The Problem with Paris P. L. Heyes ****** I wasn't too comfortable under that steady, clear-eyed gaze. It reminded me of the first interview I ever had with Kathryn Janeway. Everything had gone perfectly today, so I wasn't sure what I'd done to deserve this thoughtful scrutiny. "Tell me how it all started. Whatever brought you two together?" It wasn't an entirely unexpected question, given the circumstances, though I wasn't sure how I should answer it. "I'm not sure what I can tell you, that you don't already know, or may have guessed." "Start with yourself." "Me? All right, I guess that's as good a place as any..." ****** You should have seen me. B'Elanna Torres, Starfleet dropout, voluntary exile from two homeworlds, Maquis fighter--pardon me, ex-Maquis--and all-around terror to those who knew her well... There I was, stuck on a Starfleet vessel, at the mercy of a Starfleet captain and honor-bound to become part of her crew, to wear that uniform and assume a rank many thought I'd never reach. So who's the first friend I managed to make in the new life that had been forced on me? A wet-behind-the-ears, green as Earth grass Starfleet ensign, who's all puppy-dog eyes and earnest smiles. But Harry Kim was also smart, dedicated and loyal--and he probably saved my life in the Ocampan underworld. Not a bad choice for a friend, really. Except for one small problem. The first friend he made on Voyager--one Thomas Eugene Paris. He was...he--well, I called him a pig quite early in our journey, because if I'd said petaQ in front of Captain Janeway, I might have pissed Chakotay off. Those icy blue eyes, that infuriating smugness, an attitude worse than my stuck-up Academy boyfriend had--how do you sum that up? I hadn't known Tom Paris that well in the Maquis, but I thought I knew what he was capable of--even if Chakotay had begun to think he wasn't the one who got that ship taken. But I didn't have to put up with him if I didn't want to. "Come on, B'Elanna," Harry said to me one night in Sandrine's, after I'd made a cutting remark about his buddy (flirting outrageously with both Delaneys), "you need to give Tom a break. He's had a lot of trouble in his life." I'd merely snorted my disregard for that, and excused myself before we got into an argument. Trouble, Harry? I could have said to him. As if we all don't have our share of it, out here with no one else to help us survive? What about you, Harry--torn away from a promising career, from decent caring parents; separated from the woman you love. You don't have trouble? Problems that would drive anyone crazy? So don't tell me I have to tolerate Mr. Smart Mouth Paris. But--once in a while, I'd hear or see things which told me that maybe I should cut Paris some slack. Clever in his own way, a better pilot than Chakotay even, he pulled us out of some tricky situations in those first weeks. He was good to Harry, and he treated Neelix and Kes, our Deltan acquisitions, better than some of the 'fleeters did. When there was a job to be done, or a crisis to be solved, he gave it his all. I got the impression, sometimes, that deep down inside, behind that annoying smile, that he cared about--well, something that was very important. Fitting in? Acceptance? Huh...I knew all about that. So, even when he acted like he was the Galaxy's gift to women, or pulled some prank that left Chakotay seething, or told stupid jokes till I wanted to hit him, I decided I could at least try to be a little more tolerant of him. Unless it got to be too much trouble to bother. *** By the left nut of Kahless, as one of my uncles used to say to the delight of the young cousins, when he thought the aunts and my mother couldn't hear--what we went through those first years! Every time we thought things were looking up, getting better--hey, we might get a bit closer to home with a few less dents in the hull--we'd run into a Bad Thing. Weird anomalies, Vidiians, evil Ocampans, war-mad robots, Kazons and more Kazons--it was like the Delta Quadrant was allergic to us. But we'd fight back, pull through, and count ourselves lucky--until the next disaster came along. Certain problems bothered me more than others. Finding out the truth about Seska. Seeing Chakotay betrayed and humiliated. Almost losing Harry--more than once. It hurts so much to lose a friend. Even one that's not too close. Like Tom. How does it feel to die and come back? I didn't ask either one of them what it was like--because it made me think too much of my other half, my Klingon self who gave up her life in that Vidiian chamber of horrors to save me; then saved me once again with her DNA. That was close enough to death and rebirth for me, so it was probably better not to ask what they felt about it. But it changed them, both, I could tell. Not a lot, but enough to know the difference. I know what that's like, too. I'm not exactly sure when I started to feel differently about Tom Paris--I certainly respected him more, maybe even understood him a little