certain glitches showed up, who knows? They were all things that dealt with other programs."

"Well, I can say this much," Tom said while trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice, "it was one hell of a ride, but it's too bad they're not operating now, which is exactly why everyone is crowded into the mess hall instead of enjoying a drink and a game of pool at Sandrine's."

For a few tension filled, awkward seconds, nobody spoke. "Well, I can see that Harry has planned a little chat with you. I'll leave," Tom said, getting up.

"Goodnight, Tom. Don't forget that you're helping me with the conduits in Shuttle Bay 2 tomorrow morning."

"I won't forget, Harry," Tom called over his shoulder.

Harry turned his attention to B'Elanna. She was avoiding his gaze by looking into her coffee cup and swirling it around as if there were grounds in the bottom of the cup. "Aren't you just a little curious as to why I wanted to talk with you, B'Elanna?"

Still wondering what was wrong with Tom, she set her cup down and looked him straight in the eye. "Not really." She paused looking first in one eye, then the other. "Should I be?" Her upper lip curled slightly when she spoke to him.

B'Elanna had a way of making people feel nervous around her. Harry had learned that she did this unintentionally at times. This wasn't one of those times. "Look, don't get defensive, B'Elanna. I consider you and Tom my best friends on board, and something has changed since that Borg thing. Both of you have been acting strangely. Tom will be talking and stop in the middle of a thought and not realize he's doing it. You stare into space with that 'concentrating' look of yours, but don't remember what you were thinking about when I ask. At least that's what both of you say. I'm just concerned, that's all. I have two theories, and I hope only one of them is true."

"What's that supposed to mean? You mean you hope one of them is true? You want something to be wrong with us?" Her anger was increasing and she was having trouble keeping her voice to a normal level. Making that statement about being 'best friends' could only mean that he wanted to butt into her life.

"Not wrong, just different." He hesitated, and looked down at the table for a moment. "One theory is that something happened to you that the Borg didn't tell us. Maybe it's residual memories of the Collective or something. Tom is pretty vague about it. As for the other theory . . . well, I'm trying to figure out the best way to bring this up. I thought it would be easier to bring it up with Tom than you, but he practically jumped down my throat. Even so, I still feel I'm right. Besides, both theories could be true and unrelated, or related, or not true, or half true . . ."

Her anger calmed a bit when she realized she was making him nervous. Interrupting his dialogue, B'Elanna said, still irritated, "Fine, Harry. Go ahead, I promise not to knock you flat on the floor or throw you across the room." She calmed down and smiled at him. "Just remember that I can do it, okay?"

He smiled back and would have laughed if he weren't so nervous. "Are you and Tom . . .? Well, what I mean to say is, if you, or rather, has Tom . . .? No, I don't mean that, but are you . . . ?" Ah, hell! Harry thought. I'm stumbling like an idiot. "If you and Tom were to become involved, romantically speaking, you guys would tell me, wouldn't you?" That sounded ridiculous.

B'Elanna stared at Harry with a very blank look on her face. He couldn't read it at all. Then she abruptly stood up and left the room. She didn't stomp out, like she does when she is really angry, or march out, like she does when she is marginally upset. She didn't swagger out, like she does when she is in a good mood, she simply walked out. Now what the hell was that all about? Harry thought.

Back in his quarters, Harry started to realize that her reaction to his question wasn't all that strange, considering Tom's reaction. Now that certainly WAS strange. Tom had come by his work station just as he was about to go off-duty, which was pretty usual because they often ate dinner together. Harry had asked him if he was feeling strange lately. Tom had said that he was having some strange dreams that he thought were from the mini-assimilation with the Borg, but that they weren't threatening or anything. In fact, he had said that they were usually rather calming dreams, and that he'd remember bits and pieces of them when he was awake, like his sudden realization about the Vyarri.

Harry didn't usually mince words with Tom, so he had asked outright, "Do you and B'Elanna have something going on?"

Tom had stopped in the middle of the corridor. "What do you mean 'going on'?"

