June 1997
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And tell me now
How do I live without you
I want to know
How do I breathe without you
If you ever go
How do I ever, ever survive
How do I
How do I
Oh, how do I live

Tom whirled around in his seat at the helm when he heard the explosion. B'Elanna and the Captain both lay motionless on the deck. Heart in his throat, Tom leapt across the Bridge to kneel at B'Elanna's  side. He was peripherally aware of Chakotay doing the same with Janeway, but all Tom's attention was focused on B'Elanna. He was dimly aware of Harry in the background summoning the Doctor to the Bridge.

The EMH knelt first by Captain Janeway's unmoving body then moved on to B'Elanna. Tom's head snapped up when the doctor declared them both dead.

"NO! B'Elanna!" Tom felt as if a part of him had been wrenched away. He tenderly caressed her face. She was still warm; she couldn't  be dead. Oh Gods, not now. Not when things were going so well.

"Hull breach on Deck Seven," reported Ensign Kim. "We're losing life support."

"Evacuate the Deck," ordered Chakotay as he stood. He let his  gaze rest on Kathryn's lifeless body for a brief moment before turning to Tom, who still knelt at B'Elanna's side. "Tom."

Tom was aware of someone calling his name but chose to ignore it.

"Tom," repeated Chakotay. When there was still no reply from the grief-stricken younger man, Chakotay raised his voice slightly. "Lieutenant Paris. I need you at the helm. Now."

He saw Tom's eyes close briefly, then after another agonized gaze into B'Elanna's lifeless face, Tom responded woodenly. "Aye, sir."

Standing, Tom took one final look at the bodies that lay at his feet. Bad enough to lose the Captain, someone he admired more deeply than could be put into words, but to lose B'Elanna as well was more than he could accept. His eyes flicked to Chakotay. The other man was watching him, gauging his reactions as if having doubts he was fit for  duty. The ship shuddered as she took another hit and both men looked at the viewscreen to see the swarm of small scoutships moving in for the  kill. The enemy. They were responsible for the devastation that lay at their feet. Tom and Chakotay shared a look of mutual understanding before moving to resume their stations with renewed intensity.

Tom gazed fiercely at the viewscreen for a moment before turning his attention to the helm controls. Over the next few minutes, Tom's flying was inspired. He seemed to be in tune on some other level, anticipating the enemy ships' movements, anticipating the angles Tuvok needed for the best shots, anticipating Chakotay's commands.

In a matter of minutes the fight was over. For now. The enemy ships had all been destroyed or scattered and no longer posed a threat. Chakotay, however, had a sinking feeling there would be more of them.  Harry had spotted a large armada headed in their direction. Needing to get the damage to Voyager repaired before being forced to engage the Losarian reinforcements that followed on the heels of the scoutships, Chakotay ordered a retreat.

Standing behind Tom, he quietly ordered, "Take us to warp six, Lieutenant Paris. Heading 4173.4."

"Aye, sir." Tom's voice was tight with suppressed emotions. He shifted Voyager's course and speed. Within seconds they had cleared what was left of the Losarian scoutships and were moving away at warp six.

Turning to the back of the Bridge, Chakotay asked, "Pursuit?" Both Tuvok and Kim answered in the negative. "Cancel Red Alert," Chakotay ordered.

As they stood down from Red Alert, Tom found he was wound tighter than the ship's warp coils and couldn't seem to relax. He studiously focused on the helm controls, avoiding watching as the Doctor beamed out with the Captain's and B'Elanna's bodies. He heard Chakotay hand the Bridge over to Tuvok, but didn't look up as the Commander crossed the  Bridge behind him on his way to the captain's ready room.

Tom hadn't looked up again until his shift was over. Carefully schooling his expression, he stood, handing over the helm to his relief. He was grateful that Harry had gone to Engineering to help out. At least he didn't have to worry about the younger man wanting to talk about what had happened. Not right away anyway.

Tom stepped into the turbolift, thankful when the door slid shut without anyone attempting to talk to him. When the lift remained inactive, he realized he had failed to instruct it where to take him. After a moment's consideration, Tom instructed, "Deck Five." He kept his mind carefully blank, refusing to acknowledge the thoughts bouncing around there. That would come all too soon.

Chakotay stepped into Engineering intent on getting a report of damages. He had listened to Kathryn's last orders in the privacy of her ready room. Her personal message to him would come later. Right now, the ship came first. Kathryn's ship, now entrusted to his care.

Chakotay wasn't sure what he expected to find in Engineering. They had no chief engineer now. He could no longer look to B'Elanna to pull them out of the fire with some engineering miracle. They didn't even have Carey. He had been lost several months ago on an away mission. To his surprise, Chakotay found Engineering operating smoothly. The crew seemed to be going about repairs in an orderly fashion. Cornering an ensign who was rushing by, Chakotay asked who was in charge. The ensign breathlessly pointed to a nearby panel where a pair of feet were the only thing showing of the person working there. Having no idea who was on the other end of the feet, Chakotay crouched down. "Excuse me?"

The feet moved as the body slid out of the small opening and Ensign Harry Kim's face emerged. Chakotay smiled grimly. "I hear you're in charge, Harry."

"Uh, yes, sir," admitted Kim. "Things were kind of chaotic when I came down here to help out so . . ." He shrugged.

As they both stood, Chakotay asked, "Status?"

"We still don't have power on Deck Seven. Starboard shield generators are off line and warp drive is down while we make repairs," reported Harry. He went on to list the damages and needed repairs. It wasn't nearly as bad as Chakotay had feared. Nodding at the end of Harry's report, Chakotay gazed thoughtfully at the ensign for a long moment before saying, "You seem to have things under control here, Ensign. I'm granting you a field commission of lieutenant junior grade effective immediately. Until further notice, you're reassigned to Engineering as Acting Chief Engineer."

Harry's eyes widened but all he said was, "Yes, sir." His sober eyes met Chakotay's, both remembering the reason they were in need of a chief engineer.

As Chakotay made his way out of Engineering, he decided it was time he paid a visit to Sickbay.

The Doctor looked up when the door to Sickbay slid open. Tom Paris hesitated inside the doorway as he gazed around. "Can I help you, Lieutenant?" asked the Doctor.

Tom's gaze came to rest on the two biobeds that held the bodies of Kathryn Janeway and B'Elanna Torres in stasis. The Doctor surprised him when he asked softly, "Would you like to be alone, Lieutenant?"

Tom nodded mutely as he walked toward the biobeds. He didn't even hear the Doctor deactivate himself. Stopping at the first bed, Tom pulled the sheet back to reveal Kathryn Janeway's face. Staring at her, he reached out to caress her face in a manner he would never have dared when she lived. "I hope you know how much your faith in me meant," he told her. "You turned my life around for me the day you gave me the helm of Voyager. I can't ever thank you enough for that." He stood there for several moments, memorizing her features, then gently, reverently, he pulled the sheet back up over her face.

He turned to the other biobed. Steeling himself, he pulled the sheet back. One side of her face had caught the blast when the panel had exploded, but she was still beautiful. She would always be beautiful to him.

"B'Elanna," he whispered brokenly. Swallowing his tears, he ran his fingers lightly over her forehead. The ridged forehead she had inherited from her mother and had hated for so long. He remembered the first time he had touched his lips to those ridges and her surprise that he found them attractive. That acknowledgment from him and her acceptance that he found her beautiful had marked a turning point in their relationship. She had stopped questioning why he cared for her and had accepted his love for what it was.

Recalling the first time B'Elanna had told him she loved him, Tom remembered how her declaration had caught him off guard. It had been so long since anyone had uttered those words to him that he had turned away from her, overcome with emotion. B'Elanna had misunderstood his turning away and the next thing he knew she had that hostile tone back in her voice and had told him she wouldn't be bothering him any longer.

He turned back to grab her by the shoulders to prevent her from leaving. "Don't leave! I love you, B'Elanna."

Full of disbelief at first, she gazed into his eyes and saw the depth of his feelings there. "You turned away," she said in confusion. "I thought . . ." She trailed off, not understanding his actions.

"I'm sorry," he apologized, lowering his eyes as he took her hand in his. "It's just -- it's been a long time since anyone told me they loved me. I--"

A finger to his lips shushed him. "I love you, Tom Paris." Her voice was so filled with the conviction of her love that he couldn't doubt it. Tom pulled her into his arms, kissing her.

A hand on Tom's shoulder abruptly brought him back to the present. His startled tear-filled eyes snapped up as he twisted around to find Chakotay standing behind him.

"I didn't mean to disturb you," said Chakotay, his expression regretful.

Shrugging, Tom turned back to B'Elanna's still form. "Just paying my last respects," he mumbled, trying to discreetly swipe at the tears that were threatening to overflow to his cheeks.

"I can come back later," offered Chakotay.

"No. That's all right. I'm done here." Tom leaned down, planted a gentle kiss on B'Elanna's lips, ran his hand over her face in a last caress, then straightened, pulling the sheet up over her. At that same moment, something inside him slammed shut. Tom would later swear he had actually heard the clank of the deadbolt locking into place. Face calm, he turned to Chakotay. "You'd probably like some time alone with them." He moved to walk past the other man.

"Tom." Chakotay watched him stop and turn to look back, none of the usual life in those eyes now. In Kathryn Janeway's ready room, Chakotay had come to a few decisions. They were a small ship with a rapidly shrinking crew. He'd had to make some hard decisions quickly. "I'll be announcing this at the staff meeting tomorrow morning. I intend to move several people up in rank. Captain Janeway had most of them scheduled at everyone's next review anyway. Effective immediately you'll assume the rank of full lieutenant. I've also got some additional duties in mind for you, but I need to discuss them with Tuvok first. I will be moving you into a position where you'll be assuming command of the Bridge more often and in my and Tuvok's absences, the ship will be yours."

Tom merely stared at him, past the point where anything could startle him.

Continuing, Chakotay said, "I've given Harry a field promotion to lieutenant junior grade. He'll be filling in as chief engineer for the time being."

Tom stared at the deck. "He'll make you a good chief engineer . . . Captain." Their stricken eyes met, both briefly acknowledging their losses before the shutters came down again.

Chakotay held his hand out toward Tom, offering him two disks. "One's from Captain Janeway. The other's from B'Elanna."

Tom gripped them in his hand, his fingers closing over them protectively. "Thanks."

"I'm sorry." Chakotay's voice was solemn.

Tom's eyes lifted to meet his. "Me too," he said. "For both of us." He walked past Chakotay, quickly exiting Sickbay.

Chakotay turned back to the biobed Tom had been standing beside. B'Elanna first, he decided, then he would deal with saying good-bye to Kathryn. Sighing heavily, Chakotay pulled the sheet back.

Tom decided he wasn't up for the mess hall tonight. He didn't have much of an appetite anyway. He headed for his quarters, grateful when he didn't run into anyone on the way.

Stepping inside his quarters, he was surprised to see the light on. It didn't take him long to figure out why. "Harry, what are you doing here?" Tom moved over to the couch to sink wearily onto it. He leaned back, letting his eyes close.

"Checking up on a friend," Harry told him from the other end of the couch. "You okay?"

"Been better, but I'll survive." Tom knew his voice sounded lifeless but he just didn't have the energy at the moment for more.

Harry looked at his friend worriedly. Tom and B'Elanna had been heavily involved for several months now. They had spent a long time circling cautiously around each other until . . . Harry remembered the morning Tom had shown up for breakfast with a big grin on his face. Harry had suspected right away it had something to do with B'Elanna.

"Morning," greeted Harry. "Where's B'Elanna?"

"She got called to Engineering."

"You're in a chipper mood," observed Harry with a smile. "Dare I ask why?"

Tom settled into a chair opposite Harry and gazed dreamily past him to the stars that were speeding by. "Love, Harry. Ain't love grand?"

"Old Chinese proverb--"

Laughing, Tom returned his attention to Harry. "It is not!"

Grinning, Harry said, "So, I assume we're talking about B'Elanna. Something happen I should know about?"

Tom looked thoughtful for a moment before turning his attention to his breakfast. "No."

"Okay," Harry agreed. "Let me rephrase that. Did something happen you'd like to tell me about?"

