Note from Katie Redshoes: I did not write this -- I am posting it at the request of a very dear friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. Send feedback care of redshoes@ix.netcom.com and I will pass it on.

Disclaimer: Star Trek Voyager, and all the characters in the story (except Kevin, Ilyana and Aaron Nabokov, and Kai) are copyright and trademark Paramount Pictures and yadda-yadda-boom-tiddley-boom. No copyright infringement is intended. Please don't sue me: I have a wife, a kid, and several hundred tribbles to feed.

Questions, comments, or opinions about elf costumes should be sent to: redshoes@ix.netcom.com, with thanks as always to Redshoes for posting this for me.


Good Tidings

By Captain Jinx
(c/o redshoes@ix.netcom.com)


"I haven't been keeping track in any strictly formal sense, but this has to be about the dumbest idea Neelix has ever thought of." Tom Paris regarded his... attire... with marked distaste. It was laying on top of their bed. It was very green (not his best color). He stared at the hat. It was pointy.

"Oh, come on," said B'Elanna Torres, emerging from the bathroom. "It wasn't all Neelix's idea. The Captain asked him to introduce some new ceremonies into community life. Neelix checked the cultural database and came up with something that he thought would be appropriate, acceptable to a large cross-section of the crew, and, most of all, would be fun for the kids." B'Elanna was referring to the ten children who currently ran the starship Voyager (or so it seemed to Lt. Paris): among them, Samantha Wildman's seven-year-old daughter, Naomi; Kevin and Ilyana Nabokov's four-year-old son, Aaron; and Harry Kim and Seven of Nine's two-year-old son, Kai.

"Well, okay," said Paris. "That's fine. But how did I end up in the middle of all this? I mean, have I done anything to tick off the Captain? Have I failed to fill out some report? Did I steer us into a planet?"

B'Elanna leaned into Tom, kissed him lightly on the cheek and said, "No, love. Nothing of the sort. Once again, Neelix is just following the recipe he found in the files. The senior members of the community always participate in these sorts of ceremonies." She reached up and pushed a wisp of hair off Paris' forehead and patted it into place. "And, besides that, I think the Captain wants to see what your ass looks like in those green tights."

"B'Elanna!" Paris took a step backwards, grabbed the waistband of his boxer shorts (the only thing he was currently wearing) and hitched them up. "If this is the sort of thing you two are always laughing about at lunch, I'd just as soon not know about it."

"Oh, sure, Paris. Right. Like you've never checked out hers."

Tom Paris had to pause and consider that for a moment. Well... yes. "I think this is covered in Starfleet regs somewhere, isn't it? Kind of the flip side of 'Rank hath its privileges? I'm allowed to look, but she isn't?"

"How does that explain how you used to check me out?"

"I didn't report to you. And, besides, I still do check you out."

B'Elanna twisted her head to one side and made an "Aw, shucks," expression. "That's very sweet, Paris," she said. Then, she picked up the green outfit and threw it at his head. "Get dressed."

>< >< ><

The cafeteria tables had been folded and the chairs were either lined up against the wall or arranged in semicircles to make conversation easier. The lighting was a little more subdued than usual, if only to simulate evening hours, and the walls were decorated with red, gold, and silver garlands. The port holes were lined with tiny red, blue, green, and yellow lights.

When Paris walked into the room -- the site of his soon-to-be public humiliation -- he was forced to stop for a moment and be impressed. Neelix had done a creditable job. Paris was one of the small handful of crewmembers whose family had actually followed the ancient traditions the Talaxian was attempting to emulate and Paris was ever-so-briefly overwhelmed by a feeling of nostalgia, of something like homesickness. As soon as he felt the feeling sweep over him, he recognized it for what it was: a false memory of the sort of scene his mother had tried to bring off several times during Tom's childhood, but had never really been able to do. Usually for some reason involving either his father's absence or (more often) presence.

Tom inhaled deeply and let the feeling slip away. It wasn't really important. Whatever memories the scene might invoke, they were only memories. It was time to make some new memories with his new family.

