Delta Suite series by Kiff

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Accelerando
by Kiff
(VOY, C/P, NC-17)

Disclaimer: They belong to Paramount. I'm letting them out for some fresh air.

Archiving: Permission granted to Sileya to archive on my TSU page. May also be archived at ASCEM, BLTS, CPSG. All others, please ask first.

Spoilers included for "Message in a Bottle," "Hunters" (including some word-for-word dialogue), "The Killing Game," and the DS9 episodes "For the Uniform" and "Blaze of Glory." I also used some material from "The Fight." Any speculation about Chakotay's past relationship with Michael Eddington is my own. As far as Chakotay's spirit guide is concerned, I've written her as a wolf (in contrast to what Jeri Taylor did in "Pathways").

Feedback: Constructive comments accepted at: Kiff47@yahoo.com

Summary: Chakotay takes an emotional rollercoaster ride. Will he end up on the top or bottom? Third in the "Delta Suite" series and sequel to "Overtures" and "Crescendo."

Warning: This is a slash story rated NC-17. It contains explicit sexual scenes between two adult men. If you are underage or if this kind of content squicks you, look elsewhere.

Dedication: For Paul: July, 1995. And for the CPSG.

Special thanks to Britta for helping me whip this into shape.

*****************************

It was nearly 1000 hours. He hadn't slept so late since he was in the Maquis. Underground operations were always conducted best on the graveyard shift.

Chakotay rolled lazily out of bed and stretched. His lower back protested. Oh, what he would do for a hot bath right now. He supposed he could seek treatment from the Doctor, but at the moment he was feeling like he wanted to spend the entire day by himself, without distractions.

The commander put his robe on, then started to smooth his bedclothes back into place. A sticky wetness in one corner met his fingers. He winced, remembering his indulgence in the middle of the night. Sometimes being a man was just plain messy.

Chakotay tossed the sheets into the refresher. He'd get new ones later.

He relieved himself in the lavatory, then walked to the replicator. He still had some of the rations left from his pool game with Tom a few days ago. "Coffee, two sugars, with a touch of cinnamon. Two large cornbread muffins, with butter. Hash-browned potatoes. Applesauce."

The machine hummed, and his breakfast materialized. He carried it over to his table and dug in eagerly, savoring each bite. "Voyager, you're a good cook when you want to be."

The ship ignored him, continuing on its journey home.

Chakotay ordered his monitor on and took a cursory glance at the overnight reports while he finished his meal. Nothing to concern himself with. Kathryn would call him if any emergency arose.

He wondered how Tom was doing, and how B'Elanna was doing. He was actually quite proud of them both, from a strictly professional point of view. Considering the fact that they were two of the most volatile personalities on board, they were handling their break-up very well. So far, anyway.

He swallowed the remainder of his coffee, recycled the dishes, and took a look around the room. His eyes fell on his medicine bundle, stashed neatly beside his bed. It had been several weeks since he had last sought the guidance of his spiritual advisor, and now seemed like the perfect time to renew acquaintances. He wondered what she might have to say about Tom.

The commander dressed in some comfortable clothes, picked up the medicine bundle, then sat on the floor to meditate, attempting to calm his body and spirit. When he felt that he had reached a reasonable state of equilibrium, he unfolded the bundle and arranged the items in his usual slow and deliberate manner. It was a familiar and comforting ritual. He crossed his legs and bent over the Akoonah.

"Akoochi-moya," Chakotay whispered, feeling his consciousness begin to alter itself. His pulse slowed, and his breathing became deep and steady. His brain waves shifted to a new frequency. Within seconds, his quarters slipped away completely...

************************

He was standing just outside a forest of tall pines and oaks. He recognized the place. She often brought him here to rest his head against a tree, run his fingers through green grass, or listen to the gentle splash of the river. It did him more good than any holodeck program ever could.

//Sister?//

She was nowhere in sight, but her thoughts directed him. //Go forward. Over the hill, to the flowered glade.//

He started off, a puzzled smile coming to his face. Usually she would come to meet him. Something was different this time. He wasn't sure if it was good or bad.

He reached his destination without incident. She was there, a mass of shiny gray fur. He squatted as she ran up to him and rubbed against his shoulder in her familiar greeting. His arms went around her neck, and he felt comfort and strength in her touch.

//You have been gone a long time,// she sent. It was not an accusation.

//My world has asked much of me.//

//And you have asked much of yourself.// She nuzzled him. //You are a strong soul. You need another who is strong.//

//Tom...//

//You are uncertain.//

//I...I do not know if this is right. He may love another.//

//Love is not bound by numbers.//

Chakotay sat back, pondering this. //*I* loved another...//

//The past does not diminish the present.//

The commander's mind was silent. He let his gaze wander over the wild garden, bathing his eyes in the blues, reds, yellows, and greens.

//Beginnings come from endings.// She nuzzled him again. //Follow me and see what I have to show you.//

He got to his feet and walked after her. She led him across the field and into another thicket. It was still familiar territory to him. There was a large oak tree in these woods. He loved to sit under its branches or, if he was feeling especially energetic, he would climb up among them.

As he walked along, he could see and sense that these woods had changed. Some kind of force had come through. Dead branches blocked his way, and he had to step around several small trees that had been flattened. Leaves had been kicked up and blown around.

//A storm?//

The wolf did not answer, but continued to lead him straight in the direction of the old oak.

He climbed over one more hill, and then stopped, his mouth open in dismay and horror.

The oak was dead. It had been knocked over, snapped cleaned at its base. Its leaves were brown and gray dust, its bark chewed and peeled by stray animals.

//No!// he cried out in his mind. But the wolf kept going until she reached the dead trunk, then turned to face him.

//What happened?// He staggered forward, tears beginning in his eyes.

//A windstorm.//

//I can't believe...// His mind was confused, afraid, angry. //How long have I been gone? This must have happened a long time ago.//

//There was nothing you could have done. The force was too strong. The tree was too old.//

Chakotay reached the tree, put a shaking hand out and touched the trunk. //I'm sorry.//

//Come here.// She stood at the remaining stump, which was only a meter or so tall. Chakotay obeyed, hardly able to think.

//Look inside.//

He did so. There were flowers growing inside the stump. Life was renewing itself, even in the face of such devastation.

//A beginning from an ending.//

He could only stare at the flowers. They were strong and beautiful, but he could not stop thinking of how magnificent this oak tree had been. And now it was dead and gone.

The wolf eyed him patiently. //Remember what was. Love what is.//

He stroked the gray fur, letting the words sink in, trying to accept the changes, wondering what all this meant for his life. He was not sure he liked the answer.

Slowly, the world began to fade. The vision quest was ending. He gave the wolf one last pat before giving in to the transformation.

//Love is not bound by numbers. Remember.//

********************

Chakotay awoke with a start, and with a vague sense of uneasiness. The loss of the great oak tree disturbed him a great deal. Was it a symbol of some loss that he had already endured, or one that he would suffer in the future? It was impossible to tell. Vision quests did not predict the future as a rule.

He put his medicine bundle away, then checked the time. He was surprised to find out that it was after 1200 hours. Time always seemed to run differently in the spirit realm.

If he went to the mess hall right now, he would probably run into Tom. On the other hand, he wasn't hungry, and he was still feeling ill at ease about what he had seen in his vision.

He paced around his quarters for a minute or so. Then an idea came into his head.

"Computer, is Holodeck One being used by any of the crew?"

"*Negative.*"

"Reserve one standard hour, beginning in ten minutes. Authorization Chakotay-delta-seven. Program beta-fifteen."

"*Acknowledged.*"

The commander went to his wardrobe and changed his clothes.

********************

In boxing trunks and black shoes, Chakotay approached the holodeck. It opened at his command, and he walked into the training gym. The smell of sweat and old socks assailed his nostrils.

Boothby welcomed him. "Back again so soon, son? Thought that broken nose would keep you out awhile."

"The Doc fixed me up. I want a rematch with that Tyrellian."

The old groundskeeper shook his head. "He's too much for you. I have another opponent who might suit you better." He snapped his fingers, and a large redheaded human stepped forward. "Meet Seamus McKinnon, middleweight contender from the mid-twenty-second century."

Chakotay nodded and stepped into the ring, shadowboxing, dancing on his toes to warm up. Boothby pulled him into a corner and began his instructions. "Now remember, son, you have to stay fresh. Let him do all the work. Save yourself until he's all punched out..."

********************

Forty-five minutes later, Chakotay emerged triumphant, having outpointed McKinnon over ten rounds. There was a small cut under his left eye, and both his arms felt like lead weights, but the exertion had taken away his anxiety, and soothing endorphins had kicked into his bloodstream. He felt great.

He went back to his quarters, showered, dressed, and regenerated the cut under his eye. By the time he was done, it was 1405 hours, and he was ravenous. He checked the status of his replicator rations. The last of his winnings from Tom would be just enough. He ordered meatless chili, a salad, two dinner rolls, and a large glass of ice water. It all tasted terrific.

He wolfed down his meal and recycled the dishes, then sat back on the couch and looked around his quarters. His eyes fell on a sand painting hanging on the far wall. It was one of several that he had completed and brought back from New Earth so many months ago. New Earth, where he had been stranded for so long with Kathryn...

Wait a minute. There was one painting he hadn't finished; one that he had intended to present to Kathryn as a gift. It was a desert landscape. Gods, he hoped he hadn't misplaced it somewhere. He dug into one of his cabinets and found it, along with a good supply of paints and tools that still looked usable.

Chakotay studied the painting. He wanted to finish it. It symbolized his past; it was business that needed completion. He gathered his materials together and went to work, not thinking too much, just contemplating, slipping into the process of creating. He called up some old Indian flute music on the computer without being fully conscious of what he was doing. Time passed, but he was unaware of it.

The painting slowly took shape, and after about two hours, he was finally satisfied with the results. He set it aside to dry while he put away his materials, washed his hands, and cleaned up his work space. Then he took another critical look. It was a fine effort, one of the best paintings he'd ever done. He smiled, pleased with himself.

"Computer, location of Captain Janeway."

"*Captain Janeway is in her Ready Room.*"

//And hopefully alone.// He picked up the painting delicately and headed for the turbolift.

***********

"Come in," was the captain's answer to his signal at the door. He stepped through.

She looked up from a stack of reports and gave him a wry smile. "I can't keep you out of here, can I?"

"Ah," he said with a grin, "but I'm not here on ship's business."

"What's that you've got there?" She sat up, staring at the painting with raw curiosity.

"A gift." He held the picture up to give her the full effect. "For you."

She looked at it for a long time. He watched her expression grow wistful. "Oh, Chakotay, it's beautiful." She stood up and walked around her desk, her hands outstretched. He put the picture in them and stepped back, respecting her space.

After a few moments, she looked up at him. "Did...did you just do this today?"

"I started it a couple of years ago, back when I had a lot of free time." They exchanged a little smile at the memories. "I had some more free time today, so I thought I'd finish it."

"You've never done anything like *this* before. It puts all of *my* efforts to shame."

"Ah, Kathryn, you're a fine artist in your own right..."

"But I have to work so hard at it," she sighed. "This is lovely. I haven't had such a nice gift in quite some time." She put a hand on his arm. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." He paused, trying to find the right words. "Kathryn, I...well, I've grown to consider you my friend as well as my commanding officer. I hope I'm not out of line here."

"No, not at all."

"I guess...I just want you to know that I'm always here for you and for the ship."

"I never had any doubts about that, Chakotay." She took one more look at the painting before setting it down on the desk. "I have the perfect spot for this in my quarters."

"I'm glad you like it." He changed the subject. "Everything go all right today?"

"Just fine. I thought you weren't going to talk shop, though."

"Sorry," he said, smiling. "I'll let you get back to work."

"Enjoy your freedom while you can, Commander. Tomorrow I'll need you to start the personnel reviews."

He put his hands up in a mock defensive posture and backed out of the room, laughing as he did so.

*****************

"Chakotay to Torres."

"Torres here."

"What are you doing down there? Your shift ended over an hour ago."

