Disclaimer:Paramount owns all rights to any Star Trek franchise. I'm just playing in their potholes, and believe me; I ain't gettin' paid for it.
Rating:  PG-13
Archive:  Certainly. You need to let me know where it'll be staying, however, so I can visit.

Summary:  Three days stuck in Sickbay sound boring, but you'd be surprised. Paris becomes obsessed with attaining a goal, and Janeway discovers that 'down time' has its upside. (Episode Addition to "Threshold")

Author's Notes:  (shouting) Goodbye, little story! Goodbye! Write when you get read by enough people! The hard drive will be so lonely without you after all this time!

I contemplated titling this "The Neverending Story", but it was already taken. Thanks go out to so many people who poked and pushed me to put this sucker to bed, and special kudos for those who did it because they actually wanted to read the darn thing in full—not just to be nice! To Liz for beta-ing the betagirl (I canNOT do my own beta work—ugh, it was awful!), and to BR3 for a lot, but mostly for the presence of Telfer—ingenious! For Stace, who kept me up working for 1001 nights being devilish company; and for Joanna, who caused this ball to roll in the first place with her challenge.
Copyright April 2001 LA Koehler

3 Days and a Pizza

"I thought about having children. But I must say I never considered having them with you."

Tom smiled nervously. He'd had absolutely no idea how he was ever going to speak to his commanding officer, and recent abductee, ever again since they were rescued and restored by their crewmates. He should have known that Kathryn Janeway would break the ice with a bluntness that brooked no prevarication.

"Captain, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say, except…I don't remember much about, uh…you know."

"What makes you think it was your idea? Sometimes it's the female of the species that initiates mating. But apology accepted nonetheless." She regarded him for a moment, changed topics. "You may be interested to know I'm putting you in for a commendation. Regardless of the outcome you did make the first transwarp flight." Tom smiled in genuine gratitude, but Janeway saw it turn hollow.

"Thank you, Captain."

"Is there something wrong, Lieutenant?"

"I don't know! I guess this whole experience has left me…a little overwhelmed." He counted off with his fingers, "Flying at warp 10, evolving into a new lifeform, mating, having alien offspring—"

"You've broken more than one record, that's for sure."

"Breaking the threshold…it was incredible! But somehow, it doesn't mean as much as I thought it would."


"I guess I went into this looking for a quick fix. I thought making history would change things; not just my service record," he self-consciously admitted. "My reputation."

Janeway straightened her back, determined to make him believe her.

"If I'm not mistaken, you've changed quite a few minds on this ship. You've earned a lot of people's respect and admiration."

"Yeah. But I'm starting to realize that it's not other people's opinions I should be worried about. It's mine. Seems, Captain, that I still have a few barriers to break. I just hope they're not theoretical impossibilities."

"Somehow…I don't think they will be," she said wryly, but with conviction, and was rewarded with a genuine smile.

The Doctor returned from his office.

"Well, according to the ship's chronometer and your blood chemistries, it's well past dinner. Hungry?"

"Starving!" Tom exclaimed.

"I'm sure you will no doubt be broken-hearted, but I'm authorizing medical rations for you both. The thought of Mr. Neelix's spicy concoctions polluting your newly established genomes makes me shudder," the Doctor said succinctly.

"Close your mouth, Mr. Paris, you look like a kid on Christmas morning. It's rude, even if our cook is not here," the Captain reprimanded, lips pursed in disapproval. She noticed that it had little dampening effect on his enthusiasm.

"So," the Doctor continued, "I've taken the liberty of creating a nutritional file you may access as your hunger dictates. Mr. Paris knows the codes, I believe."

"Computer!" Tom wasted no time calling out to the wall unit. "Access medical rations, authorization Paris, MR-alpha. One Paris Pizza, with the works."

*bee-boop* "Request denied. Please make another selection."

All eyes turned to the Doctor.

"If I can't sanction the spicy mess hall food, what makes you think I would approve of *your* pizza, Mr. Paris? 'Medical rations' are just that—limited access to an approved diet so you avoid possibly harmful foods you would normally eat. Or Mr. Neelix's cooking, which you are forced to eat."

"Pizza! I wanted pizza when I was dying, and I want pizza now that I'm living; I want pizza!"

The EMH rolled his eyes toward the overhead, considering. "Order a large rice-based flatbread, spread with applesauce and bananas bits. You could cut it into slices, and—" he cut himself off at Tom's disgusted expression, and decided to appeal to the Captain. "This is really no joke. You have absolutely nothing in your digestive tracts, from beginning to end. I can guarantee you the pain and suffering caused by eating a Mr. Paris Special would rival Cardassian torture techniques!"

"Doctor, we appreciate the dire warning, and I'm sure we'll be fine with your careful selections, thank you." She blinked diplomatically in Tom's direction. With great effort, he nodded.

As the pacified EMH launched into a diatribe on "helpful bacteria" versus "harmful bacteria" and their never-ending battle in the mammalian gullet, he replicated two glasses of a sickeningly sweet-smelling, viscous liquid, which he presented with a flourish, "…to start you off."

Tom turned away, and as he raised the glass to his lips he murmured to himself, with great sincerity:

"This means war."

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

Voices. Quiet, but intense.

It was the intensity that woke Tom from the deep places he had comfortably sunk to in sleep. His head was muzzled and he could barely open his eyes. The Doctor had warned them that the tremendous energy it took to regenerate would leave them drained for the next day or two, until their stabilization began to level out. Tom believed it. After polishing off his drink earlier, he barely remembered falling into his dreamless slumber.

"Why can't we just lower her temperature with 3cc of—"

Kes. When had she come in? It wasn't morning already, was it? Tom tried once again to lift a heavy lid. The room was still bathed in deep-night darkness. Except at the Captain's biobed. The overhead spots had been called up to about half-full lighting, causing Tom's bleary eyes to open onto a tense tableau.

Hands resting near the captain's head, Kes was leaning forward in order to catch the Doctor's quiet murmurs as he shook his head.

"No. Their genetic cohesion is vicarious at best right now. I won't jeopardize the stabilization process by introducing chemical or any other molecular-level remedies if I can help it." He blew out a breath, deciding.

"We'll treat the symptoms and intervene only if the condition becomes life-threatening." He checked a reading on the bed's panel. "Her kidney function still looks good. Start a simple saline IV, chilled to 20 degrees. Computer, cool the sensor mattress down by 5 degrees."

As Kes moved to comply, he called over his shoulder, "And wake the Commander. I want him to know what's transpiring."

Tom watched the Doctor place a hand on her bed, a reassurance that it was cooling down as ordered. He must have blinked for longer than he thought, though, because he was startled as the back of a hand gently touched his neck. He looked up to find the Doctor now staring at the diagnostic panel over his own head. It hadn't been active moments ago.

"I didn't mean to wake you, Mr. Paris; it's a little dark over here," he spoke quietly.

"Nah, I was awake already."

"Mm, yes, I could see that," the EMH sniffed, humoring him.

"No, really, I was—what's wrong with the captain? You need some help…" His rise out of bed was halted by the Doctor's hand.