And here came a memory that Tom Paris would not be able to shake for decades to come.

Tuvok was sitting at one of the galley seats in the otherwise empty room sipping what Paris assumed, from the pungent aroma that now filled his senses, was one of the teas Neelix had been developing for the Vulcan's discerning palate over the past few years. It was, Tom knew, one of the gestures that had cemented the now-firm friendship between the Vulcan and the Talaxian. Of course, it didn't hurt that Neelix had developed into a first-rate security officer, or, as he preferred to be called, a peace officer.

The ever-placid Vulcan was lifting the tea cup to his lips and sipping delicately, inhaling the slightly woody-smelling concoction. Tom had tried the tea once at Neelix's urging and the pilot was of the opinion that the tea tasted like turpentine.

But Paris' attention wasn't focused on the tea, but on Tuvok's garb. He, like Paris, was clothed from head-to-toe in a skintight green leotard festooned with red stripes and small silver bells. Laying on the counter by his tea cup was a similarly decorated pointy cap. Paris stared at the Chief Security Officer.

The Chief Security Officer turned his head and focused his gaze on Paris.

Paris said, "You'll excuse me for phrasing it just this way, Tuvok, but what the hell are you supposed to be?"

Tuvok slowly raised one eyebrow, then scanned Paris' outfit from head to toe. Then he, Tuvok, rose, held his hands out to his sides, presenting himself, and said, "I am an elf." Pause. "I was led to believe that you, too, were to be an elf. Have I misinterpreted your garb?"

Paris brushed the floppy point of his cap out of his face setting off a chorus of jingles. "No, you haven't. I guess I'm just a little surprised to find out you got sucked into this, too."

"'Sucked into this?' I was under the impression that I was to participate in one of your people's cultural festivals."

Tom paused to reflect. Was there any point in trying to explain it all? "I guess I didn't know that Neelix had asked you to get involved."

"I believe that the directives he found in the cultural database indicated that the participants, especially the 'elves,' should be drawn from..."

"...The senior members of the community," they finished in unison. "Yes, yes," Paris finished by himself, "but I don't see Chakotay dressed up in one of these."

"I believe the Commander's status as the ship's chaplain exempts him from this ceremony."

Paris pursed his lips. "I knew he had an angle when he let the Captain talk him into making that official."

"No doubt," Tuvok said, once again settling into his chair.

Just as Tuvok was raising his cup to his lips for a sip and Paris had begun inspecting the various covered dishes on the kitchen counters, the cafe doors whooshed open and Neelix strode in. As proscribed in the texts, he was clothed in a large red coat and heavy red pants, both trimmed in white, and was carrying a large sack on his shoulder. He was wearing a large red cap, also pointy, but with no bells, and, once again, trimmed in white. Tom wondered how he managed to comb out his whiskers into the impressively long, white beard, but then he saw that the beard was really some sort of prosthetic device. Or possibly a wad of cotton...

Neelix dropped his sack to the floor, stood with his feet wide, placed his hands on his hips, threw back his head, and, loud as he could, boomed out, "HA! HA! HA!"

Paris and Tuvok regarded each other narrowly.

Paris held a finger in the air and assumed a pedantic pose: "Neelix, I think that's supposed to be, 'Ho, ho, ho!' Also, if you do it that loudly, I believe you'll send Aaron into shock and Seven will beat you into bloody pulp for frightening Kai."

Neelix considered Paris' criticism. "You might have a point there, Tom. But are you sure it isn't 'Ha?'" He fished under the broad black belt that was hitched around his waist for a PADD. Flicking the switch, he thumbed through a couple displays until he found the text he was seeking. "Hmm. Ah, yes. Here we are... Well, I believe that the research I've done doesn't indicate conclusively whether it's 'Ha!' or 'Ho,' but I feel confident..."

"Trust me on this one, Neelix..."

"All right, Tom. 'Ho!' it is. Now, how are my chocolate chip cookies coming?" Neelix disappeared into the kitchen and, moments later, Tom smelled a heavenly aroma wafting from the general direction of the ovens.