"Well," Tom hedged.

"Come on, Tom! Whatever it is, it's written all over your face. You're lit up brighter than the warp core."

"Am I?" A light blush graced Tom's cheeks as his smile turned mischievous. "B'Elanna finally admitted she loved me. And I, um, I told her I loved her and then one thing led to another . . ."

Harry held up a hand. "I get the picture, thank you." They were both silent for a moment, each lost in his own thoughts. Finally, Harry spoke, his voice sincere. "I'm happy for you, Tom. Both of you. And it's about time!"

Tom laughed self-consciously. "I know. I've been a pain, bugging you at all hours of the night because I needed to talk about B'Elanna."

Harry waved a hand dismissively. "It's okay. I'm glad it's had a happy ending. It does have a happy ending, doesn't it?"

"Oh, I think you could say that," agreed Tom.

Harry snapped back to the present, his gaze on Tom, who sat on the couch staring sightlessly across the room. Not such a happy ending after all, thought Harry sadly. He missed B'Elanna terribly already. He couldn't imagine what it must be like for Tom. "Is there anything I can do for you, Tom?" he asked quietly.

"I don't mean to sound rude, Harry, but," he paused, turned his head to look at his friend, "I'd really like to be alone."

Harry nodded  and climbed to his feet. "You'll call me if you need anything? Even if it's just to talk?"

Tom nodded.

Harry quietly exited his friend's quarters, leaving Tom alone with his memories.

Chakotay looked around the briefing room table. Reports on ship's status had been made. Voyager was in fairly good condition. The damage could have been worse. Much worse. Morale was down but these people had been through a lot and were still plugging along, determination in all their features.

Leaning forward, Chakotay dropped four pips on the table in front of him. Everyone stared at them. Captain's pips. Captain Janeway's pips. "We're not in a situation to do this the proper way," said Chakotay flatly. "Given our situation of being out here in the Delta Quadrant and preparing for another attack by the Losarians, it's vital we get things in order as soon as possible. Something tells me, and Tuvok agrees with my assessment, that the Losarians will be back soon. Given our . . . losses, there will be some changes effective immediately.

"As first officer, I'll move into the captain's seat. Lieutenant Tuvok is hereby promoted to lieutenant commander but will remain at Tactical until we're satisfied that we have a replacement trained to take over the position full time. Since Tuvok will be handling both first officer duties and Tactical for a time, we'd like to push a few of the personnel related first officer duties your way, Tom. That'll leave Tuvok free to handle the ship operations portion of his first officer duties. You'll also be moving up in rank to full lieutenant, continuing to serve as chief flight officer as well as assuming some first officer duties in a de facto manner."

Gazing around the table to see if anybody had any qualms about things so far and seeing none, Chakotay continued. "In the event that something should happen to me, Commander Tuvok will assume command of Voyager. Lieutenant Paris will be next in the chain of command.

"Ensign Kim is promoted to lieutenant junior grade and will serve as Acting Chief Engineer. Ensign Wildman will take over Operations and move up in rank to lieutenant junior grade." All eyes moved to Samantha Wildman as the reason for her being at the staff meeting now became clear.

Chakotay turned his attention to the Doctor. "Doctor, I'd like to officially welcome you to the ranks of Starfleet. From this date on you'll retain the rank of lieutenant junior grade."

The Doctor's mouth opened, shut, opened, then finally snapped shut with not a word spoken. Chakotay wished Kathryn could have been here to witness the Doctor's uncommon speech problem. He shared an amused glance with Kes, who was sitting at the Doctor's side.

"Kes, if you're perfectly happy where you are, I'd like you to keep up in your studies with the doctor. I think it's important he have medical backup."

"Of course, Captain," agreed Kes.

At her words, heads swiveled around the table. The title "captain" even generated a reaction from Tom Paris who up to that point had sat through the meeting expressionless. Under the table, Chakotay's fist clenched as guilt stabbed at him. Guilt at sliding into the captain's position so easily, even if the smooth transition was what Kathryn had hoped for. Quickly moving on, Chakotay addressed Neelix next.

"Neelix, I'm relying on you to keep me informed about crew morale and any areas where you see a possibility for improvement." Chakotay's eyes flicked briefly to Tuvok and a slight smile graced the Captain's mouth. "I'd also like you to begin training with Tuvok in security procedures. I'll be assigning you the rank of ensign. Once your training is complete, we'll reevaluate your rank at that time."

Standing, Chakotay said, "All promotions and duties assigned are effective immediately and shall remain in force for the foreseeable future until we get this situation with the Losarians under control. Once things have calmed down a bit, we'll reevaluate our situation and decide where we stand."

Chakotay gazed around the table. "Any questions?" Taking their silence for acquiescence, Chakotay continued, "Hopefully, down the road, I can relieve the burden of double duties from most of you as we get other crew trained. In the meantime, you're all doing a commendable job. I'm sure you'll make Captain Janeway proud. Dismissed."

Chakotay watched them file out of the room. Tom was last to leave. He paused in the doorway, turning back to gaze at his commanding officer. "Captain . . ." Tom hesitated, clearly wanting to say more but unsure how to say it. Their gazes met once more and for an instant the two men were bound together by the shared pain of those who have loved and lost.

"See you on the Bridge, Lieutenant," said Chakotay, almost too softly to be heard. He watched the door slide shut behind Paris before turning to gaze out at the stars. He didn't have time to grieve now. The ship came first. The ship had always come first, making it impossible for he and Kathryn to consummate a relationship. At least Tom and B'Elanna . . . Chakotay shook his head. No, that wasn't fair, and it didn't make Tom's loss any easier than his own.

Tom assumed his station, feeling as if he were on autopilot. A promotion to full lieutenant and de facto first officer. He should be on cloud nine but all he could think about was how much he wished B'Elanna were here to share in this with him.

He thought back to last night. After Harry had left his quarters, he had listened to Captain Janeway's last message. She had expressed her pride in him and her hope that he shared that pride in himself. After listening to her message, he had been unable to proceed on to B'Elanna's. It still lay on his desk in his quarters where he had abandoned it.

Tom turned his attention to the helm controls, trying to push the painful thoughts away. Here and now wasn't the place for that and he wasn't yet ready to face up to what had slipped from his life yesterday.

The end of shift came all too soon for Tom. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with himself if he didn't have something to distract him from the turmoil that raged inside him. As his relief took over at helm, Tuvok advised Tom that he had transferred files to Tom's quarters regarding his new duties as well as several personnel files he needed to familiarize himself with. Tom nodded in understanding, grateful he would have some work after all to occupy his thoughts. He needed to keep busy. He needed . . . he needed B'Elanna. Gods, he missed her. From the moment they had come together, she had been the one constant joy in his life.

Tom hesitated in front of the door to his quarters, his eyes straying to a door further down the corridor. B'Elanna's door. It beckoned to him. Decision made, Tom quickly entered his quarters, snatched up the disk with B'Elanna's personal message on it, and exited his quarters. Once he reached the door to B'Elanna's quarters, he hesitated. Laying a hand on the closed door, he thought about how different it would be from now on. This time he would find no B'Elanna waiting on the other side for him. That would never happen again. He keyed in the code and stepped inside.

Gazing about B'Elanna's quarters, he saw bits of their life strewn here and there. His datapadd lay abandoned on the couch. Some engineering schematics she had been pouring over were still spread across the desk. Venturing farther into the room, he saw his towel from his shower yesterday morning still lay on the floor where he had left it. That morning towel had been the cause of a constant battle of wills between them. Tom always tossed his damp shower towels wherever convenient and frequently didn't pick them up right away. B'Elanna had told him in no uncertain terms that she was not his housekeeper and he'd better learn to pick up his own towels. It had become a running joke between them to see how much time would pass before one of them, almost always him, picked the towel up and tossed it in the refresher. He had been running late yesterday morning. They both had. They had gotten . . . involved in certain activities before ever climbing out of bed and had nearly been late reporting for duty.

Tom's eyes moved to the bed. Still unmade, the bedclothes lay in disarray from their lovemaking. Tom's eyes closed and he pressed his lips together to prevent the cry from escaping. He felt tears threatening to come and refused to yield to them as he beat a hasty retreat from the bedroom area.

Deciding the couch was the safest place for the moment, Tom settled there. He inserted B'Elanna's disk in his padd and watched as her image appeared on the tiny screen.

B'Elanna smiled at him. Not a sad smile, but the full radiant one that he had claimed as his favorite. Tom stared, transfixed, almost missing her first words.

"Hi Tom. I guess I must be dead, huh?"

He winced. Leave it to her to get right to the point. B'Elanna's expression sobered and, almost as if reading his thoughts, she said, "I'm sorry. I don't imagine there's much I can do at this point to make you feel better. I'm going to make this brief and to the point, Tom. Please don't grieve for me long. I know you will grieve, but don't let it consume you. I know you love me." She gave him a gentle smile. Her hand reached out toward him. Tom reached back, touching the screen. "You're a special man, Tom Paris. Don't ever let anyone tell you differently. I love you." The image froze at the end of the message.

Tom swore softly.

That's it?! he thought. That's all she had to say? She couldn't just leave it at that. What else was he expecting her to say though? In typical B'Elanna Torres fashion, she had gotten right to the point. He stared at her image, completely unaware of the tears tracking down his face.

"I love you, B'Elanna," he whispered as her image winked out of sight. He closed his eyes as the tears continued track down his face. Tom didn't make a sound as he sat there reliving his times with B'Elanna and mourning what would never be.

Chakotay looked out over the assembled crowd. This wasn't going to be easy. He was suddenly unsure he could do this without breaking down. Strangely enough, it was Tuvok who first noticed his hesitation and came to his aid.

Calling the service to order, Tuvok joined Chakotay at the front of the room, lending his support to his new captain. Taking a deep breath, Chakotay began. "We're here today to honor Lieutennt B'Elanna Torres and Captain Kathryn Janeway. As you know, B'Elanna and I were acquainted from our aquis days. From the start, she astounded me with the equipment she could paste together into something workable. Captain Janeway took great pride in B'Elanna's achievements as chief engineer, as did B'Elanna. On a personal level, I'll miss her. She was a good friend." Chakotay's gaze roamed over the gathered crowd, coming to rest finally on Tom Paris. "Now, I'd like to turn the floor over to any who wish to come forward and speak in honor of B'Elanna."

Tom knew Chakotay was looking at him expectantly. He couldn't do it. He couldn't get up and memorialize her.

Next to him, Harry felt Tom let out a shaky breath. Concerned, he glanced at his friend, not liking his sudden pallor. He shared a concerned look with Captain Chakotay before standing and turning to face the rest of the room. Trying to keep his voice light, Harry began speaking.

"The first time I saw B'Elanna we were both in the Ocampans' care. She was Maquis. I was Starfleet. It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but we ended up friends nevertheless and those nicknames stuck with us throughout our friendship. I think B'Elanna found true happiness for the first time in her life aboard Voyager. She found acceptance here. She rediscovered her love of engineering. And she found love."

Tom's eyes finally lifted to meet his. Harry swallowed at the despair he saw there. When he next spoke, his voice wobbled alarmingly but he continued on determinedly. "I'll miss B'Elanna. I know I can never replace her as chief engineer, but I had a good teacher, even if she was a bit 'hostile' at times." Harry was relieved to see Tom's lips quirk slightly at that. He resumed his seat next to his friend.

Several others spoke of fond memories they had of B'Elanna and several of her Engineering staff shared humorous stories about her. When it seemed no one else wished to come forward, Chakotay looked inquiringly at Tom, but the other man shook his head, indicating he didn't wish to speak. Moving onward, Chakotay, having decided in this instance that he wanted to have the last word, asked for others to come forward to speak of Captain Janeway.

Kes, Tuvok, and Neelix all came forward to speak as did several others. Finally, it was up to Chakotay to put the ending eulogy on the memorial.

"Captain Janeway was the heart and soul of this ship. She brought us together in a way that I'm not sure many other Starfleet captains would have had the guts to do. In her last orders to me she asked that I tell you how very proud she was of this crew. She said she had never served with a finer crew. I never served with a better captain. I know you'll all do her proud." Chakotay nodded to Tuvok, who called Honors. The crew stood to pay their last respects to their fallen comrades.