better after what he did for me in the Vidiian tunnels. There was almost this sense that we were alike, in certain ways. We both knew what it was like to build walls around ourselves, to live in a shell of deflecting emotions. Neither of us actually said it, admitted it, but I think we were both more aware of it, from that time on. We worked on projects, solved problems together, and I gained a deeper appreciation for his dedication, and curiosity about things he didn't understand. Somewhere along the way he became less of an annoyance, and more of a friend. Harry liked that. We started doing things together, as a trio, or in a larger group. Holodeck adventures, our few and far between shore leave opportunities. I didn't realize how much I'd actually grown to--like Tom, until he left us. It was almost a worse shock than Seska's abrupt departure. I should have known something was up--I'd even noticed some of the signs, to the point of asking Tom about his change in attitude. Somehow, I thought I could help him, as he'd once done for me. I thought he'd managed to put his past behind him, to overcome the problems that had plagued his life. Of course, he denied there was any trouble, as he had to do at the time. But it hurt, that rejection of my help, and I was left thinking that too much had happened to him, that it had all caught up and overwhelmed him, and that's why he wanted to go. When Neelix announced Tom was really leaving us, I wondered what I could have done to prevent it. I had no chance to say good-bye, to tell him I wished he could have been stronger, that he would stay and give this life a second chance. I could only wonder if he knew how much his friends would miss him--Harry, Neelix, Kes...and me. But there was something I'd forgotten--out there, in the wild and crazy Delta Quadrant, things could change faster than an uncontained warp core breach. Thanks to Tuvok's skill, Neelix's tenacity, and Tom's deception, the real traitor was discovered--leaving the Kazon and Seska thwarted, for the time being. And Tom came home. In between all the crises after that one, we found out we were still friends. I was getting used to that, liking him a little more each day--and then we lost him again. Hell--we lost Voyager, seemed to have lost any chance of getting home, of surviving at all, when Seska and her Kazon lover came after us with a vengeance that could teach Klingons a lesson. They stranded us on a desolate rock, and it took every bit of Starfleet discipline and Maquis cunning to get us past the first few days. Still, we lost poor Hogan, and had to watch Samantha Wildman's baby grow weaker and weaker. We also faced the prospect of conflict with the Hanonian natives for the rest of our miserable lives. No one talked about it, but we knew that our one hope of rescue was probably dead. Poor Tom, I'd think in those cold caves at night, gone with the shuttle in a blaze of desperate glory and wasted courage. But I couldn't spare him more thought than that, as we struggled to survive, especially when things went critical. The planet unleashed more of its geothermal fury, forcing us into an uneasy alliance with the natives. Narrow ledges on a rocky cliff face were all we had in the way of refuge from the violent tremors and lava eruptions. There was no way to tell if they would abate or eventually kill us all. Then two good things happened. The native shaman saved little Naomi, and Voyager appeared on the horizon, the most glorious sight imaginable. Even more incredible was the sound of the voice we heard through the ship's external comm system--our fallen hero, Tom Paris. As we readied to beam aboard, Samantha declared it all a miracle, and no one disagreed with her. So, thanks to Tom and the Talaxians, we reclaimed our ship. Neelix's friends stayed on to help us, so the captain was able to order short, rotating shifts, ensuring no one would overextend themselves with the repairs and clean-up. The engines were in fair shape, the Doctor was back on-line, and within six hours of our rescue, I didn't feel too bad about leaving Engineering to get a shower, a fresh uniform, and a relatively decent meal. It was no surprise to find the mess hall crowded, but part of it was the knot of people gathered around the hero of the hour. Like the rest of us, Tom looked a lot cleaner and more chipper than a few hours before; somewhat surprised but definitely pleased by the heartfelt gratitude of the crew members surrounding him. I wanted to say something to him, but didn't feel comfortable doing it in front of the crowd, or disturbing his moment of glory. So as I walked past on my way to the replicator, I reached out to brush his arm with my hand, and murmur a quiet "thank you." I was totally unprepared for what happened next. With swift graciousness, he broke free of the others. He caught my hand in his, turning me back to face him. And he looked at me. It was only a few seconds. It felt like centuries. That look spoke volumes, but