Title: Come of Age
Author: Annette Welsh-Shinya 01/99
Series: VOY
Part: 7/?
Rating: R
Codes: P/T, K/7, EMH Doc, Neelix, Vorik, Naomi Wildman
Summary: Spoilers for Night and 30 Days. After an encounter with a hostile species, most of the crew of Voyager is scattered throughout a region of space as prisoners. Tom Paris leads what's left of the crew in an attempt to recover their missing members.
Disclaimer: Paramount's property, my story, who wants to go a round with the Bat'leths?
Feedback: Encouragement/criticism gladly responded to. Flames will be consigned to the nearest airlock where proper venting procedures per Starfleet Engineering regulations will be followed.
Posting: OK to ASC, ASCEM, BLTS, & PT Fever. Please notify me if you post anywhere else...I love to see my name in lights!


Tom spent the morning mostly in the Sickbay, then had gone down to the Security office to talk with Neelix. The Talaxian had looked very tired, having spent most of the night finishing the sweeper run on the shuttlebay and the cargo bays for good measure. All was clear, but in those areas where they just couldn't secure them tightly enough, they would have to re-search them over and over again. The cloaked sweeper programs could decloak and make a run for the nearest system they could infect at anytime. Or, they could set up a booby-trap. Or, they could do both. They keyed in on different things. Sometimes it was energy systems, other times they would link to the comm system and if you used it in the wrong area, it would target a feedback loop and the noise could kill you in a very short time. The list was endless. They had areas they could secure, and they had made it a priority to keep the comm system clear between the very important departments like Engineering, Astrometrics, Security, and of course, the Bridge. It took a great deal of personnel to keep those areas secure, so they kept comm traffic to a minimum in other areas. They relied mostly on runners when they had to go outside of the safe zones, and had patched together a reasonably efficient working system for the ship's watches. It wasn't Starfleet regulation, but it worked.

Walking into the messhall, Tom noticed B'Elanna sitting by a viewing port, just staring out of it. He walked over to her and stood across from where she was sitting. He watched her for a moment. She looked tired, the strain of the past few months was in her face, as well as her last ordeal that she was barely healed from. She was so beautiful. "Hi," he said simply.

She looked up, "Hi." She motioned to the chair in front of him. "Sit down. I was just thinking about..."

"Them," finished Tom with a knowing look.

"Yes," replied B'Elanna looking at him with satisfaction. It was so good to see him these days. He was always so busy, and they had so little time together that was not interrupted by the endless needs of the crew and a ship that was barely functioning. "I like to think of them every once in a while, to remind myself why we're doing this. Makes me feel like we're not crazy for taking this on."

"I know what you mean," said Tom, a small smile turning up one corner of his mouth. "I often wonder what the hell I was thinking when I started this little shindig."

"Maybe, taking care of the crew, doing your job, finishing what Captain Janeway started?" said B'Elanna.

"It's not mine to finish, B'Elanna," said Tom earnestly. "I'm just keeping her seat warm until she gets back." He leaned in closer to her and said intently, "I'm not going to give up on her or any of the others. I won't. There's too much evidence that they're still out there. We just have to find them. I will take care of this crew, I will get the others back, and I *will* see Kathryn Janeway on the Bridge of Voyager again." His voice shook slightly with the intensity. He sat back, a little amazed about what just came out of his mouth. He spoke again, slightly softer, "I just wonder sometimes if I am dragging what's left of this crew on a fool's errand. That I'm just dreaming that we can find the others when they've been gone so long and spread so thin. Maybe I'm just condemning them to a slow death or being stranded in this sector, with absolutely no hope of getting home."

B'Elanna could see Tom's dilemma, and her heart ached to help him with it. She just didn't know what was right either. She reached out and held his hand, command protocol be damned, he needed it. He smiled a bit at her, and knew she would support him whatever he decided to do. She knew that he had been making really tough decisions since the loss of the Captain and the others. He'd really shown what he was made of, a true leader. It was a leader's decision alone, though, at times like this. She knew she needed to give him support, but that she couldn't make the decision for him. It was how things were. She briefly wondered what quirk of the universe had put her into a position of maintaining authority, following protocols, and helping lead the crew, when all she ever wanted to do was be left to run her engine room in peace. More and more, she had come to rely on Vorik, which was in and of itself an odd thing, to run Engineering while she attended to some command duty. She knew that, as busy as she was, Tom was even busier. Even with Seven helping out on the Bridge, there was still too much to do on a daily basis. Neelix was completely overextended, supervising the extra-large Security details needed to keep the ship safe for operation. B'Elanna didn't know how he kept it all straight. She had new respect for the Talaxian, who had assumed the endless, thankless, dangerous position of Security Chief. They were all swimming in uncharted seas, and the only thing that made it bearable was the fact that they were all in it together. Misery loving company, and yet, not miserable all the time. They still had time, sometimes for fun, or just to relax, be together. Friends and co-workers. Even Seven and her hung out together sometimes. She knew that Seven missed Tuvok and the Captain, but mostly, she missed Harry.