Days merged into weeks. The crew became acclimated to calling Chakotay "Captain" and began to accept that Janeway and Torres were gone. Life moved on for all except the ship's new captain and her pilot. Chakotay buried himself in captain's duties and mapping out strategies to use against the Losarians who had turned into a constant threat to Voyager with their continued attacks on the starship.

Tom likewise buried himself in work. He attacked his de facto first officer duties with a gusto that surprised many. Even more surprising was that he was very good at it, earning renewed respect from many of Voyager's crewmembers. When he needed to fill the quiet hours, he studied what they knew of the Losarians, looking for ways to outfly them, outgun them, anything.

Tom's only concession to missing B'Elanna was that most nights he seemed to end up in her quarters rather than his own. Harry had declined Chakotay's offer to move him into B'Elanna's larger quarters, so they stayed vacant and remained the same as before she died. The nightly haunts in her quarters were a form of self punishment for Tom. He wasn't sure what he was punishing himself for except that he lived and she didn't.
Harry's concern for Tom's well being grew but he was buried neck deep in engineering problems and had very little time in which to pursue the subject with his friend. When he did manage to find time, Tom refused to speak about it or gently changed the subject, making it clear he had no wish to discuss B'Elanna with Harry.
Chakotay also couldn't help but notice the difference in Tom. The pilot had hardly cracked a smile or made any of his usual wisecracks since B'Elanna died. Voyager's new captain couldn't fault Tom's attention to duty but he knew Tom was using it as a shield. Chakotay frequently found himself doing the same thing. He knew he needed to find time to talk with his spirit guide, but lately it seemed there was too much unrest in his soul for meditation. For the first time in his life he found his beliefs shaken and could no longer find comfort there.
It was finally Kes who stepped forward and forced Chakotay to take some action.
"Have a seat, Kes," invited Chakotay. He perched on the corner of his desk. His desk. He still thought of it as her desk. Her ready room. Looking at the Ocampan, he asked, "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to talk to you about a crewmember, Captain. Two crewmembers actually."
Chakotay's brows drew together. "Is there a medical problem?"
Kes shook her head. "No. Not exactly, but I am concerned about their well being."
"Go on."
"Both have exhibited signs of depression. They've both lost people recently they were extremely close to and it's my opinion that they're using their work to escape facing the fact that their friends are gone. I'm worried for their health if this situation persists much longer."
"I see." Chakotay rose and walked around his desk to look out the viewport. With his back still to Kes, he said, "We wouldn't be talking about myself and Lieutenant Paris, would we?"
"Yes, sir. Captain, I'm sure you've noticed that Tom's personality has changed. It's expected that he wouldn't bounce right back from such a loss but time has passed and I don't see him even attempting to move on and get past this. And I've sensed you're struggling with the same difficulties. Both of you have buried yourselves in ship's business to escape certain realities. It's not the solution, Captain."
"And your prescription?" Chakotay tried to keep his tone light as he turned back to look at Kes.
"Lighten your duties a bit. I know it's difficult with the constant threat of the Losarians hanging over us, but I think you both need some time away from duty. Time to find yourselves again. The Doctor agrees with me."
"Have you had this talk with Lieutenant Paris?"
"He's been avoiding me," Kes admitted. "He knows I know that something's wrong. I don't think he wants to have to face it yet. I was hoping you could talk to him."
"Me?" Chakotay's surprise was plain to see. "Tom and I have never exactly been close. Don't you think Harry might be a better person to tackle this?"
"You're the only one Tom will believe when you tell him you understand what he's going through," said Kes softly. "He knows you loved the Captain and that you feel her loss deeply. It's a bond that should draw you closer together not farther apart."
Chakotay sat heavily in his chair. His expression full of irony, he asked, "Was I that obvious in my feelings for Kathryn?"
"Not at all." Kes smiled. "Just to those of us who are a little more observant."
"I see." Chakotay smiled slightly. Gazing at Kes, he said, "I'll see what I can do about myself and Tom. Meanwhile, I trust you'll keep an eye on us to make sure we aren't working too hard?"
Still smiling, Kes stood. "Of course, Captain. By the way, I understand the crew has resurrected Sandrine's. I know for a fact that Tom hasn't stopped in yet. Maybe a game of pool?"
Giving in, Chakotay called out, "Computer, location of Lieutenant Paris."
"Lieutenant Paris is in his quarters."
Climbing to his feet, he followed Kes out of the ready room. She headed back to Sickbay and Chakotay headed for Deck Four to have a long overdue talk with Lieutenant Paris.
Tom, not looking up from the reports he was working on, absently called "Come" when his door chime sounded. He continued working on the reports as his door slid open and then closed. A loud throat clearing finally gained his attention. Tom looked up to see Chakotay standing just inside the doorway.
"Captain," he greeted in some surprise. Chakotay had never visited his quarters before. Standing, Tom asked, "What can I do for you?"
"Mind if I have a seat?" asked Chakotay.
Tom pulled up a chair for him and they both sat. Chakotay was eyeing him as if looking for something in particular, making Tom want to squirm uncomfortably in his seat. "Is there a problem, Captain?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes," replied Chakotay. "Kes came to see me today. She's concerned about you."
Tom sighed as he leaned back in his chair. "Captain, I've already had this discussion with Kes and assured her I'm fine. She didn't need to bring it to you."
"Apparently she felt she did." Chakotay smiled ruefully. "She also used the opportunity to lecture me about burying myself in my work to avoid facing up to certain things. She seems to think you're doing the same thing."
Tom frowned. "Are you saying you're unhappy with my job performance?"
Chakotay leaned forward. "I know what you're doing, Lieutenant. Stop trying to deflect me from the real reason I'm here. It's time for you to get your act together. Time to let B'Elanna go, Tom."
Tom stared at him for a long moment, then he felt a rising anger deep from within. Just who the hell did he think he was? Standing, he bit out, "Unless you're unhappy with my job performance, Captain, what I do in my personal time is none of your business."
Not liking Paris' tone of voice, Chakotay stood as well. Leaning in close he said softly, "It's because of your impeccable job performance that I'm here, Lieutenant. Kes believes you're using work as a shield to prevent you from having to face reality. I have to say that I agree with her."
"And who are you to speak?" snapped Tom. "Coming here, telling me to get on with my life, not to bury myself in my work. Have you taken a good look at your life lately? You're hardly one to speak. When you can take your own advice, come back and talk to me then. Until that time, sir, stay out of my personal life."
The two men were nose to nose now. Tom could feel Chakotay's breath on his face as the other man heaved a frustrated sigh. "It's really beyond me what B'Elanna ever saw in you, Paris. I came here because I thought we had something in common and I could be of help. Evidently I was wrong."
Chakotay turned and strode for the door.
Tom stared at the other man's rigid back. Suddenly all the anger fled out of him as he realized how unfair his blowup at Chakotay had been. His voice quiet, he said, "Chakotay. Don't go."
Chakotay stopped just short of the door, but he didn't turn round.
"Look," began Tom, "I know you cared for the Captain and that it went deeper than simple friendship. I'm sorry you lost her. Sorry we both lost out. But just because you're ready to face that, doesn't mean I am."
Chakotay slowly turned back to look at the other man. Tom stood slightly turned away, gazing out at the stars, but Chakotay had a feeling it wasn't the stars he was seeing. "That's not the only reason I'm here, Tom," he said softly. "I'm fulfilling a last request. Kes coming to me today reminded me of it. In her last message to me, B'Elanna told me she was fearful you would withdraw like this. She asked me to make sure it didn't happen."
"Well, I'm fine. Consider your promise fulfilled."

"I don't think so." Chakotay moved back into the room again, coming to stand near Tom. "You're not the same person you were when B'Elanna was alive. Except for showing up for duty, you've become a virtual recluse. I don't think, no, I know that's not what B'Elanna would have wanted for you."