said nothing. I can't describe what I saw on his face, in his eyes. He looked at me, through me...a steady gaze of blue fire. I couldn't look away. I think I stopped breathing. Then he smiled, typically Paris, light-hearted and nonchalant. The moment broke apart, the walls went back up, and we were ourselves again. "Anytime, Lieutenant," he drawled, releasing my hand. "Let's not make it a habit," I countered, moving away. He went back to his admirers. I got something to eat. I think I actually ate it. If I had considered Tom Paris a problem in the past, I had no idea what trouble he was going to cause me in the future. *** With Voyager ours again, and Kazon space at last far behind us, we were able to settle down a bit. The crew was finally--well, I can't say resigned, but perhaps more accustomed to our situation. We'd been dealt a rough hand, Joe Carey once said, but we were learning to play it to our best advantage. Friendships strengthened; relationships developed, changed, re-formed; two disparate and desperate crews forged themselves into an extended family. Where Kathryn Janeway led us, we followed--through the good, the bad, and whatever fell in-between. After much trial, error and incredible luck, I felt truly confident and comfortable in my position of Chief Engineer. Our strange odyssey gave me an opportunity that had been more common in the early days of space faring--to really know a ship inside and out. I was one with the pulse and hum of the warp core. If a system developed problems, I could be touchier than a Capellan powercat. If everything was running smoothly, I was the nicest person on board. Harry claimed he could predict my moods by what the ship's status report read every morning. But I like to think I was a different person from the angry, hostile refugee I'd been a few years before. Oh, I still had my edge, and woe to anyone who crossed me, but I think I'd learned how to handle explosive situations--and my explosive nature--a little better. Change was all around in those days. Harry Kim was "growing up" before my eyes. Kes was becoming a mature woman and the Doctor's closest friend. Doc himself was developing quite a personality. The captain and Chakotay seemed to be moving cautiously towards something more than a working relationship. Was it the change I recognized in myself that allowed me to see the changes in others, or was it just my perception of them that had changed? A little of both, most likely...more than likely, in the case of one person in particular. I began to slowly realize, that in the place where Tom Paris kept his real feelings, a great deal had changed. He had learned to fit in, he was accepted, so he was able to care more about other things. Mainly, me. Oh, all those looks he sent my way! Furtive ones, longing ones, ones impossible to define. I'd pretend I hadn't noticed; he'd act like he wasn't doing it. Once in a while he would try something bolder--a sly compliment, a convoluted request for a date. I generally rebuffed all those cute little come-ons. It took a while before I noticed I was the sole target of his advances--that he'd given up flirting with other women on the ship. Our working relationship was unaltered. We could still function as a team when required to do so. On those occasions, we actually managed some serious, meaningful conversations. Tom would still joke around, even in dire situations, but in a different way, without pretense, his defenses lowered slightly. The barriers around my feelings were coming down, too. I would try to tell myself I had enough problems, keeping Voyager running. I didn't need the complication of Tom Paris falling in love with me. The truth was--I had never dreamed someone like Tom Paris could fall in love with me. Even though I had known for quite some time that we were alike in many ways, I couldn't believe it was enough to build a relationship on. But an odd attraction--emotional, physical, I didn't know how much of which--was there, and it came to a point where I couldn't deny it. One step forward, two steps back--we'd make a little progress in being just more than friends, then beat a hasty retreat to our old ways, sniping at each other from behind the crumbling walls around our true feelings. It took an away mission that went unbelievably, horribly wrong to have those feelings fully exposed to each other, under the worst possible conditions. Sometime after, Captain Janeway assured me that only the necessary details would appear in the official logs. Small comfort, that. Even now, I get angry thinking about what Vorik inadvertently did to me. I hated having all my control--what little I'd mastered--stripped away. Blood fever in a Klingon is not a pretty sight. One small part of me remained ashamed and humiliated even as I tried to--assault Tom. And one small part of me would be eternally amazed and grateful that he was able to resist. He fought against his own desires, putting aside his raw emotions and vulnerabilities