He could hear a growl through the comlink. "I'm trying to fix the mess that Seven created. You *have* to keep her out of Engineering, Chakotay. The EPS conduits are a *disaster.* That woman...that *Borg*..."

"All right, all right," he replied, trying to suppress a chuckle. "You okay otherwise?"

Her tone changed. "I've been better. But keeping busy helps."

"Take care of yourself, B'Elanna."

"I will."

*******************

"Good to see you joining us, Commander," said Neelix with a smile. "We missed you at breakfast and lunch."

Chakotay accepted a rice-type dish from the Talaxian. "Just catching up on some personal business."

"Nothing serious, I hope?"

"Everything's fine."

"Glad to hear it." Neelix leaned closer. "I assume you know about Lieutenants Paris and Torres."

"Yes, I..."

"Such a shame," said the cook, shaking his head. "What a nice couple they were, at least most of the time..."

"Mr. Neelix, speaking as the First Officer now, I would suggest that you refrain from gossip on this particular matter."

The Talaxian blanched. "Sorry, Commander. You're right, of course."

"Good. Now, how about some coffee?"

"Coming right up, sir."

Neelix was back within seconds with a steaming cup, and Chakotay moved to his usual table to eat. Within five minutes, Tom and Harry came into the mess hall together. Harry looked animated about something; Tom just looked tired.

The commander's heart jumped upon seeing the blond helmsman. He wondered how long he would keep having reactions like that. It could become rather exhausting after awhile.

He watched as the two younger men got their food. Tom was turning...and looking in his direction.

Chakotay tried to look as inviting as he could, considering he had a mouthful of food at the moment. He used his fork to point to the empty chairs at his table. Tom said something to Harry. The Ops officer nodded, smiled deferentially at Chakotay, and they came over.

Tom took the seat to Chakotay's left; Harry sat on the other side. The commander finished chewing his food and swallowed.

"Is it edible?" Tom asked. He had a small helping of the rice dish on his plate and was looking dubious.

"As a matter of fact, it's not bad."

Tom tried a bite, shrugged his shoulders, and took another. Harry dug in as well.

"I see you had the day off," said Tom, addressing Chakotay.

"Even First Officers get a break once in awhile."

"Not from me. Sandrine's, 2100 hours. All right with you?"

"Fine." More than fine.

"How about you, Harry?"

The ensign flushed. "Uh, well, I sort of have something else to do..."

"Aw, Har, you can practice your music any time."

"That's...not what I meant." Harry looked extremely uncomfortable. "I...I told B'Elanna I'd help her out in Engineering right after dinner."

Tom stopped chewing and lowered his eyes for a moment. "Well. And I know how she hates to be kept waiting."

"Sorry, Tom..."

"Hey, no problem. If she didn't need your help, she wouldn't have asked." Tom was trying to keep things light, but Chakotay could sense the tension underneath.

Harry's eyes remained on his plate. "If...if I get done early, I'll try to stop by for one game."

"O-kay," drawled Tom, and then he took another bite. An awkward silence fell. Chakotay tried to think of some way to change the subject, but Harry did it for him.

"Commander, I...uh, I heard that you're starting the personnel reviews tomorrow."

"That's correct, Harry."

"Sir, if it won't upset your schedule too much, could you make mine one of the first that you do?"

"Any special reason?"

"I just want to get it over with."

"I don't think you have anything to worry about, Ensign. Or is there something you need to tell me?"

Kim was beet red. "No, sir. At least, I don't think so."

"Relax, Harry. This time around I'm simplifying the review process. It should be relatively painless."

"Come on, Harry. What have *you* got to worry about?" Tom chimed in. "You're the Gold Star poster boy. *I'm* the one who should be shaking in my boots."

Chakotay, who had been trying hard not to look at Tom too much, now turned to him in surprise. "Really?"

"Really. My quarters are a mess. I've sassed the Doc about thirty times in the last two weeks. My phaser accuracy is shit these days. My reaction time is five hundredths of a second slower than it was six months ago. Basically, I'm screwed."

Chakotay absorbed all this and what was truly underneath it. He decided to play along. "I'll be the judge of that."

"Huh?"

"I'm going to investigate all of these violations personally." The commander stood up. "Starting with the Doctor."

"Wha...wait!" Tom put a hand on his arm.

Chakotay tried not to look affected by the touch. "Attempting to restrain a superior officer...I'll have to add that to your list of crimes."

Tom let go of him quickly. "Chakotay! *Commander*! I was just joking."

Chakotay stood quietly and let the moment play itself out, then he looked down at the pilot and smiled. "Got you, Paris."

Tom's expression changed from panic to relief to something else. Something softer, almost intimate. Chakotay broke the eye contact, laughed nervously, and resumed his seat. Harry, his own embarrassment forgotten, was also chuckling.

"His quarters are actually cleaner than mine, Commander."

"Are they, then? Well, you'd better get them in order. I think I'll ask Mr. Tuvok to assist me on that part of the review."

Kim's eyes widened. Both Tom and Chakotay laughed. "He's on a roll, Harry," said the pilot. "No one is safe."

Chakotay clapped the ensign on the shoulder. "As I said before, relax."

Harry managed a weak smile, and the three men turned to other topics for a few moments. Finally the Ops officer excused himself.

"Don't let B'Elanna make you do all the work," called Tom after him. The pilot then turned back to his meal. Chakotay fixed his eyes on his plate, uncomfortable without having Harry nearby to serve as a buffer between him and Tom.

"So," Tom said after a mouthful, "How did you spend your day off?"

"Doing relaxing things. Meditating, painting."

"And boxing, I hear."

"A little." He gave Tom a brief smile. "It helps me unwind."

"Unwind," repeated the younger man. "You never seem to be the type that needs to do that."

"Meaning?" //Shit, we're *flirting.*//

"You're Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected."

"Let's just say I'm even-tempered."

"That, too."

The commander was enjoying this banter. "What else do you know about me?"

"More than I used to. The boxing, for instance. *That* surprised me. I never took you for the pugilistic type."

Chakotay shrugged. "I enjoy testing myself. It clears my mind."

"So when you laid out Dalby that time, you knew exactly what you were doing."

The commander leaned back in his chair. "People still talk about that?"

"Sure. It's been brought up a few times."

"No kidding." Chakotay took a drink. "Yes, I knew what I was doing. Trying to get him in line."

"The 'Maquis Way.'"

He winced. "Things have changed, Tom."

"I suppose you're right." Tom dropped the subject and took one last bite of food. "We've all changed." His eyes met Chakotay's, and the two men locked on each other for a few seconds.

Chakotay felt his heart speed up under that blue gaze. He cleared his throat and stood up abruptly. "I'll see you at 2100."

"It's a date," Tom said lightly.

The commander nodded and hurried to put his tray in the recycler before Tom or anyone else could see the blush starting on his cheeks.

********************

Dressed in blue jeans and a red T-shirt, Chakotay appeared on the holodeck at precisely 2100 hours. Sandrine's was busy tonight, but Tom had reserved his favorite table and was waiting patiently, leaning on his pool cue.

"Stakes?" asked the commander.

Tom cocked his head thoughtfully. "I'd like to do something different this time. The winner gets to ask the loser a question, and the loser has to answer truthfully."

//Oh, *hell.*// "No dares instead?"

"Naw," Tom said lazily. "Truth. No dare."

"Well...all right." What the fuck? This could be fun.

Tom let him break, and the game progressed quickly. Chakotay made a fair share of good shots, but Tom was on a roll, sinking ball after ball. Finally he lined up the eight-ball for one final shot.

He slapped the table. "Corner pocket. Get ready," he warned Chakotay, then sank the ball neatly into the target.

The commander grinned weakly at him. "Okay. What do you want to know?"

"Drinks first." Tom indicated that Chakotay should follow him to the bar. Each man ordered a beer and sat down. Chakotay twisted the bottle around in his hands as Tom took a long swig and exhaled with gusto.

"Well?"

"Truth, now."

"Truth."

Tom stared directly at him. "How many people on this ship have you slept with?"

Chakotay flushed and again was grateful for the low lighting. "That's a pretty personal question."

"That was the deal. I won't tell anyone, if you're wondering."

Chakotay sighed. "I know you won't believe this, Tom, but the answer is zero. Honestly."

"None of the Maquis, even?"

"No."

"Okay." Tom looked at him thoughtfully. "Okay, I believe you."

"That's a relief."

"Can I ask you something else?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Is it because you have someone back home, like the Captain does?"

Chakotay lowered his eyes. Michael Eddington's face flashed into his mind, and a memory of their last night together.

//Cha-Cha, do your dance on me again, big man, because this is probably the last time.//

And he'd loved Michael with everything he had, and Michael had loved him back with more, as if he knew that Chakotay would be torn away, would be lost to him. He could feel Michael's tears on his pillow after the Maquis leader had left him; left him to do his duty for their people.

How could he answer Tom's question? And why the hell did he want to know anyway? Unless...

"Tom!" came a voice from across the room. It was Jenny Delaney, playing pool with Geron. "I need some help."

Tom glanced in her direction, then looked apologetically at Chakotay. "Sorry. My services are required."

Chakotay only nodded, greatly relieved at the interruption. While Tom was away, he took two long gulps of his beer. Sandrine smiled at him from behind the bar and toasted him with a glass of wine. He saluted her in turn, then spun around on his bar stool to see how Tom was faring.

Jenny stood aside while Tom pointed out the various shots she had open to her. She listened attentively and let the pilot guide her into the proper shooting position. Tom then stepped back, and Jenny struck the ball neatly into its target, which landed solidly in the intended pocket. She raised her hands in triumph, then gave Tom a quick hug.

Chakotay felt a sudden rush of jealousy. How *he* would love to get his arms around Tom's body. He covered by taking a large swallow of his beer. Tom released Jenny and started heading back in his direction.

The commander felt trapped. He was sure Tom would demand an answer to his question, and even though Chakotay had fulfilled the bet, he felt obligated to give him one. What *was* the truth? Was Michael waiting for him at home? What could he say to Tom that wouldn't scare the young man off, if by some chance he was interested in a relationship?

Again, Chakotay spun the beer bottle around in his hands as Tom resumed his seat. "Nicely done," he said quietly.

Tom took a swig of beer. "Jenny's getting better all the time," he said.

Chakotay held still, hoping that Tom had forgotten the earlier conversation.

No such luck. "So?" asked his companion. "Anyone waiting for you at home?"

The commander took a deep breath. The truth seemed the best option. "There *was* someone, a long time ago. We were in love. We...got separated. I doubt..." He paused. "...I doubt he's waiting for me. It's been years since we've seen each other."

Tom was quiet for a long time. "*He*?"

Chakotay went for broke. "I'm bisexual, Tom. I've known it for years. I'm comfortable with it." Damn, he was being reckless here. He'd never even told Kathryn about his attraction to men. B'Elanna was the only person on board that knew.

Seconds passed, and Chakotay's fears rose. But Tom stayed right where he was.

"Well..." the young man began. "That makes two of us." He leaned toward the commander. "I won't tell if you won't."

Relieved, Chakotay raised his head and managed a smile for the pilot. "That's a deal."

Tom held out his hand, and the older man shook it. For just a brief moment, Tom placed his other hand over Chakotay's, then let go. "Harry's here."

The commander turned and saw Ensign Kim enter the bar. "So he is."

"He owes me a few games. That okay?"

"No problem. I think I'm going to turn in."

Tom had started to get out of his chair, then stopped. "How about Ping-Pong tomorrow night, same time? I'll close off the bar."

"Comm me. I might be busy with the personnel reviews."

"Will do. Good night, Chakotay."

"Good night, Tom." He watched the pilot go to meet his friend, then drained the last of his beer.

It struck him then. Which question had Tom been answering? "That makes two of us." Did that mean Tom was bisexual or did it mean that Tom was comfortable with Chakotay's being so? Or both?

Either way, he hadn't managed to scare Paris off, and that *was* a relief.

He said good night to Sandrine and went back to his quarters.