Tom turned away in agitation. A part of him knew what Chakotay was saying was true.
"Tom, it's time to let go. Time to let the healing begin."
Tom whirled around, his eyes fierce, voice low. "Don't you understand? It's all I've got left of her!"
"What? This anger? This aloofness? Do you honestly think B'Elanna would like the man you've become?" Trying to soften his words, Chakotay said, "The man you've become since her death is not the man B'Elanna fell in love with. Where's the man who made her laugh? The man who made her feel loved? The man who made her feel beautiful? I don't see him here anywhere, Tom. How can you treat B'Elanna's memory in this way? Do you think it would make her happy to see you shutting yourself away from everyone? Do you?"
Tom turned away, feeling the tears coming and damning them. "Don't you understand?" he whispered. "I can't. I can't be that person anymore." He was startled when Chakotay's voice came from right behind him.
"Why not?"
"Because . . ." He didn't know how to explain it to the other man.
"Because you'd have to feel again? And feeling again would mean you'd have to grieve for B'Elanna. You'd have to admit she's gone. Forever." Chakotay's voice was harsh with pain. "Don't you think I know how you feel? If anyone can understand what you're going through, Tom, it's me."
Tom's voice shook with emotion. "Don't. Please don't make me do this."
"It's all right, Tom," replied Chakotay softly, his heart going out to the other man. So much pain. So much grief to be dealt with. Gods, how he missed Kathryn. He placed a hand on Tom's shoulder, feeling Tom shudder as he struggled not to let his grief out. "It's all right to feel again, Tom."
Tom shook off the Captain's hand and, whirling around, eyes lit up with barely held in anger, he moved to stride past Chakotay but the Captain grabbed him by the shoulders. Tom, unprepared for that, stumbled, falling against Chakotay. Both their heads turned toward each other in surprise at the same time, their lips accidentally brushing against each other's. Before either was quite aware of what was happening it had turned into a kiss.
Chakotay retained his grip on Tom's shoulders as his lips moved hungrily over the other man's. Tom's reply was equally full of hunger. A flame ignited unexpectedly between them. Before it could burst into more than a spark, Tom pulled away. Chakotay dropped his hands from Tom's shoulders. Eyes wide, they stared at one another. Both were breathing heavily.
Tom's tongue flicked out to slid over his lips. Color rose in his face when hesaw the way Chakotay's heated gaze was focused on him. Self-conscious, Tom walked past the other man to return to his desk. His voice slightly breathless as he reseated himself, he said, "You wanted these reports tomorrow morning. I'd better get on them."
"Tomorrow afternoon will be soon enough," Chakotay told him, amazed at how normal his voice sounded. "Kes was right about both of us needing a break. How about a game of pool in Sandrine's tonight?"
There was a moment of silence before Tom, his voice soft, asked, "Is that an order, Captain?"
"If I have to make it one to get you there then yes," Chakotay told him firmly. "I meant what I said before, Tom. It's time to let go." That said, Chakotay moved past where Tom sat. Pausing at the door, he said, "I'll see you in one hour at Sandrine's."
As soon as the door closed behind Chakotay, Tom gave up all pretense of pretending he was working on the reports. He sat back, staring at the door Chakotay had just exited through. What the hell had that been about? he wondered. The kiss . . . he'd never thought of Chakotay in that context, had he? Sure, he was an attractive man, but there had always been this underlying antagonism between them. Never any sort of attraction. Had there? It was B'Elanna, he decided. He missed her. He missed being close to someone. He missed feeling alive. Chakotay had been near for a moment and . . .
And what?
Confused, Tom shoved the incident to the back of his mind, certain there wouldn't be a repeat of it and turned his attention back to the reports.
Chakotay, about ready to exit Sandrine's and head for Paris' quarters to reinforce his orders that the man join him for some medically advised relaxation, saw Tom enter Sandrine's. Tom stood just inside the entrance for a moment as if savoring the place. It clearly awakened certain memories in him.
His gaze swept the room, coming to rest on Chakotay. Chakotay in turn held up a pool cue, indicating he was waiting. Nodding, Tom went to the bar to get a drink before joining the Captain.
Watching Tom approach, Chakotay's gaze swept over him, taking in the way Tom moved across the room with long graceful strides and was startled by the strong urge he had to kiss him again. The desire to feel those lips under his again was overwhelming. Chakotay hadn't meant for the kiss to happen. It had been an accident, but once their lips had touched other instincts seemed to have taken over.
He'd been abstinent for way too long, Chakotay decided, if he was finding Tom Paris attractive and having these sorts of thoughts about him. Surmising it was just his loneliness evoking this reaction, he buried it and turned to the pool table, racking the balls in preparation for the coming game. From behind him, Tom spoke.
"All ready for a game, I see. Shall we get down to it?"
Chakotay turned to see Tom had moved over to the wall to choose a cue stick from the selection there. "This isn't something you're going to rush through and then retreat back to your quarters," Chakotay warned him. "It's supposed to be relaxing. Something to get you away from work."
Turning back to face the Captain, Tom said, "You ordered me here, remember?"
"And we're both going to relax and enjoy ourselves," Chakotay ordered.
Tom was about to offer a sharp retort when he followed Chakotay's gaze to where the EMH and Kes sat together at a table watching them. "So we're both in trouble, huh?" Tom's mouth quirked slightly.
Chakotay smiled, glad to hear a lightness to Tom's tone that had been missing for way too long. "It would seem so. You want to break?"
Nodding, Tom leaned over the table and took the first shot of the game.
A growing crowd gathered round the pool table to watch what had escalated into a tournament. Each of them up one game, Tom and Chakotay had decided to make the third game the tiebreaker.
Stepping back from the table in an attempt to locate his next shot, Tom accidentally bumped into Chakotay and felt his breath catch. Damn. What was going on here? All evening long this had been happening. Accidental bumps and touches that you could strike sparks off of and veiled glances that caused the room temperature to rise. He wasn't interested in Chakotay that way. Wasn't interested in anyone that way at the moment. After B'Elanna, he sometimes wondered if he would ever have the nerve to get into a relationship with anyone again. B'Elanna's loss had cut deeply. The unexpected kiss earlier this evening between himself and Chakotay seemed to have awakened an awareness in Tom though, and no matter how much he wanted to deny it, his heightened senses were near to exploding whenever the other man was close by.
Chakotay heard Tom's sudden intake of breath when they accidentally bumped into each other. He had become increasingly aware as the evening wore on that whatever the earlier kiss had ignited, he wasn't the only one being affected. He followed Tom's movements as he stepped toward the table to take his shot. As he bent over the table to line up his shot, another image of Tom bent across the pool table superimposed itself on Chakotay's mind. Uncomfortable, he turned away to take a sip of his drink to give himself a moment to get his bearings. When he turned back to the table, he had collected himself and showed no outward signs of the turmoil that raged within.
The pool game proceeded with the two men neck and neck in score. The bystanders kept up a steady cheering section.
Tom studied the table carefully. He had a particular shot in mind. It was tricky but if he could pull it off, he'd win the game. Concentrating, he leaned down, let the cue slide back and forth through the fingers of his left hand as he readied himself, then he let the cue stick shoot forward to connect with the ball. It in turned traveled the length of the table only to bounce off a side cushion, strike one of Chakotay's balls, which in turn vectored off to hit the eight ball which in turn bounced off another side cushion to roll across the table and fall into the pocket with an audible crack. The silence in Sandrine's was deafening for a moment and then everyone began speaking at once.
Harry, having arrived just as the third game was beginning, pounded Tom on the back. "Guess you haven't lost your touch, huh?"
"Guess not," Tom grinned. He turned to search out Chakotay, who, hand held out, approached Tom. They shook.
"Congratulations on a good game," offered Chakotay.
"You didn't do so badly yourself, Captain."
"I don't suppose you'd teach me that last shot you made?"
"I don't know, Captain. What's it worth to you?" Their gazes met and the temperature in the room suddenly went up about twenty degrees for both men.
Chakotay broke away from their locked gazes first. "It's getting late. How about we meet here tomorrow and negotiate it?"
"Fine by me," agreed Tom, not exactly sure what he was agreeing to. "Guess I'll call it a night too." As he headed for the door, Harry caught up with him and the two friends left Sandrine's together.
Chakotay watched them exit, only becoming aware of Kes at his side when she spoke.
"A good start, Captain."
Looking down at her he said, "Good start?"
"In rejoining the rest of us. Both you and Tom. I hope we'll see you both in here more often from now on."
Chakotay answered her with a nod as his gaze returned to the door Tom had just exited through.
"It was good to see you at Sandrine's tonight, Tom," offered Harry as they made their way down the corridor.
"I'm not about to get another lecture, am I?" asked Tom lightheartedly.
"Another lecture? Who's been lecturing you and on what?" asked Harry curiously. He regretted that his duties as of late had caused some distance between himself and Tom. Hopefully, it wasn't too late to rectify that.
"I was ordered to Sandrine's tonight," said Tom ruefully. Harry let a smile slip out. "It's not funny, Harry! What I do on my own time is my own business!" Tom's expression was stern but his voice didn't carry the same harshness.
Smile still in place, Harry inquired, "Who ordered you to put in an appearance at Sandrine's?"
"Chakotay came by my quarters earlier tonight, courtesy of Kes and, I suppose, B'Elanna, too." Tom leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed while they waited for the turbolift to arrive.
"Well, whatever he said, at least you've rejoined the land of the living. You gonna stay here awhile?" Harry's tone was teasing, but his eyes carried worried concern.
"Have I been that bad?" asked Tom.
"In a word, yes." Harry smiled to soften it. "Tom, I know losing B'Elanna was hard on you but," Harry shrugged, "you've changed in recent weeks. Every time I tried to talk to you about it, you pretty much blew me off."
"Sorry," Tom apologized. "I've been pretty selfish, haven't I? B'Elanna was one of your best friends. I'm not the only one who lost someone."
The turbolift arrived and they boarded it. They remained silent for the short trip, but when they reached Tom's deck, Harry held up the lift as he leaned out and said to the departing man, "You weren't the only one who lost someone, Tom, but I think you lost the most. Both you and Chakotay. I'm glad you both made it to Sandrine's tonight."
"Me too, Harry," agreed Tom. He gave his friend a smile and made his way to his quarters. The smile disappeared as soon as he stepped inside. Images of a dark-haired man whose lips had been surprisingly gentle suddenly filled his mind. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he sat at his desk and returned to the reports he had yet to finish, once more burying himself in his work.
The following day passed quickly. Tom spent a large part of it being very aware of the man who sat in the center seat behind him. The kiss the night before had brought something to life between them. Every time Chakotay so much as made a move, Tom was aware of it. He didn't know if this was a good thing or not. All he knew was that it was making him jumpy as an Algerian cat.
Following a quick dinner with Harry in the mess hall, Tom made his way to the holodeck, still undecided if he would show Chakotay that particular shot or not. A guy had to keep some tricks up his sleeve.
Tom was surprised to see that neither holodeck was in use at the moment. A rare occurrence aboard Voyager. He set up the Sandrine's program in Holodeck One and entered. He'd been a little late himself, so he was surprised to find Chakotay wasn't yet here. Tapping his combadge, he put in a quick call to the Captain.
"Give me five minutes, Tom," requested Chakotay. "Tuvok and I should be done by then."
Closing the link, Tom pulled down a cue stick, racked the balls, and began idly picking them off one by one. Some things you just didn't lose, he thought. No matter how much time passed from the last time he had picked up a cue stick, he was always able to play like it had just been yesterday. He smiled in wicked satisfaction as he remembered last night's winning shot. On Voyager, Captain Janeway had been the only one able to best him.
Looking around the empty Sandrine's, empty except for him and the holographic characters, Tom remembered when Captain Janeway had first entered the holographic bar and his embarrassment when the gigolo propositioned her. Her reaction had clinched it for him though. When she had responded humorously, he knew there and then she wasn't the same type of Starfleet officer as his father. Tom sighed. He missed her. Missed her dry wit. Missed her presence on the Bridge.
Chakotay, who had spent the day wavering between dread and anticipation of this meeting, entered Sandrine's to find Tom leaning against a cue stick as he gazed contemplatively around the bar. He wondered what the other man was thinking. Peering around at the empty bar in surprise, Chakotay said, "Where is everybody?"
Tom came back from wherever his thoughts had taken him. "Don't know," he replied. "They'll probably start trickling in pretty soon."
Chakotay glanced at the pool table. "Are you going to show me that shot?"
"You never did tell me what it was worth to you," Tom shot back.
Chakotay's head snapped up in surprise. He heard the old bantering tone in Tom's voice that used to irritate him so much, but now . . . Chakotay swallowed. It had suddenly taken on shadings of something else. Trying to decipher the other man's expression, Chakotay couldn't decide if this was just one of Tom's usual quips or if he meant something more. Shrugging, Chakotay picked up a cue stick. "Just looking to improve my performance."
Tom's eyes narrowed. What did he mean by that? Mentally shrugging, Tom decided he was reading way too much into what was and wasn't being said. Setting up the shot, he said, "Well, never let it be said I stood in your way, Captain."
"We're off duty. Call me Chakotay. You never used to have a problem with that," Chakotay remarked ironically.
"Well, you weren't captain then . . . Chakotay." Tom drew the other man's attention to the pool table. "I've set up the shot here, just like we had it last night. There's really no trick to the shot. It's all in the touch. You've either got it or you haven't." Tom leaned over the table to demonstrate.

Chakotay's eyes moved from the pool table to the lean form stretched out over it, noticing the way Tom's uniform tightened around his buttocks whenever he bent over. Crimson flooded his face as he realized where his thoughts were leading.

Chakotay quickly averted his eyes to the pool table. He didn't understand why he was suddenly having these kind of thoughts about Tom. They'd worked together for several years. Why suddenly now? And why was he fighting it? Because of Kathryn? Because he felt like he was betraying her memory? Or because this was Tom Paris? A man Chakotay had never understood and had even disliked at one time. Not to mention that the man was one of his officers. Now he began to understand Kathryn's dilemma when she had refused to get involved with him in anything more than a friendship. It wasn't good for a captain to establish this kind of emotional entanglement with one of your crew. On the other hand, Chakotay couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life like a monk either. He forced his attention back to what Tom was saying.