Neelix emerged tossing a couple of cookies from hand to hand. "Here, Tom, try one of these." He lobbed the piping hot cookie to Paris who caught it in the flat of his palm, then proceeded to toss it about until it cooled, bells jingling merrily. When it had cooled sufficiently, Tom took a bite. "Hey, not bad. Where'd you get the chocolate chips?"

"Seven had them replicated from her account. She developed quite the taste for sweets when she was pregnant, didn't she?"

Tom nodded. It was still strange to think of Seven as "liking" or "disliking" anything, but facts were facts. A lot had changed on Voyager in the past four years, in some ways even more than they had during the first four, but none was so dramatic as the change wrought in their former Borg crew mate. Some of it was due to her relationship with Harry, Tom knew; some due to the subsequent pregnancy and the birth of Kai. But most of it, Tom figured, was attributable to Captain Janeway's patience and unrelenting compassion. Now that Seven had, after her own fashion, settled into the community, she treated the Captain with the same respect and affection that the rest of the crew felt, but with a special, added depth that Tom could only think of as daughterly devotion. Even Kai sensed it and treated Janeway with the open-hearted love that young children reserve for a grandparent.

"Well, good job, Neelix. Now, why does pizza still give you such problems?

"It does not give me problems, Mr. Paris. You just don't appreciate the subtleties I've introduced to what is an otherwise uninteresting..."

"'Uninteresting?!'"

"Yes, uninteresting combination of wheat dough, vegetable paste, and fermented curds..."

"'Uninteresting?!'"

"Gentlemen," Tuvok attempted to break in.

"...And the improvements I have made have given the dish a piquancy that, admittedly, may be beyond the abilities of those crew members who have, shall we say, unrefined palates..."

"Neelix, you put worms on top of it..."

"Fahta worms, yes. A great delicacy for, as I said, those with the palates to appreciate it..."

"Gentlemen, I believe the guests have begun to arrive. If I understand the characters in this myth cycle, Santa Claus threatening one of his elves with a cookie would be considered a mixed message."

And, sure enough, the first batch of crew members were standing in the door. It was Samantha and Naomi who, at seven years of age, came up to her mother's shoulder. There was a springy, coltish air about Naomi, a kind of ungainly inquisitiveness about anything and everything that made her Neelix's favorite among the children.

Neelix instantly snapped into character, tossed the half-eaten cookie across the galley so that it landed, pong! in the large steel sink, strode across the dining area and wrapped the girl in his arms. Naomi hugged him back fiercely, then pulled back so she could tug at his whiskers and laugh uproariously at a detail Tom had missed -- Neelix had left his comm badge on the left lapel of his Santa suit.

More people began to trickle into the room in twos and threes, most of them having the good taste not to look at either the Pilot or the Head of Security in their green finery, though there were a couple of exceptions. The first, Chakotay, murmured "Rank has its privileges" to Tom as he headed for the cookies, and the other, Harry, started to laugh so hard when he walked into the room that he had to hand off Kai to Chakotay or risk dropping him. Once Harry recovered, his first question was, "Has B'Elanna seen this, yet?"

Tom replied, "Yes, she has, and, I might add seemed to enjoy what she saw."

"So, there is an up side to this otherwise humiliating public display?"

"I'm helping to foster crew unity."

"That's true. We won't be able to talk about much of anything else for the next few days..."

Tom flashed Harry an acid grin, then asked, "So, where's Seven?"

Harry's mood immediately dropped by a couple of degrees. "She said she had a few things to finish up in Astro. She might be here later..."

Tom Paris was immediately sorry for the spiteful thought that made him ask after Seven. Though she had changed in so many ways in the past four years, social occasions of any kind were still... complicated for her. Though she was able to relax with small groups such as Harry, Tom, and B'Elanna for dinner, she had learned enough about socialization in the past couple of years to know that she wasn't very good at it. "I'm sure she'll come," Tom said, trying to smooth things over.