"It's just that the two of you have been acting funny around each other. I thought maybe you were trying not to let anyone know that you were becoming involved." Harry had continued walking towards the mess hall. He was 45 minutes late to meet up with B'Elanna and he didn't want to wait until tomorrow to talk to her. Maybe he would get the two of them to admit it together.

Tom had remained silent until they sat down. When Harry had finished getting his food, Tom had put his elbows on the table with his hands laying out straight in front of him.

"Get one thing straight, Harry. B'Elanna isn't someone who has casual affairs. Since, apparently, that's all everyone thinks I have, we wouldn't be well suited, would we? B'Elanna is stubborn and angry most of the time. Do I strike you as the kind of person who would forsake all others for a woman like that?"

Where in the world is this coming from? Harry had thought. Tom must be more serious about her than I thought.

"Another thing," Tom had said, "she can't stand to be in the same room with me lately, and frankly, that's a relief. She's definitely not interested." Then Harry thought he heard Tom mutter something like "It must have just been hormones."

Then there was the tap on his shoulder, and B'Elanna had joined them. Tom had barely been civil from that point on, and he had left abruptly.

B'Elanna's response was either normal because it was just as puzzling as Tom's response, or they were both plain crazy.

B'Elanna was walking down the corridor and turning the corner to her quarters when her face came in contact with a broad chest.

"Another crewman who doesn't watch where she's going," Chakotay said. "It's becoming a problem, I think."

"What?" she asked almost incoherently.

"Never mind." He shrugged it off. "I was coming to see you. Do you have time to talk for a bit?"

B'Elanna knew that she had avoided this talk with Chakotay long enough. Ever since the experiment with the Borg, he had wanted to talk with her. He wouldn't be put off any longer, especially after the developments of the last couple of days. "Sure, but not too long. I'm exhausted." She punched in her security code and they walked into her quarters.

She normally felt comfortable talking to Chakotay -- she usually sought him out for advice -- but she didn't want to discuss this Paris thing with him, or Harry, or anyone else. She had a hunch, though, that this was why Chakotay had asked to see her. He knew.

"How are things in Engineering?" Chakotay stalled. "I assume everything important is back on line?"

"More or less," B'Elanna replied. "I just gave the captain my report." She paused. "Do you want to read it?"

"Not really," he grinned. "B'Elanna, how are you feeling? You've seemed a little, well, preoccupied. Everyone is concerned--"

"Look," she interrupted. "You don't need to worry. Nothing's going on with him. I have everything under control. The whole crew is jumping to conclusions about us, but . . ." She paused from her tirade, frowning at Chakotay's utterly confused expression.

She went to the replicator -- after the last two days, she was in serious need of a drink. Chakotay shook his head when she offered to get him something, so she punched up a single for herself. Chakotay watched as she stalked to a seat and sank into it. "How's the ankle doing?"

"Fine, now; the doctor waved his magic wand at me and made it all better."

"I heard Lieutenant Paris helped you get to sickbay," he commented, and watched with fascination as she actually blushed.

"He was going there too, anyway; he was . . . being considerate."

"Paris, considerate? Now that's a strange thought." His voice was unusually acid, even given the subject, and she looked at him curiously.

"You're not still upset about the things he did when he was pretending to be a misfit?"

Chakotay raised his eyebrows at her. "He made a fool out of me, repeatedly, in front of the people I'm supposed to command. Shouldn't I be upset?"

"Nobody thought you were a fool, Chakotay. They thought he was a jerk, instead," she pointed out. Her mouth tightened, remembering. And of course, nobody tried to find out what was wrong, not even Harry. True, nothing HAD been wrong; it had all been an act. But what if it hadn't been? You and I were the only ones who even asked, and you only cared because his performance was slipping. Even our "morale officer" only got into it when he thought Tom was about to leave.

B'Elanna remembered how she'd felt when that announcement had been made -- a tight, cold ache inside that she hadn't wanted to acknowledge, much less think about. When Paris had beamed off the ship, she'd been -- hiding, B'Elanna, admit it -- in Engineering, not wanting to see him leave; afraid that if she went to say good-bye her self-control would break and betray her. She shook herself out of the thought. Pay attention to the present, Torres, not the past.