"The *last* thing I want right now is you out of this bed, believe me. I've called Kes and we have the situation under control." Paris stopped rising, but he didn't lie back down, either. He rubbed grainy eyes.

"What time is it?"


"What's happening? We were fine just a few hours ago."

"And you," he stressed the word, "still are." The Doctor had continued to study Tom's readouts with his peripheral vision throughout the exchange, and satisfied with the end results, turned his full attention to the pilot. "Your reinstatement to your original DNA is still progressing as expected. The captain's setback appears to be an aberrant reaction peculiar to her physiology."

"What you mean is, you don't know what's going on, really."

The doctor was concerned enough about the ship's captain to let the jab go unanswered.

"We'll watch things closely and hope they work themselves out as the process continues. For now, anyway," he added for emphasis. Tom knew that the 'wait and see' approach never sat well with the EMH. Apparently, even complex photons and forcefields could feel helpless.

Tom lay back in compliance. The Doc might be his favorite victim, ordinarily, but he had no desire to add to his worries in a crisis. Kes returned from the storage lockers with her equipment, and as Chakotay barreled into the suite, Tom was quickly left in the background.

He shuttered his eyes and feigned sleep so he could remained that way.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=


It was a command more than a question as the large man's eyes swept over the bays. It wasn't hard to figure out where the trouble lay. The spot lighting made the captain appear as the heroine in a tragedy—breath fast and shallow, bedding sweat-dampened and disheveled from her distressed slumber.

"The captain has hit a bit of a snag on her road to devolution. You can see on these graphs that some of her glandular systems are showing a fall-off of the stabilization curve," he stated in his usual brusque manner, yet there was reluctance in his voice.

A hesitant hologram? Chakotay made a mental note to talk to B'Elanna about the growing capacity of the EMH's database. Was he developing these traits as he interacted with the crew, or were too many new subroutines interfering with his original programming? Surely, Zimmerman couldn't have been this good, could he? He had to admit, though, that the Doctor's apparent concern was reassuring, in a purely human way.

Personally, he was plenty concerned, looking at his captain. But those weren't feelings he'd be expressing outwardly anytime soon. Deliberately, he turned his attention to the Doctor's monitors across the room.

"Is she in danger?"

"Not immediately. And I have every hope that this will reverse itself. But I was uncertain what arrangements for command you had made with her last evening during her debriefing, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to amend any standing orders until her genome rights itself."

"Reverse itself…rights itself—are you telling me you're not treating her?" Chakotay asked.

"Not at all. We'll alleviate the symptoms as well as we can, and monitor the transformation very closely."

He took a few moments to explain the fragility of the two officers' genetic patterns and the reasoning behind his chosen regimen—before his ego kicked in. He added pompously, "I won't just allow her to die, you know, should that become a possibility, which it is not at this time." He moved away to check on Kes' progress.

Chakotay hesitated. He should return to his bed—it would be a long day tomorrow, or rather today. There were no revisions to orders that needed to be made; Janeway had left him in full charge until her return to the bridge. He had tried to restore the command codes and other incidentals to her, when the Doctor had pronounced her back to normal the night before, but she had waved him off. Called it 'a show of confidence' in that warm but subtle way she had with humor.

But Chakotay knew it was no show; he knew she had meant it. He grinned involuntarily at the memory, and stepped forward – not to confer with his captain, but to comfort his friend.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

Janeway yanked her arm from Kes' gentle hands, back to the warmth of her covers.

"Beat it, Pheebs, don't need to get up yet," the fevered woman slurred. Kes recognized the delirium for what it was and continued to apply the intravenous line.

"Captain, it's Kes—on your ship, Voyager. You're receiving treatment in Sickbay; I'll be done in a minute, here..."

"Yeah, few more minutes…Diffy-Qs, with vulky Ms. Snodd—c'n do those equations in my sleep…tell Mom n' I'll powder bomb your room again."

Kes smiled into her task. "Okay, I won't tell," she murmured.

For his part, Chakotay nearly choked. The idea of Kathryn Janeway—the bastion of good taste—having ever used such a disrespectful teenage term as 'vulky' was hard enough to swallow. But to find out in the same sentence that she skipped differential equations classes and powder bombed her sister's room as a revenge technique was too much. He turned quickly toward Paris' bed, noting gratefully that he appeared still to be sleeping. He trusted Kes' discretion, and his own, but Paris might not be above relaying such gossip.

If she were going to be incoherent for a while, they should work on finding her a private space. The captain of a vessel relied on keeping up appearances; Janeway would be mortified if she knew someone had heard anything inappropriate…

Chakotay looked up from his reverie to find Kes staring at him curiously, and for some reason, he felt something akin to naked. He tried not to avert his eyes. Kes sucked in a breath, continuing to stare at him anew.

"Um, I'm finished. Commander, if you'll be here a moment more, I want to get a cool cloth."

"Yes, of course, go ahead."

"Done," declared the Doctor, returning from an earlier sprint to the back room. He handed Kes a small, square bowl containing a cooling pack and leaned over the captain to peer at the I.V. site. "Good work, Kes, nicely done," he said quietly.

He turned toward the Commander. "I'm running a comparison analysis between the captain's DNA bonding progression, or rather lack thereof, and Mr. Paris'. I still have a reasonable confidence that her body is simply following a more difficult path to completion, but if I can find out specifically why and where things have gone astray, I may be able to aid her errant strands along."

"I can help you, and keep a watch on things out here," Kes volunteered.

"Both of you get to it," the Commander ordered. "I'll hold down the fort out here. Pouring water and turning cooling packs aren't exactly transwarp theory – I think I'll be fine," he smiled fractionally. "Do what it takes to get this over with, understood?"

A trilling alarm in the lab sounded; a portion of the analysis needed attention.

"The baby!" Janeway sat up abruptly, looking surprised. "It can't be here already; I haven't finished the blanket yet!" Chakotay grasped her arm, calmly nodding his dismissal to the medical duo.

"No, no baby," he soothed, "it's just the medical alarms, Captain, in sickbay. You're ill with a fever. Do you understand?"

She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time, frozen in place as she attempted to comprehend his statements. Abruptly, she closed her eyes and put a shaking hand to her brow.

"Oh. Chakotay. Report," she croaked out with her customary authority, coaxing a grin from her second in command. He steadied her shaky drop back to the mattress, then took a second to flop the cooling pad onto her forehead, eliciting a shocked gasp.

"Well, let's start with 'Do you know where you are?'"

"Yes," she said with great conviction. "Hell, right? Except, I didn't expect the place to be this cold," she hunched her shoulders.

Chakotay smiled genuinely for the first time since he arrived. The Doctor's ameliorative efforts must have been working. As her temperature came down, the cloud was lifting from her senses.

"Well, I heard," he stated neutrally, as if sharing gossip over one of their working breakfasts, "that something in the Delta Quadrant managed to knock the great Captain Janeway down flat, and It froze over."

She chuckled without heart, then stifled it.

"Don't—laughing is too painful. Oh, my head!"

"No drugs. Your genome's not stable enough yet," he told her, putting a hopeful spin on things. "Your body is not exactly following the curve the Doctor had anticipated. That's why you feel the way you do. He'll have this re-assessed in no time, but until then, looks like you're doing this the old fashioned way."