Harry shrugged. His relationship was complex and unconventional which was difficult for a man who needed routine and stability as much as Harry Kim needed it. Though he and Seven were recognized by their crew mates as "a couple," they did not live together, and would go for days on end without actually talking to one another, usually because Seven was caught up in some research project or another. On the other hand, the product of their unusual union -- young Kai -- was clearly the Center of the Known Universe as far as Seven was concerned and she entrusted him completely with no one except Harry and the Captain. Tom knew that his relationship with B'Elanna was frequently a source of wonder and amazement to his ship mates, but no pair elicited as much gossip as Harry and Seven.

"Yeah," Harry nodded. "But it looks like you've got work to do."

Tom turned to see that Neelix had ensconced himself in the large "throne" he had arranged in front of the windows, Tuvok at his left hand, and was attempting to make heavy eye contact with Tom so he would join them. There were several large bags behind the throne, all stuffed full of gaudily wrapped packages of every size and shape. Eye contact made, Neelix began to twitch his head violently to his right indicating Tom's spot. Tom sighed heavily, gathered his nerve, and jingled up to the dais.

The festivities were, in fact, more fun than Tom would have expected. After everyone got the smirks and mouth-covered chuckles out of their system, the crowd settled down and the presents were distributed. Naomi received a couple of new holo programs, something to do with Talaxian mythology, Tom knew, because he had helped code some of the more complicated fractal imagery. Aaron, the son of two engineers and an engineer in the making if ever there was one, received a set of small tools on a web belt which he immediately donned and then proudly showed to all comers and was still wearing hours later when his father carried his sleeping form from the room. Kai, usually shy and reserved around anyone but Harry, Seven, and the three or four others he saw regularly, was strangely comfortable with the red and white garbed Talaxian.

Kai was very much his mother's son, quiet, reserved sometimes to the point of remoteness, but possessed also his father's quick, sly humor. He decided the most appropriate thing to do was to prod Neelix's padded midriff, pull at his beard, and asked him why he was wearing boots and mittens inside the ship. Were his hands cold? Did he need someone to show him how the environmental controls worked? The boy's voice was small and high, but his pronunciation was precise. It had an unnerving effect on some people, but Neelix merely smiled, ho-hoed at him and gave him a small, stuffed yellow duck.

The boy regarded it curiously for a moment, then looked up and spotted his mother who had just entered the room. Seven was wearing red coveralls, her standard garb since the first few weeks of her pegnancy. She'd let her hair grow longer in recent years and though she usually wore it pulled back in a pony tail, she had obviously decided to try something "celebratory" and worn it up, with a pair of combs Harry had purchased or replicated somewhere along the line.

Kai held up the duck and called, in a clear, high voice, "Mommy, look. Neelix has given me a plaything." Seven regarded the duck curiously, then kneeled down so that the boy, who had climbed down off Neelix's lap, could bring it over to show her. When he began to describe it in detail ("It is yellow, and it has two eyes, and it is very soft..."), Tom was pleased to see one Voyager's rarest, but most treasured sights: Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg, smiling.

Tom looked away then, his eyes feeling a little misty, and shifted his gaze to the pile of boxes and packages behind Neelix. He was just beginning to wonder how Neelix was going to pass out each one of the gifts and allow people time to socialize a little bit when his question was answered.

The doors whooshed open and there was the Captain and B'Elanna, both decked out in what were recognizably outfits patterned after Neelix's, though both were considerably more, uh, interesting. Tom was stunned, not only because he had completely missed the fact that neither the Captain or the Chief Engineer were missing, but that, somehow, the Captain had decided that it was appropriate to be seen in such an outfit.

They were both wearing the red caps and coats trimmed in white fur, but the resemblance ended there. The coats were shorter and a great deal more form-fitting, and where Neelix was wearing baggy red pants, the Captain and B'Elanna were wearing black hose and short red boots. The only difference between them was that the Captain's coat was a little longer and her boots were flat, while B'Elanna's had low heels.