". . . you hold your cue stick the same way I do," Tom was saying, "so this shouldn't be too difficult to teach you. See the position I'm in to line up the shot?" Tom glanced over his shoulder to make sure Chakotay was catching all this. He straightened, turning to face the other man. "You okay?" he asked in concern, noting the other man's flushed appearance.
"Fine." Chakotay moved past him to study the shot then bent over to line it up as Tom had shown him.
Shrugging, Tom ignored the terse tone of the other man's reply and leaned around Chakotay to make sure he was positioning the shot like he had shown him. Not liking the angle Chakotay had the cue stick at, Tom leaned forward and, reaching around him, adjusted the angle. As their hands brushed, Tom barely restrained himself from jerking his hand back at the unexpected spark of desire that seemed to jump into being between them. He suddenly became aware that he was pressed in close to Chakotay's back. Tom, all his senses jumping to life, unconsciously leaned in closer to inhale the other man's scent. His hand resting atop Chakotay's, Tom guided the cue stick the other man held as he spoke softly. "Angle is important, but don't forget the touch. You don't want to hit the ball too hard but you don't want your touch to be too light either." Completely unaware of his actions, Tom's thumb rubbed the back of Chakotay's hand.
Chakotay, for his part, was having extreme difficulty controlling his breathing. He could feel Tom's body close to his, the heat radiating off him. The soft breath whispering against the back of his neck. It was too much when Tom's thumb caressed his hand. Control near the snapping point, he grated out, "Tom."
Tom jumped back as if awakening unexpectedly from a dream. He abruptly moved away as Chakotay turned around. The flustered expression in his eyes convinced Chakotay that he hadn't been doing it on purpose. Tom was as surprised as Chakotay by this turn of events.
"Um, maybe we should do this another time," said Tom as he slowly backed away. Before he got too far, Chakotay reached out, snagged the front of Tom's uniform, and pulled him in close so that they were chest to chest. Leaning back against the pool table, Chakotay pulled Tom in for a kiss, hungrily latching onto his mouth.
Tom, planting a hand on the pool table on each side of Chakotay leaned into the other man, answering his aggressive kiss with one of his own. Lips parting, their tongues danced around each other experimentally. Tom groaned as other parts of his body joined in the assault of his senses and he pressed himself against Chakotay, feeling a reciprocal response from the other man.
Chakotay pulled his mouth away from Tom's in an attempt to regain some control but the other man continued to plunder his jawline and neck with kisses. "Maybe, ah," Chakotay groaned as Tom located a spot behind his ear that was especially sensitive, "maybe we should think about this."
Tom pulled back at his words. His eyes, lit with desire and sparking like blue lightning, gazed into the dark smoldering ones. "You're probably right," he agreed huskily. "You're the captain after all." Tom's hand dipped down to lightly brush across the other man's waist. Chakotay let out a harsh breath as Tom's touch grazed his erection through the uniform. "You probably know best," Tom allowed breathlessly. He started to pull away, but Chakotay reeled him back in.
Hands moving to Tom's backside, Chakotay pulled him closer until the other man's body was molded to his. "I want you, Tom," said Chakotay softly. "Now."
Tom stared into his eyes, seeming to reach a decision as he raised his voice to address the computer. "Computer, engage privacy lock and remove all holographic characters."
"Privacy lock engaged," confirmed the computer.
Chakotay's eyes widened. What had he been thinking? Anyone could have walked in. Tom grinned wickedly, but then the grin faltered. Do I want this? he wondered. This is Chakotay we're talking about. Why am I doing this? Just to escape B'Elanna?
Chakotay watched the doubts dance across Tom's face. He pulled the other man's face down to his, kissing him. Against his mouth, he said, "Just say no and I'll stop. We don't have to take this any further." He felt Tom's ragged breath brush against his lips.
"I need. . ." Tom trailed off, unsure how to express what it was he needed, but Chakotay understood. Chakotay had loved and lost. He felt the same need himself. That need to be close to someone again, if only briefly. To feel alive again.
"Just for tonight," he told Tom softly. "No strings attached."
Tom answered by moving to unfasten Chakotay's uniform, needing to feel the warmth of flesh against flesh. Both their hands fumbled for fastenings in their haste to disrobe. They quickly slipped out of their clothes. Coming together again, Chakotay ran a hand over Tom's collarbone letting his hand slide outward over his shoulder and down his back before pulling the other man in close. They both gasped as their erections touched the other's stomach. Both men were hard and already straining near the bursting point. It wouldn't take much to set either of them off.
Tom's hand moved between them, brushing across Chakotay's nipples to move downward to his stomach where Chakotay's muscles contracted spasmodically in pleasured reaction. He leaned in to kiss Chakotay at the same moment as his hand wrapped around the other man's erection. Chakotay's hips moved forward, pushing himself at Tom, who replied with a thrust of his own. He groaned when Chakotay's hand found his erection, stroking the tip where his juices were already beginning to seep out.
Chakotay could feel the pool table rubbing into his buttocks but paid it no attention as Tom's hand moved to bring him to climax. He was so close, so . . . his hips jerked. He thrust forward, Tom meeting his thrust with one of his own. Both men's hands abandoned the erections, letting the contact of their bodies thrusting against each other take over. Tom's hands returned to the pool table, using it for support as his legs threatened to give out. Their loud breaths and groans filled the room but neither spoke a word as they completely lost themselves in the sensations of the moment.
Chakotay's hands went to Tom's shoulders, trying to pull him even closer. Tom leaned in, still thrusting his hips forward, for a deep kiss. The wave hit them at nearly the same moment. They rode it together, gasping as one shudder of ecstasy after another ripped through them, bringing them both to climax.
Slowly the wave receded. Tom came back to himself to find he was more or less molded to Chakotay from shoulder to knee.  He reveled in the feel of Chakotay's muscled thighs against his, the broad muscular chest pressed against his where Tom could feel a rapid heartbeat, and the plain simple truth of holding another being close to him, having shared something so intimate. Tom started to reach up to gently caress the planes of Chakotay's face but hesitated when the moment suddenly seemed to turn awkward. He pulled away from Chakotay, unaware of the other man's aborted reach for him as well.
Tom thought of B'Elanna and felt an overwhelming guilt engulf him.
Chakotay remembered Kathryn and felt regret.
By unspoken mutual consent, both men pulled away and began dressing. Tom, finished dressing first, said in a hushed tone, "I think I'll call it a night." Their gazes collided for a long moment before both self-consciously looked away. Without a word, Chakotay let him go.  He didn't know what to say. They had both needed to feel close to someone tonight but maybe it had been a mistake. Chakotay let out his breath in a soft explosion. He hadn't expected their coming together to be so intense. It had left Chakotay feeling more confused than ever.
Tom retreated to his quarters. Quickly stripping off his uniform and underwear, he stepped into the shower and let the hot water rush over him. Images of B'Elanna and Chakotay collided in his mind. Happiness. Sorrow. Ecstasy. Guilt. Exhaling a shaky breath, Tom stood with hands braced against the wall, head lowered between them, as the water pounded between his shoulder blades. Tears mingling with the water, he finally let out the grief he had been holding in all this time. He cried for what he had lost with B'Elanna and somewhere deep inside him a door swung open and everything hidden away in that room the day B'Elanna had died came pouring out in a shattering torrent.
Tom was already at his station on the Bridge the next morning when Chakotay stepped out of the ready room. The other man didn't look up at his entrance, but Chakotay could tell by his posture that the Lieutenant was aware of his presence. Heaving an internal sigh and wondering where last night left him with Voyager's helmsman, the Captain took his seat, wincing slightly as he sat.

"Is everything all right, Captain?" questioned Tuvok. "You appear to be in some discomfort."

Damn, Chakotay silently swore. Leave it up to Tuvok to notice something like that. "Just a, uh, pulled muscle," said Chakotay. "I didn't warm up like I should have before a workout last night. Nothing serious, I assure you." In actuality, Chakotay had found the backs of both his thighs bruised this morning from where the pool table had bitten into them, but he wasn't about to tell Tuvok that.

"I possess exercise programs for warming up before engaging in more vigorous exercises, Captain," Tuvok offered. "Perhaps you would find one of them useful."

Chakotay didn't miss the sudden shaking of Paris' shoulders as he tried to silently contain his laughter.

Tom for his part was still feeling a bit raw from a sleepless night and the emotional turmoil of finally facing the fact that B'Elanna was gone, but he felt as if a weight had lifted off his shoulders sometime during the long night. Without thinking, he swung around in his seat to gaze innocently at the Captain. "Maybe you should take Tuvok up on his offer, Captain. When you're out of practice, those workouts can be a real killer."

Caught off guard by the warm teasing tone in Tom's voice that had been missing from the Bridge since the day B'Elanna and Kathryn died, Chakotay grinned at the other man. Tom grinned back at him before swinging back around to his station and Chakotay, to his dismay, found his thoughts occupied with how Tom's body had felt next to his. How Tom's lips had moved against his. Their breathless climax. His smile turned into a frown, however, when he recalled the awkward moments afterwards but he was warmed by Tom's reaction to him this morning.

Thanking Tuvok for offering the use of his programs, Chakotay tore his gaze away from the back of the helmsman's head to focus on the readout at his station, hoping it would stem the flow of reactions his thoughts were causing.

Tom frowned down at his readouts. What had possessed him to say that to Chakotay? Given what had happened between them last night, the other man was sure to take it the wrong way. He hadn't been flirting with him just now . . . or had he? This was becoming more confusing by the moment. Even with B'Elanna he hadn't felt this unsure. He'd always known what he wanted with her. What was he after with Chakotay? A quick lay? Something to appease the loneliness of losing B'Elanna? Or did he want Chakotay for Chakotay? Now there's a novel idea, thought Tom. He swallowed, unsure that last thought wasn't closer to the truth than any of the other reasons he had conjured up.

"Captain," came Samantha Wildman's voice from Ops, "I'm picking up a large mass, heading 8323.6."

Tom peered at his helm readouts, frowning as the blip appeared on his readouts also. A moment later, Tuvok confirmed. "It is the Losarian armada, Captain. They've changed course to intercept us."

Chakotay moved forward to stand behind Tom. He peered over the helmsman's shoulder at the readouts. This looked to be the big battle they had been anticipating. The strafing runs by Losarian scoutships had increased over the past two weeks. Tuvok, Tom and Chakotay had all been in agreement that the Losarians were testing their defenses in preparation for a bigger attack.

"I hope you've been practicing those moves we discussed," Chakotay said quietly to Tom before straightening to address the Bridge. "Computer, put me on ship-wide alert."


Chakotay addressed Voyager's crew. "Sensors have detected a large Losarian armada headed our way. We expect to engage them in approximately . . ." He looked to Lieutenant Wildman for clarification.

"Four minutes, sir."

". . . in approximately four minutes. All hands prepare for battle. We are under Red Alert." Chakotay tapped his combadge. "Chakotay to Kim."

"We're ready down here, Captain. Just give the word."

Chakotay's gaze swept the Bridge, receiving confirmation that everyone was prepared. "Time to implement Janeway Alpha," Chakotay said, referring to the tactical plan the senior staff had mapped out to deal with the Losarians. "You all know the plan. Lieutenant Paris, bring us around. Time to get this over with once and for all."

"Aye, sir."

"Shields engaged," Tuvok informed the Captain. "Phasers ready. Torpedoes loaded."

Chakotay watched the viewscreen. As Tom turned the ship in a wide sweeping arc, Voyager came around to face the Losarian armada. Voyager's pilot set them on a heading straight for the lead warship. "Nice and easy, Tom," said Chakotay softly. "Think calm and majestic swan."

"I prefer to think of us as an eagle on the hunt myself," commented Tom loud enough for Chakotay to hear. Chakotay couldn't help it. Despite the tense situation, he smiled. It was good to have Tom Paris and his mouth back again.

Tom glided them to a slow stop in front of the lead warship. The direct approach seemed to have stopped immediate hostilities, but he was sure that wouldn't last. Given the information he and Tuvok had managed to dig up on the Losarians, this race wouldn't stand by quietly for long.

Losarian scoutships emerging from the mother ships," Tuvok announced.

"Right on schedule," Tom heard Chakotay say under his breath. So far the Losarians were reacting just as had been predicted. Turning to Wildman, Chakotay ordered, "Open a hailing frequency, Lieutenant."

Chakotay turned back to the viewscreen as the link was established. "Losarian ship, this is Captain Chakotay of the Federation starship Voyager. We challenge you under the laws of the Losarian Constitution Section XI Subsection 29a-1 Paragraph c-14a. We declare the Right of Retribution."

The viewscreen suddenly shifted to a view of the warship's bridge. "By what right to you claim this?" asked the Losarian commodore coldly.

Calmly, Chakotay replied, "By rights of death. Scoutships from your ship are responsible for the death of our leader. We have the right to direct battle with your ship without interference from others or fear of retribution when we win."

Tom barely kept the grin off his face. The manifesto of Losarian law they had nabbed stated "if" we win. Chakotay had just insulted them big time. Losarian history had also shown that this was a declaration they would not stand down from. The Losarian commodore's next words confirmed this.

"You are within your rights to make this declaration, Captain. We shall fight you. No others shall interfere, including my scoutships."

The connection abruptly closed.

"The scoutships have been recalled to the mother ship, Captain," reported Tuvok.

Brows raised, Tom turned to look at Chakotay. "He thinks he's going to win, Captain. He wouldn't be recalling his scoutships otherwise. I think he just insulted you back."

Chakotay nodded, laying a hand on Tom's shoulder without thought and giving it a squeeze before moving back to the middle of the Bridge, his mind already jumping ahead to the next step. "You said you could take a Losarian warship, Lieutenant Paris. Now's your chance to prove it."

Tom rapidly began feeding commands into his console. Most of them were already programmed in anticipation of this very scenario occurring. Voyager swept up and over the warship and Tuvok, as they had practiced several times in a holographic scenario, fired a volley of phaser shots at targeted portions of the warship. The Losarian warship started to come around but it moved in a slow lumbering climb compared to Voyager's quick movements. Tom slid Voyager in behind them and then up underneath them where Tuvok targeted another volley of phaser shots.