Janeway sighed through her grimace. "All I'd need is a dour-faced caregiver dressed in black, and my needlework, and I'd fit right into one of my 18th century holonovels. The dying heiress. Or the stricken maven…"

Chakotay startled, remembering his impression of the tragic heroine when he had entered earlier. Her parallel thoughts made him uncomfortable.

He noticed the Doctor, working intently, through the office glass and directed her view toward him.

" You were saying, about the caregiver…?" He regretted his joke immediately as Janeway schooled her face to stop the pain the amusement caused, and he quickly changed the subject. "I can't help you with the needlework, I'm afraid."

"In my quarters," she spoke softly, eyes still closed. Chakotay knit his brow.

"Come again, Captain?"

"In a bag, in my sitting area…it's for the Wildman baby. I haven't finished it yet. Listen to me. I'm not feeling…I want to make sure the baby has something real—something homemade. If the Doctor isn't successful, please make sure someone finishes it."

"Hey, enough of that talk. You finish what you start, you hear me?" Chakotay tried to sound encouraging, but his instincts were firing off flares. Her facial tension was easing, her breathing was quieting down. He'd seen enough illness and death in the Maquis to recognize the signs—the calm before the storm, his thoughts screamed.

Then her eyes opened questioningly, her brow knit in concentration.

"We're still talking about the blanket…right?" she whispered, before her eyes rolled back in her head.

"Captain? Captain!" He flicked her cheek twice with a finger to rouse her, to no avail.

"Doctor!" he shouted, as Janeway felt herself jump a transit tube and slide away.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

**We see it, Commander; we're on it!**

**What's happening? She was fine for a…crashed so quickly…What do you--**

Strangely, she could still hear them, even as she had moved very far away, down a tunnel. She listened for some time to the echoed bursts of conversation, then stretches of quiet.

Something was changing, altering, and it was important to them. She felt she should know them…

**Just wait. A change as drastic as this often indicates…**

**--sensible at this time. I told you I wouldn't let her die, and I won't! But indications are--**

…well, she knew them in her heart, anyway—that would do. They would come for her, she was sure.

**--perature's spiking, but the by-products of degeneration are not presenting in abnormal quantities…**

**…is good news, actually, Commander…**

Commander? Did that man mean Chakotay, her first officer? No, he was her friend, right?

She tried to conjure an image of him, and finally found him—at breakfast one morning on the mess deck. He was pecking tentatively at the duty rotation roster, trying to consider all the requests he had received the previous week, trying to make as many people happy as he could within the bounds of efficiency. His food sat cold on the plate, and he absently brushed his fingers back and forth over his short, bristly hair. She remembered the fondness she felt--

"Chakotay?" she croaked weakly.

--because he was—

"Nice," she quirked a crooked grin. "A good man. A very good man."

She continued to hear the people on and off, but they seemed farther away now.

But her own heart she could hear clearly. Resoundingly. Pounding…

And a transporter whine of some kind…or was that the insects? And it was so hot! She didn't like this planet—she wished her people would find her soon. How long had it been?

Too long, she decided. She had to get back; she was holding everyone up.

She propped herself up to see, once and for all, where precisely in Hell ("Hell, right?") she was, hopeful of finding a way out on her own. She didn't want any of her people to risk getting stuck here, too.

**Look at the stabilization graph! The curve is rising again--**

**Temperature's leveled off…gall bladder, thyroid, hypothalamus; elevated enzymes falling--**

**Whoa, be careful! Don't roll too far--**

She opened her eyes in time to see water falling over a cliff, splashing over Fleet-issue boots. A crewman of hers? What were they doing here on this tropical planet? She had waited too long; someone had attempted a rescue! She worried.

"Well. I'd have to say she's over the hump. If it's any consolation, Commander, she'll be more comfortable now when she next wakes up."

The height made her feel dizzy, and she shut her eyes again. Cold hands caught her, eased her back to solid ground, ran the blanket corner across her face. A voice nearby now—almost in her ear. Finally! Someone had found her, she thought with relief.

She knew a saying, about cold hands…

"It's over now. It's over; you're coming back now. Sleep," the gentle rumble commanded, and Janeway let a heavy darkness overtake her.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

Tom couldn't move, and it had nothing to do with his fatigue.

The Captain slept. The Commander left wearily to start the day's duty shift, as did Kes, eventually. Too cautious to deactivate himself so soon after a crisis, the Doctor nonetheless became comfortable enough to drift into the lab to pursue his routine business…

And still, Tom couldn't move, wondering what he'd witnessed.

Oh, he knew what it looked like, and he wasn't exactly inexperienced about such matters. But he wanted to explore all the possibilities—that he had hallucinated, that he had been dreaming, that he was over-actively, imaginatively, just plain wrong –before he concluded with certainty that the Big Guy had feelings for Janeway.

Well, they all knew he had feelings for her; he was a pretty open book. For instance, he definitely respected her. Deeply admired her. Had committed himself loyally to her; they were all givens. But, by being givens, they weren't of much use in fueling the boredom-driven gossip talks.

So there was speculation, also—what they did at their private, 'working' breakfasts, why they chose cabins adjacent to one another, why she touched him so damned much and what interpretations he make from those moments. Tom listened and laughed with the rest of them—boredom was boredom, face it—but he took the talk to be just that: talk.

It wasn't that he couldn't picture it. He was healthy, young, and imaginative after all, but being senior staff gave him perspective on the amount of time they all spent troubleshooting Voyager's problems. He knew for a fact that the command team probably had all of ten carefree minutes a day for personal use, and he doubted that they used it for…that. Even as hormonally ripe as he himself was, he figured he'd have to opt for the dental hygiene first. Or for making a head call without the company of a status-filled datapadd. It was too close to choose.

But still, he knew with conviction what he saw, no explanation or excuse withstanding. They might not be doing what the young crew liked to imagine they were, but the Big Guy was definitely infatuated! A concerned colleague and friend could certainly offer the captain his strength in a tough moment…but the face of a mere friend does not show the fragility of love—the colleague's face lacks the knowledge that a crisis has the power to take so much away from him.

Yes. He was sure of it now.

"Well, I'll be damned," he murmured, almost silently.

Paris chuckled. Maybe the old Maquis still had a few secrets up his sleeves; maybe he wasn't such an open book after all. He sure as hell had managed to keep this card close to his chest.

Well, two things were to be learned here. The first was not to underestimate the Commander again in the future. And the second? Well, the second was to drop more credit rations in the betting pool.

With his mind now settled on the matter—as well as jangled by it—Paris felt himself drift once more into much-needed sleep. He sighed as his eyes closed.

Definitely more rations.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

He awoke to the smell of a burrito which, when you've been dreaming of pizza, is just the same thing rolled up to go. Close enough, anyway, for the obsessed brain.

Tom's stomach rumbled at the incredibly delicious odor. The long night worrying about the captain, and his new revelations about the first officer (God, he couldn't believe his good fortune—knowledge was power, after all, and rations were…well, rationed, of course) had made him ravenous, and another stupid protein drink was not going to relieve that condition.