They both trotted up to the dais, kissed Neelix on either of his cheeks, then sat on his lap. Neelix, glowing with pride and embarrassment, had obviously known that they were coming to help him, but hadn't expected such... familiarity. Tom wasn't sure exactly what expression he was wearing, but, with a quick scan of the room to find Chakotay, he figured he had a pretty good idea. The XO had a cookie in one hand, a cup in the other, and his jaw was currently on the floor. Tom had long made it his business to not know anything about the Captain and the First Officer's business, but Tom figured it was a good thing he was the only one (besides Tuvok) who was currently in a position to see Chakotay's face.

Then, thankfully, someone started laughing. Heads swivelled around, searching the crowd, and everyone was startled to see it was Seven, still kneeling on the floor next to Kai. She had a loud, braying, snorting laugh, the laugh of a young child seeing an adult looking foolish. Kai was now laughing, too, which set off Naomi, which then made it okay for everyone else to cut loose.

Janeway beamed. Even B'Elanna, from where Tom was standing, seemed to be enjoying the fuss. Tuvok drew himself up straighter and heaved a sigh.

With the Captain and B'Elanna's assistance, the packages were distributed in a matter of minutes. Most of them were silly gifts -- jokes that played on some eccentricity or commonly known story -- such as, for Chakotay, a small shuttlecraft-shaped charm engraved with the number "11," or an apron emblazoned with the legend, "Holograms do it until they're pixilated," for the Doctor who had recently taken up cooking in his off hours. Somebody who refused to identify himself had given the Captain a hand-thrown ceramic coffee jug, obviously the object of many hours of labor in the art studio. When B'Elanna passed by Tom on her way to handing a small package to Tuvok, she whispered, "You get yours later," and winked at him. Tom concentrated very hard on the mathematics of maneuvering through a quantum flux with impulse engines for a few minutes afterwards.

The green tights didn't hide much, after all...

>< >< >< ><

The festivities lasted for a couple hours after the presents were distributed. The party was for the most part pretty quiet except for a small group of revelers who had come equipped with containers of something called "egg nog." Tom tried a sip, but couldn't detect either eggs or nog (whatever nog was), though quite a bit of brandy.

But everyone understood the protocol: it wasn't a "party" party, not like any of the now legendary debauches on Mallworld. It was a kid-and-family thing, a "Janeway-isn't-really-paying-attention-but-she-is" thing, so anyone who was really in the mood for celebrating knew to take it to smaller quarters. There was always a small gathering going on somewhere on Voyager: a dinner party, a wine tasting, a jam session. It was practically a requirement for surviving life in a closed environment: find something to celebrate and celebrate it. The kids made that a lot easier for some people, especially those who had grown up in societies where life was arranged around the education or entertainment of children. Little groups had clustered around each of the ten children who called Voyager home. Every officer and crewman was called "uncle" or "aunt" by someone.

Tom and B'Elanna were no exceptions to that rule. Despite the lingering discomfort between B'Elanna and Seven, practically from the day he could move on his own volition, Kai would make a beeline for B'Elanna whenever she was in line of sight. At first, B'Elanna had been puzzled by the attention, and Tom early on decided that he wasn't going to be the one to point out the obvious: in many ways, B'Elanna and Kai's mother were as similar as a couple of warp nacelles. Both were hard-core techies. If Chakotay and Tuvok were the two lobes of the Command Team's brain, then B'Elanna and Seven were the right and left hands. Harry was a competent engineer, but his true talent was systems analysis and organization. Janeway knew that she was wasting a resource when, in the early years of their voyage, she had so frequently dumped Harry into repair crews. Janeway knew she had finally found B'Elanna's true complement when Seven had joined the crew.

And then there were their foreheads. When Kai was about six months old, Harry claimed, he had begun to make a careful survey of all the foreheads he encountered on a regular basis. He knew his own was smooth, as was Harry's, Janeway's, Tom's, and Chakotay's, but his mother's, very significantly, was not. The appìäarce that Seven needed to see out of her left eye was a constant source of fascination and, Harry thought, consternation for the infant. It had taken Kai a little while to piece it all together, but when the boy had finally realized that B'Elanna, too, had an unusual forehead, he settled on her as his special favorite.