"But that's not what I meant," she continued aloud. "He was under orders when he did those things. It wasn't fair of Janeway and Tuvok not to let you in on it, but you should take that up with them. Not Paris."

Chakotay started to retort, then sighed. "How did we get on this topic? I didn't come in here to talk about me. B'Elanna, how are you doing?"

"I -- fine. Just fine." But the words came too fast, too jerkily; even a stranger could have heard the lie in them.

"No side effects from the assimilation?" he asked quietly, watching her with calm dark eyes.

B'Elanna looked down. She couldn't very well deny that one -- not after today. Harry had been the one to suggest that Tom's unexplainable memories of their enemy might be knowledge gained from the Borg. When the idea had been tested by displaying a visual of the ship on a viewscreen in Engineering, B'Elanna's reaction had been all they'd needed to confirm the theory -- and firmly establish that there had, indeed, been side effects from the assimilation.

"Yes," she admitted. "Just occasional fragments of -- something. Never anything I recognize or can even see very clearly. Today was the first time anything distinct came through, and I doubt it would have happened if I hadn't been directly confronted with the thing I was remembering."

Chakotay asked her a few more questions -- were the memories ever disturbing, did they distract her from her duties, et cetera, -- and finally made her swear a solemn oath that she would ask somebody for help if she felt there was the slightest cause for concern.

"Now," he said, leaning forward in his chair. "What else?"

"What -- makes you think there's something else?"

He just looked at her, and she sighed. I really should know better; he knows me too well. "I've been having dreams about the assimilation, too," she confessed. She clasped her hands together tightly, a nervous gesture. "But I don't want to talk about them. They're . . . personal."

"Not even with me?"

"Not even with you."

"THAT personal. I see." He shifted in his chair, studying her. "Do they involve Tom Paris?"

Much too well. "Yes," she muttered. I am NOT going to blush.

"B'Elanna." He took a deep breath, and when he spoke he sounded as if it was an effort to keep his voice calm. "What is going on with the two of you?"

All the frustration and fear -- and joy -- seemed to coil up inside her, and for a moment she physically couldn't speak. "I don't know," she said finally. "But he looks at me sometimes like nobody ever has, including Javier." And including you. She bit her lip and continued. "And when I kiss him, it feels like there's an anti-matter reaction inside of me."

"Can you trust him?"

"Chakotay, he's our pilot. We trust him with our lives in every battle."

"It's not his skills I doubt, B'Elanna. It's his heart."

She swallowed, hard. "Who said hearts have anything to do with it?" she demanded. "Or that I need your permission even if they do?"

"B'Elanna." Chakotay's voice was gentle, reproving, and she dropped her eyes. "Look, I just don't want you to get hurt -- again."

B'Elanna went stiff in her chair, and she started to snap out a furious response -- but then she met Chakotay's eyes, and recognized the genuine concern in them. She sighed, and the anger drained out of her. Of course Chakotay was worried about her -- he was the only one on Voyager who knew about her humiliating experience with Javier. She'd told him about it one night when she was mortally depressed and had far too much to drink. She remembered how comforting Chakotay had been, and how angry on her behalf, and how much she'd needed that.

"You're a wonderful woman, B'Elanna. Any smart man should be proud to have you as a partner -- I just don't know that Paris is a smart man."

She winced. "I . . . don't know that he is either," she admitted. So how dumb am I, for wanting him? Then B'Elanna felt a hint of mischief stir inside her. "ANY smart man?" she asked with a straight face. "Does that include you?"

