"Four times we had to put him back," Seven finished.
Harry laughed. "Were you locked in a dark closet as a child?" he teased.
"I just don't like small dark places, okay?" Tom protested.
"Perhaps you dislike being alone," Seven remarked.
Tom was quiet for a minute before he spoke. "No, I don't."
"Well, you are not alone anymore," Seven said matter-of-factly.
Beneath the table, B'Elanna squeezed his hand. He smiled at her.
Harry noticed. "Certainly not."
That earned him a double glare. He grinned sheepishly.
Seven watched silently for a minute before speaking again. "Ensign, why do you persist in teasing the lieutenants?"
Harry's jaw dropped. B'Elanna and Tom both burst into laughter.
"I see nothing productive about it," Seven added.
"She got you there, Harry," Tom pointed out.
"Well...." Harry was at a loss for words.
"I'll leave you two to discuss it," Tom said, rising. "Meanwhile, I'm going to go get some *real* sleep."
B'Elanna rose as well. "Me, too. Harry, I'm sure you can explain it to Seven well enough. I'll see you both later."
"Are you going to sleep--or do something else?" Harry couldn't help but ask, a mischievious grin on his face.
B'Elanna spun around to nail him with a glare. If looks could kill, Harry would have dropped dead that second. "Shut up while you're ahead, Starfleet."
Harry shrugged, trying to look innocent.
Turning back around, B'Elanna headed for the mess hall doors.
"You of all people should be aware of Lieutenant Torres' short temper. Do you have what humans call a 'death wish', Ensign?"
Unfortunately, the door closed before she heard Harry's answer. She caught up with Tom at the turbolift. He smiled at her, but there was a troubled look in his eyes. Not wanting to press him, B'Elanna waited until they reached his quarters.
"Tom, what's wrong?" she asked once they were inside.
He sighed heavily, staring out the viewport. She led him to the couch and sat him down, taking his hands in hers. Finally, he looked up at her.
"Harry wasn't too far off when he made his comment about a closet."
"You mean someone *did* lock you in one as a child?"
"No, I got trapped in one. It was an accident." He sighed again. "I haven't told anyone about this before, in fact I haven't spoken of it since it happened, so please bear with me."
"Of course, Tom," she said softly. "Go ahead."
"Well, I was about four at the time. When Dad's secretary got married, my mom took over for about 18 months till he found someone else to take her place. So during the summer, my sisters and I had to have a babysitter...."
"She's here, Owen!"
"Let her in!"
A few minutes later, Owen Paris appeared from his office to greet the visitor. "Hello, Ronda."
"Morning, sir." 23-year-old Ronda Elliot, daughter of Vice Admiral Archie Elliot, smiled at Owen.
"You're not one of the cadets, Ronda. You don't have to call me sir."
Ronda shrugged. "I'm used to it."
"Have you had breakfast yet, Ronda?" Deanna Paris asked. She ushered both Ronda and her husband into the kitchen, handing Owen his cup of coffee and pouring herself a cup. "Coffee's there and you can replicate toast or a muffin if you like."
"Thanks, Mrs. Paris, but I'm not hungry right now. Where are the kids?"
At those words, two little girls scampered in, giggling. Seven-year-old Jennifer Kay was wearing a sunshine yellow dress and her blond hair was arranged in a single braid. Six-year-old Alyssa's white-blond hair hung free about her shoulders and she was clad in a pink outfit that accented her pretty bright blue eyes and the storm of freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks. They squealed on sight of Ronda and ran to her for a hug.
"I'm glad to see you both, too."
"Can we go swimming today, Ronda?" Alyssa begged.
"We'll see, Freckles."
"Ron-da," Alyssa complained.
"Oh 'Lyssa, stop whining about your nickname. Mine's dumber."
"Is not," Alyssa argued. "Kelpie is a neat nickname."
As the girls argued about whose nickname was worse, the adults' attention was drawn to the pounding of little feet down the stairs, which sounded like a faraway stampede.
"Brace yourself, Ronda," Owen laughed. "Here he comes."
Seconds later, a small figure zoomed into the kitchen and barrelled into Ronda. She laughed and swept the little boy up into her arms.
"You're here!" Four-year-old Tom Paris wrapped his arms tight around her neck in greeting.
"Glad to see you too."
Tom slid out of her hug and hurtled himself at Owen. "Daddy!"
"Morning, tiger." Owen hugged his small son close for a long minute, then passed him to Deanna.
"Good morning, Sunshine." Deanna gave him a hug and kiss, then set him down.
"Deanna, we'd better get going."
"All right. Goodbye, kids--be good for Ronda."
"We will," the trio chorused.
Owen and Deanna left.
"Well kids, what should we do?" Ronda asked.