Of course, Tom knew, there was also the fact that B'Elanna and Kai's father were the best of friends, but, really, he agreed, it was the foreheads that clinched it.

So, after the party broke up, there they sat: Tom, Harry, and B'Elanna, with the now exhausted young boy curled up in B'Elanna's lap, struggling to keep his eyes open, unwilling to miss any of the conversation. Seven had asked Harry to keep Kai for the night so that she could finish her project in Astro with a promise that she would retrieve him in the morning before Harry went on his shift. For just a moment, as Kai's parents parted ways, Tom thought they were actually going to kiss, so long did they stare into each other's eyes. But then Tom had to mentally shake himself: of course that wasn't going to happen. Tom knew for a fact that they had never kissed in public. Though Seven understood and -- so Tom had been led to believe -- greatly enjoyed some forms of human communion, kissing was not one of them. The first time Harry had tried to demonstrate it to her, she had, he explained, "looked like someone was trying to force an eel down her throat." So, no kissing. Or hardly any kissing. But certainly not in public.

But something passed between them, Tom knew.

"So, how did Neelix talk you into this?" Harry asked, sipping on his tea.

Tom shook himself out of his reverie. "What? Who do you mean? Me or B'Elanna?"

"Well, I was talking to you, but I'll be glad to hear B'Elanna's story if you want to go back to your nap."

B'Elanna laughed quietly, trying to keep from waking the now sleeping child. "Oh, you know. Neelix is just so... so Neelix. It's hard to say 'No' when he couches things the way he does sometimes."

Harry nodded. "Yeah: 'For Ship's Morale.' 'For the good of the children.' 'The Captain would be so pleased.' Right. That's how I ended up directing that puppet theatre thing last month."

"Ah, hey, Harry," Tom said, "I enjoyed that. Especially the part where the dragon whacked you with a bat."

Harry smiled painfully, remembering. "You know," he said, "I think back to my own parents sometime, the way they used to do things for school or at temple: organizing outings with the temple, going with my class on trips, taking me and my friends to musuems and parks. And I just took it all for granted..." He paused to reflect how he wanted to phrase his next thought. "I don't mean that I didn't know what they were doing, you know? It's not that... I appreciated the time and the effort, but I never considered that they might have had, once upon a time, lives of their own..."

Tom and B'Elanna stared at their friend, both of them thinking the same thought, both feeling precisely the same thing: complete and total envy.

"You're doing a great job, Harry," B'Elanna said, tilting her head down to feel the boy's soft breath on her cheek. "You're doing a great job."

>< >< >< ><

An elf and one of Santa's helpers got off the turbolift together and, arms around each others' waists, walked slowly down the deserted hall towards their quarters. Neither spoke. The lights came up to half daylight as they entered the living area, the bathroom and bedroom lights up to one quarter. This was their routine when coming home at this hour, the environmental program knew. It had been their routine since the day two years and four months earlier when Tom and B'Elanna had decided to acknowledge reality and ask Chakotay to assign them "couple's quarters."

Their short civil ceremony had come a couple months later -- nothing fancy, no big deal. It was as much fuss and bother as B'Elanna was willing to accommodate, and just enough of a seal to satisfy the needs of two individuals who had always believed that neither had needed anyone but his or herself -- until the other had come along and proven them both wrong.

But, tonight, something was off. Something didn't feel right. B'Elanna settled herself into the lounging chair she favored and, a moment or two later, touched the control that turned it to face the large window. Tom walked into the bedroom, pulled the green shirt off over his head, the jingling bells sounding hollow and empty. He took his robe off a hook and put it on, suddenly aware that B'Elanna was neither in the room with him nor in the adjoining bathroom.

He turned, poked his head out the door, and saw his wife sitting with his back to him, and, beyond her, the ever-shifting stars. Walking up behind her, Tom lightly touched her shoulder, his hand tickled by the fur of her collar, and asked softly, "What are you thinking about?"