Seven had talked about Harry one night when they had ended up in the messhall together very late. She spoke of him with an affection that was obvious, and when B'Elanna had asked her why she had never said anything to him, Seven looked very upset. She had replied that she had been very arrogant and assumed that Harry was someone that she couldn't learn anything from except human interaction skills, and she had the Doctor for that. Harry made her uncomfortable, she had also said. Why, she hadn't known until it was too late. She had actually liked him a lot, just had no way of knowing. Her emotional maturity, she had said, had not developed much, although she had cognitive abilities beyond many humans. In short, she'd fallen in love with him without knowing it, and it had bothered her a lot. She had struck out at him, without understanding why she did it. It had caused her a great deal of confusion when she grieved so heavily when he was lost. It had taken her a long time to come to the understanding of what had happened between them. She now was concentrating on getting him back. Then, she'd have to have a long talk with him. B'Elanna had not known what to say. It was such a sharing of emotions that she had not been sure that Seven had possessed. She had finally said that she hoped that it would work out for the two of them, because she wanted her friends to be happy. Seven had looked at B'Elanna and said, "Friends?" and B'Elanna had smiled and said, "Yeah, what do you think of that?" Seven had replied, "I think it is a very good thing," and the two woman had sat companionably in the quiet messhall for some time before each going to bed.

B'Elanna looked up suddenly, realizing that Tom and her had been sitting together, holding hands in the messhall in the middle of lunch, and they hadn't been speaking for several minutes. Tom had been just as lost in thought as she had been. She said, "You want to get some lunch?"

Tom glanced at their hands that were tightly clasped in full view of everyone, and said, "Sure, I'll go get us some. You stay here and hold our spot, someone might try to steal it, it's the best seat in the house."

B'Elanna glanced to the several empty tables with an identical view that were around them, and gave a snort of laughter, "Whatever you say, Mr. Paris. Do you think I'll need my phaser to hold them off?"

"You never know, B'Elanna," replied Tom, glad that he could tease her into playing along with his silliness, and would go along with him taking care of her. She still looked pale from her ordeal. "We're Starfleet, we must be prepared for any contingency."

"Aye, aye, sir," she said dryly as Tom walked over to get a tray with some lunch for the two of them.

Tom chatted with Wilson while their lunch was dished up. Wilson had apologized that there was not any of the leola root stew leftover from last night, but he had lots of the pleeka rind casserole as he had just made a fresh batch.

"Two bowls, Wilson," said Tom. "Lt. Torres and I live for danger."

"Aye, sir," replied Wilson. "I can see that, sir," and he handed the bowls out for Tom to put on his tray. He said, "Uh, sir. I got a call from Ensign Seven a little while ago. She said something about me not having to make dinner tonight, that she and Naomi Wildman were going to make a dish called Brathlanian Gouloush and I could take the night off. Do know anything about that, sir?"

"No," fibbed Tom shamelessly. "But if Ensign Seven has relieved you of your duties for the night, I'd guess you have a night off. Enjoy yourself," and he walked with the tray back to where B'Elanna was sitting. He was laughing by the time he got back to their table. B'Elanna had said, "What?", and he had then relayed the whole tale from the Bridge to what Wilson had just told him. Before he had finished, B'Elanna was giggling with laughter, and when he was done, they both sat there and laughed for a while. It was a relief to laugh.

"Where do you think Seven got the recipe for the gouloush?" wondered Tom.

"Where else? She probably assimiliated a Brathlanian at one time, whatever that is," replied B'Elanna, which sent them off into further gales of laughter that finally died down and they ate their lunch. From time to time, though, they both would chuckle, and if they met each other's eyes, they would start in again. It felt so good to just be themselves with each other. For a little while, the Acting Captain and the Acting First Officer just acted normally.

The crew that was in the messhall for lunch smiled at their two most Senior Officers having lunch together, actually laughing. It had been a long time since that had happened. It had been a hard haul to date, and projections for the future were more of the same. There were low voices and some whispers about what they were laughing about, but none of it negative. They were just tickled that their leaders were enjoying themselves. The pleeka rind casserole, however, was as dismal as usual. There was always balance in the universe.

Tom scraped the last of his lunch up and ate it, marveling at the incredibly bad taste. It was nutritious, but it wasn't even as good as leola root stew, and that said it all. He looked over to B'Elanna's bowl, it was half full still. "You should finish your lunch, B'Elanna," he said with concern. "You need to build up your strength. The regen sequences will have taken a lot of energy out of your healthy tissue cells, so you'll get fatigued a lot more easily if you don't replenish them."

"Thank you, Acting Doctor Paris," said B'Elanna with a moue. "That's more information that I needed right now."

"You need to eat," Tom continued steadily. "It's important to me that you be as healthy as you can be. I need you." The last was spoken in such an intent tone that B'Elanna felt a warming inside of her of physical desire as well as the emotional satisfaction of hearing her mate tell her how he felt in such an open and truthful manner.

"I know," she said at last. "It's just..."