Chakotay's eyes widened in shock, and -- was that a touch of panic? If not, it was the closest she'd ever seen him come to it. "I -- B'Elanna, I didn't mean--"

B'Elanna had to laugh; it wasn't often she could catch him so off-balance. "It's all right, Chakotay. I was joking. You're my dear friend, but you're also my commander. And anyway, you're so damned irritatingly CALM all the time -- it'd drive me crazy inside of two weeks." She smiled, and meant it. She HAD been attracted to Chakotay, once -- but in only in a secret, half-guilty way, and after that wretched alien had given the fantasy concrete form, it had died a quiet death. Partly it had been the embarrassment she'd felt over abandoning her duties for the dream Chakotay. But also, when she'd been forced to truly examine her feelings, they hadn't held up. Her attraction to Chakotay had been born of pure loneliness and the deep respect in which she held him -- she hadn't really wanted HIM, only what he represented -- someone she could safely love. Besides, she thought wryly, I know who HE'S interested in, and it's not me! She shook her head. "Chakotay, is that all? Because I'd really like to get some sleep."

"All right," Chakotay acquiesced, getting up and heading for the door. "Just remember what I said, B'Elanna."

Her smile disappeared, and she nodded gravely. "I will," she said softly. If he heard anything unusual in her voice, he didn't show it as he went out.

She sat there for a long time after he left, remembering Javier. The sharply handsome face, the coal-black hair and liquid ebony eyes, the smile that had lit her world like sunlight, moonlight, and starlight all combined. The feel of their linked hands, of his lips on hers, of his body so near to her own. And -- the most painful memory of all -- the joy, bright as fire, at finally being accepted, being truly wanted. The joy that had blinded her to all common sense, had made her forget that this romance was far too good to be true.

Until the day she'd found him with Carlota -- delicate, blond, brainless Carlota -- and he'd finally told her the truth, utterly indifferent to her feelings. "You actually thought I was serious, Torres? . . . had a bet on with Sandro . . . wanted to see if it was true what they say about Klingons . . . just a game, Chica, that's all. . . ."

She'd stood there, mouth hanging open like an idiot, blank with shock and unwilling to believe what she was hearing. Laughing, he'd dismissed her completely and turned back to Carlota -- a mistake; with the laughter came comprehension, and with comprehension came rage. Her fists had silenced the laughter, and his handsome face was no longer so handsome by the time his friends had managed to drag her off of him. White-faced, she'd shaken off the hands on her and stalked back to her mother's house, and there, alone in her room, she'd cried the tears she'd refused to shed in public. A week later, she'd applied to Starfleet, and within a month she was gone. But the emotional damage had already been done.

At eighteen, she'd had no experience with romance; there'd never before been anyone who was interested in her. Javier had been her first. She hadn't loved him, but for a brief time she'd trusted him and cared for him. Discovering that he had never cared for her -- never really wanted her at all -- had left deep emotional wounds that had never healed completely. He'd been her last, as well, for after having been burned so badly she'd never dared to try again.

And now?

Now there was Paris. Paris, who at worst was a cowardly, lying traitor, and who at best was an arrogant, irresponsible hotshot. Paris, who'd held her gently as she slept, and never tried to take advantage; who'd invaded her dreams; who'd kissed her as though his life depended on it. Paris, who'd called up feelings in her far stronger than those she'd experienced for Javier -- feelings that left her more terrified than any Cardassian warship. How could I open up to him? How could I trust him?

Just a game, Chica.

Javier's words sounded again in her head. And again -- but this time it was Paris' voice, in his most mocking tones. Just a game, B'Elanna. Over and over the phrase repeated, voices mixing and swirling in her head until she couldn't tell one from the other.

Oh gods!

"Just a game," she whispered, and closed her burning eyes. No. No. I can't risk this.

Risk? Isn't that what you want, what you are? Part of being Maquis, part of being yourself?

Not like this, not with him. The stakes are too high. Love hurts too much to take any chances. And Chakotay's right; I can't trust him. No, from now on I'll stay as far away from Paris as duty will allow.

A sensible, intelligent decision. But one that gave her no satisfaction. Part of her wanted to take something and smash it, but she couldn't summon up the energy. What makes me think he's even really interested? So we kissed a couple times; so what? We were under stress and stuck together, and Paris has overactive hormones anyway. But we're not on the holodeck or in a Borg cell now. Why should he care about me when he can chase the Delaney sisters around the ship? A small voice inside her protested that she was being unfair, but she was in no mood to listen it.