He sat up and saw B'Elanna Torres tinkering with some circuitry in the panel by his bed.

Speaking of 'conditions'.

"I certainly hope that noise was inside your body, Paris; otherwise, I'm leaving," she mumbled, not bothering to look up from her work. Tom smiled despite his mild sense of insult.

"And good morning to you, too. What are you working on, anyway? My bed's not gonna, oh, fry me or anything, is it?"

"I doubt you would be that easy to get rid of, and I present all of last week as my case in point, Lizard Boy. Actually, Doc noticed that the viewers on this side of the bay weren't working, and he thought you and the captain might want them to occupy yourselves while you're here.

"Won't he be sorry when he finds out about your fixation with those monster movers."

"That's 'movies'; and actually, I thought I'd watch some cartoons," Tom smiled, strangely pleased that the engineer even remembered the passing comment he made to Harry, once, in the mess deck. But the feeling was short-lived; his hunger was thoroughly distracting. He could practically feel the tractor beam the burrito exerted upon him from across the room.

"Car tunes? No, don't—I don't think I want to know, thank you." She returned to her purposeful tinkering, and while watching her, a plot began to hatch in the helmsman's head.

"So! Uh—working lunch?" Tom indicated the tray on the diagnostic console.

"Hm? Oh, the burrito. Yeah, well, it hasn't shaped up to be a sit-down kind of day, so I broke down and replicated something portable." She tucked her hair behind one ear, and got a faraway look. "My abuela used to make them from scratch for me on my summer visits. Crazy, huh? The whole house smelled great, though—she added her own spices, and even grated some cheese fresh from this huge block she got from…hey, you all right?"

As his hunger-driven imagination conjured the vision of a grandmotherly kitchen, Tom's face took on a desperate and stricken pallor. The sight and smell of the tantalizing morsel not three yards away was torment enough. But to listen to the agonizing details of its preparation—

He was saved from answering by the chirp of B'Elanna's commbadge.

"Carey to Lt. Torres."

"Torres, go ahead."

"We're showing some kind of ODN instability in the middle deck starboard conduit branch. Nothing serious, but it's gonna play havoc with any fine detail work in the long range sensor array. Just wanted to give you a heads-up."

"Thanks, Joe. I'm still here in sickbay, but I can walk over there and repair it now. I heard Jenny Delaney talking at breakfast about a mapping project for her team that Chakotay made a top priority during the night. I'm betting our 'nothing serious' is suddenly going to become a problem when they start their scans. Let's just knock it off now."

"Gotcha, Lieutenant. Good hunting; Carey out."

Voyager's chief sighed heavily and began to lock the loose tools into her kit. She glanced over at Paris again, noting that he seemed to have returned to normal…whatever that meant, where he was concerned. She stood with alacrity and reached toward the console where her lunch lay.

"Wait!" he began, but was then at a loss for a compelling reason to delay her.

"What's the matter? Afraid I might leave you 'car tuneless' the entire time you're home sick from school?" she silently parodied a guffaw, so as not to wake the captain, and continued to pack up.

Panic started to set in. Tom moved to intercept the engineer.

"Uh, B'Elanna, um, why not leave all your stuff here?" He touched her arm quickly and smiled with as much charm as he could muster. "I'll keep an eye on it for you until you get back."

B'Elanna was sharp; she had not missed his desperate glances at her burrito. She put two and two together.

"Oh, I get it. Doctor's got you on a short leash, huh? Neelix's bread and water only?"

"Something like that," he confessed through a guilty grimace.

She considered him for a moment, then eyed her intended lunch. "Alright, it's yours," she whispered.

When he reached for the plate, however, she drew it back swiftly.

Wait!" she hissed, feigning alarm. "You won't turn green and peel on me like the last time, will you?" referring to their fateful cup of coffee days ago, though to Tom, it seemed another lifetime.

Tom clenched his fist and growled low in his throat. "No," he replied with manufactured sweetness, "but I might become murderous if I don't get something decent to eat soon, you miserable--." He was glancing nervously between the lab and the captain's still biobed. The engineer laughed quietly, the victor in this battle, and handed over the object of desire.

"Hey, watch your mouth—beggars should be more contrite. You owe me, Paris. And if you get in trouble, I don't know anything about this—got it?" Sporting only her tool kit now, she started out the door.

Tom Paris turned away, staring with admiration at his conquest. His eyes dilated in anticipation, and he smiled to himself.

"Oh, I got it, alright."

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

Afterwards, he'd tell himself it was the exhaustion. All the energy expended 'growing' back into his former self diverted all the resources he would normally have applied to his scanners, that part of himself that constantly swept around him to sense danger.

Possibly, even, it was his primal, single-minded focus on the one thing that could satisfy his bone-deep craving.

Nowhere would he ever admit that he was losing his edge in the world of stealth and cunning by living too long on the psychologically-comforting Voyager, accepted and respected by many. Because admitting that only meant that that edge would be dulled further as time went on.

And maybe, his cognitive centers had been disrupted in the recent metamorphosis, accounting for his failure to realize that a door closing on someone's departure…could, also, be easily misconstrued as one opening on someone's entrance.

But whatever the true reason, Thomas Eugene Paris knew—in the deepest places of his being—that for as long as he lived and had nightmares, none would compare to the words heard the moment before his 'first contact' with the perfect burrito:

"Please state the nature of the—STOP!!!"

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

"Hundreds of years of interventional medicine and you would think someone would have come up with something less creepy than an IV," the captain complained as Kes unstrapped the compact cylinder from her pyjama sleeve and removed the subcutaneous tube from her forearm. The Ocampan laughed lyrically.

"They have, but nothing this simple and effective. Captain, I didn't know you were afraid of hypodermic implants."

"Afraid is such a strong word, Kes. I'm not afraid; it's just—" she shuddered involuntarily, "a little disconcerting. A little too Borg-like for my tastes."

The snort from the next bed conveyed enough hilarity to cause Janeway to bristle slightly.

"Something you care to share with us all, Mr. Paris," she asked—rather shortly, she regretted. The night's crisis had drained her. She felt too compromised to tolerate as much as Tom could dole out, if encouraged.

A moment's hesitation, then an abrupt cough issued forth.

"No, Ma'am. In fact," he swiftly swung his lithe frame from his bed, and grabbed up the satchel beneath his end stand, "I was just on my way to take a shower…clear out, um, some of this phlegm." He beat a fist to his chest and coughed dramatically. Janeway caught Kes smile slightly, but shake her head at him fractionally in warning.

"Sonic or water?" yelled the eavesdropping Doctor from the lab area.

"Uhhh, water, I guess."

"Come get fixed with a cortical monitor first, please, should anything untoward occur while you are alone," the disembodied voice requested.

"Doc, I don't need it; it's a shower, in the next room—I'll be fine," Tom yelled in a placating manner through the office door.

The Doctor emerged as the helmsman spoke, wiping his holographic hands unnecessarily on a holographic cloth, nonplussed. Showboat, thought Paris.