"Swimming!" Alyssa cried.
"How about we swim in the afternoon?"
"Until then, however, what should we do?"
"Tommy, we're *sick* of that game."
"Hide an' seek, then," Tom said, thrusting his chin out stubbornly, daring Jennifer to argue with him.
At this suggestion, Jennifer's eyes brightened. "Yay!"
"I'll be 'it' first," Ronda said. "I'll count to 40, then come look for you. Base will be--"
"The kitchen table," Jennifer said. "It always is."
"Very well. The kitchen table is base. Now get going." Smiling, Ronda turned around. "One....two...."
The kids split. Six more games and two hours went by until, on his second try, Tom caught Jennifer.
"You're it, Kelpie."
Jennifer made a face. She scowled at a gleeful Tom before turning around and starting to count. The other three scattered: Alyssa slipping into Owen's office and Ronda heading for the guest bedroom. Tom, however, headed up the stairs to his parents' bedroom. Once inside, he slipped into the large closet, remembering to leave the door cracked a very little bit as it had been before. Feeling his way toward the back, Tom wrapped one of his father's coats carefully around himself and slipped his small bare feet into Owen's snow boots. If anyone had looked into the closet that minute, they would not have seen him. He was perfectly concealed.
"Ready or not, here I come!" Jennifer hollered from below.
A few minutes later, Tom heard Jennifer's footsteps. He held still to keep from making any small noise that might attract attention.
But Jennifer had already spotted the slightly open door. "'Lyssa, you never learn, do you?" Her steps came closer. "Gotcha!" she cried, flinging open the door.
Tom held his breath.
"But I thought...." Her voice trailed off. "Dangit!"
Tom pressed his little fist into his mouth to keep from bursting into laughter.
Jennifer huffed and Tom heard her stomp out. Quietly, he disentangled himself from his hiding place, deciding to wait a minute before sneaking out in case Jennifer came back.
"Home free!" he heard Ronda call.
Then the world turned upside down.
The floor began to shake violently. The door slammed closed. Rattling and the sound of shattering glass could be heard. Tom could hear his sisters screaming downstairs. Drawing back into the corner of the closet, he curled into a ball and waited for the earthquake to stop.
Twenty eternal seconds later, the house finally stopped shaking. Trembling, Tom got up. He wanted nothing more than to be out of here and with his sisters and Ronda. Carefully picking his way through the fallen closet contents, he reached the door and pushed on it. It wouldn't budge. He tried again. It still wouldn't budge.
He was trapped.
Shrieking in fear, he pounded against the door in desperation. But it was no good. He heard his sisters calling for him.
"Jenny, 'Lyssa, help!"
"Tommy, where are you?!"
"Get me out! Jenny, 'Lyssa, Ronda!"
Once the other three figured out where his voice was coming from, they dashed up the stairs, only to find that Owen and Deanna's bedroom door was also jammed shut, the doorframe having buckled around it. Ronda immediately hurried to call for help.
For little Tom, it was a terrifying wait. Every minute seemed like a year, and the darkness seemed to close in on him until he was afraid he wouldn't be able to breathe. Eventually, he began to cry, heartbreaking, terrified sobs wrenched from his soul that frightened his sisters.
Owen and Deanna arrived thirty minutes later, right in front of the fire department. They were able to sever the electrical connections on the bedroom door enough to pry it open, but it took 20 minutes to cut through the closet door, the doorframe too severely buckled to pry open.
Finally, little Tom was lifted from the dark closet by one of the firemen, who passed him to Deanna. She held him tightly while he cried and Owen gently rubbed his back in comfort. He was safe....
Tom sighed, closing his eyes, trying to once more push back the memory.
He felt a gentle squeeze on his hand and opened his eyes to see B'Elanna gazing at him tenderly. She slipped an arm around him and drew his head down onto her shoulder. He closed his eyes again and relaxed against her.
"I understand," she said softly.
He held her tighter. "Stay with me."
"Of course I'll stay."
She kissed his cheek and released him. "Let me go get a few things from my quarters. I'll be right back."
While she was gone, he stripped down to his shorts and rearranged his pillows. She came back, changed in the front room, left her uniform for the next day on the couch, then entered his bedroom. As she slid in next to him, he ordered the lights out. She drew him close for a kiss. "I love you."
"I love you, 'Lanna."
He once more wrapped her in a tight hug. She nestled her head against his chest and closed her eyes, resting her hand lightly over his heart. He felt her relax and soon he, too, fell asleep, holding the one he loved in his arms, the fear of dark surroundings no longer haunting him, because she was there to help him overcome his fear.
Legal B.S. Paramount is almighty--I'm just a fan. The story, however, is *mine*. Copyright June 25, 1998, by Cheile. Comments - firstname.lastname@example.org
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