"Anything yet?" asked Chakotay, turning to look at Samantha Wildman.

She shook her head, not taking her eyes off the Ops console. "Nothing, sir."

Patience, Chakotay counseled himself. We know they have a weak spot. We'll find it. The ship was suddenly shoved to one side, knocked from its course as the Losarian ship scored a hit.

"Whoops," muttered Paris.

"Whoops?" repeated Chakotay. "Lieutenant, I'd appreciate it if you could avoid any further 'whoops'."

Forcing down an urge to laugh, Tom said, "Yes, sir." Gods but it felt good to be flying again. Really flying. He hadn't felt this alive since -- he quickly shut down that line of thought. No time for that kind of thinking right now. 
Concentrate on keeping us alive, Thomas.

"The Losarians are activating their tractor beam," warned Tuvok.

"Paris--" started Chakotay.

"Got it, Captain." Tom took the ship just out of range of the Losarian tractor beam.

"Sir!" Samantha Wildman's excited voice attracted everyone's attention. "I think I've got it. I think I found the opening we need."

Chakotay joined her at Ops, examining the readout there as Tom continued to dance Voyager around the warship and Tuvok kept up a steady stream of phaser blasts. "Tuvok, Tom, we're transferring what Samantha has found to your stations. We're going to have to get damned close to the Losarian ship to make this work. Do you think you can do it, Tom?"

Tom studied the scans being fed into his console while keeping an eye on the warship's current location, not letting it get in position to land a damaging shot on Voyager. He swallowed. Chakotay wasn't kidding when he said close. Tom did some quick calculations. "That doesn't leave us much maneuvering room," he commented.

"Can you do it?" Chakotay repeated.

The Bridge fell silent as they all waited for Tom's reply. He gazed up at the viewscreen at the warship that was responsible for the devastation in his life. Looking back down at the readouts his console displayed, he began punching in a course plan. "I can do it," he said firmly. "I'm going to need to be able to jump to warp . . ." he paused in his calculations, ". . . warp five as soon as we hit the target though. You'll only get one shot, Tuvok."

"Understood," replied the Vulcan as he studied his own readouts.

Walking back down toward the helm, Chakotay tapped his combadge. "Chakotay to Kim."

"Kim here."

"Harry, we're going to need warp five at a moment's notice."

"No problem, sir. We've taken no damage down here."

Studying Tom's flight plan, Chakotay said, "Lieutenant Paris is about to vector in close to the Losarian warship. It's going to strain the engines."

"The engines will hold up, sir," Harry assured the Captain. "Just make sure Tom doesn't run into the warship."

Chakotay heard Tom let out a soft snort. "Understood, Lieutenant. Chakotay out." Turning to Tom, he said, "Ready anytime you are, Lieutenant."

"I would suggest we proceed immediately," Tuvok cautioned. "The Losarian warship is starting to get our range. Their weapons could soon hit vital sections of the ship."

Tom glanced up at Chakotay. Their eyes met for a moment, each acknowledging what it meant to them to settle this once and for all with the Losarians and put the ghosts to rest. "Let's finish it," Chakotay told him quietly. Nodding, Tom plotted in the course and the ship shot forward, heading straight for the Losarian warship in what appeared to be a game of chicken.

Chakotay moved back to the center seat, sitting down. He pulled his monitor to him, alternating his gaze between it and the viewscreen. He had an uncontrollable urge to call out to Paris to break off the course. They were too close. However, he had seen the readouts himself and knew how close Tom had to bring Voyager to the warship in order for Tuvok to be able to get a lock on the target.

Tom swept Voyager along the warship's starboard side, skimming in close to avoid the big warship's guns. If the scoutships had been in on this battle they would have been in big trouble. As it was, the warship had them outgunned and outsized, but there was something to be said for speed and maneuverability.

"Approaching target area," Wildman's voice rang out.

"Scanning," responded Tuvok. "Lieutenant Paris, we need to be closer."

Tom could feel the sweat popping out on his forehead. Ignoring it, he shifted Voyager's speed and course, sweeping in closer than two ships should ever get. His eyes widened. "Captain!"

"I see it," said Chakotay. The Losarian warships carried no shielding. Whatever the alloy consisted of that was used in their ships it had some sort of natural shielding against Voyager's weapons. In order to get in close enough for Tuvok to make the shot, they were going to have to deactivate Voyager's shields. "Lower the shields," Chakotay ordered.

Shields no longer a detriment to moving in closer, Tom brought Voyager sweeping in toward their target. "Make it count, Tuvok!" he called out.

Ready, Tuvok released the photon torpedo. Tom pulled out from the warship's shadow and engaged warp for a few short seconds to gain a safe distance between them and the warship. As he powered the ship back down to impulse, they all stared expectantly at the viewscreen. For a long moment, the warship hung there in space, then a small flame burst from the area Tuvok had targeted. That flame set off a chain reaction before a large explosion split the warship down the middle, sending pieces cartwheeling through space. The Bridge of Voyager was silent. No cheering. No smiles. Just grim satisfaction.

Tom felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Chakotay standing beside him. Chakotay stared at the screen, his face bleak. The Losarians were the enemy. This particular ship had been responsible for all their troubles in the past several months but it was still a loss of life. "We didn't have a choice, Chakotay," said Tom softly. "It was them or us."

Chakotay looked at him. "I know."

"Captain," came Wildman's voice, "one of the other Losarian ships is hailing us."

"On screen."

"Captain Chakotay," greeted the Losarian commodore gravely. "Retribution has been settled. You may continue in peace. Losaria will bother your ship no longer. Good journey." The viewscreen blanked before Chakotay could reply.

"Tuvok?" asked Chakotay.

"The Losarians are withdrawing, Captain."

Chakotay looked down at the hand that rested on Tom's shoulder as if just now realizing it was there. Dropping his hand from Tom's shoulder somewhat self-consciously, he returned to the center seat. "Stand down from Red Alert," he ordered. "Good job, people. Lieutenant Wildman, good eyes. You found us the hole we needed. Tuvok, good shooting. Tom, inspired flying."

Tom swung around in his seat. "You know how it is, Captain. Once you've got the touch you never lose it." Their eyes met as his words sparked memories from the night before. Chakotay was amazed to see a deep red blush engulf Tom's face.

Geez, Tom, put your foot in your mouth, why don't you? Feeling the blush creeping up his neck and face, he quickly swung back around to his station.

A large portion of the crew turned out that evening for a celebration in Sandrine's. The crew's mood shifted to a higher gear when they realized they were finally out from under the constant threat of annihilation from the Losarians, making the mood in Sandrine's far from somber.

Chakotay, sitting at a table with Harry Kim, watched the crew. It was good to see them enjoying themselves. They had been under constant threat of attack from the Losarians for several months and it had been wearing on everyone's nerves. He found his gaze kept wandering to the entrance, hoping to see a certain blond-haired pilot appear there. He was beginning to have his doubts that Tom was going to show up at all when the familiar blond head appeared in the doorway. Harry waved him over to their table.

Tom set a small black case not much bigger than a datapadd on the table before pulling up a chair. Looking around the bar, he commented, "Looks like just about everyone's here."

"Where've you been?" Harry asked. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to show."

"I had something to take care of," replied Tom evasively. His wandering gaze came to rest on the pool table where Tuvok and Neelix were engaged in a game. Staring at the table, he asked, "How's the pulled muscle, Captain?"

Chakotay's startled gaze focused on Tom, who was still watching Tuvok and Neelix at the pool table. "Fine, Lieutenant."

Harry's gaze swiveled back and forth between the two men. Something was going on here between them that he wasn't privy too. He hoped Tom hadn't had another disagreement with the Captain. They had seemed to be getting on much better lately.

"Glad to hear it," responded Tom as his attention returned to their table. He picked up the case he had set on the table. "I'm not planning on staying long," he said. "I just stopped in to give each of you something." Snapping open the container, he pulled out an object. Holding it cupped in his palm, he held it out to Harry.

Harry studied Maquis rank bar he now held. Lieutenant junior grade. He looked inquiringly at Tom.

"I should have given that to you when you got your promotion," Tom said apologetically. "It was B'Elanna's. I think she'd want you to have it, Harry." Before Harry could utter a word, Tom pulled the other item out of the case. It was a small charcoal-colored stone with carvings on it. Sliding it across the table to Chakotay, he said, "B'Elanna told me why you gave that to her. It meant a lot to her. I think she'd want you to have it back as a remembrance of your friendship."

Chakotay picked the stone up, turning it over in his hands. It still had the gouge in the one side from the time B'Elanna had gotten frustrated and thrown it. He looked up, meeting Tom's eyes, a question in his.

Tom smiled. "Yeah, she told me about that too."

"Tom . . ." Harry stared at the Maquis rank bar cupped in his hand. "I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything, Harry. Just keep a special place in your heart for her, and tell me you'll finally move out of those cramped quarters of yours and into B'Elanna's bigger ones. I put all her things in storage tonight, so it's just sitting there waiting for you."

Both Harry and Chakotay stared at him. They realized this was a big step for him and it was his way of telling them he was ready to get on with his life. Tom and Chakotay locked gazes for a long moment before Tom softly said, "I burned a few bridges today." Chakotay nodded in understanding. He had burned a few of his own as well. Tom's gaze flicked away to look around the bar, then he stood, saying, "It's been a long day. I think I'll turn in."

Chakotay watched him leave the bar. He wanted to follow after him, wanted to wrap him in his arms, wanted to feel Tom's arms around him, but something held him back.

Harry's attention returned to the table to find the Captain staring after Tom's exit thoughtfully. Something was definitely going on between the two men, Harry decided. He made a note to ask Tom about it.

Chakotay hadn't stayed much longer at Sandrine's after Tom had left. Entering his quarters, he glanced around. For the first time since he had taken command of Voyager, he didn't have any pressing issues to demand his attention. Walking over to the viewport, he stared out. Speaking softly to the stars, he said, "Well, Kathryn, we did it. We defeated the Losarians. You would have been proud of this crew today."

He moved over to the couch. Sitting down, he stared at the carved stone of B'Elanna's that Tom had given him. Holding it possessively between his hands, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. Head bowed, eyes closed, he murmured Kathryn's name. A tear slipped from his eye to be followed by another and another. He sat there, frozen and grieving, allowing himself to finally feel the full impact of Kathryn's loss.

Tom sat up in bed with a start when his alarm sounded. "Alarm off!" he called groggily as he tried to wake up from the dream he'd been having. Feeling a wetness in the bed sheets, he lifted the sheet and peered down, staring at the evidence of his ejaculation. Frown on his face, Tom got out of bed and padded toward the bathroom. He wasn't sure if this dream was an improvement over the others he'd been having lately or not. Usually he woke up from an erotic dream about B'Elanna, only to find she wasn't in bed with him and then remembering what had happened and she would never be with him in that way again. It usually started his day off with depressing clarity.

Not this time though. This time he had dreamed of . . . Chakotay. Tom sighed as he stepped into the shower. Chakotay had been on his mind a lot lately. His eyes closed as he stuck his head under the spray of water, hoping it would wash all the unsettling thoughts away, but images pressed in beneath his closed eyelids. Chakotay's face at the moment of climax. The feel of Chakotay's body next to his, those hands and lips caressing his body. Tom groaned aloud as he felt his swelling erection and tried to think of something else to temper his body's reactions.

Quickly finishing his shower, he dressed and headed for the mess hall, trying to not think about Chakotay and whatever it was that had sprung to being between them.

Tom slid in behind the table to join Harry for breakfast. "You stay late at Sandrine's last night?" he asked the other man.

"Not too late," replied Harry. He gazed at his friend curiously. "Can I ask you a question, Tom?"

Taking a bite of his breakfast, Tom said, "Sure. Fire away."

"Is something going on between you and the Captain? I kind of got the impression there were some undercurrents between you two last night."

"Like what?" asked Tom carefully.

Harry shrugged. "I don't know. You aren't fighting with him again, are you?"