"Well, then, you won't mind if I stand in the corner and keep an eye on you, will you, because one way or the other—after the night I've just spent with the Captain's unexpected excitement—you will be monitored or in sight."

They stared at each other for several moments, the immovable Doctor meeting the irresistible Helmsman, before Paris sighed heavily and lifted his head to expose his neck. Satisfied, the Doctor went about attaching the device near the left carotid, but Janeway shook her head at the double meaning.

The Doctor accepted the act of submission, but the captain saw the joke, 'Rip out my throat while you're at it, will you?'. She shook her head—she was beginning to believe that Paris could finagle satisfaction from any defeat handed to him.

With the exception, of course, of that unfortunate burrito incident.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

The sickbay doors slid open as the two men kvetched half-heartedly, and Samantha Wildman stepped inside the door, stopping indecisively. Janeway felt a rush of sympathy—the ensign obviously felt as if she were intruding in her senior officers' personal lives. The captain watched her seek out the oasis of Kes' eyes before speaking.

"Oh, uh, you're all busy right now; I'll come back," she blustered as she began to turn away.

"Sam! No, please, come over here," Kes effused as she discarded the captain's used equipment on a med cart and made her way to the main diagnostic bed. Wildman's shoulders relaxed in response to the Ocampan's warmth, and Janeway smiled inwardly, knowing in her heart how richly suited the tiny woman was to the role she had chosen for herself.

They all greeted her warmly—it was hard to feel anything but good will toward the friendly, waddling woman—and the Doctor shoved Mr. Paris off like so much useless baggage to attend to her weekly scans.

How foolish of the hologram to think Paris could be so easily discarded.

"Hey, Sam, I'm ready to preview that program for you, by the way. Later in the week, when I get 'sprung' from here?" he asked hopefully, halfway out the door.

"Definitely! You're sweet, thank you."

Janeway saw the helmsman blush minutely at the compliment before disappearing altogether for the shower.

"Tom's been tutoring me in shuttle handling on the holodeck, but somehow, I suspect you're a little too big to fit behind the console," Kes giggled by way of inquiry. Wildman joined her.

"Can you imagine?" she laughed. "I would make a great plug in the event of a hull breach, though!"

Janeway felt her own tension begin to ebb as she listened to the women's comaraderie, their easy laughter.

Wildman continued, "No, he approached me a few weeks ago in the mess hall, gushing excitedly over a program he had extracted and tweaked for the baby's use. Absolutely indispensable, he insisted. I could have cried when I saw that it was shaping up to be Trevis and Flotter, two of my favorite childhood—"

"Trevis and Flotter!" Janeway interrupted unintentionally. "Oh, they bring back some memories! I didn't mean to eavesdrop, Ensign."

"Not at all, Captain. I take it you were a devotee?"

Oh, I was a scientist at heart, even back then. The state of Indiana should bow down to those programs--those holos allowed me to make learning mistakes that would have brought down the Global Defense Forces upon us in real life!" she laughed tiredly.

"Well, now it's your turn to bow down, I guess, ma'am. Tom's pretty excited about his work so far," Wildman sighed gratefully.

"No doubt he's thrilled with the prospect of having someone his own relative age to share it with," the Doctor threw in imperiously, causing Kes to bat at his arm as he departed for the lab with the ensign's scans.

Janeway sat up abruptly and eased herself to her feet. She cursed how shaky she felt. A long nap would cure that, she was certain. But right now, there was something she needed to do.

"Captain--," Kes gestured to help her, but Janeway waved her off, padding carefully to them and leaning lightly on the diagnostic arc where Wildman sat.

"May I?" she politely asked, hand raised and waiting in anticipation.

Wildman looked surprised, but pleased. "Captain…of course," she smiled.

A large, undulating ripple distorted the ensign's sizeable abdomen, and Janeway seized upon it as if catching a mouse. A moment passed as the women held their breath, then burst out in giggles as two swift kicks and a head roll bounced the expectant hand.

"Watch it, kid. This is your commanding officer you're assaulting," she warned sternly. She was answered by a foot (elbow?) thrust forcefully forward, which she promptly pinched in return. The three women laughed heartily at the small, sassy act of insubordination.

And in that moment, Janeway felt something swell within herself. Yes, this small creature would soon add to her responsibilities in this place so far from their homes, but it also energized her sense of purpose, her resolve to see them all back safely. She felt privileged that, through an unexplained act of fate, Voyager was chosen as this child's birthplace. Whether it deserved better or not was moot—she would make sure this ship was the best home that it could possibly be. Her eyes pooled up at the thought. She felt an unexpected touch at her back, startling her from her reverie.

"Captain, you've had a rough night," the Doctor admonished as he appeared at her elbow. "You shouldn't wear yourself out with frivolous activities."

"On the contrary, Doctor," Janeway smiled softly, refusing to divert her attention or her hand from the lazily rippling abdomen, "this 'frivolous activity' is exactly the cure-all I need right now."

Samantha grinned proudly at the EMH as her captain played with the unborn acrobat within her.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

It had been a busy day on the bridge, with two senior officers absent, so it was early evening before Chakotay returned to sickbay with his burden slung over his back.

Santa Claus, he thought. Dressed in red, even.

The lighting was dimmed for evening and Paris appeared to be napping, but he was happy to see the captain pouring over a padd under her personal reading light.

Abruptly, the Doctor appeared directly in his face, examining his expression critically.

"You don't have any *food* in there, by any chance, do you?" he accused, daring the commander to lie to him.

"Uh, no, I don't," Chakotay said softly, wrinkling his brow. Satisfied, the Doctor harumphed and moved back to his office.

Janeway smiled at the exchange, and shook her head as he approached her bed.

"Don't ask," she advised. "There was a minor incident this morning, and one of us with an earful of righteous indignation is plenty."

Chakotay grinned. He couldn't believe how much better she looked compared to the woman he had left sleeping after the crisis, and he felt relieved. Were he to be honest with himself, he felt more than relieved. The word 'beautiful' flitted across his thoughts, but was quickly squashed for the danger it held.

"Well, I brought you what you asked for."

"Asked for?"

"Last night." He opened the large bag he was carrying and produced a small, quilted carryall. Janeway gasped slightly, put her hand to her mouth, and Chakotay chuckled.

"I figured you wouldn't want certain individuals seeing it, so I took the liberty of stowing it in one of my sacks. Disguised it, as it were," he lowered his timbre, waggling his eyebrows conspiratorially.

Janeway giggled at his theatrics, but humbled. "Thank you. Oh, it was supposed to be a secret! I can't believed I blabbed like that—what if Sam had been here?"

"Don't be too hard on yourself. A fever of 40.4 is a great confession-prompter."

"I didn't say anything else I might regret, did I?" she joked. But it fell flat when she noticed he hesitated fractionally, and his face flushed involuntarily.

"You'll find I'm very discreet." His eyes crinkled as he tried to be sincere. Janeway looked down self-consciously. There was an awkward silence.

Chakotay cleared his throat and changed tack. "And you'll notice my boots are none the worse for wear."

The captain glanced over the bed's edge quizzically. "What, did I call for inspection, or some other piratical act in my delirium?" she inquired.