She opened her eyes and rose wearily from her chair, glancing around her quarters once more before she went to bed.

Not long after his talk with B'Elanna, Chakotay decided to seek out Tom Paris, to have a little 'chat'. "Computer, where is Lieutenant Paris?"

"Lieutenant Paris is in the mess hall."

Without thinking twice, the commander headed in that direction.

Tom Paris sat trying to eat his dinner without sighing. Not only could he NOT have any tomato soup, which he badly needed tonight, but if he did sigh, that would bring Neelix in a flash and he REALLY didn't want to do anything that would bring the Talaxian over in his direction. Just at that moment, Chakotay entered and headed over to him. Great. Just perfect. Now I wish Neelix would come over! Paris thought.

"Lieutenant, may I join you?" asked Chakotay. Paris shrugged to show that he really didn't care and Chakotay eased into the seat opposite him. "I want to talk to you about B'Elanna, Paris," Chakotay said, while looking straight at him.

Tom nearly jumped out of the chair in shock. "Is she all right? The ankle isn't injured worse than we thought it was, is it?" Chakotay looked at him interestingly, realizing that Paris' concern for B'Elanna was genuine.

"No, Paris. The ankle's fine. It's what I sense happening between the two of you that I want to talk about." Tom's mouth nearly hit the table, it flew open so fast. "What IS happening?"

"What do you THINK is happening, Commander?" replied Tom sarcastically.

"I honestly don't know, Paris, but if you intend to treat her as you seem to treat every other woman that you have had a relationship with . . ." Chakotay's voice trailed off.

"Is that a threat, Chakotay?" interrupted Tom.

"No. Just a warning." With that, Voyager's first officer rose and left the mess hall, leaving behind a very angry Lieutenant Tom Paris.

Paris sat in his quarters, going over the day's events. Hell, admit it to yourself, he thought, it's not just today's events that are on your mind. It's B'Elanna Torres and what's been happening over the past few weeks.

He got to his feet and began pacing back and forth, but abruptly stopped when that reminded him of B'Elanna too. Wearily, he plopped back down on the couch and turned to gaze out at the stars, the only thing that seemed to calm him these days; however, even tonight, the stars didn't do the job. He found no relief there. No comfort. B'Elanna's face kept popping up before his eyes:  the human B'Elanna, her vulnerable side revealed; the Klingon B'Elanna, her aggressiveness and loyalty; B'Elanna, laughing that wondrous laugh she so seldom let out; B'Elanna on the holodeck, covered in mud; B'Elanna on the holodeck in nothing but a wet shirt and underwear; B'Elanna sleeping in his arms; B'Elanna's face after they had kissed, just before the mudslide had hit; and B'Elanna's refusal to acknowledge him after they had exited the holodeck. Something in Tom's gut twisted.

Then there were the dreams. The dreams he hadn't told B'Elanna about. The dreams of himself and B'Elanna together . . . Was it just a dream, or could it become reality? After he had left the mess hall, Tom had calmed down somewhat and thought over what Chakotay had said. Just what were his intentions where B'Elanna was concerned? Maybe Chakotay was right to question his intentions. Did he want a relationship with her that involved more than simple friendship? And if so, just how deeply involved did he want that relationship to be? It was a reality that he had to deal with, and Paris feared that reality. He feared getting involved with B'Elanna Torres. Why? He forced himself to do a self-examination, something he usually avoided religiously, because he rarely liked what he saw when he looked at himself.

He'd had relationships with other women before. One or two that, at the time, he had thought might turn into something serious. But B'Elanna. She was something different. He enjoyed her companionship. Not because she was beautiful, although gods knew she was. Not because she was necessarily good company, because it sometimes seemed they spent more time arguing than anything else. No, he enjoyed everything about B'Elanna, he realized with unexpected insight. She was such a mixture of contrasting sensations. Paris came to a sudden realization that of all the things he had been mentally listing about B'Elanna that captivated him, her looks or curvaceous body were not what came to mind first. This in itself was a revelation. That he was attracted to B'Elanna, there was no doubt, but it went deeper than that.