********************

Chakotay spent most of the next day on personnel reviews. He was extremely glad that he had persuaded Kathryn to streamline the process. After four years, the crew had pretty much ironed out its differences and learned to work with each other, Starfleet as well as Maquis.

He took his lunch and dinner in his office so that he could keep working. He figured that if he put four or five hard days in on this, he'd have it done.

He picked up Tom's file and looked at it. Could he be objective here? Tom had had a good six months by any measure. But the commander wasn't quite sure he could trust his own judgment.

He commed Tuvok, and the Vulcan answered immediately.

"I need a favor."

"I am prepared to assist you in any way I can, Commander."

"I would like you to perform the personnel reviews for all of the senior staff, excluding yours and mine, of course. I think a different perspective would be useful this time around."

"Very well, Commander. You may bring the files to me this evening. I should have the reports to you by 1800 hours tomorrow."

"I appreciate it, Tuvok."

"You are most welcome."

Chakotay commed off. He sorted through the files and pulled out the ones to give to Tuvok. Just as he finished, his commbadge chirped.

"Paris to Chakotay."

"Chakotay here."

"It's 2030. Are we playing Ping-Pong tonight or should I leave Sandrine's open to all comers?"

He only needed a moment to decide. "We're playing."

"Good. See you in thirty."

Chakotay gathered the files together and walked the short distance to Tuvok's office. The Vulcan accepted them with a cool nod. Chakotay raced to his quarters and changed into shorts and a T-shirt.

He signaled at the holodeck, and Tom, dressed in similar attire, led him into the back room.

"Stakes?" asked the pilot.

"I'd rather just play tonight."

"Hey -- sorry if I put you on the spot yesterday."

"It's all right."

"I was just curious, you know."

"And now?" Chakotay had moved to the far end of the table, where he was a little more comfortable with looking Tom straight in the eye.

"Now? Now I just want to whip your butt."

The commander laughed. "Talk is cheap."

Tom took one of the white balls and bounced it several times off his paddle. "Best two of three."

"You're on."

They played, and Tom prevailed, 21-15 and 21-16.

"You're getting better, old man," the pilot gasped, collapsing into his chair.

"Think so?"

"Must be all that boxing you did yesterday. Hand-eye coordination and all that."

Chakotay made his way around the table and sat down next to Tom. "I hadn't thought of that, but you're probably right."

Tom was red from exertion, his pale skin shiny with sweat. Chakotay thought he was absolutely beautiful. God, he wanted to touch him.

"Want something to drink?"

"Just water would be good." The commander stared at Tom's rear as the pilot walked to the replicator on the opposite wall. The man had a *fine* ass.

Tom handed him a glass and positioned that ass just inches away. "Tomorrow night?"

Chakotay sighed. "I really need to get these reports done. I can't do it for probably the next three nights or so."

"Okay."

"I'm having a great time, believe me. But I've got a job to do, too."

"We all do. It's all right. It'll still be here for us."

"Thanks, Tom."

"Hey, I should be thanking *you.* Harry's been locked up in Engineering with Seven and B'Elanna. And he hates Ping-Pong. You've been doing me a big favor agreeing to play with me."

"How's that?"

"It's an outlet for me. Kind of like your boxing program, I guess. I get some satisfaction out of knocking the little ball around. No one gets hurt, and I feel better after it's all over."

"Well, I'm glad to help out."

The two men were silent for a few moments. Again, Chakotay felt that odd but comforting sense of just *being* with Tom without having to say anything. He decided he liked it.

Tom sighed and drank the last of his water. "Time to turn in, I guess."

"That's probably a good idea." Chakotay stood with him.

"Computer, end program." The table tennis court vanished, and the two men made their way to the holodeck entrance.

"Good night, Commander. Don't work too hard."

"I'll be fine, Tom. Good night." He watched Tom walk away from him, his desire for the young man matched only by the growing affection in his heart.

********************

Chakotay was deep into his second day of reviews when someone signaled at his office door.

"Come."

He was surprised to see Tom enter, carrying a mug and a covered plate. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Around sixteen hundred?"

"Make that *nineteen.*" No one has seen hide nor hair of you since you got off bridge duty. When was the last time you ate?"

"I *did* have breakfast this morning." Chakotay leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

Tom set the mug and plate down in front of him. "You missed it all. Neelix has somehow hit on the perfect recipe for hot apple cider and ginger cookies. Get 'em while you can."

Chakotay felt his mouth water. He uncovered the plate, took one of the cookies, and bit into it. "Wow. You're right." He sipped the hot cider. "This is great."

Tom smiled at him like an indulgent parent. "You can't be skipping meals, now. Not at such a critical time."

Chakotay smiled back. "I hear you."

The pilot nodded. "How's it going?"

"Well enough. No one's losing their job."

Tom laughed at the joke. "Should *I* be worried about anything?"

"Not at all. Tuvok gave you a very positive report. Positive even for a Vulcan."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"That's great," Tom said thoughtfully. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. And thank you for this treat."

"No problem." Tom turned to leave. "Oh, by the way, if you're so inclined, ask the computer to play the program 'Paris gamma-six.' Good music to work by."

"I'll keep it in mind."

"See you." And Tom was gone. The commander drank more of the cider, feeling warm inside in more ways than one.

What the hell. "Computer, play selection 'Paris gamma-six.'"

Light jazz music flowed out of the speakers. Chakotay ate another cookie and went back to work.

****************************

"That's about it, Captain. A total of seven recommendations for promotion. Tuvok concurs with me on each one."

"Excellent." Janeway smiled. "Set up a ceremony in the mess hall. Have Mr. Neelix provide the refreshments."

"Consider it done."

"Good work, Commander." The captain poured herself another cup of coffee. "You're relieved of duty as of this moment."

He raised an eyebrow.

She smiled. "Get out of here and go amuse yourself. I don't want to see you anywhere near this deck for the next twenty-four hours at least."

"Yes, ma'am."

*****************************

"Chakotay to Paris."

"Paris here."

"You up for a game of Ping-Pong tonight?"

"Sure thing. Usual time okay?"

"Sounds good."

"Great. See you then."

****************************

"UMMPH!"

Chakotay grunted as he strained to reach the ball with his paddle. He made solid contact and sent the shot past a startled Tom Paris.

"Yes! Twenty-six to twenty-four!" He threw the paddle into the air in triumph and caught it on its way down. He felt like a little kid.

"Good game," said Tom from the other end of the table.

The commander grinned at him. The pilot gazed back at him intently for a moment, and then an answering smile appeared. "So when does the Indian victory dance start for real?"

"Wrong tribe," Chakotay said automatically, and they both roared with laughter.

******************************

Three weeks later...

Chakotay sat in the captain's seat, pondering the events that had taken place on Voyager over the last few days.

Seven of Nine had led the ship to a communications array which had allowed the Doctor to travel thousands of light-years to the Alpha Quadrant and back. The EMH had participated in an adventure of his own involving the Romulans, but had found the opportunity to let Starfleet know of their status.

The commander had begun a letter to his cousin Juan in Ohio. His emotions were too jumbled for him to think about writing anyone else. Juan had good connections with the rest of his family and was a closet Maquis sympathizer; Chakotay could count on him to keep a level head and answer his questions honestly.

In the meantime, Starfleet had apparently attempted to send them a message, along with some personal letters. They were garbled and confused, but Voyager's best minds had been working on the problem for the better part of a day.

So here he was in command, at least nominally, on the bridge while the Captain consulted with Seven in Astrometrics. In fact, he had very few orders to give at the moment. The crew milled about, eagerly awaiting any possible word from the Alpha Quadrant.

The door slid open, and Neelix literally bounced onto the bridge, a stack of padds in his hands. He cleared his throat. "I am happy to announce that I have the first letters from home."

"Who are they for, Neelix?" asked Harry, unable to contain his excitement.

"Ah..." said the Talaxian, consulting the padds. "This one is addressed to Commander Chakotay."

Chakotay accepted the padd and sat down, scanning the little screen for the name of the sender. What he saw brought him up short.

Neelix hovered nearby. "Who's it from, Commander?"

Chakotay paused, trying to gather his thoughts and speak past a sudden dryness in his mouth. "An old friend...the person who recruited me into the Maquis."

He couldn't stay here. He couldn't look at this with everyone else around.

"Maybe I'll read this in private. Tom, you have the bridge."

His eyes went to the lieutenant's as he said this. Tom said nothing, only gave a short nod of acknowledgment and rose from the helm.

Chakotay let a brief flash of gratitude pierce through the shock he had felt upon viewing his letter. Without another word, he left the bridge and made his way to his office.

Inside, he sat down on the sofa and looked at the name of his correspondent once again: Svetlana Korepanova -- his Maquis recruiter, as he had told Neelix, but also an old lover and friend.

He had a strange feeling about this already. With a deep breath, he began to read. The first few sentences brought first a smile, then a scowl to his face.

As he continued, the hand holding the padd began to shake. His breath became ragged and uneven. Tears formed in his eyes.

By the end, he was sobbing uncontrollably, dropping the padd into his lap.

**

"Dear Chakotay,

"You are alive. That is the best news I have heard in many, many months. We had given you and the _Liberty_ up for lost long ago. I hope that you are well and that you will be back in the Alpha Quadrant soon.

"I wish I had good news for you in return. You see, I'm in prison. A Federation prison, to be exact. I've been here the better part of a year. It's boring as hell and the food sucks. Even so, I would do it all over again -- join the Maquis and do what's right for our people.

"I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones, all things considered. For all intents and purposes, the Maquis are dead.

"You may or may not know that the Federation's been at war with the Cardassians and their new allies from the Gamma Quadrant -- they call themselves the 'Dominion.' Remember Odo, the shapeshifter on Deep Space Nine? They're like him. And they've enslaved a race called the Jem 'Hadar to do their dirty work for them and their Vorta flunkies. The Jem 'Hadar are tough bastards, and the Dominion breeds them like rabbits. To be honest, I don't know how long Starfleet can hold out.

"We all knew the Cardies were bad business. No one listened, did they, Chakotay? But I guess it's too late now for second-guessing.

"I know if you were here with me, you'd be asking about Michael Eddington. He told me about your former relationship with him. It surprised the hell out of me. I had no idea you were bisexual. You were always such a mysterious and contrary person, Chakotay. That must have been why I fell for you all those years ago.

"Anyway, Michael always spoke of you with great affection, and he was devastated when you disappeared from the Badlands. He held out hope for awhile (we all did) but as the months went by, we were pretty convinced you were dead. If anything, it made Michael fight on even harder. Eventually, he went on to become our overall commander in the Maquis. And he got married to another one of our agents, Rebecca Sullivan.

"Michael kept his cover on Deep Space Nine for well over a year before Captain Sisko finally figured things out. But Michael escaped from him and led us faithfully for another eight months. Sisko eventually hunted him down, and Michael had to surrender. Damn, I knew he hated to do that, but Ben Sisko can play hardball with the best of them.

"Michael stayed in prison for a long time. The rest of us carried on as best we could, but things turned against us. The Cardies formed their alliance with the Dominion, and it was basically all over after that.

"Then the Feds let Michael go after all. Remember Athos Four, our final fallback position? Rebecca put out a signal about some doomsday missiles that were targeting Cardassia Prime. Sisko took Michael out of prison himself and brought him to Athos Four to call the 'missiles' back. Of course, there were no such missiles. It was just another of Michael's brilliant plans, but it turned into an ambush. Damn Jem 'Hadar bastards.

"You would have been proud of Michael, Chakotay. He went down fighting. He must have slaughtered dozens of those fuckers before they finally got him. He's dead, my friend. I'm so damn sorry. I don't know what else to say.

"I was lucky. I happened to be hidden in an area furthest from the fighting, and the Feds from Deep Space Nine took me out on one of their ships after it was all over.

"I'd never seen so much carnage in all my life. Bodies everywhere. Humans, Vulcans, Bajorans, Bolians, Jem 'Hadar. I hope I never see anything like it again. I still have nightmares about that day. I can't believe that all we've fought for, and for all this time, is lost.