"No," he tugged at his ear, then plunged ahead. "You threw up on them."

"I did not!"

"Actually, the Doctor assured me that the acidic bile would leave a fantastic buff on Fleet-issues, and he was right. I mean, take a look at these shiners," he enthused, as he bent over loosely and pulled one foot then the other upward, pretending to see his reflection in each boot.

Janeway reached out to flick an unsuspecting ear by the bedside. "You're making that part up. Please—I'm embarrassed enough as it is," she mumbled, but her face shone with amusement.

"Don't be. It's good to see you smiling again, Captain." And it was. He realized he was staring, and suddenly felt very warm. He needed to leave.

"Well, I…have some reports," she waved the padd indicatively, "but they're about to take a back seat to a baby blanket, thanks to you! You must be tired after all the extra duty today, and the especially early morning…you should get some sleep."

"I'm going, believe me. I took a short pick-me-up on the ready room couch at lunchtime, but it 'dropped' me again some time ago. In fact, if it wasn't for having to run these personal errands for my boss, I'd be sound asleep already." She shook her head at the departing form.

He pulled up at the opening door, turned. "Get some rest. You'll be back in the big chair before you know it."

"Goodnight, Commander. Sleep well. And thank you," she called to the closing panels. She fingered the satiny materials in the satchel on her lap and grinned.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

*beee-oop, chitter*


She tried to concentrate on the daily reports. Chakotay had been kind enough to have everything that came across her desk sent down for her perusal, even though he was ably handling it all. She suspected the Doctor had made the suggestion to keep her relatively occupied, and thus out of his hair…so to speak.


"tsk! Damn!"

But they didn't exactly rivet her attention, and her curiosity ached to the high heavens. From her comfortable perch, knees bent and blanketed, sitting in bed, she glanced surreptitiously to her right. Paris had been fiddling with the replicator forever, answered over and over again by the ship's unkind sounds of non-compliance.


She wasn't going to ask, if she could help it. She was grateful for her gratuitous reports; Mr. Paris had no such distraction. She feared if she knew what he was up to, she would be forced to forbid him his fun.

"Captain, how many replicator rations do you have?" he queried sweetly. That did it. She put her padd down.

"Tom I'm—frankly—afraid to ask…?" she prompted.

"Just a ballpark figure would do."

She complied with a sigh and Tom hung his head in pained defeat.

"Aw, I don't believe it! How high up do you have to be to make cheese on this ship—an Admiral?!"

Janeway tried, unsuccessfully, to make a stern face. "Blatantly defying medical orders while the ship's Captain is present reaches new heights in gall even for you, Mr. Paris."

Tom pouted. "I'm wounded. I wouldn't defy the doc…okay, at least not since yesterday morning when I failed," he admitted to the face she pulled.

The helmsman hurried over to her, clearly excited. "But that's the beauty of this; I'm not defying him. I've taken the list of approved nutritional sources he filed in the replicators, and…had a little talk with it."

"A talk?"

"Yeah. Take bread, for example. I picked the one with the closest formula to pizza dough, and requested it—with the missing pizza dough chemical equations added, and in the shape of a flattened disc! Seems he denied access to anyone trying to add items to the menu, but not to someone toying with approved items. I just need to be careful not to stretch things too far off base!"

Hard as she tried, Janeway couldn't stifle a chuckle. Her people's ingenuity is what kept them all alive in this unpredictable quadrant. To deny them the use of that talent for petty, selfish reasons seemed wrong, somehow. She sighed, but could not hide the twinkle in her eyes.

"And the cheese?"

Her helmsman growled in frustration.

"Too complex! Bio-organics are involved; culturing—the computer won't even begin to allow access to bacteria, especially in a controlled environ like Sickbay. And cheese is complex. Its matrix takes a lot of energy to replicate…" he trailed off.

"Well, Mr. Paris, you get an A+ for effort, and we'll be free to order whatever we like in just a day and a half or so."

"Oh, no! I'm not through yet. I will have that pizza. You mark my words."

"I would be a fool to bet against it—you know the House too well." Janeway returned to her padds, grinning.

Tom reclined on his bed, but the cadence and intensity of his fingers thrumming upon his chest told Janeway that his quest was far from over.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

"Did anyone know that capsaicin is an 'enzymatic catalyst'? I'll open for five."

"What the hell does that mean?" asked Harry and B'Elanna, in unison. She elbowed him in the shoulder for the coincidence, and he grinned.

"It means that the cornbread the Delaney sisters made for me this morning was confiscated by our Edgy, Militant Hound dog , that's what. One lousy cubic centimeter…" Tom smiled politely, but mirthlessly at Megan Delaney, who was examining her cards with critical disgust.

"Shhh! He'll hear you!" Telfer paled visibly.

They had been lucky that Billy had shown up when he did to see the Doctor about a minor 'emergency'. They had nearly been forced to cancel the game when Nicoletti had flat-out refused to play with the captain in sickbay proper. No, Sue hadn't given a damn that their leader was sleeping—she was gone. Fortunately for them, B'Elanna had had no problem convincing the young hypochondriac that a few rounds of poker were in the best interest of his continuing health.

"No such luck. He's transferred to the holodeck to study the simulation of the transwarp flight, cross-correlate it to his medical data—he'll be gone for hours…are you in, or what?" Tom pushed. He had pegged Telfer as the 'easy mark' for the night and had let the rattling begin early. Geez, the kid was so young and raw he made Harry look like James T. Kirk.

"Capsaicin is normally a beneficial catalyst…uh, unless your DNA was recently sproinged like a bad spring, I guess. No offense, Mr. Paris. I'm in." Billy seemed unaware of the merriment his comment caused as he tossed several of Neelix's sugar wafers onto the lab tabletop they had commandeered for the occasion. Using the cookies was a precaution against the possibility that the captain awoke and wandered in, or that Chakotay or, all deities forbid, Tuvok came by for a visit. Substituting cookies for markers kept the look of the game friendly. In theory, anyway.

"So he just destroyed it? Just like that?" asked Harry, tossing a wafer onto the table.

"What, are you kidding?! I made him put it in stasis, to keep fresh and await my parole."

Laughter burst from Megan as she threw down her hand. "Yeah—dream on. He refused to waste power preserving a 'bakery product of questionable origins', quote, unquote, and he sent it to the mess hall this morning." She glanced around quickly for confirmation. "Definitely more sugar next time, huh?"

"Hey, I had that, with the berry tea! Oh, bravo, Meg; you saved me from the spleen links—"

"Delaney, are you tapping thermal resistors into the EPSes again? I thought Chakotay told you guys no more makeshift ovens after that fire—"

"I-I was afraid to try it—corn gives me gas—"

Tom looked on, horrified, and was quite frankly feeling sorry for himself. "What about me?" he interrupted the cacophony. "You people *ate* my treat!"

"You deserve it—look at this garbage you keep dealing…"

"Aw, that does it!" Tom spat out as he headed for the replicator again, as he had done between every round that evening. This time, though, Harry had to admit he looked a little crazed.

"C'mon, Tom! It's your bid," Harry called wearily. The occasional head call was one thing, but this was becoming distracting.