Tom leaned back on the couch, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. Oh, Gods, I'm tired. He thought back to when he and Harry had stepped onto the bridge and he had seen that ship on the viewscreen. Something very near to a panicked terror had coursed through him. And later, Harry had revealed that when B'Elanna had examined a playback of the ship, she had pretty much had the same reaction. What's going on? he wondered. Obviously, the assimilation had left them with some buried memories. Tom didn't know whether to be concerned or not.

Opening his eyes, they fell on his datapadd, sitting on the couch beside him. Slowly, he reached out and picked it up. Looking thoughtful, he called up the file he had been working on a few days ago when Harry had caught him at it. Smiling, he realized that this was just what he needed to do. It was the right thing to do.  He might be nervous about where this relationship -- if one could call it that -- with B'Elanna was headed, but his instincts usually worked pretty well for him. Maybe he should just go with them and see what happened. He checked his replicator rations. I should have enough by now, he thought. It was time to get on with his surprise for B'Elanna. He just hoped she wouldn't throw it back in his face.

Torres entered her quarters, wrung out after a difficult day in Engineering. There had been one problem after another. It seemed there was no end to the problems that the magnetic field had caused the ship, but B'Elanna was almost grateful for the heavy workload. It kept her mind off other things, namely one Lieutenant Thomas Eugene Paris.

She stopped suddenly, looking around. Someone had been in her quarters. Slowly she approached her bed. On it lay a large white flat box with a red ribbon and bow affixed to it. Hesitantly, she picked it up. It was fairly light. A small card slid from under the bow and fluttered to the deck. Retrieving it, B'Elanna read the handwritten note:

I promised you a real birthday party.
You are cordially invited to a private
party for two on the holodeck tomorrow
at 1900 hours. Formal dress required.

It was unsigned, but B'Elanna knew perfectly well who had written it. Opening the box, she pulled out a slinky, but tasteful, red dress. There was also a matching pair of shoes and red gloves. B'Elanna stared at it apprehensively. If Paris expected her to wear this . . . she eyed it consideringly.

Some time later, B'Elanna still sat in her quarters, staring at the dress, which lay on her bed. She knew that if she accepted Tom Paris' invitation, she would be committing herself to something. And she wasn't ready for that something yet. Javier's words echoed mockingly in her mind:  Just a game, Chica. Just a game.

No, B'Elanna decided, I can't do this. Given Tom's reputation, even if he were truly sincere now about her, he would soon tire of her, and she would be just one more conquest under his belt, and he would move on.

Decision made, she moved to the bed and picked up the dress. She knew she should return the dress to him, but just couldn't bring herself to part with it. Instead, she placed it back in the box, almost reverently, and deposited it in her dresser.

Picking up the card, she took it to her desk, carefully wrote a message on it, then headed for Paris' quarters.

When the door chime had sounded, Paris had yelled, "Come!" expecting to find Harry standing there. However, when the door had slid open and nobody appeared, Tom had stuck his head out the door and it had been then that he spotted the card lying on the deck in front of his door.

An hour later, Tom was still sitting on his couch, the card clasped tightly in his hand, rereading the message for what seemed like the hundredth time, when his comm badge chirped. He absentmindedly tapped it but didn't say anything.


"Uh, Harry, what's up?"

"I was about to ask you that. You were supposed to meet me at Sandrine's thirty minutes ago."

In Sandrine's, Harry frowned when his query went unanswered. "Tom?"

"I'm on my way, Harry. Be there shortly." Before Harry could reply, Paris had signed off.

Tom straightened out the crumpled card, staring at the message B'Elanna had left there. A message that made it vividly clear that she wished to remain friends with him but desired nothing more than that. He placed the card on his dresser with his padd that contained the rest of B'Elanna's surprise. Looks like I won't be needing that anytime soon, he thought, and was startled at the sharp pang of regret that flowed through him. At least there was one hopeful sign in all of this. She hadn't returned the dress. That must mean something.