"It's awful, I know," he said in a low voice. "But, it's what we have. And, we can't expect the crew to eat it without complaint if we don't."

B'Elanna nodded and picked up her fork. It was a conversation they had had quite a while ago. Look like a command officer, sound like a command officer, even eat like a command officer. The crew was watching, even when you didn't think they were watching, you should act like they were watching. It was very tiring. But, she had acknowledged the validity of his argument, even though she had felt the oddness of Tom Paris talking protocol and command prescence with such knowledge and certainty. She had then realized that she shouldn't be surprised by this. He was Starfleet born and bred. His father had drilled him on the "book" so much when he was young, he could recite whole pages of it at a time. She'd seen him do it on a bet in days gone by. Now, he used his incredible memory to help him sort his way through the minefield of command, falling back on the tried and true methods of leadership. It was full circle for him in a way. B'Elanna came back to the present. If only Admiral Owen Paris could see him now, she thought with a sigh. He'd probably succumb to heart failure. That is, if he survived one angry half Klingon's attack on him. She mused for a few more seconds the pleasure she would get from that, then allowed the idea to drop back into the recesses of her mind. She brought it out from time to time when she needed it.

"You're pretty quiet," said Tom reaching for her free hand and holding it again. It felt so good just to touch her.

"I was thinking about command protocol and Starfleet regulations, believe it or not," said B'Elanna taking another bite.

"Oh, boy," said Tom with a grin. "Very heavy thoughts, indeed. I try to avoid thinking about stuff like that on my off time."

"Yeah, all ten minutes a day of it," B'Elanna shot back.

Tom nodded his head ruefully and watched her eat for a few minutes. She had graceful movements, with solid economic chewing. An engineer's style of eating. He'd always found it extremely erotic. Well, face it, just about anything B'Elanna did was erotic to him. He realized that it had been a little over two weeks since they had last made love. The eratic course of their targets had played havoc with their schedules, and they'd had little or no time together. He thought that tonight might be the night, as they were going to be at warp for four days to get to the Barnok system. He was going leave Powers with the Bridge tonight, too. She was level-headed and very competant. Also, she wasn't afraid to call him up in the middle of the night if there was a problem. Good judgement. He again made a mental note to make a log entry about her potential. He felt that she deserved to have recognition for her work. He smiled at B'Elanna and said, "Have you noticed anything going on between Vorik and Powers?"

B'Elanna choked on her last bite, and she coughed and took a drink of water. "Vorik?" she said incredulously.

"Shhhhh," said Tom motioning with his hands. "I don't want this to head to the grapevine just yet. I just saw something yesterday when Powers was talking about Vorik that made me think that there was an attraction there, at least on her part."

"Oh, Tom," said B'Elanna shaking her head. "You are not content to be the Acting Captain, Medic Assistant-in-Training, and Chief Hunter of lost crew members, now you want to be the relationship counselor, too? What's next, are you going to start sewing crew uniforms?"

Tom laughed a bit, and said, "No, I'm not a very talent sewer, B'Elanna. I just wanted to know if you noticed anything, that's all." Tom looked inwardly a bit, then said, "I know that Captain Janeway helped us out quite a bit at the start of our relationship, and I just..."

"Wanted to return the favor," finished B'Elanna nodding her understanding of the situation at last. Tom spent a lot of time trying to fill Kathryn Janeway's shoes. She thought he did it quite well most of the time, but she knew Tom felt he didn't even come close. She knew how he felt. She didn't feel she would ever reach Chakotay's level of rapport with the crew. Her training had not been for something like this, so she was really reaching when she tried to grappel with problems when the solutions seemed so obvious to Tom. The inverse of how she felt in the Engine Room, where she *knew* what to do, or how to figure it out if she didn't. It gave her a new appreciation of other people roles on the ship, and that, she supposed was a pretty good thing.

B'Elanna continued, "I have seen them together in the messhall on the odd day that both Vorik and I have been out of the Engineering Room at the same time. I just thought it was because they knew each other before, from working together." She thought a moment, then said, "You sent Powers down to work with Vorik before you knew that I had gone back to work, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did," Tom said. "I knew that Vorik needed a hand with the warp shielding project and that Powers would be a good person to help him," he finished with a spurious air of virtue.

"Uh-huh," said B'Elanna knowingly. "You set them up."

"Yep," said Tom picking up his water. "But, he also needed help. So, I killed two birds with one stone," he said with satisfaction and drank the rest of his water.

"Smooth, Tom," she said with wry approval. "Well, I've cleaned my bowl, sir. May I have my desert now?"

"Certainly, Lieutanent," said Tom formally. "If you will follow me, I will show you where I have something that I save for special occasions."

B'Elanna looked at him and saw a smile lurking around his mouth. This was playful Tom, making a long awaited return appearance. She was going to take advantage of it. She picked up the tray to take it back, and Tom insisted on taking it from her and giving it back to Wilson. They walked out the messhall door together, oblivious to the knowing looks on the faces of the few crew members still eating lunch.

End Part 7 1