"I fold!" he whined from the back. Evidently, the computer was in the same mood; they could hear it whine its denial, repeatedly, to Tom's requests.

"If you're trying to get the snacks, forget it," B'Elanna called out with amused cruelty. "None of us is interested in sucking gruel through a straw with you!"

Megan snorted as she gathered the cards to shuffle, and Billy smiled as he gathered in the wafers, having won due to Tom's fold—two pair, sixes high. B'Elanna squawked over the painful injustice of such a win, and Harry rolled his eyes. The night was going to degrade quickly if Tom didn't come back to reality soon.

He gave B'Elanna 'the look'. She sobered indignantly. "What!"

"Be nice. He's had a week I certainly wouldn't trade anything for. We came tonight to cheer him up; I don't think our work here is done," he whispered, presenting a hand toward the back room.

"Starfleet—" she began, with a heat that melted quickly before the earnest, unwavering face before her. Instead, she sighed and headed for the alcove while Delaney called the game and dealt. "This power you have over my conscience must end," she mumbled over her shoulder. Harry picked up his cards; now, he was feeling lucky!

B'Elanna watched from the opening for a moment before interrupting the desperate concentration within. "You know, I could probably rewire that thing for you in seconds, have it spewing out whatever you'd like…" She left the sentence dangling, an offer for him to accept.

"After yesterday, you're on the Doc's short list of Likely Suspects. It wouldn't take him too many processing chips to come up with your name for his call to Security."

"Paris, if you implicated me for leaving that damn burr—"

"Now, now, I took full blame for thievery, and threw myself on the mercy of the courts—Doc ranting in one ear and the Captain being disappointed in the other." B'Elanna had to smile. "Believe me, I've suffered for my transgression…or at least for getting caught. Anyway, this is something I need to work out without accomplices." He looked sideways up at her and paused momentarily. "But, uh…thanks for the offer, you know?"

She stared at Paris mutely. The overhead lighting reflected softly off his golden hair—not combed stiffly on his head as usual, but allowed to relax naturally during his forced time off in sickbay. His eyes seemed to jump out at her electrically, further enhanced by the shimmering compliment of the metallic blue sickbay tunic.

The way he looked at her made B'Elanna uncomfortable. The problem was, she was uncomfortable in a very pleasant way…

No. No, no, no! Absolutely not! Friendship with him was one thing, but something more was... She couldn't afford to... She had more pressing things to do than…

With Tom Paris?!

She shook her head fractionally to break the connection she felt forming, and deflected the damning gratitude. "Um, well, you can thank Harry. He's the one who thought that maybe a little engineering might solve your problem."

There was a pause then Tom stifled a staccato giggle.

"Funny, but I've been thinking about a 'little something' from Engineering a lot lately…" He waved away her puzzled look with a grin. "Personal joke; don't worry about it."

He pushed himself away from the console and deactivated it. "Lieutenant, 'time' is what will solve most all of my problems—this one included." He stood and faced her, and he was much too close for the engineer's comfort. Much, much too close. And warm…

"Yeah, well…I guess they're waiting on you, Paris. If you change your mind—"

"I will let you know, Lieutenant."

The conversation in their absence had denigrated into a bull session, each person arguing why they thought their job was more demanding than the others'. No one wasted time drawing B'Elanna into the friendly argument. They knew her job put her in a league of her own, rivaled only by Captain Janeway, and it was with professional respect that they excluded her. But everyone else was fair game.

"Piloting requires skill, sure, but you live for the thrill, like an addiction! That disqualifies you from the gripe," asserted Megan. "Try wrapping your brain around astrometric calculations that you'll never in a whole lifetime come close to reconciling with the other data in any given system—there's just too much. I enjoy my work but c'mon—the instant gratification is definitely not there, Paris. Big strike."

Harry shook his head at both of them, and jumped in.

"But you get instant gratification in other ways—" everyone snorted, and even Megan puffed up, self-satisfied. She and her twin, Jenny were usually first on any party invitation list, renowned for their…effervescent…behavior. "—and you're not under scrutiny every second. I have all the Senior Staff responsibilities with the fewest perks. Try doing six hours across from Tuvok all day, every day."

Delaney-sisters hell, unquestionably. She made a begrudging face. "You have my vote."

Tom enjoyed Harry's argument too much to offer another counterpoint to unseat him. Telfer was diplomatically trying not to contribute too much—the last thing he wanted to discuss with a roomful of senior officers was how his job beat theirs for stress. Speaking of which, he felt the hives rising as he sat there, sweating. B'Elanna was becoming annoyed that no one was playing their hand, as she had a full house, aces over eights.

"You people whine more than Ferengi charity solicitors." She batted away the pretzel sticks that flew her way from all directions. "This is a moot discussion! It all comes down to survival. When I need something to get us the hell out of harm's way, Harry's sensors sweep for planets that Megan collects data on, that Telfer helps analyze so Paris can fly us there, where I make a big, fat, black mark and everyone digs and processes.

"I don't waste my time considering the things I haven't got; I'd get enraged. This place is a treasure trove compared to the Maquis! You just learn to utilize what you do have at your disposal. Now, I'll open for ten."

They became quiet, considering her words—and her steep bid. And suddenly, Tom exploded in victorious laughter.

"Yes! Why didn't I think of it before? Use what you've got!" he exploded. He sighed with deep satisfaction, and plunked back down, shaking his head.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

"You're staring," Janeway murmured into her stitching.

Though abashed at being caught, Tom managed a soft smile and confessed. "Well…it's just that, to see you, um," he fumbled, waving vaguely toward her handiwork.

"What you're trying *not* to say is, you never thought of me as having any domestic talents." She pierced him now with only her eyes from beneath her bowed brow. The silver-tongued lieutenant would not go down easily, however.

"See, my never having thought about it is *totally* different from, uh, actually thinking you had no such skills. Ma'am."

Janeway shook her head, bemused at the slippery semantics.

"You know, Mr. Paris, there is no shame in having a small shred of shame," she quipped, hoping to supply him with a few milligrams. Janeway pinched the bridge of her nose as if she were suffering a headache, but Tom saw the ghost of the smile that played at her mouth. He felt unreasonably proud of being able to put it there, too—like brashly making your mom laugh when she's hollering at you.

But he sobered respectfully, in honor of his week of revelations. "I've…had more than I can stomach. Seems, Ma'am, that I've lost my taste for it."

Janeway wisely made no comment. She silently stitched some small daisy petals, but Tom could tell she was considering his words carefully.

"Sometimes…sometimes it's easy to fill up on junk when you don't know what's on the main menu yet," she murmured after a few minutes.

"Don't be condescending with me, Captain—we both know I grew up with every possible privilege."

"One man's meat is another man's poison, Tom. Tell me—how is Lt. Torres this morning?"

Tom felt himself blush—actually blush, for God's sake—at the apparent non sequitur. Sharp. There was a reason why everyone killed themselves willingly to please this woman—she was as sharp as they come.

"Touché," he grinned fractionally, with grudging respect. "Am I that obvious?"