Tom looked up to see Harry's worried gaze on him. Harry, if you only knew, he couldn't help thinking. "No, we're not fighting. Things got a little tense after he came to talk to me and ordered me to Sandrine's for some relaxation, but," Tom shrugged, "he was right. I was hiding."

Harry nodded in understanding. "You seem more like your old self nowadays. You're doing okay though, really?"

Touched by Harry's concern, Tom tried to answer him truthfully. "I can't lie to you, Harry, and say there aren't times when I still miss B'Elanna so much it hurts but, yeah, it's getting better."

Harry seemed satisfied with that. Their discussion turned back to ship's business and the celebration in Sandrine's the night before and by the time breakfast was over Harry had Tom laughing as he filled him in on Ensign K'tall's inebriated version of the Academy fight song and the Maquis equivalent that an equally inebriated Baclar had sang in retaliation.

Smile still in place, Tom stepped into the conference room with Harry for the staff meeting. Chakotay was already there. Tuvok, Neelix and Wildman weren't far behind Tom and Harry. Just as they were all seating themselves the Doctor and Kes walked in and took their seats as well. Seeing that all were present, Chakotay called the meeting to order.

About five minutes into the meeting, Tom knew something was wrong. Nobody else seemed to sense it. Well, maybe Tuvok did, amended Tom as he and the Vulcan exchanged glances before they both turned their attention back to the Captain. Something was up with Chakotay. Tom watched him closely. Considering their success in beating back the Losarians yesterday, Chakotay seemed very subdued. He didn't meet their gazes often and when he did, Tom didn't like what he saw in the Captain's eyes. He'd seen that own look in his eyes too often in past months. Tom began to wonder if Chakotay had maybe bounced back a little too quickly from Captain Janeway's death. Maybe he hadn't really handled it yet, despite his own advice to Tom to move on with his life.

Once the staff meeting concluded, Harry walked out with Tom and, noting his serious expression, asked, "Something wrong?"

"Did Chakotay seem a little, I don't know, defeated to you in there?"

Harry shrugged. "He seemed fine to me. Probably just has a lot on his mind."

"Maybe." Tom wasn't convinced of that though. He knew he himself was far from done with dealing with the loss of B'Elanna, but he had found a more comfortable way to ease into it lately. Maybe Chakotay wasn't handling Kathryn Janeway's death as calmly as he seemed to be on the surface. Tom made a note to keep an eye on the Captain.

Wearied by a day of dealing with mundane duties that were more paper pushing than anything else, Chakotay sank down on the couch in his quarters. He frowned as he gazed around his quarters. He seemed to suddenly be seeing Kathryn everywhere. He thought he had dealt with this months ago. Looking around his quarters now reminded him of the late nights when they had worked on reports together in companionable silence. Chakotay remembered one night, a couple of weeks before her death, when they had been up late going over ship's status reports and he had looked up to find her watching him.

"What?" he asked her, a slight smile creasing his face, the dimples threatening to emerge.

"Just thinking," she said quietly.



"Do I want to hear this?" Chakotay asked, his smile widening.

"I just can't imagine doing this without you, Chakotay," she told him sincerely. "I can't imagine trying to get this crew back home without your help."

"I appreciate you saying that, Kathryn, but somehow I think you'd do just fine without me."

She shook her head. Sitting forward, she placed a hand on his knee. "Sometimes I wish . . ."

As if reading her thoughts, he said, "It gets lonely at times, doesn't it? We've had this talk before, Kathryn. You know how I feel about you. How I feel about a liaison between Voyager's captain and first officer and your so-called parameters." His tone was light but his eyes serious.

She retreated, as he had known she would. "I can't, Chakotay. The crew has to come first."

Chakotay returned to the present. Why hadn't he pushed her? He had sensed she was close to caving in. They could have had at least a little time together before-- He abruptly stopped that line of thinking. It didn't do any good to think in terms of 'what if.' He was just feeling the letdown after all these months of battling the Losarians. It would pass, he told himself.

He was still sitting there moments later debating what he was going to do with himself this evening when his combadge chirped. He tapped it. "Chakotay."

"Captain!" came Neelix's enthusiastic voice over the link. Chakotay smiled slightly, recalling some of Tuvok's expressions in recent months in regards to his training sessions with Neelix. One thing was for certain, Tuvok was learning tolerance and patience. In the interim, Neelix was turning out to be surprisingly adept at security procedures. "Captain, we wondered if you'd join us in Sandrine's."

Chakotay felt like the last thing he wanted tonight was to be around a crowd of people, even if they were his people. "I think I'll pass tonight, Neelix."

There was a short silence then Tom Paris' voice came over the link. "Come on, Captain. The crowd here wants to see a rematch between us. Game for some pool tonight?"

Chakotay felt a smile coming over his face at the pilot's words but quickly quashed it. Tom had spent the day offering up useless commentary on the Bridge in what Chakotay was sure was an effort to drive him crazy. It would seem the old Tom Paris was back in fine form.

He found his thoughts drifting back to their unexpected encounter a few nights ago. This thing, whatever it was, with Tom didn't seem to be going away. Face it, Chakotay, he told himself. You're attracted to the man. Now, what are you going to do about it?

In Sandrine's Tom shared a concerned look with Harry when nothing but silence dominated the other end of the link. Stepping away from the others, he lowered his voice so only Chakotay could hear. "Come on, Chakotay. Time to burn a few more bridges." His voice was soft and full of understanding.

"Get the balls racked," came Chakotay's voice. "I'll be there shortly."

Tom turned back to the others with a triumphant look. "He'll be here shortly," he announced.

"What'd you say to him?" asked Harry as the others dispersed.

"Nothing," Tom replied evasively. "Just reminded him he needs R&R as much as the rest of us." He moved over to the pool table, getting it set up for the game to come.

Chakotay stepped into Sandrine's. For some reason on this night, Sandrine latched onto him immediately. She had never shown the slightest interest in him before. Taking his arm in hers, she said softly, "Captain, I'm so glad to see you. Thomas will be glad too."

Chakotay's gaze swept over to the pool table where Tom stood talking with Harry and Neelix. "What makes you say that?" he asked Sandrine.

"Oh, you tease me, Captain. I saw what happened between you and my Thomas the other night. I think you will be good for each other. Thomas has been much, much too sad lately."

Chakotay felt himself coloring at her reference to the incident of a couple of nights ago. He was glad nobody was within hearing distance at the moment. "I'll keep that in mind," he told Sandrine as he disengaged himself from her and made for the pool table.

Tom looked up as Chakotay reached the table. Their gazes met and there was that spark between them again, catching both men off guard. Tom's gaze flickered away then returned as if to verify what was going on between them. Clearing his throat, he asked, "You been practicing, Captain?"

Chakotay just smiled before saying, "Who breaks?"

"Since I won the last game, it's only fair you get first break," Tom offered.

Nodding, Chakotay chose a cue stick and then positioned himself at the end of the table for his opening shot. He tried to ignore Tom but couldn't help being aware of the intense blue eyes focused on him.

Harry watched Chakotay and Tom. Something was up between them. He just couldn't quite finger it. One minute they seemed all business and formal the next there was this teasing undertone, as if they shared some secret. The shattering sound of the break brought Harry's attention back to the game. A striped four rolled into a pocket.

"Looks like I'm solid," Tom commented.

Looking at him, Chakotay thought, You certainly are. Almost as if reading his thoughts, Tom grinned before turning to the table behind him to grab his drink. Chakotay bent back down to the table, sinking two more balls before he missed one and Tom moved in for his chance.

The two men, much to the crowd's delight, spent the next two games volleying back and forth for control. Chakotay won the first game. Tom the second. Now halfway into the third, they were fighting a constant battle for the lead.

Harry, who had spent more time watching the Captain and Paris than the game itself was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion about what was going on between the two men. He watched them watch each other and grew more certain with each passing minute that his hunch was correct. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined this outcome between these two particular individuals, but he couldn't deny what he was seeing play out right before his eyes.

Chakotay bent over the table. This game seemed destined to be a repeat of the game of a few nights ago. Only this time it was Chakotay who had the chance to make the trick shot to win the game. As he bent over the table and pulled the stick back to make his shot, Tom's quiet voice came from nearby. "Remember, angle is important but don't forget the touch." The combination of the same words used that fateful night and Tom's low seductive tone caused Chakotay's shot to go wild. The crowd, not having heard Tom's comment to the Captain, groaned as Chakotay missed the shot.

Stepping aside, he watched as Tom, who seemed sure he had the game won, bent over the table to take his shot. "I may need to work on my performance some more," Chakotay allowed, pitching his voice for Tom's ears only. "My touch seems to be a little off." He saw Tom falter, then take a deep steadying breath before taking his shot. The crowd erupted in cheers and groans. Cheers for those who had bet Paris would win again. Groans for those who had sided with the Captain.

Tom straightened and turned to face the Captain. "I think you're right," he said. "We need to work on your performance." Shaking his head in rueful amusement, Chakotay held out his hand in congratulations to Tom. They shook and Tom's eyes sparked blue at him while Chakotay's smoldered with their own inner light in return. "Shall we call it a night?" Tom asked as the crowd began to disperse.

"Sounds good to me," Chakotay agreed, suddenly sounding tired and the good cheer of the evening seeming to evaporate from him abruptly.

As Chakotay moved for the exit, Tom, mind made up, caught up to him. "Can I talk to you?" asked Tom quietly. "Before you turn in tonight?"

Chakotay flicked a gaze at him, wondering what this was about. "If it's ship business, can it wait until tomorrow?"

"Actually, it's personal." Tom stared at him frankly, letting his concern show through.

Nodding, Chakotay said, "We can talk in my quarters." The two men left together, both of them looking suddenly serious.

On the way to Chakotay's quarters, neither man said a word, both seeming to be lost in their own thoughts. Chakotay kept stealing glances at Tom, wondering what was on his mind. What did Tom want to talk to him about? What had happened in Sandrine's a few nights ago? Tonight it had become even more evident that there was an attraction between them. No matter how much either of them tried to ignore it, it persisted. Chakotay wasn't sure he wanted to talk about it. Not yet. He wasn't ready to examine those feelings too closely. Especially tonight. He was too weary to deal with it.

Tom was aware of the glances the Captain kept sending his way but carefully kept his own gaze averted as he went over in his head how to broach this subject with Chakotay. Maybe the direct approach was the best. He followed Chakotay into the Captain's quarters.

"Have a seat," invited Chakotay as he sat at his desk and checked his terminal for messages. He didn't really need to check his messages. If there was anything important they would have called him direct. He was just trying to put off having this conversation with Tom.

Electing to remain standing rather than sit, Tom leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. Getting right to the point, he asked, "What are you avoiding, Chakotay? Me? Or is it Kathryn?"

At the mention of Kathryn Janeway, Chakotay's gaze slowly rose to meet Tom's. The pilot was leaning against the wall, looking loose and relaxed but when Chakotay's gaze met his, he saw concern in the other man's eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied evasively.

"No?" Tom's brows raised in disbelief. "You seemed pretty down in the dumps this morning at the staff meeting. Do you have any idea how hard I tried on the Bridge today to get a smile out of you?"

Chakotay grimaced. So that's what all that bantering had been about. Tom had been about to drive him crazy with his constant commentary, something Chakotay hadn't been in the mood for today.

"It is Kathryn, isn't it?" Tom's voice was soft with understanding. "What's wrong, Chakotay? No more urgent ship's business to be handled? No immediate threats to be dealt with? Nothing to distract you from you own thoughts any longer? Kathryn invading your thoughts again?"

Chakotay frowned. "This is really none of your business, Lieutenant," he said irritably.

"I'm making it my business, Chakotay," he shot back, deliberately stressing the use of the other man's given name, not about to let him pull rank. "Listen to me, Chakotay. You came to me a few nights ago with some pretty good advice. I didn't want to listen to it at the time but in retrospect you were right. Maybe you should take your own advice. It's time to let go. Don't let her haunt you for the rest of your life. It's not what Captain Janeway would have wanted."

