While Kim and Torres are away on a mission, Paris and Neelix have lunch and a conversation.
Tom Paris had given up on friendship when he left Starfleet to drift around the galaxy looking for something. Maybe that was why the Maquis hadn't liked him even before he screwed up and got caught: when everyone was a bit paranoid about someone selling them out to the Federation -- or worse, the Cardassians -- no one trusts the stranger, even if he's buying them drinks on some backwater bar. Certainly, he hadn't bothered in prison, even if it meant getting stuck with extra appointments with the psychologists to make sure he wasn't some kind of sociopath. He was sure there was some note in his files about his many personal flaws, but, back then, he'd resented the monitoring enough to not want to jump through hoops for a bunch of strangers he'd hopefully end up leaving.
Hell, he'd not intended to make friends on Voyager -- he'd intended to do the job and head off, a free man of the galaxy. Of course, none of them had intended on being marooned in the Delta Quadrant, either, with no one but the hundred-odd crew and whatever new and exciting alien species was trying to kill, scam or steal from them this week.
Now, here he was, eating in the mess hall, and lonely because Harry and B'Elanna were off on some resource-gathering mission that the captain had asked him to stay behind on. Mostly because the nebula they were flying through was playing merry havoc with a ship as large as /Voyager/, so the shuttles sent out to scout were making far better time. But, none the less, he was actually looking forward to tomorrow when they should be back and he could get the dirt from them on the strange new places they'd seen -- even if B'Elanna would probably just tell him it was boring old asteroids and the ghosts of subspace messages.
Neelix placed a plate in front of him, then pulled up a chair. "You look like a man who wants to try my new spearroot pastries."
Tom glanced at them. About the most charitable thing you could say was that they were green and smelled safe and like something you might have for dessert. Neelix still wasn't as good as he might think he was at converting recipes to match the palates of most of the crew. At least, judging from how people treated the limited ability to replicate favorites from home. "What's in it? Besides spearroot, whatever that is."
"They're spiced pastries, Mister Paris." Neelix took one from the plate and took a large bite. He swallowed. "See?"
Well, it looked like a normal baked good, aside from the color. Tom tore off a piece, and stuck it in his mouth, already going for his drink in case he needed to swallow it quickly. It... well, it wasn't bad. "A bit more sugar and the captain would probably want these with her coffee." When the captain could get her coffee.
"You think so?" Neelix grinned, like he had been payed the ultimate compliment. Tom took another bite, figuring he'd better eat these before Neelix told him the secret ingredient was space snails or something.
Tom nodded. "Say, Neelix," he said between bites, "before you joined up with us, you worked alone, right?"
"Not always," Neelix answered. "I worked a lot of jobs saving up for the /Baxial/. I could have held out for a larger ship, one that could have more crew, but I was pretty anxious to be my own boss. Head out into the galaxy to make my own way."
Tom nodded. "I know the feeling." And he did. It was about what he had felt in a moment of clarity, a week after his dismissal from Starfleet, after the shock of it all had worn off and the sensation that his father once again had been proven right. It was the idea that he could go anywhere now, no orders or family to hold him back.
Of course, it had gotten him tossed into prison. Just because you could go help the Maquis didn't always make it smart.
"Ah, but after that... after a while, I started wondering if I could maybe expand the Baxial to take on some crew. Or occasionally carry passengers. It was pretty lonely between the stars, and with people like the Kazon as your business partners, well, things weren't too friendly there." Neelix chuckled, as if the Kazon were some kind of quirky alien species instead of the regular pain in the ass that they were. "I was looking forward to bringing Kes on board, actually. Maybe get a pet to keep her company. Then, well, you all showed up and I decided to hitch my fortunes to /Voyager/. And, you know what?"
"What?" The pastries were almost gone, now. Tom was mostly full, but he put the last one on his plate for later. Neelix's next recipe might be more of the overspiced things he seemed to enjoy and made the rest of the crew go heavy on the rice and noodles.
"Actually, I don't regret it. Well, maybe the ability to go where I want. Captain Janeway's always in such a rush. Understandable, with you all so far from your Federation. But the company is wonderful. I didn't realize how much I missed being on a crew until I joined up with you all."
"We like you too, Neelix," Tom said. "But, I know what you mean." He did, actually. A year ago, he couldn't imagine being back working on a Starfleet vessel, having to do things by the book. Well, mostly by the book, except when the book didn't really cover 'What to do while stuck seventy thousand light years from home. Now, if someone had offered him a single ticket back to the Alpha Quadrant, he'd probably have to decline. Maybe give it to one of the crew who had something to go back to. "She's a good ship."
"She is indeed, Mister Paris." Neelix looked at the empty plate. "I think I have some akaki soup simmering in the kitchen. Can I tempt you to try a bite?"
"No thanks. I'm full." And he was. "But I'll bring B'Elanna and Harry around whenever they get back and we'll try your soup." Who knows? It might be another hidden Delta Quadrant gem on this unexpected ship.