"No. I've just been a more-than-casual observer the last several days. Funny, how she personally brought you the helm recalibration report this morning, when she could have just as easily downloaded it to your monitor. And she stayed long enough to help you clean up last night, even though she was losing her shirt in that game—"

"We thought you were asleep! Captain, I'm sorry if—"

"Let's make a deal, shall we?" she put up a hand to forestall his apology. "I promise not to tell you when I woke up and 'joined' your little bet-fest if you promise not to tell me how many rations were assigned to each of those horrid little wafers, so I'm not forced to take action. Deal?"

Tom inclined his head in her direction. "Oh, yes, Ma'am."

The conversation slipped into a companionable silence. Paris pondered his good fortune—the carte blanche he'd just received for the gambling. Janeway continued to stitch and contemplate life's recent events, with a clarity that she realized had escaped her the last several months. She found its return refreshing. Not bothering to look up, she suddenly broke their reverie.

"This confinement has been a small gift to me, Tom, looking on the positive side. This is not an area of my ship I frequent very often; there are stories happening here, relationships…well, things to which I'm not generally privy. I think it was enlightening to interact with some of the junior officers and crew. And," she nodded in his direction regally, "the company was not too bad."

"Thank you, Captain."

He walked over to her bed and cocked his head to better scrutinize the soft, satiny creation in Janeway's lap. "Lucky kid. I really could have used my old Binky a few days ago, that's for sure," he joked. "Seriously, it's beautiful, Captain."

"Thank you. I guess we can't judge others from appearances, can we? We all have a secret life somewhere inside of us, wouldn't you say, Lieutenant?" She pierced him knowingly. "I daresay even fiery young women with chips on their shoulders probably have a soft side somewhere, if someone cares enough to put up with the heat and look for it."

Tom started to speak, then hesitated. B'Elanna Torres was definitely about to be wooed—the captain's implicit approval was the catalyst he needed to firm up a wavering resolve. But…

He would be crossing a line, possibly. But his captain was doing the same for him that very moment so they were already in personal waters; it wasn't as if he was crossing there uninvited. And seventy years was a very…very long time for someone to be alone at the top.

In the end, that was the thought that clinched it for him. She was taking the time to care first and he was gonna return the favor, protocol be damned. What the hell, right? What could she do—throw him in the brig?

"And I'd hazard a guess," he started, surprised that he could look up only as far as the base of her biobed, and no further, "that the same could be said for quiet commanders."

"Lieutenant…I beg your pardon," almost whispered, challenging him to retract it.

"Chief engineers may not bring inconsequential reports to off-status conn officers often, but commanders never play sickbay orderly for their captains, Captain. Not without some connection deeper than duty. Let's just say…I've been a more-than-casual observer the last several days."

And then he did make eye contact—to show her that he was offering a gift, not hoarding a secret for the rumor mills. She held his gaze while she considered her options, and in the end settled on 'diffusion' as her best course of action.

"The Commander and I are friends, Mr. Paris. I'm lucky to have such an easily-tolerated, efficient XO."

"Yes, Ma'am," Tom smiled warmly, glad that his captain had again let him off the hook …and strangely saddened at the same time.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

The Doctor scanned the small room deliberately, as if searching through a crowd. "Ah, there you both are!" the EMH proclaimed, then chortled at his own recently-enhanced sense of humor.

His two patients blinked at him, then at each other from the general locations that each had occupied for the last two and a half days. Janeway made a mental note to question B'Elanna in the future about approving all of the Doctor's quirky personal requests. Tom made a mental note to look into the feasibility of programming a 'wedgie' subroutine that could be activated from the conn station. Now, there would be a lesson in humor for him to appreciate…

The Doctor harumphed at their lack of response and approached Janeway, a cortical monitor poised in his hands. "Neck, please, Captain. Your orders for the evening are written—no duty station for either of you. You may wander the public gathering areas, such as the mess hall, to your hearts content, though I would prefer that you rested in quarters." He walked to Paris' bedside to repeat the procedure.

"You're letting us go early?" Paris asked as his monitor was snapped into place and adjusted.

"There are caveats, but yes. For instance, your medical rations and diet remain in effect," he looked pointedly at Paris, who sighed disgustedly, "as a precautionary measure until I see you both at sick call tomorrow, where I should be able to release you both for good. In the meantime, the cortical monitors are linked to the central computer, which will alert me to any problems during the night, the chance of which is extremely remote or I would not be letting you go. Now if you'll forgive me, I've been operating non-stop for several straight days, and in the interest of program preservation, I will be deactivating immediately. You'll find your uniforms on the top shelf of the lab cabinets. Any questions?"

Janeway began packing her blanketing fabrics and Paris moved to toss his thermal sheet in the recycler.

"Well then. I will see you both promptly tomorrow morning. Computer, deactivate EMH."

"I thought he'd never leave," Tom sighed with relief. "Before we go, Captain, I have a little something for you—my treat." He retreated to the Doctor's office, and when he returned, the mouth-watering smell of pizza filled the air.

Janeway smiled broadly as she accepted a piece. She experienced a nanosecond of remorse for bending the Doctor's orders but concluded that molecular unraveling was an acceptable risk for what was before her. She couldn't believe how good it looked to her and secretly applauded her junior officer's tenacity. She dug in immediately.

"You did it!" she got out around the incredibly delicious lump of dough and spices that filled her mouth. "How did you solve the cheese problem?" It was wonderfully chewy and rich. She closed her eyes in pleasure as she rolled the savory morsel around in her mouth.

"I didn't."

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked quizzically from her slice to her Lieutenant. He continued to eat with great relish, and continued.

"Mm—something B'Elanna said to me yesterday gave me the idea—and it was cheap, easy, and totally safe."

Satisfied, Janeway dug in once more.

"Well," he drawled, considering, "…except, maybe, for the Doctor…"

Now, she stopped chewing altogether and stowed her latest bite in her cheek. "Explain," she commanded warningly, and Paris had to swallow his laughter. His captain looked like nothing so much as a cautious chipmunk.

In for a penny, in for a pound, his mom used to say. He threw caution to the wind. Besides, he didn't want the captain to think he'd changed too much, did he? Raising his chin proudly, he plowed on.

"It's holo-cheese, Captain," he stated proudly, but glanced around furtively. "Eat quick," he admonished, "I'm not totally sure what will happen when the Doc's program shows up again."

He continued to chew nonchalantly as Janeway's mouth fell open in mortification. He could almost see her mind furiously calculating the possible glitches that could occur by tapping into the Doctor's personal emitter channels like that…but was that a hint of admiration he detected around the edges of her horror?

He liked to think so. He wouldn't have it any other way.

Keep 'em guessing.

Keep 'em all guessing.

=/\= END =/\=

Additional Note:  A fellow writer and friend, Briar Rose, was intrigued enough by some of my material here to write a coda to this coda!  (Did that make sense, lol?)  Anyway, I think it's a crackerjack tale, and I highly recommend that you try it.  It's called Covert Maneuvers, wherein Tom ropes Harry into assisting him as he returns a favor to a 'friend' -- and I think we ALL know who that is!  :-D  Give it a spin; you won't be disappointed.     LA Koehler