"At least you missed all of this, though I can't imagine what you're going through out there in the Delta Quadrant. It's a miracle that we've found some way to communicate across all this distance.

"I have a lot of time to think these days, especially about when we were younger. I miss our long talks, and I miss holding you. We had some good times, didn't we?

"I don't know if you still pray and do all those Indian things, but if you do, say a prayer for all of us, and for Michael. He loved you, Chakotay. As I do. No, *more* than I do. I may never be able to love a person as much as I loved our cause. Take comfort that Michael died fighting the good fight.

"Well, I'm being called to mess now, so I must end this. Watch out for yourself, and remember your old friends back home.

"Always,

Sveta."

**

Michael was dead. Michael, who had loved him, body and soul. Chakotay wept as he had not done since he was a small child.

//Cha-Cha, do your dance on me, big man.//

"God! Michael...I should have been there. I could have done something..."

//There was nothing you could have done. The force was too strong.// The voice of his spirit guide echoed in Chakotay's mind, and now he understood her message. All too well.

He cried for a good ten minutes. Finally he gained control of himself and read Sveta's letter again. Then a third, and a fourth time.

His tears had ended, but the agitation remained. Now he had to tell everyone. There was only one logical place to start.

He put the padd gently into a drawer, took a deep breath, got to his feet and headed for Engineering.

***********************

B'Elanna was there, faithful as always. What a good and loyal friend she had turned out to be. He hated to break her heart like this, but best she hear it from him.

He walked over to her. She did not look up, engrossed in her calculations.

"Have you gotten a letter yet?"

Still no eye contact. She shook her head. "Don't expect one."

He swallowed. "Do you remember Sveta?"

That got her attention. "Of course."

"I got one from her."

"Why would she be writing you?" B'Elanna asked. Of course, she would not know about the old affair. It had been years ago, even before Michael...oh, sweet spirits...

Several seconds passed. He had to turn away from the engineer. He couldn't speak.

"Chakotay, what is it?"

"Something terrible has happened." He said it quickly. "I read that letter for an hour before I could accept it. Now I have to tell everyone else, and I'm not sure how to do it." He turned and looked directly at her. "It's over, B'Elanna. There are no more Maquis."

She stared back at him. "What are you saying? There are *thousands* of us."

"All wiped out," he said. "It seems the Cardassians have an ally, a species from the Gamma Quadrant who supplied them with arms and weapons."

B'Elanna stared blankly at him. "Hitara?"

He nodded.

"Roberto?" She was naming off their former comrades.

Another nod.

"Everyone except us is *dead*?"

"Just about. Sveta and a few lucky ones are in prison."

"No," B'Elanna growled, pushing past him.

"B'Elanna..." He tried to stop her but she would have none of it.

"Don't! Don't try to console me! I don't want to be comforted! Those were our *friends.* Good people, willing to put their lives on the line for something they believed in. And now you're telling me that they are gone, that they were *slaughtered.*"

"Those are the risks we all took. We knew where it could lead." He had pushed aside his own pain now, seeing how hurt she was.

"It's not right and you know it!" She was breathing heavily now, barely maintaining control. "I will make someone pay, I swear I will! If we ever get back."

Chakotay had no answer to this. He laid a gentle hand on B'Elanna's shoulder for one moment, then left her to think. He had more bad news to spread, and he wanted to get it done before he lost his nerve.

**********************************

Ninety minutes later, he went to see the captain. "Request permission to go off duty." He tried to keep his voice even but knew he wasn't doing a very good job of it.

"What's wrong, Commander?"

Chakotay hesitated, then told her. "Quite honestly, Captain, I don't think I'm up to performing my duties right now. I need some time to absorb all of this."

"I understand completely. Is there anything else I can do for you?" She looked at him with compassionate blue eyes.

"Some of my people -- my former Maquis crewmates -- may need some downtime also, to deal with the news. This is a harsh blow to them, Kathryn. They're in shock, and some of them are very angry about what has happened."

"Are you anticipating some new troubles between the Maquis and Starfleet crews?"

"Not necessarily. But I'm worried about a few individuals -- B'Elanna in particular. The grieving process is just beginning. I'll help where I can, but I'm not a very objective party in all of this. You may want to ask the Doctor to refresh his counseling skills."

"I'll do that. And my door is always open to them as well."

"Thank you, Kathryn." He started to go, then thought of something. "Have you gotten a letter yet?"

"No, but Seven is working on them as we speak."

"For what it's worth, I hope your news is better than mine."

She gave him a sad smile and a nod. "Dismissed."

*********************

"Computer, run program 'Chakotay beta-fifteen.'"

"*Acknowledged.*"

He stepped into the gym. "Boothby!"

"Right here, son. Just folding up the last of the towels."

"I want to spar with a Cardassian."

The old man shook his head. "You're asking for big trouble."

"You don't know the half of it."

"Think about it first."

"I *have* thought about it." Chakotay jumped into the ring and started shadow boxing. "Give me Gul Bakar."

Boothby sighed and muttered to himself. "Young folks always have to learn the hard way."

********************

"Paris to Sickbay! Medical emergency! Two to beam out!"

Chakotay opened his eyes, or tried to. The right one refused to obey his command.

Something was wrong with his left arm, and there was a sharp pain in his ribcage. Then he felt another sensation -- the tingle of dematerialization.

"Shit." That was Tom again. "Doc! Help me!"

Chakotay felt strong arms lift him up and lay him down. Someone was pulling boxing gloves off of his hands. His mind was a blur. What had happened to him?

"Good heavens, Mr. Paris, is this *your* doing? I'll bring you up on charges."

"Cut it out, Doctor. He was running that boxing program again. Whoever he was fighting did this. I found him unconscious, just outside the holodeck. I think his arm is broken, along with a couple of ribs. He also took a solid punch to the eye."

"Who was his opponent? The Great Kahless Himself? And what happened to the safety protocols?"

Chakotay coughed, spitting blood from his mouth. "Car-Cardassian bastard."

Tom bent over him, a tan blur. "You were fighting a Cardassian?"

"Yesss..."

"Are you out of your *mind*?"

"Enough of that, Lieutenant," said the Doctor irritably. "I'll take care of the arm. You repair the damaged ribs. Can I count on you to do it?"

"You can." Tom gave Chakotay's good hand a quick squeeze and leaned over him, speaking in a low voice. "I know all about what's going on back home. We need to talk."

The commander tried to speak but only managed another cough. At a glare from the Doctor, Tom let go of his hand and went to work.

********************

Chakotay woke a few hours later to find Tom standing over him. "Hi. How are you feeling?"

"Not too bad."

"You're going to be all right. We fixed you up. But no more boxing for awhile. Doctor's orders."

"Tom, I..."

"You scared the hell out of me." Tom's voice shook. "I went looking for you after Dalby told me about the Maquis. Damn it, Chakotay, I know I wasn't *much* of a Maquis, but I knew a lot of those people, too. I wish you had come to me instead of letting me hear about it from someone else."

He had forgotten. How could he have done that? A pang of guilt swept through his soul. "You're right, Tom. I was wrong. I apologize."

But Tom wasn't finished. "Then, when I saw you lying there outside the holodeck, all beat up and bloody, I had a horrible moment when I thought you were dead, too. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was angry. I *wasn't* thinking."

"Obviously. *Did* you take off the safeties?"

"No. It's a boxing program, Tom. I'm supposed to get hit every once in awhile."

Paris whistled. "Gul Bakar packs a *hell* of a punch. Did you know that bastard was his sector's middleweight champion for five years? How many rounds did you go with him?"

"Twelve...I think. Quite honestly, I don't remember getting out of the ring. Boothby must have helped me somehow. And how I got out of the holodeck, I have no idea."

"Shit." Tom began to pace. "Short-term memory loss on top of everything else. With all due respect, *Commander*, this is a lousy way to get out your aggressions. You should have called me and we could have hit the little white ball around. Or played hoverball or something. That was our deal. We're supposed to help each other out."

Tom's intensity was unexpected and a little frightening. Chakotay was not used to having someone else be so protective towards him. He hadn't thought it possible, but he found himself loving the man that much more.

Paris stepped to his side. "Okay. End of lecture. I'll get out of here and let you get some rest. Doc says it'll be another day and then you'll be released."

"All right. I'll be good. I promise."

Tom patted him on the shoulder. Chakotay caught his hand and held it fast. Blue eyes met brown, and the room seemed to shrink around the commander and the lieutenant. Chakotay felt a sudden dryness in his mouth.

"Cha..." Tom began softly.

"Ah, Commander!" came a cheerful voice from across the room. "Back from oblivion, are we?"

Tom jumped back, releasing Chakotay's hand. A deep blush spread across his face, and he turned away to look at the medical readouts.

The Doctor stepped to the commander's bedside. "I suppose I can't prevail upon you to delete that barbaric excuse for recreation known as 'boxing' from the holographic database."

Chakotay licked his lips nervously, wondering what the hologram had seen. "I'll take it under advisement."

The EMH sighed. "No one ever listens to their doctor. Think of all the sorrows that would be prevented if just a few people did. We could change the universe! Mr. Paris, your report?"

"His vitals are normal, Doc." //Liar, my pulse must be over 100. God, Tom, what happened there?// "The arm is healing nicely."

"And the ribs?"

Tom looked at another reading. "See for yourself."

The Doctor joined him. "Hmmm. Well. You did a competent job, Mr. Paris. Not bad for an amateur."

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment."

"Now, if you could only prevail upon the commander to refrain from boxing, I'd call you a miracle worker."

"Tell you what, Doctor," interjected Chakotay. "I'll quit fighting Cardassians and stick to species that don't punch quite so hard."

The hologram shook his head. "I guess I'll have to take what I can get." He pressed a hypospray of painkiller to Chakotay's neck. The commander relaxed as the medication began to work. Tom had moved to the foot of the bed, his eyes avoiding direct contact with his patient's at the moment.

"Go back to sleep, Commander," said the Doctor, more gently. "That also goes for you, Mr. Paris. You're relieved. It's nearly 0100."

"You sure, Doc?"

"He'll be fine. Move along, now."

"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow, Chakotay."

"Good night, Tom." He watched the young man leave, wishing silently that he would stay and hold his hand some more. It had felt good. Very good.

With that comforting thought, Chakotay fell asleep.

**************************

Next day...

"How do you feel?"

Tom's arm was around his shoulders. Chakotay leaned against him, harder than he needed to, perhaps. "Not bad."

"Do you think you can walk back to your quarters?"

"Sure. Just give me a minute." He took a tentative step. "Yeah. I can make it."

"I'll go with you."

"All right." He allowed Tom to lead him through the corridors and to his door. "Thanks. I'll see you on the bridge tomorrow."

Tom hesitated before speaking. "No, you probably won't."

"How's that?"

"Tuvok, as Acting First Officer, has taken it upon himself to assign me to Gamma shift for the next two weeks, starting tomorrow."

"You're not serious."

"Completely." Tom sighed. "On the other hand, it does mean no Sickbay duty during that time."

"I'll rescind the orders."

"It's okay." Tom flushed. "I'd...I'd rather you didn't."

Chakotay had a sudden flash of insight. Tom didn't want the commander to do any special favors for him. Considering the direction their relationship seemed to be going, this was probably a good idea.

"All right," he said quietly.

Tom nodded, obviously relieved. "Well, I'd better get back to Sickbay."

The two men looked at each other. Chakotay had the odd feeling that he should invite Tom in to his room later on for a drink, and maybe more. Some parts of his body thought that might be a fun idea.

The other parts won out.

"Okay. Thanks, Tom."

"You're welcome. Take it easy, now."

"I will."

********************

Chakotay's body recovered relatively quickly from his injuries, though the emotional pain lingered. In two days, he was back on duty.

With Captain Janeway's permission, he held a memorial service in the mess hall in honor of the Maquis who had fallen in the Alpha Quadrant. B'Elanna attended, pale and tight-lipped. Henley, Dalby, Ayala, Geron, Chell -- all the other Maquis were present as well. War stories were told, tears were shed, hugs were exchanged, and glasses were raised in tribute to their lost friends.