to spare me further pain. Of course, had the timing been right, he wouldn't have been too unwilling to give in. I sometimes wonder how different things might have been that way. Still, I'd been given proof that we could strike sparks with each other, and that Tom cared about me, thought about me, on many different levels. I had seen the person he really was, the true self he kept hidden away most of the time. I guess that was Vorik's doing too. And I never thanked him. *** That incident didn't end our little dance of uncertainty. In some ways, it made things more complicated. It might have been easier to open up to each other a little more, but we could be as quick as ever to put up our personal shields if we thought things were getting too cozy. The uncertainty of life in the Delta Quadrant didn't help, either. A stretch of calm, safe travelling could erupt into a struggle for survival at any time. Even encounters with friendly races could lead to trouble. A personal crisis for one crew member might have ramifications for everyone on board. A seemingly simple technical glitch could wreak havoc for days. Life on Voyager could never be termed ordinary. Someone--it was probably Tom--once said the captain's logs would make an incredible holovid. Encounters with the Q, averting natural disasters, losing the ship--again; alien criminals, the Voth, the did we survive all that? Sooner or later the deck would have to be stacked irrevocably against us. We lost Kes much too soon. We gained a crewmember that was more of a problem to me than Tom had once been. Maybe it would have been easier for me to accept Seven's presence on Voyager if I hadn't been so wrapped up in trying to cope with other, more serious trouble. I had come to the sorry conclusion that Tom wasn't the biggest problem in our tentative relationship--I was. What was worse--I couldn't decide if it was my human or Klingon side that was unable to make a commitment. But my own fear was the greatest obstacle, that much I was certain of...and it was beginning to gnaw away at the foundation of the trust and care we had so carefully built up for each other. I had to stare death in the face before I could find the courage to tell Tom I loved him. If the end had come then and there, in the cold blackness of space, I think we would have died...well, if not happy, then at least content. But my confession had stunned us both, to the extent that after our rescue, it took three days before we could even look at each other, much less talk about what had happened. Then it was Tom's turn to be courageous, refusing to back down or let me back out. Two words and one kiss later, my heart was his forever. *** Love, of course, does not guarantee eternal happiness. It doesn't make all your problems go away. It just creates new ones. I don't know if it would have been any easier for us if we'd been living a more "normal" life. Probably not, considering our troubled pasts. Sometimes we were too much alike for our own good; too easy to be hurt, too stubborn to admit fault. When things between us were just a little rocky, Tom could usually mend the situation with a bad joke or silly trick. If I was having an off day, it would only take one of his special smiles to cheer me up. I knew what words could lift his spirits, and how to make a promise of better times with just a look. But not all our problems could be solved so simply. The brief communication we had with Starfleet was difficult enough for everyone on board, but it created a rift between Tom and I that didn't become apparent right away, and was still having an effect on us months later. Our own deepest fears and insecurities sent us back behind those old defensive barriers. We almost had to build our love and trust for each other back up from scratch. It was worth the effort, even though it took such a long time. What's the old saying? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The Klingons would appreciate that one. We lived through each of the ship's close calls and disasters; we learned from each personal crisis we endured. The smallest things could still test our love, but each problem, each misunderstanding brought us closer together and made us love each other more. It still works that way--it always will. I know better than to expect that life with Tom by my side will be perfect. I don't expect him to be perfect, because I love him problems and all, just as he loves everything about me. He's my other half...he makes me complete.... ****** "After all that, why did it take so long for you two to get married?" My listener finally broke the pensive silence I had fallen into. I glanced up and smiled faintly. "Captain Janeway used to ask the same question," I said. "We did think about, talk about it--sort of, as time went on," I added. "We were almost ready to set a date, when things changed again. Who would have dreamed we'd run across an abandoned Sikarian outpost, so far from their homeworld, complete with a trajector