B'Elanna waited so long to respond that, for a moment, Tom thought she had fallen asleep, but then she reached up and touched his hand, shrugged, said, "Nothing. The stars. Nothing."

Tom settled down on his haunches, turned the chair slightly so that he could lean on the arm, and said, "Uh-huh." Waited for a response. Didn't get one. "Nice stars, huh?" B'Elanna nodded.

"The Captain said she liked the red and white fur trim look so much that she was going to make it standard issue."

B'Elanna nodded again.

"And I'm considering switching to tights full time. I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying squatting here right this second."

A slight smile twitched at the corner of B'Elanna's mouth. "Well, I'm happy to hear that," she said.

"Considering something?"

Head nod.

"Weighing options?"

Another nod.

"Wondering how you're going to bring it up?"

Very slight nod.

"Could just spit it out. Or do the usual Klingon thing -- you know, just kick over the defeated foe's carcass, stand on it and make a pronouncement."

B'Elanna's smile broadened. She raised one hand, poked a finger against Tom's nose and pushed with the slightest possible pressure.

Tom tipped over onto his side. B'Elanna's smile wide now, she rolled out of the chair onto the floor, then crawled over to where Tom lay prone. She pulled herself up so that she could lay her head on his chest, then looked up to see that he was laying with his mouth wide open, his tongue hanging out. She laughed, said, "Put that thing away unless you're planning on using it for something."

"Ah-ha! A sign of life. This is good."

"Hmmm..."

"So...I've been defeated. Make your pronouncement."

"We haven't talked about it for a while."

"Not since we got married."

"I'm thinking about it again."

Tom nodded, though he knew she couldn't see it. "Yeah, I kinda sensed that."

"Any change since the last time we discussed it?"

"I..." Tom paused, pondering. "I love you more than anything in the universe. You know that, right?"

B'Elanna nodded.

"And you know I never expected to find anyone like you -- you, in fact."

She nodded again.

"So, the idea... of sharing you with anyone... it frightens me. And bringing another life, a life that didn't ask to be here, didn't sign on with either Starfleet or the Maquis, into this situation...terrifies me. Well, what might they think about us in a few years? Someday soon, Naomi Wildman is going to realize that she may never see her father, if she hasn't already. We're going to take Kai down to a planet someday and he's going to look up at the sky and he's going to say, 'What's that?'" Tom struggled with his voice because he knew it was getting higher and louder. "What we're doing here, on this ship, on Voyager, it isn't normal, you know?"

Tom felt his wife's head bob once, twice.

"On the other hand," he continued, "I look at Harry and I see something... something that feels good. Comfortable. He isn't worried about any of those things, and you know Harry, right? I mean, you've known him as long as I've known him. There were those days when we were first out here that I thought he was going to tie himself up in knots worrying about the repair schedules and were the ramscoops in optimum condition and how many different kinds of temporal anomalies could there be, anyway."

Tom sighed. Took a deep breath, knowing that he was closing in on something, a feeling that he'd been circling around for several weeks, maybe months. "I was always saying, 'Calm down. Relax, everything will be all right.' It was a lot like having a little brother, you know? Or what I imagine having a little brother would be like. But ever since Kai was born, all that's, well, not gone, not exactly. Harry is a worrier. He'll always be a worrier. But now he's worried about other things... 'Is the room warm enough? Is it too warm? Is Kai eating enough? Is he sleeping enough?' Everything except... '_Should he be here?_' It's like the only thing my friend Harry Kim doesn't worry about because he knows the answer: of course he should be here. Of course he should."

And, with that, Tom Paris stopped talking.

He listened to his wife breathing, felt her head on his chest and knew from the sound of her breathing that she had tears in her eyes. Two, three minutes later, she lifted her cuff to her eyes, wiped them, scrubbed at her nose with her fingers. B'Elanna Torres hated to cry.

A few more minutes passed, then B'Elanna pulled herself up onto her husband's chest, grabbed his ears with either hand, and pulled his head to her, kissing him on the mouth so firmly that his teeth rattled. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but she was smiling.

"So," she said, "you want your present now?"

Tom just smiled.

END


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