After it was over, Chakotay felt somewhat better. He sensed that the healing process had begun for him and most of his comrades. He was still worried about B'Elanna; she had refused to talk to him any more about the subject after he had first confronted her in Engineering.

The commander was walking through the corridors, heading back to his quarters for the night, when Tom appeared directly in front of him. Chakotay had purposely not invited him to the service, believing that some old resentments might be stirred up. It had not been an easy decision, and he wondered if Tom had gotten wind of the events and was now upset with him.

But Tom didn't seem angry at all. "Hey, I've been looking for you. I have a couple of free hours before I go on duty. How about a drink at Sandrine's?"

Chakotay smiled in spite of himself. He hadn't seen Tom for a few days, and he had almost forgotten how good-looking the young man was. Even though the commander had just spent the better part of two hours laughing, crying, and drinking with his Maquis comrades, Tom's offer was very tempting.

"Just a drink?" he asked lightly, cocking an eyebrow.

"The pool tables are filled up tonight," answered Tom, stepping toward him and taking his arm to steer him back toward the turbolift. It was a surprisingly familiar gesture on the pilot's part, but Chakotay found himself following along, caught up in his wake. "And, of course," Tom went on, "no one else knows about the secret room, so we can't exactly use it tonight."

"The secret room of Ping-Pong." Chakotay was definitely feeling just a *little* punchy after all the toasts he had made at the memorial service.

"Known only to those who should know." Tom got the commander into the turbolift and released his arm. "Deck six."

The lift began to move. "Tom," said Chakotay, still not sure if the lieutenant knew what he'd been doing, "I don't think I'm up to alcoholic beverages tonight. And you're going to be on duty very soon."

"So we'll have a soda. Come on," coaxed Tom, "My social life has been the pits since I've been on Gamma shift. There's nobody interesting to talk to. I can't even get Harry out of Engineering."

//And I think I know why,// thought the commander, who was now pretty much convinced that Harry's long simmering crush on B'Elanna was about to boil over. It amazed him that Tom didn't seem to see this.

"Okay, Tom. I'll stay awhile."

"Good." The lieutenant was plainly relieved. "Thanks."

The lift opened, and the two men walked into Sandrine's. As Tom had said, all of the pool tables were in use. Chakotay followed the young man to the bar.

"Two club sodas, Sandrine," ordered Tom.

The proprietor was back swiftly with two full glasses. Tom found a small unoccupied table near the back of the room. The two men sat down.

Chakotay took a sip of his drink. "What's on your mind?"

"You."

The commander blinked. "Me?"

"How are you doing? Is your arm okay?"

"It's fine. Feels perfectly normal."

"Ribs?"

Chakotay stretched. "Still a bit of a twinge, but the Doctor says that will be gone within a week."

"Your vision okay?"

"As good as it's ever been. Tom, the Doctor's checked me every day. I don't think he would have let me back on duty if he didn't think I could handle it."

Tom nodded and took a drink. "Okay. I've just been, you know, worried about you."

"Give me two more days, and I'll whip you in Ping-Pong again."

The pilot's eyes gleamed. "That's a date."

"Okay."

They were quiet for a few moments, both listening to the soft ragtime music in the bar, glancing over at the pool games.

"Cha...Chakotay?"

"Hmmm?"

"Can I ask you something about that letter you got from home?"

He was having a hard time following Tom's train of thought. "Um, sure, okay."

"Did...did it say anything about Starfleet?"

Chakotay frowned. "Not much. Why do you ask?"

Tom swallowed. "I...My letter didn't get retrieved in time before we lost the transmission. It was from my father."

"You didn't get any of it?"

"No." Tom's voice was very low.

"I'm sorry." Chakotay couldn't say any more; he felt his throat tightening up with emotion. The memorial service had left him tired and vulnerable, and he felt the young man's pain acutely.

Tom traced a finger along his glass. "I guess I'll never know what he had to say."

"You'll find out when we get home. He'll tell you then."

"I suppose you're right." Tom smiled sadly. "Assuming he's still alive by then."

Chakotay blinked but said nothing; images of his murdered father, Kolopak, flashed through his mind.

"Shit," Tom said. "Oh, damn. Cha...I'm sorry. I forgot. What a stupid thing for me to say."

Chakotay wiped his hand across his eyes. "It's okay..."

Tom pounded his fist into the table. "I *hate* this. I hate that your father is dead and that I can't talk to mine. I hate that the Maquis back home are dead and that Starfleet is fighting this damn war with the Dominion and we can't do a *fucking* thing about it. I almost wish we'd never found that communications array."

Chakotay took a deep breath in an effort to control himself.

The lieutenant went on, "It's brought us nothing but trouble. Bad news. Or *no* news. And those Hirogen are plenty pissed at us for messing with their technology."

"On the other hand," interjected Chakotay in a shaky voice, "at least our families know we're alive."

Tom looked at him for a moment. "Yeah. You're right."

Silence fell once more. Chakotay took a long drink of his soda. Tom traced a pattern on the table with his finger.

"So," asked the pilot at last, "How did the service go?"

The commander looked up sharply, but saw no sign of anger or disappointment on Tom's face, only concern and curiosity. "I -- I thought it went well. I'm glad I did it. People needed to talk about what happened."

"Is B'Elanna okay?"

He couldn't lie. "I don't know, Tom. She won't say much, at least not to me."

"She never was good at talking about her feelings with me, either. Too often, it was 'hit first and ask questions later.'"

Chakotay stared. "She *hit* you?"

"No, no. Usually the victim was the nearest wall or table. And by the time she got *that* mad, I would move into the next room. Even after she calmed down, she didn't want to talk."

Chakotay had seen enough of the famed Torres temper to believe everything Tom had just told him. "So how did the two of you manage to stay together so long?"

"Well, the sex was great, for one." The lieutenant flushed a little. "And we did find other things that we had in common. We both came from screwed-up families, we both washed out of Starfleet, and we both ended up in the Maquis."

Was there just a bit of irony in Tom's voice? Chakotay shifted in his seat, trying to figure out if this was bitterness or regret talking.

"I thought we had something good going," continued the pilot. "Obviously, she didn't agree."

"Tom..." The commander hesitated, not wanting to break a confidence. "I think she cared a lot about you. And I believe part of her still does."

"The *invisible* part." No mistaking the sarcasm here. But Tom stopped himself, spreading his hands out in front of him as if warding off some evil. "Sorry. I guess I'm still mad at her."

"It's okay."

"I know she's your friend, Chakotay."

"*You're* my friend, too, Tom."

The words hung between the two men. Chakotay stared at his soda glass, feeling his pulse pound in his fingertips. It was the truth. Not all of it, but a big part. Long seconds passed as he waited for Tom to respond. Damn, he was tired.

"Yeah..." The pilot's voice trailed off for a moment. "Yeah, I knew there was a reason I went looking for you tonight. I needed a friend."

Chakotay managed a smile. He raised his drink. "To Voyager, and to friendship."

"Cheers." Tom returned the gesture. Their glasses clinked gently, and both men drained them.

Chakotay wiped his mouth and stood up. "I have to call it a night, Tom. Sorry."

"No problem." Tom got to his feet as well. "Thanks for listening. Get some sleep." He offered his hand, and Chakotay took it. "Comm me in a couple of days, and I'll get us the Ping-Pong room."

"Will do, Tom. Good night."

***********************

The commander did sleep well that night and woke up the next morning in better spirits.

Captain Janeway met him for breakfast. "We may have a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"The Hirogen. We've picked up several of their ships on long-range sensors. As I recall from our last encounter with them, they don't like us very much."

"Unless we're hanging from their walls as trophies."

Janeway raised her eyebrows at him. "I don't intend to become part of someone's collection. I want full-scale battle drills conducted on all shifts."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And have Seven work with B'Elanna on reinforcing the shields."

"Captain..."

She held her hand up. "I know what you're going to say. They're not getting along. Find a way to make them cooperate. They're the best technical minds we have." She paused to take a swallow of coffee.

"I'll do it, Captain. Count on it."

"Good."

*****************

B'Elanna rolled her eyes when Chakotay gave her the order, but offered no other resistance. "Just as long as she understands who's really in charge here."

He smiled, patted her on the shoulder, and went back to the bridge.

*****************

Two nights later, the commander was just getting ready to meet Tom for their Ping-Pong game when Kathryn Janeway's voice boomed in his ears.

"Red alert! All hands to battlestations! Repeat...all hands to battlestations! We are under attack. This is *not* a drill."

Chakotay dashed into the hallway and made his way to the turbolift. Tom was already there. "I guess I'll have to take a raincheck on that game," the pilot said lightly, but Chakotay could tell he was on edge.

The ship shook violently as they reached the bridge level; Chakotay fell into Tom, who caught him before he collided with the wall.

"You okay?" the younger man asked, still clutching the commander around the shoulders.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Let's go." Reluctantly, he pulled away from Tom, and the two men raced to their stations.

***************

The battle was not going well. The Hirogen were scoring direct hits to Voyager's shielding. Tom tried every evasive maneuver in the book, and then some, but to no avail.

"Captain!" Harry yelled from the Ops station. "We have a breach on deck eight! The Hirogen are attempting to board us!"

"Security teams to deck eight," said Janeway coldly. "Tuvok, I want you down there with them. Give them one hell of a fight. I am *not* surrendering this ship."

The Vulcan nodded and left the bridge.

"More breaches on decks nine and ten," said Chakotay grimly. Tom turned to look at him. The commander could only shake his head.

"Arm yourselves," said the captain.

Chakotay opened the arm of his command seat and pulled out his phaser, checking to see that it was fully charged.

"Computer, erect a level-ten forcefield around the bridge," ordered Janeway.

"*Unable to comply. Security systems have been compromised.*"

The captain swore. "Get ready, people."

Seconds passed. Tom left his seat, phaser in his hand, and went to Chakotay's side. "Get down," he whispered. "I'll cover you."

"Negative. Go back to your station."

"Cha -- Commander..."

But Tom got no further. The turbolift opened, and a mass of Hirogen came out, weapons blazing. Chakotay fired at the first one he could, but the beam deflected off the alien's armor. The Hirogen turned on the commander and raised his gun.

"No!" cried Tom, firing his own phaser. It had no effect. The Hirogen aimed directly at Chakotay.

Tom screamed again. It was the last thing Chakotay would hear for a month.

************************

He woke up in a Jefferies tube, feeling a sharp pain at the side of his neck. As he raised his hand to touch the area, he noticed something odd about his clothes. He was dressed in a drab green uniform and wearing a heavy helmet on his head.

What the hell...

His head rung with the echoes of an explosion. The Hirogen! They must still be under attack! How long had he been out?

He scrambled through the Jefferies tube. He could hear gunfire coming from the other end. Not phaser fire. Gunfire. Ancient Earth guns. He recognized the sound from old vids he had seen many years ago.

The commander crawled to the opening and looked out upon a battle scene unlike any he had ever seen before. It appeared to be an old Earth village, probably from the twentieth century. Soldiers were firing rifles, scurrying around to find better shooting positions. Among the combatants were Tom Paris (wearing the same uniform Chakotay was), Tuvok, B'Elanna, and Seven of Nine.

Tom saw him. "Chakotay! Down here!"

He scrambled to the young man's side, ducking fire, racing between overturned vehicles and rubble. "Tom, what the hell..."

"We're on the holodeck. And the safeties are off."

"The Hirogen?"

"Some of them are here, too. As Germans."

"Where's the Captain?"

"No idea."

A grenade exploded close by. Chakotay and Tom ducked behind a truck that was lying on its side.

Someone else was there as well. "Commander. Lieutenant." It was Seven of Nine. "I believe that Captain Janeway has accomplished her objective. The neural transmitters are off line."

"Neural transmitters?"

Seven explained what had been going on, including the fact that Harry Kim was not in the simulations but had been forced by the Hirogen to make significant modifications to the holodecks.

"We've been running holodeck simulations with the Hirogen for a *month*?" Chakotay was incredulous.