system that still worked. That turned out to be just a little more important than our personal life." "You were extremely fortunate." "Our luckiest draw of the cards ever, Joe called it. Even luckier that we were able to make it work, by landing on the planet, and using the trajector to send the ship across that last little piece of the Delta Quadrant and most of the Beta Quad. Once we were that close to home, Tom and I decided to wait and get married after we finally got back. It was only another five months of travel." But with a sigh I added, "We just didn't expect to have to put it off even longer once we got here." "Well, the dust had to settle first. But some things are worth waiting for, aren't they?" That made me smile again. "The good things, definitely." That made him smile, too. "Well, well...what's this?" Startled, we both turned at the sound of Tom's voice. "I thought it was customary for the bride to disappear from the reception with her husband, not her father-in-law." I recognized that tone--confused, concerned, and a little angry. I could see the same feelings begin to appear on the Admiral's face as he looked at his son, who was leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed and his expression blank. It had already been a long, exciting, but tiring day, and I was not going to let it end badly. "And it took you this long to notice I was missing?" I countered, giving my husband a measured, warning look. Tom straightened up and relaxed just a little. "I was waylaid--first by my mother, then by yours. I was beginning to suspect some kind of conspiracy." Owen Paris watched us carefully, letting us work this out ourselves. There had been far less rage and recrimination between father and son since our return than Tom had expected and I had feared, but things were far from perfect. The slightest thing could still set off phenomenal arguments. However, the Admiral and I somehow had hit it off and were getting along far better than I ever would have imagined. I still wasn't sure if Tom approved of that or not. On the other hand, Tom and my mother had practically bonded from the moment they met, which made me incredibly nervous. And she'd been extremely quiet during the ceremony and early part of the reception. "What did Mother want?" I asked, curious and somewhat fearful. He read me as easily as I had done him moments earlier. He came over to my chair and took my hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "She just wanted to be sure we had scheduled a stop on Qo'noS in our honeymoon itinerary, so I can be introduced properly to the rest of the family." Translation: Mother would personally challenge anyone who dared question my bringing home a human mate to bat'leths at dawn. It was acceptance equivalent to the Paris family holding our wedding and reception/long-delayed welcome home party here in the house where Tom had grown up. I breathed a sigh of relief and pressed Tom's hand in return. "Oh, good," I said, my voice only a little shaky. "I can't wait for you to meet Uncle W'har." "Neither can I," Tom said with a grin. It faded as he looked at his father, who was still sitting patiently in his armchair. "I think Mom needs you downstairs. One of the kids jammed up the replicator with a piece of wedding cake." The Admiral got to his feet, shaking his head. "Let me guess--it was probably Alex. That child definitely takes after her uncle, not her mother." He said it so casually, it was hard to hear the fondness underneath, but still it brought a surprised smile to Tom's face. Owen paused by my chair, and nodded at his son. He put a hand on my shoulder, a combination of a firm pat and gentle shake. In the past six months, I had learned to recognize the gesture for what it was--the closest thing to a hug Owen Paris would give anyone, except his wife. "You've got your work cut out for you, my dear," he said to me. "But I think you already know he's worth the trouble." Tom could only stare in astonishment as his father reached out to include him in the "embrace." "Son, I hope you realize just how lucky you are." He gave us each a last, little shake; smiled, then left the study. My husband watched him go, eyes still wide. I stood up and gently tapped his cheek. "Torres to Paris--you still with me, flyboy?" Tom focused on me at last. "B'Elanna--what was all that? Just what were you two talking about?" I smiled demurely. "Not much...this and that, you and me." His eyes went even wider, if that was possible. "What did you tell--no, never mind." He shook his head quickly. "I don't want to know." I distracted him from further concern with a quick kiss. "We better go change, then say our good-byes. Oh, and do we want to stop at Qo'noS first, and get it over with, or save it for last?" A sly look finally replaced his stunned bemusement, and his lips curved in an all-too-familiar wicked way. "Oh, I think I'll let you decide that, sweetheart," he said, putting the problem solidly in my lap. Typical!