Harry looked up from the pool table where he and Chakotay were engaged in a game when Tom walked in. Paris snagged a drink at the bar, then joined them at the pool table.

"Everything okay?" Harry asked.

"Fine," Paris replied shortly.

"You sounded kind of funny over the link. Are you sure--"

"Everything's fine, Harry, okay?" snapped Paris.

Chakotay looked up at his tone, but said nothing.

Sighing, Paris apologized, "I'm sorry, Harry. Just ignore me, okay? I'm in a bad mood."

"Anything I can help with?"

"I don't think so." Paris' gaze slid past Harry to connect with Chakotay's.

As their eyes connected, Chakotay was surprised to read no resentment in them, given their earlier conversation; instead, there was . . . what? If Chakotay had to put a name to the expression he saw there, he would call it resignation.

Unaware of the words that had passed between Paris and Chakotay the day before, Harry said, "Join us for a game, Paris?"

Chakotay was surprised to hear him agree to a game.

Hudson and Simms, sitting at a table near the entrance to Sandrine's, watched with interest when Lieutenant Torres entered. Both were becoming very adept at reading the Lieutenants' facial expressions.

"Uh oh," Hudson remarked after B'Elanna entered. "Trouble in paradise."

Simms pulled his attention away from Lamont, who was seated at a nearby table with some friends, to look at where Mikel was gazing. He took one look at Torres, then let his gaze wander to Paris. "Oh boy," he murmured, "neither of them looks very happy, do they?"

"What do you suppose happened?" asked Hudson. "They seemed to be getting on pretty well on the holodeck."

"Hard to say." Simms' attention drifted back to Lamont.

"Why don't you just go ask her out," suggested Hudson. "Would the direct  approach be such a bad thing?"

Simms shrugged. "Something tells me that Paris tried the direct approach with Torres and it doesn't seem to have worked out too well."

The evening quickly went downhill from the point when B'Elanna entered Sandrine's. Harry invited her over and, having no choice, she joined them. It had quickly become obvious to the others that there was an unaccustomed tension between Paris and Torres. Tom had been unusually quiet before B'Elanna had come in, but after she joined them, he had virtually clammed up, and as soon as the game was over, he had quietly excused himself.

Shortly after Tom left Sandrine's, Neelix and Kes arrived, carrying what appeared to be pies.

"Hello all," greeted Neelix. "We have a surprise for you. In light of recent events, I thought it only fitting that I make a favorite Earth dessert I read about." With a flourish, he held up his pie just as he was passing Hudson's and Simms' table.

Everyone watched as the scene seemed to unfold in slow motion. Neelix tripping, the pie flying out of his hands. All eyes following the pie as it flew through the air and came to a landing.

There was a stunned moment of silence, then snickers could be heard around the room as Neelix, apologizing profusely, climbed to his feet. The Talaxian fussed over Simms, who sat there in mortified silence, his face having taking the brunt of the impact with the flying pie.

Seeing Simms covered in the pie reminded Harry of the holodeck and the mud. "Neelix, what kind of pie is that?"

Turning to look at Kim, who was still standing by the pool table, Neelix said, "Why, it's Mississippi Mud Pie, of course."

Mikel Hudson snickered.

Ethan Simms rolled his eyes.

Chakotay's lips twitched.

Harry made the mistake of glancing at Chakotay. They both grinned.

B'Elanna paused outside the holodeck, having escaped unnoticed. Neelix and the pie had been hilarious. She had forgotten herself for a moment and looked to see Tom's reaction, only then remembering that he wasn't there and the reason why. Her smile had quickly faded and now here she was -- alone -- again.

Squaring her shoulders, B'Elanna strode down the corridor. She had made her choice and she would stick with it. But in her mind's eye, she saw laughing blue eyes and felt a strong sense of loss for something never realized.

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