"Nearly." Seven was tinkering with a weapon. "It appears that they have been studying us, that we are more than just 'prey' to them. Their methods are very inefficient."

"Of course, the Borg would have just assimilated us, no questions asked," said Tom ironically.

Seven gave him a cool stare, then returned to her work. "I am attempting to modify this grenade in order to disrupt the holographic activity in this area. The Germans and their Hirogen allies outnumber us by a factor of two to one. I suggest that you both get back into battle."

Tom looked as if he wanted to say something more; Chakotay pulled him aside. "Later." The commander was feeling like his old self again. "We have to keep holding out until the Captain or Harry can do something with the holoemitters."

Tom grasped his rifle and grinned at him. "Okay, sir."

********************

The fight was long and difficult. Chakotay did not like the feel of the ancient rifle he was using; it lacked the precision and smooth handling of a phaser. Beside him, Tom was holding his own; Chakotay suspected he might have run previous simulations from this century and was more familiar with the technology.

Seven's grenade was finally ready. She stood up to throw it, but a bullet struck her in the shoulder, and she fell.

The Germans converged on their position. "Surrender," said their leader.

Tom, Chakotay, and Tuvok did so. They had no choice. The leader pulled B'Elanna up and shoved her into the arms of another soldier.

The Germans forced them against a wall. "Your deaths will bring glory to the Reich," sneered the leader.

Chakotay could hear Tom's ragged breathing and felt the young man's fear. He was in shock himself. How could this be? After all they had gone through, to be gunned down by ancient weapons in a holodeck.

He closed his eyes.

"*Q'A'PLA!!!*"

The Germans turned.

Klingons?

Klingons to the rescue.

******************

At last it was over. The holograms had been eliminated. The Hirogen had been sent away with the technology needed to create their own holoprograms. Chakotay, back in his Starfleet uniform, walked slowly through the corridors, sobered by the damage he was seeing throughout the ship.

He wandered back to the deserted streets of Saint E'Claire. A lone figure sat against a wall, his hands resting on his knees.

Chakotay approached him. "They're gone, Tom."

The young man, still dressed in his World War II uniform, looked up at him but said nothing. Chakotay sat down next to him. "The Hirogen accepted our terms. They'll leave us alone."

Tom sighed. "Fuckheads. They stole a month out of my life."

The commander had no easy reply to this, so he tried to change the subject. "Why don't you go get a shower and change out of that thing?"

Tom ignored this. "I can't believe I've spent the last four weeks getting shot at, beat up, and stabbed for their amusement. At least I don't remember any of it. Not like the poor bastards who *really* had to fight this war."

Chakotay was quiet now. Tom needed to talk.

"When I came to -- when the transmitter was disengaged -- I saw B'Elanna and Tuvok and Seven right away. But I didn't see you. I -- I panicked. Then Seven told me you were off helping the Captain blow up the console in Sickbay. And then you showed up back here. I -- I can't tell you how relieved I was to see you still alive. And then -- and then, after all that, those fucking Nazis were going to shoot us, Cha..."

Tom swallowed hard. Chakotay could tell tears were close, but the young man fought them back.

"All I could think was -- that if I had to go down, at least you'd be right there with me."

Moved, Chakotay reached an arm around Tom's shoulders and pulled the lieutenant toward him. Tom leaned into the embrace. They sat like that for a long time.

********************

It took six long weeks to repair the ship. Everyone worked double shifts. There was just time enough to eat, sleep, and work until Voyager was back to normal.

At long last, they were on their way again, back to the Alpha Quadrant.

*******************

Three days after their journey had resumed, Chakotay sat in his office, finishing up his reports.

His door chime rang.

"Come in."

It was B'Elanna. "Hi."

"Hi." He was pleased to see her; she had been extremely busy lately and he hadn't gotten much of a chance to find out how she was doing.

She sat down in one of the chairs, looking somewhat ill at ease.

"What can I do for you?"

"Umm...I need to talk. There are some things I need to get off my chest. Tom said I should come and see you."

"Tom?"

"Oh, we're speaking again. It's kind of hard to avoid each other when everyone's all over the ship trying to fix things. I told him I was having some problems, and he said you should hear them. He said you'd helped him out a lot when he was down."

"He did?" Chakotay was trying hard not to blush.

"Yeah, imagine that -- you and Tom getting along." She leaned back in her chair. "He talks about you like you're his big brother."

"We've spent a lot of time together."

"Well, you're doing something right. He really likes you, and he respects you. If I didn't know better..."

Chakotay had to cut this off. "I thought you were here to talk about *your* problems."

B'Elanna sighed. "Yeah. I hope you can help. I've been having some terrible dreams about the Maquis...the Maquis that are dead..."

************************

He talked with B'Elanna for well over an hour. She cried, swore, and pounded her fists into his couch a few times. Then she hugged him afterwards. "Tom was right. You *are* a good listener."

He hugged her in return. "My door is always open to you, B'Elanna."

"Thank you." She stepped back, looking tired but less tense than he had seen her in weeks. "Maybe I'll stop by again tomorrow."

"Feel free." He smiled after her as she left, then went back to his work.

*************************

That night, as he was undressing for bed, he thought hard about what B'Elanna had said regarding Tom. "He likes you. He respects you. He talks about you like you're his big brother."

//I don't want to be his big brother. I want to be his lover.// He wanted Tom in his bed with him, wanted to smell, taste, touch, hear, see him with all his senses.

His cock rose with desire, and Chakotay, who had not had an orgasm for almost three months, jerked himself off with a frenzy before falling asleep.

************************

Two evenings later....

"Chakotay to Paris."

"Paris here."

"I'm standing in Sandrine's, ready to take you on in a friendly game of pool."

There was a slight pause. "Sure. Give me about fifteen minutes."

"I'll be here. Chakotay out." The commander turned back to the bar, where Sandrine stood, ready to take his order. "White wine, please."

"*Oui.*" The bartender poured him a glass. "Thomas is coming?"

"He said he would."

She smiled. "It will be very good to see him back here."

Chakotay frowned. "He hasn't played lately?"

"*Non.* I have missed him. Monsieur Kim and Mademoiselle Torres have played a few nights, but not Thomas."

"He's been assigned to a different duty shift for awhile. And the ship was under attack. We were all out of commission for weeks."

Sandrine shook her head. "A different shift -- that has happened before, and he would still come. *Non,* he has stayed away for something else."

Another crew member came up for a bar order, and Sandrine went to fill it, leaving a puzzled Chakotay to mull over Tom's behavior.

He didn't have long to think about it. The door opened and the pilot came in, dressed in black pants and a white T-shirt. A different part of Chakotay's brain kicked into gear at this point, and the rest of it decided to work on the problem another time.

Tom ordered a beer, picked up his cue stick, and motioned for the commander to join him at the table. They played a quiet but intense game, which Chakotay won.

Tom saluted him with his drink afterwards. "Well done."

The commander could only nod. Tom was looking at him with such intensity that words would not reach his mouth. He felt completely spellbound by the young man.

The door opened, and Harry and B'Elanna came in together. Kim saw Tom first and stopped dead in his tracks. B'Elanna kept moving forward a few more steps until she realized that Harry was no longer beside her. She turned to follow Kim's gaze, saw Tom, and halted as well.

Tom stepped away from the table that he and Chakotay had just been playing on. "We're finished here. Go ahead if you want."

Kim and Torres hesitated at first but then moved over to the rack and selected cue sticks for themselves. Tom walked to Chakotay's side. "Let's go sit down for awhile. But I can't stay much longer. I need to get some sleep. I'm back on Alpha shift tomorrow."

Chakotay nodded, still not feeling up to speech at the moment. He followed Tom over to the bar, and the two men sat on a couple of empty stools.

The pilot swallowed the last of his beer and ordered a soda from a smiling Sandrine. "I didn't get a chance to ask you this before. How has Ensign Culhane been doing in my place on Alpha shift?"

"Culhane? Uh, just fine."

"Glad to hear it. I've been tutoring him in the fine art of flying Voyager. He's a good kid."

Now it began to make sense. "Is that what you've been doing with your free time lately?"

"Partly, yeah." Tom looked at the commander curiously. "Any problem with that?"

"No, not at all. Sandrine...Sandrine had just mentioned to me that you hadn't been here in awhile."

Spirits, it was all Chakotay could do to keep from jumping the man right here in front of all the gods and everyone else. He couldn't believe he was able to put two sentences together.

"I guess not," Tom said thoughtfully. "Hadn't really felt like it until now."

"How would you feel about dinner?" //Shit!!//

"Dinner? I already ate tonight, if you could call it that." Tom looked at him. "Oh...you mean..."

"Yes," said Chakotay, hurrying his words and trying not to think about them. "Would you like to have dinner in my quarters tomorrow night?" //God, I don't know what I'll do if he says no.//

Tom was quiet for several agonizing seconds. "Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah, I'd like that. What time?"

"What time? Uh..." The commander hadn't thought that far ahead. "Well, how about 1800 hours?"

"That works for me. Should I bring anything?"

"No. My treat," Chakotay almost gasped out in relief.

"All right," said Tom, finishing his drink and getting to his feet. "I'll see you then. Good night."

"Good night," Chakotay whispered after him.

***************************

Now what? He had to plan a dinner, that's what. Chakotay strode back to his quarters, racking his brain for ideas on what Tom liked to eat. How could he find out this valuable information without calling attention to himself?

Safely alone at last, he went to his replicator and called up a list of vegetarian recipes from Earth. Let's see. Tom had been born and raised in San Francisco, which was famous for seafood and...ah, yes, Chinese cuisine. Plenty of good choices there. He scrolled through the recipes until the name "Kim" caught his eye. As he read it through, he smiled. Perfect.

Now, to just get through the next nineteen hours...

Chakotay undressed and got into bed. He lowered the lights and stared at the ceiling for a few moments, then turned over and pulled the second pillow on his bed closer to him. He wished it were Tom's warm body instead. The thought made him hard within seconds, but he resisted the temptation to release himself. If things did develop with Tom, the added edge would make a climax all the more sweet.

His erection subsided, his eyes closed, and he fell asleep.

****************************

Chakotay arrived for breakfast even earlier than usual, wanting to leave the mess hall before Tom got there. Of course, he would still have to work with him on the bridge today, but at least there would be the formality of the command situation to hide behind. He was getting increasingly uncomfortable with seeing Tom in public places. This thing needed to be resolved, one way or another.

He finished his meal quickly, but the Captain intercepted him on his way to the recycler. She motioned him to a table, wanting to talk about some personnel issues in Engineering. He answered her questions as best he could and tried not to look at the door too much.

Fortunately, Tom seemed to have picked this morning to sleep late. Chakotay did manage to slip out before the young man appeared.

He spent the first couple of hours of his bridge shift trying to catch up on reports and obsessing on what kind of beverage he should offer Tom when he showed up. Beer seemed too ordinary. Wine was too suggestive. Soda didn't fit his mood. He finally decided to just come out and ask Tom what he wanted, and then replicate it right then and there.

He stared idly at the back of the pilot's head. Tom seemed to be in his usual good humor, and it didn't look like he was fidgeting in his seat at all. Could that mean that he wasn't excited or nervous about this evening, or was he just better about controlling himself?

At lunch, Chakotay deliberately planted himself in a far corner of the mess hall, with a stack of padds in front of him, and pretended to be absorbed in his work.

Tom's laughter brought the commander's gaze up. The pilot was standing with Neelix, who also had a broad grin on his face. They looked to be sharing some joke or another. Neelix clapped Tom on the back and returned to his kitchen duties. Tom picked up his tray and found a seat with Harry and B'Elanna, both of whom looked a little self-conscious. Chakotay watched with interest as the pilot attempted to engage his best friend and his ex-lover in conversation. It was encouraging to see B'Elanna smile at one point, and Harry seemed to become more at ease than he had been in some time.

Tom appeared to scan the room at one point, and Chakotay hastily looked down at his padds, not wanting to meet the young man's eyes. When he brought his gaze back up again, Tom was back to his conversation with Kim and Torres.

The commander found that he had little appetite after all and set aside his tray. He walked out of the mess hall, not looking to either side of him, trying to maintain his focus.

*************************

The last three hours of the shift dragged interminably. Now Chakotay began to wonder what he should wear at dinner. He wanted to be appealing but not overwhelming. Finally he decided on a red button-down shirt and black jeans.

And he would have to clean up his quarters. Shit. On the other hand, doing all that work could take his mind off Tom.

"Commander."

Kathryn Janeway was looking at him curiously. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine," he said, shifting in his seat.

"Glad to hear it. You were a million light-years away."

"I apologize, Captain."

"No problem. We do seem to be going through a rather dull section of space at the moment."

"That's no lie," added Tom from his seat. "Could we conjure up some Kazon ships to beat on or something?"

"Ah, Mr. Paris," said Janeway, standing and stretching. "Looking for a little excitement, are you?"

"I might be," said Tom easily, and then he turned and looked straight at Chakotay. The commander drew a sharp breath. What could be going through Paris's mind right now? He tore his eyes away and stared at the floor. After a few seconds, Tom turned back around.

The ship flew on.

********************

1630 hours. Chakotay staggered into his quarters and began attacking the mess within. His sitting area was littered with padds and stray items of clothing. He threw things into drawers at random, checking under his sofa and even digging into its cushions. He wiped off his tables and swept his carpet. Twenty minutes later, he was covered with sweat and dust.

He went into the bathroom and was met with more disorder. Shedding his uniform, he spent another frantic fifteen minutes cleaning his mirror and his sink. He took a quick shower, recycled the uniform, and put some shorts on.

Now to set the table. He'd decided on a simple centerpiece -- a colorful plant that Neelix had picked up some time back and given to him as a birthday present. He placed it on the table and then brought out some earthenware plates that he had traded for several months ago. He replicated some eating utensils and cloth napkins, then programmed the machine with the recipe he had selected from the database, setting it to produce the food at exactly 1810.

The commander stepped back and looked critically at his work. It looked like it was supposed to -- a welcoming but unassuming dinner setting.

1735. He put his clothes on and took one more look in the mirror. He saw a handsome if somewhat nervous man in his early forties. "You'll be all right," he said to his reflection. If only he could completely believe that.

He went back into his living area and sat down, trying to compose himself. Shit, what if Tom didn't come? What if B'Elanna had had a sudden change of heart and was trying to win Paris back? What if Harry had waylaid him in a corridor and invited him to a game of pool or hoverball?

Hell. Chakotay stood up and began to pace, then sat down again on the couch. //I'm making a damn fool of myself.//

The silent room closed up around him. It was too quiet. "Computer, play..." he began, then hesitated before finally hitting on it, "...Play program 'Paris gamma-six.'"

Tom's jazz music filtered into the room. Chakotay closed his eyes and listened. The rhythm sunk into his brain, and he felt himself relax just a little.

*BREEP*

He jumped, but only slightly. "Come in," he said, getting to his feet.

The door slid open, and Tom took a few tentative steps inside. "Am I in the right place?"

Chakotay couldn't answer. Tom was stunning, dressed in a sea-green shirt and tight black pants. The commander held on to the back of the couch to steady himself.

Tom cocked his head, then smiled as he recognized the music. "Guess I am."

"Hi," said Chakotay at last. "Come on in. Have a seat."

Tom sat down on the couch. "Nice," he commented. "I've decided I want to be a First Officer when I grow up."

Chakotay chuckled. Here he was, trying to be the perfect host, and Tom was setting *him* at ease. Damn, he liked the guy. "Would you like a drink?"

"Sure. What are you having?"

Oh, hell, he *would* have to ask that. "Uh, I was thinking about a nonalcoholic punch." //Living dangerously, are we?//

"Bring it on," said the pilot.

Chakotay replicated the drinks and handed one to Tom, then sat down across from him.

"So what else are we having?"

Two could play this game. "It's a surprise."

"Ah," said Tom. "Cheers." He saluted Chakotay with his drink. The commander returned the gesture, and they both took a long swallow. The pilot looked appreciatively at his glass. "Good stuff."

"Family recipe," said Chakotay.

Tom nodded and looked around the room some more. "Did you do that?" he asked, pointing to a sand painting on the far wall.

"Yes."

The lieutenant got to his feet and went over to study the picture more closely. "Nice work."

"Thanks."

"You do anything else I should know about?"

//I give good head.// "I might."

"*Program is complete.*" Saved by the computer. Chakotay got to his feet. "That's dinner."

"Great." Tom walked over to the table and took a seat. Chakotay set his glass down next to the other setting and retrieved two steaming plates.

Tom's eyes widened. "Vegetarian stir-fry. Wow. I haven't had that in years."

Chakotay set the plate down in front of him, hoping his hand wasn't shaking too obviously. "I hope it tastes as good as it looks."

"Or smells." Tom took a deep breath. "Mmmm. I feel like I'm in Robert Yee's Mandarin Dragon back home."

"A restaurant?" Chakotay smiled and opened his napkin.

"Only the best Chinese place in San Francisco." Tom took a bite. "Oh, yes. Not quite the same as Bob's sauce, but great in its own way. Mmmmm," he said again, stuffing his face once more.

Chakotay tried his own food and found it excellent. He owed Harry Kim a favor. His appetite soon overcame his nerves, and within moments he was eating with vigor, laughing at Tom's anecdotes about Earth, feeling warm inside and out.

God, Tom had a beautiful smile. He tried not to stare at the young man too much. As the minutes went by and food disappeared from the table, he caught Tom looking at him a great deal as well. The jokes stopped, and an ominous silence took over.

//I have to say something. I can't let this go by.//

Tom finished his last bite, put his fork down, and leaned back in his chair. "That was excellent, Chakotay. You do know how to program a replicator."

The commander smiled. "Harry gets the credit. I got the stir-fry idea from him. I guess it was an old Kim family recipe."

Tom was quiet for a long moment. "You can't beat great food, can you?" he said in a low voice. "Things always taste best when you're in love."

Chakotay, who had been reaching for his drink, started at this. Had he heard Tom correctly? "In love?"

The lieutenant was up in an instant, his plate in his hands, his feet taking him the few steps to the recycler. Chakotay couldn't see Tom's face, but the tension in his shoulders was obvious.

"Tom?"

"Oh...oh, *hell.*" Tom set the plate down, ran his fingers through his hair. "I...I'm in love with you, Chakotay. I know, I'm an idiot to be saying this, to be even *thinking* it..."

But Chakotay didn't even hear the rest. Tom loved him. *Tom* loved him. Tom *loved* him. Tom loved *him.* He felt a tremendous wave of joy surge within himself.

Without being conscious of doing it, he had gotten to his feet, followed the pilot, and was now standing behind him. He wanted to touch the young man, but there was something he needed to say first, as difficult as it was.

"Tom."

"I'm sorry, Chakotay, I..."

"*Tom.* I...I love you, too."

He put one hand on each of Tom's shoulders. He felt the muscles move as the younger man raised his head and took a shuddering breath.

"Cha...say it again."

"I love you, Tom." Much easier this time. Tom spun around, and suddenly the commander found himself in the fierce clutches of a beautiful blond pilot. He welcomed Tom with an equally fervent hug, and the two men held each other, both overcome with relief and happiness.

"God," whispered Tom after a moment. "I can't believe it. I mean, I hoped you might feel the same way, but I couldn't tell for sure..."

Chakotay didn't move. He pressed Tom even closer to himself. "I can't believe it either," was all he could say. Tom's hands were rubbing his back, stroking his hair, reaching underneath to caress his skin. The commander's body, untouched in this way for so long, shivered with pleasure.

"Cha...you feel good."

"Thanks...so do you." He drew back a few inches, cupped Tom's face in his hands, and looked into his eyes. Blue radiance stared back at him, and he felt Tom's hands slide around to return the caress.

"Beautiful," the young man whispered, and kissed him tenderly on the mouth. Chakotay returned the kiss, keeping it light for the moment, letting his affection rule his desire. Tom's lips were soft, gentle, and experienced, also sensing that sweetness rather than passion was called for at this time.

Chakotay broke it and buried his face in Tom's neck, still trying to convince himself that this was all real, figuring that if he held Tom long enough, it would all freeze into place. He felt the younger man chuckle. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."

This made Chakotay smile. He released Tom's body, but held on to his hands. "That's good. Because if you tried, I'd have to stop you."

They both laughed, relief having replaced anxiety.

"Let's sit down," said Tom. "I want to talk."

Chakotay nodded and led his friend over to the sofa. They lowered themselves, Chakotay reaching to pull Tom into an embrace, cuddling the young man to his chest as Tom stretched his long legs onto the cushions.

He nuzzled and kissed the blond head. "Go ahead. You start."

"Cha...say, you don't mind if I call you that, do I?"

Another kiss. "I like it." //Cha-Cha.//

"Good. Sometimes it's easier for my lazy mouth. Anyway, I need to know...how long have you been feeling like this?"

The commander thought for a moment. "A long time. Weeks. I didn't say anything, you know, because of B'Elanna. I didn't want to take advantage of the situation."

"But you were tempted."

"You're damn irresistible when you want to be."

"I try." Tom kissed Chakotay's hand lightly.

"Your turn."

"I..." Tom hesitated. "Remember when we ran into the Krenim ship?"

"You felt it, too..."

"I felt weird. Spooked, like I'd seen those guys in a bad dream. The only thing that broke me out of the funk was hearing your voice telling me to change course. It was like you were throwing a lifeline to me. And all of a sudden, you were like a new person. Not this guy who used to think I was a worthless jerk."

"Tom, I didn't think..."

"Oh, be honest, you didn't always feel the way you do about me now." Tom squeezed Chakotay's hands. "No offense, Cha. I'm exaggerating. Anyway, I started feeling like I wanted to get to know you better. Then B'Elanna dumped me, but you stayed. You were there for me when Harry couldn't be."

"I wanted to be there."

"That's what made it so great." The lieutenant sighed. "That night, when you snuck in on my pool game with Willie, that's when things really started to happen. I saw you across the room, looking so totally lost, so completely unlike 'Chakotay, the First Officer,' or 'Chakotay, the Big Dangerous Maquis Warrior.'"

"I was embarrassed."

"I know. It looks good on you. You're beautiful when you're vulnerable."

As if on cue, Chakotay blushed. Luckily, Tom couldn't see him.

"Anyway," the pilot continued, "I decided right then and there that I liked you, and that it wouldn't take too much more to get me to go farther than that."

Chakotay couldn't resist. "*How* much more?"

"A couple weeks of Ping-Pong games. After the first time you won, you had this delicious look on your face. I could have jumped your bones right then and there."

"So what held you back?"

"Some crazy idea that I shouldn't be getting involved again so soon after B'Elanna." Tom stopped and turned out of Chakotay's arms so that he could face the commander. "Cha...I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me. I loved B'Elanna. I hope someday she and I will be good friends again. I don't want you to think that I'm a fly-by-night kind of guy and that I can't be serious in a relationship."

Chakotay started to shake his head, tried to speak, but Tom laid a finger over his lips. "Let me finish. This is the honest truth. I'm crazy about you, Chakotay. I've never felt this way about *anyone,* B'Elanna included. A while ago, you asked me what I'd been doing with my free time. I've been up late nights thinking about you, wondering what you were doing, what you were thinking, whether you were thinking about me, whether there was any chance in hell that you could *like* me, much less *love* me..."

Chakotay leaned in. "Does *this* answer your question?" He kissed Tom firmly and convincingly. Tom sighed and opened his mouth. Chakotay slid his tongue inside and let himself taste the younger man. Tom clutched at his arms, moaning slightly.

Finally the commander pulled back. Tom stared back at him, a blurry smile forming on his flushed face.

"Yep, I guess it does."

Chakotay shook his head fondly. "There's a lot more where that came from."

"I'm interested, *very* interested as a matter of fact, but first you have to confess your own sins."

"How much do you want to know?"

"I don't need your entire sexual history at the moment. Just the parts with me in them."

"You are *still* a smart-ass, you know that?"

"I prefer to think that I have an excellent sense of humor."

Chakotay smiled.

Tom touched his cheek. "Dimples. My new goal in life. To put dimples on the First Officer. You have a beautiful smile. Your whole face changes."

"You're the cause, Tom. *You* make me laugh."

"My plan is working."

"I can't help myself. I feel so -- alive around you. I know it sounds corny, but it's true."

"Go on," said Tom, settling back into his arms.

"Maybe it's because you're younger than I am -- oh, hell, what difference does that make? It's more like -- you look at life differently than I do. You're a physical kind of person. The pool games, the Ping-Pong, even the fact that you're such a great pilot -- those are your gifts. And you...you help wake them up inside of me, too. I'm more one to sit around and contemplate things. You give me a kick in the pants, make me see things in a new way -- and I like it. I like it a *lot*."

"That's why you love me?"

"That's a big part of it, yes." Chakotay stroked Tom's hair. "I also happen to think you are gorgeous. And you're kind. I see things. I see how you've tried to keep a good working relationship with B'Elanna, even after what's happened. I see how good a friend you are to Harry. I see how well you do your job in Sickbay, even if it's not your favorite thing to do. That's maturity, and it's dedication."

Tom was silent a long time. "I'm...I'm glad you think so."

"I've known you for quite a while, Tom. You've come so far from that lost kid that I picked up in Sandrine's so many years ago. I don't choose friends lightly, and I sure as hell don't choose lovers lightly. I want to be with *you.* With Tom Paris."

He kissed the back of Tom's head again.

The lieutenant sighed. "That's all I needed to hear."

Chakotay took Tom's hands in his. He raised Tom's right hand to his lips and kissed each fingertip, then did the same to the left. Tom had beautiful hands, with slim, powerful fingers. These hands danced across a starship's controls every day. These hands had saved the ship and their lives many times over the years. These hands had hauled him out of the pit on the Ocampan world. He kissed them again with gratitude and with love, then folded them gently onto the younger man's chest.

Tom sat up and turned to face Chakotay. The older man kissed his mouth, running his hands over the broad shoulders, tugging his shirt upwards to feel soft skin. Tom raised his arms, and Chakotay pulled the shirt over his head.

They stared at each other.

"I want you," whispered the commander.

"You've got me, big man," said Tom, reaching up to unbutton the red shirt. As Chakotay's chest was revealed, the pilot leaned in and planted a series of kisses on the tan skin. The commander moaned softly as Tom licked his right nipple, then pushed the shirt completely off his shoulders and gave his attention to the left one.

Chakotay's cock jumped to attention at once, but its owner wanted to draw this out a little more. Okay, make that *much* more.

He pulled Tom's face up for another deep kiss, bringing a groan from the younger man. "I want to suck you," he said into his lover's mouth.

"Please," Tom gasped. Chakotay stood, pulled him to his feet, and led him the few steps into the bedroom, where he gave the pilot another searing tonsil massage.

When they came up for air, Tom collapsed against Chakotay's shoulder. "Computer...change musical selection to 'Paris alpha sixteen.'"

The jazz music ended and a lush piano melody filled the room. "Music for lovers," added Tom, still somewhat out of breath. "You were saying, Cha?"

"I want to suck you." Chakotay spun Tom around and pressed his erection against the younger man's ass. His hands reached down to the fasteners on Tom's pants and undid them with ease. It always went faster when he could pretend he was undressing himself. Pushing the clothing down, his right hand grasped Tom's straining cock.

Tom moaned deep in his throat. Chakotay was positive that he could simply jerk the man off right here and now, but that wasn't his goal. He reversed himself again, pushing Tom into a sitting position on the bed and kneeling between his legs. Tom's pants and underwear were still draped around his ankles. The commander pulled them off and tossed them aside.

He looked up at Tom. "Now I'm going to show you just how much I've wanted you."

"I'm ready, Cha," said Tom, grasping him by the shoulders.

Chakotay leaned forward and took Tom's cock into his mouth, running his tongue along its length, using his lips for added suction.

Tom's hands tightened on him. "God, Cha...oh, God...that feels so good..."

Chakotay teased him a little, releasing his cock, playing with his balls, stroking his inner thighs with gentle fingers. Tom seemed to enjoy it all, groaning and whimpering with pleasure.

Finally Chakotay opened his mouth again and took Tom in as deeply as he could. The pilot cried out and began to writhe helplessly. "I'm coming! God! I'm coming, Cha..."

Tom surged forward and shot his seed deep into Chakotay's throat. The commander held on, grasping Tom's thighs for support as the young man bucked under him. He could feel Tom squeeze his shoulders tightly, almost hard enough to bruise. He didn't mind the pain. Tom's pleasure outweighed it.

The lieutenant was soon spent, releasing Chakotay and falling backwards onto the bed. The commander still held on, sucking up the last of Tom's semen before letting go. He felt tremendously pleased with himself.

"You okay?" he asked, climbing onto the bed beside his lover.

"Yeah," was all Tom could say for a moment. Then he added, "You blew me away. Pun intended."

The commander laughed softly and stroked the now-damp blond hair. "Not bad for a test run."

"Yeah, I'd say that was a successful demonstration."

They lay there for a few moments. Finally Tom stirred. "I'd like to return the favor."

"Oh, you will." Chakotay had his own ideas about this.

Tom laughed. "Why do I get the feeling you're running this whole show?"

"Because I am." Chakotay raised himself up and stared into Tom's eyes. Now that all of the uncertainty was gone, he could take the time to really look. Tom looked steadily back at him, unabashed and unashamed.

God, it *wasn't* just lust. It was love, pure and simple.

Tom traced a finger along his tattoo. "Did it hurt to get this?"

"A little."

"It's beautiful, you know. I've always thought so."

This touched Chakotay deep down, and he couldn't find the words to respond. Instead, he kissed the stroking hand, then wrapped his arms around the lieutenant's body. Tom hugged him back, tucking his head under Chakotay's chin. They stayed like that for a few minutes.

The commander's pants were still on, but now he thought it would be a fine time to do something about that. "Act two," he whispered, kissing Tom and slipping out from his embrace. Tom adjusted himself on the bed and watched with darkened eyes as Chakotay stripped and walked over to the bedside table, from which he took out a small tube.

Tom spread his legs, but Chakotay shook his head. "Uh-uh. I want you to fuck me."

"But I just..."

"I know." Chakotay bent over him. "I'll get you ready again. Relax." He kissed his lover on each cheek, then went to work on his neck. Tom sighed with pleasure.

Chakotay laved the younger man with kisses all over his torso, taking each nipple into his mouth and caressing it with his tongue, leaving them swollen and hard. He did such a thorough job that both he and Tom were hard again within moments.

Satisfied, the commander rolled over onto his back. "Your turn."

Tom raised himself up into a sitting position and appraised his partner. "Damn, I've really wanted to know what was under those pants," he teased, giving the commander's cock one delicious stroke with his hand.

"And?"

"I like it," said Tom, planting a single kiss on said member. "But I'll be good and I'll do what you want, Cha." He began to stroke Chakotay's chest with gentle fingers, pinching the nipples, sucking them, bringing soft moans from the first officer.

Tom kissed his way down Chakotay's abdomen, then stopped at one point, staring down at the smooth skin with an enigmatic expression. Then he looked up at his lover and smiled. Chakotay realized that this was the spot where Tom had healed him only weeks before after the incident in the holodeck.

Tom caressed the area, then kissed it softly and reverently. Chakotay felt his eyes begin to fill up. It had been too long since his body had been cared for and worshipped in this way.

Now Tom picked up the lubricant and squeezed a small amount into his hand. "Ready?"

Chakotay nodded and relaxed his lower body as Tom reached between his legs with one moist finger. He concentrated on his ass muscles, willing them to open and accept the penetration. Tom's digit entered him slowly; the younger man's eyes watched him anxiously for any negative reaction. But Chakotay only smiled; any pain he felt was overwhelmed by the joy of having Tom inside him.

The lieutenant bent down and kissed his cock again. The commander pushed his hips toward Tom's hand, forcing the finger a little deeper. Tom spread more lubricant on his hand and pushed another finger into Chakotay, then a third. Chakotay groaned as Tom successfully found his prostate.

Tom pulled his fingers out, then coated his cock with more lubricant. "God, Cha, you are so beautiful. I don't want to hurt you."

"I want you, Tom. *All* of you."

Tom spooned up behind the commander, rolling him gently to his side, and guided his cock to Chakotay's entrance. He slowly pushed himself in.

Chakotay gasped, digging his fingers into the sheets. It had been a long time since he had felt so filled by another. He arched his head back, and Tom bit gently at his shoulder. They began to move together, Chakotay pushing back against Tom's thrusts, digging deep within himself, feeling the joy building up at his very core. Tom reached for his cock, and now he was being stroked both inside and out. It was the secret advantage of being on the bottom.

Oh, spirits, he just couldn't hold back. Chakotay howled as his orgasm hit with an explosion of ecstasy. He came copiously, shooting his seed into Tom's waiting hand. He felt Tom grip him tightly, the young man's breath coming in quick gasps, and then Tom went over the edge as well, low moans punctuating his thrusts as he emptied himself once more into his lover.

Chakotay felt several aftershocks run through his body. He was amazed that he hadn't passed out, but he was also happy. He didn't want to miss a nanosecond of this.

Tom was breathing hard against his neck. "God...God, Cha..."

"I know..."

Tom stopped trying to talk and just held Chakotay to him. Chakotay remained still, spent as usual after a climax. Damn, he was glad he'd resisted temptation last night.

"Ummm..." Tom shifted his position, pulling himself out of Chakotay. The older man's ass tingled, and he knew he'd be a little sore tomorrow, but it had been worth it. God, yes.

"I love you, Tom."

"I love you, too, Cha. God, that was great."

They were quiet again. Chakotay listened as Tom's piano music continued to play. Its soft melodic line was perfect for his mood.

Tom shifted again. "I'll get a towel, okay?"

"Sure." Chakotay turned over as Tom got out of bed. The younger man hesitated, looking at his wet hand, the one that had held Chakotay's cock. He looked at the commander and smiled, then brought his hand to his mouth to taste Chakotay's semen.

Chakotay watched in wonder as Tom licked himself off and smiled again. "Mmmm. Strong. Like you." Then he disappeared around the corner.

Hot damn. The man knew all the right things to say. If Chakotay hadn't been in love with him already, he would be right now. Tom Paris was a closet sweet-talker and had the soul of a true romantic.

Tom came back with a towel and cleaned Chakotay up as best he could, then tossed it aside and got back into bed. Chakotay, stronger now, took the young man into his arms, stroking his hair and skin, feeling him settle into the embrace.

"Computer, lower lights to ten percent."

The room dimmed. Tom sighed, but didn't say anything. Chakotay thought he might be falling asleep. He remembered that Tom had just gotten back on Alpha shift today, so he was probably feeling tired. Come to think of it, he was pretty sleepy himself.

An idea occurred to him then. Sometimes it did pay to be First Officer. He kissed Tom. "I'll be right back."

"Don't be gone long," the lieutenant called after him.

Chakotay padded into the bathroom and relieved himself (sex had *that* effect on him too sometimes), then went back out to the living area and leaned over his computer monitor. He gave a few quick commands, ordered the machine to execute them, and stood back up, grinning with satisfaction.

"Whaddya do?" asked Tom, his words slurry with sleepiness.

"Important First Officer business," said Chakotay, sliding back in next to him. "Nothing to worry about."

"Mmmph," said the pilot. Chakotay took him into his arms again and listened to his soft breathing. He could get very used to this, *very* fast.

"Cha?" very quietly, after a few minutes.

"Yes?"

"Can I...I mean...is it okay if..."

"Stay, Tom," Chakotay said as firmly as he could. He felt himself sinking into a peaceful oblivion. Tom relaxed contentedly into his embrace.

"...Please...stay..."

The End