Chakotay's gaze returned to his monitor. He stared at the print there without really seeing it. Tom thought he wasn't going to reply, but then the other man began speaking, slowly, hesitantly. "I thought I had dealt with all this when she died. I guess I was only fooling myself."

"Not any more than I was," Tom told him. "You were right when you told me a few days ago that it was time to move on. I think it's time you take your own advice. Put the ghosts to rest, Chakotay. This crew needs you."

Chakotay felt a sudden irrational anger. The crew. The ship. That was what had come between himself and Kathryn. "Is that all anybody cares about?" he snapped.

Tom was across the room in two long strides. Planting his hands on Chakotay's desk he leaned in close to the other man. "Dammit, Chakotay. That's not what I meant and you know it. The ship's important. The crew's important, but I'm here because you're important . . . to me."

Chakotay looked up at that. Tom met his gaze, not backing down. Chakotay wasn't sure what to say. How much should he read into Tom's words? Tom stared into those haunted eyes. The same haunted look that had gazed back at him from the mirror for so many months now gazed back at him out of Chakotay's eyes. "Oh damn, Chakotay," he breathed softly, feeling for what the other man was going through. He leaned in, planted a tender kiss on the other man's lips, feeling Chakotay's lips move beneath his in reply. Tom kept the kiss gentle and brief. "I care," he whispered. Straightening, he turned and quickly exited the Captain's quarters, leaving Chakotay sitting there to mull over his words and actions.

Tom returned to his quarters, shaken at the depth of his feelings for Chakotay and wondering if he'd just made a huge mistake. He hadn't planned to handle the situation that way, but when Chakotay had gazed back at him looking so wounded and alone, he hadn't been able to help himself.

He went to bed that night and for the first time in a long time his thoughts weren't occupied by B'Elanna but by a certain dark-haired, bronze-skinned man.

After the encounter in Chakotay's quarters, the two men seemed to reach a mutually agreed upon holding pattern. Neither made a move to acknowledge that anything of an intimate nature had happened between them. As the days stretched out into weeks so did the thread of smoldering intensity between them until it threatened to snap. Both were very careful not to end up alone in the company of the other if they could help it. Neither man stopped to analyze his behavior nor question why they were fighting the attraction. Both used the time to heal from old wounds. Kathryn and B'Elanna were never far from their minds, but their losses became easier to deal with and the grief was no longer overwhelmingly consuming.

This day found Chakotay leading an away team consisting of Tom, Harry, and two security ensigns. They were scanning the local terrain, looking for materials that could be of use to Voyager. Checking his tricorder as he slowly walked forward, Chakotay said, "The mineral deposits up ahead look interesting. We--"

"Sir, watch out!" warned one of the security ensigns.

Chakotay looked up in time to see a large flowering plant off to one side shoot several thorn-like projectiles in his direction. They imbedded themselves in his chest. Looking down at them, he swayed unsteadily on his feet, then the ground was rushing up at him. He was vaguely aware of Tom's anguished, "NO!" right before he lost consciousness.

Panicked but trying to stay calm, Tom knelt by the Captain. He ran the tricorder over him quickly. "He's not breathing," he told the others. "Get us up to Sickbay. Now!" Hearing Harry request an emergency beam up, Tom gazed down at the man lying so still. "Dammit, Chakotay. Don't do this to me! Not you too!" Then the transporter took them.

The scene in Sickbay was chaotic. As Kes and the Doctor worked over Chakotay, Harry dismissed the security ensigns, informed Tuvok what had taken place, then turned his attention to Tom, who had retreated to the back of Sickbay to watch from a distance. Harry went to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He hadn't missed hearing Tom's whispered plea to Chakotay on the planet. Although Tom had denied it when Harry had finally come right out and asked if he and Chakotay were involved, Harry was now fairly certain that something was going on between the two men. "You okay?" he asked Tom.

Not taking his eyes off where the Doctor worked over Chakotay, Tom said, "I can't lose him, Harry." Those few words told Harry all he needed to know. He gripped Tom's shoulder in understanding.

On the biobed, Chakotay gave a sudden gasp for air. Kes looked relieved. The Doctor gave her instructions for treatment of the patient before turning to Tom and Harry. "Captain Chakotay will recover. The thorns were tipped with a poison that shocked his heart into arrhythmia. I'll want to keep him in Sickbay overnight, but he should be fine by tomorrow morning."

Tuvok, arriving in time to hear the Doctor's prognosis, said, "I am relieved to hear the Captain will make a full recovery, Doctor." He turned to Tom and Harry. "Were you able to locate any promising materials on the planet?"

Harry glanced at Tom, who didn't appear to have heard Tuvok. His gaze was still locked on the biobed where the Captain lay. "I can make a full report to you, Commander," Harry told Tuvok.

Tuvok started to ask Lieutenant Paris to come with them as well, but once he noticed where Tom's attention was focused, the Vulcan said nothing further to him. Even if the two Humans were not yet aware of it, Tuvok had observed the tension between the Captain and Voyager's pilot and suspected Lieutenant Paris had come to the conclusion that it was time to discuss it with the Captain.

Tom was aware of Tuvok and Harry leaving but he had eyes only for the man lying on the biobed. Approaching the bed, he stood there watching Chakotay sleep.

"He'll probably be asleep for awhile, Tom," Kes told him.

Nodding, Tom said, "I'll stay with him, if that's all right."

The Doctor and Kes left him to sit with the Captain while they went about their normal duties. Pulling a chair up to Chakotay's bedside, Tom took the other man's hand in his, holding it tightly. "You scared me, Chakotay. You scared me good." Reaching out with his other hand, he ran his fingers gently over the sleeping man's face as if the touch could reassure him that Chakotay was alive and he hadn't lost him. A pensive expression on his face, Tom settled in to stay until Chakotay woke and they could talk.

Chakotay opened his eyes to discover he was in Sickbay. Concerned blue eyes stared down at him. "What happened?" he asked Tom.

Tom's mouth quirked slightly. "A flower bit you."

"A flower . . . ?" Chakotay trailed off as he recalled what had happened. He rubbed at his chest where the thorns had been imbedded.

"The Doc says you'll be fine. The thorns shot your system full of poison. You weren't breathing when we beamed you up." Chakotay heard something in Tom's voice and gazed up at him, his own gaze acknowledging the fear he saw there.

"We need to talk," both men said at the same time.

Chakotay grinned. "At least we're in agreement. Help me sit up, will you?"

After Chakotay was in a more comfortable position, Tom reseated himself in his chair. He looked solemnly at the other man. "You scared me today, Chakotay. I thought I was going to lose you too."

"I know. I heard you just before I fell unconscious." They stared at each other, both remembering that first accidental kiss and what had later happened in Sandrine's. Chakotay, remembering Tom's gentle kiss the night he had been feeling low, held out his hand to the other man. Staring at their clasped hands, Chakotay asked, "What's going on here do you think?"

"You're asking me?" Tom's voice was full of humor but when Chakotay lifted his gaze to meet the other man's, he found intense blue eyes searching out his reaction. Sighing, Tom said, "That night in Sandrine's? I thought that was just a one-time thing. Me missing B'Elanna. You missing Kathryn."

"We both needed someone that night."

"Who would have thought . . ." Tom shook his head. "Chakotay, am I nuts or is there something here between us? Something worth pursuing?" Chakotay stared at the other man in surprise. He hadn't expected Tom to be so straightforward. He usually danced around these kind of issues. Tom shrugged. "Like I said, you scared me today. No time for games."

"So what are you saying exactly?" asked Chakotay carefully. "Do you want to give this a try? Explore what's going on between us? See if there's something more there?"

"Is there something more here, Chakotay?"

Chakotay tugged on Tom's hand, still clasped in his, pulling the other man to his feet. He pulled him in close, feeling his pulse quicken. Tom didn't hesitate to lean in for the kiss. A long, exploratory kiss that fanned the flames both had been trying so desperately to control.


Tom and Chakotay pulled apart to find the Doctor frowning at them. "My patient needs rest, Lieutenant Paris. You are not helping matters any."

"Sorry, Doc," Tom apologized, not sounding terribly apologetic. He turned his attention back to Chakotay. "Maybe we can continue this tomorrow after you're released from Sickbay."

Chakotay squeezed the hand still held in his own. "Tomorrow night. Dinner. In my quarters."

Tom gave him a quick smile which turned devilish as he leaned in to give him another quick kiss. "Tomorrow night," he agreed.

Chakotay watched him exit Sickbay before turning to the Doctor. "I know, I know. Rest." Grinning, he lay back down in the bed, looking forward to tomorrow night.

As he exited Sickbay, Tom realized he had missed dinner in the mess hall and that he was hungry. He headed straight for the replicator once he reached his quarters. As he was pulling his dinner out, the door chime sounded. "Come."

Harry walked in. "I thought I might find you here when the Doctor said you had left Sickbay."

"You want something to eat?" asked Tom as he sat at his desk to eat his dinner.

"No, I already ate. You go ahead." Harry relaxed on the couch, saying, "You look better than you did when I left Sickbay this afternoon. I take it Chakotay is going to be okay?"

Tom nodded and in between spoonfuls of tomato soup, he said, "The Doctor's releasing him tomorrow."

Harry leaned forward. "Tom, you can hardly tell me now that there's nothing going on between you and Chakotay."

Tom sat back and gave his friend a frank stare. "What if I told you Chakotay and I are lovers?"

"Are you?"

"Not yet."

Harry smiled. "But you'd like to be."

Frowning, Tom replied, "I don't know what I want. All I know is he scared me today and my first thought when he keeled over down there was that I was going to lose him like I lost B'Elanna."

"Is that what's been holding the two of you back all this time? B'Elanna and Kathryn?"

"All this time?" Tom looked at his friend.

"I'm not blind, Tom. I knew something was going on between the two of you. At first I thought you'd had a disagreement, but that one night in Sandrine's when you were playing pool, well, the sparks were really flying." At the mention of Sandrine's Tom's attention abruptly returned to his bowl of soup, but Harry didn't miss the light blush that graced his cheeks. "Anything that can make Tom Paris blush has to be good. Come on, Tom, what aren't you telling me?"

Concentrating intently on his soup, Tom kept his tone casual. "I said Chakotay and I weren't lovers. I didn't say we hadn't . . ." He shrugged. "It wasn't planned. We just sort of fell into each other. We were both feeling lonely and missing B'Elanna and Kathryn. You know how it is."

Harry shook his head, beginning to get the picture. "And what? You've both been telling yourselves all this time that it meant nothing only to finally figure out it means everything?"

"That's pretty deep, Harry," Tom teased, a smile lighting his face.

"I'm a pretty deep guy," grinned Harry. "So, are you two going to work this out?"

"We're having dinner tomorrow."

Turning serious, Harry told his friend, "I hope this works out for both of you, Tom. I think you're good for each other, and I think both B'Elanna and Captain Janeway would be pleased. Surprised, but pleased."

"It's gonna surprise a lot of people."

"Maybe not as many as you think," Harry said. "There's been some talk around the ship." At Tom's frown, Harry quickly added, "Don't let it worry you. Most of 'em are pulling for the two of you to get together."

Tom gave him a skeptical look. "If you say so."

"I say so. Now, finish your dinner. I want you to come to Engineering so I can show you something I've been working on."

The next night, Tom, suddenly nervous, showed up at Chakotay's door right on schedule for their dinner date. Chakotay hadn't said they were going casual but Tom had decided to do away with his uniform for tonight and wore a pair of loose fitting black trousers with a flowing sapphire-colored shirt whose V-neckline dipped down enticingly to reveal glimpses of a chest lightly peppered with blond hairs.

Looking up as Tom entered, Chakotay paused to give his gaze time to roam appreciately over the other man. His gaze finally came to rest on the object in Tom's hands. "What's that you've got there?"

Tom hefted the bottle up. "I brought a bottle of wine for dinner. Afraid it's replicated. I used up my stash quite some time ago." Walking to the replicator, Chakotay retrieved two wine glasses. He finished setting dinner on the table while Tom poured them each a glass of wine.

Looking at the Oriental cuisine Chakotay had replicated, Tom said, "This 
looks good." He eyed the chopsticks sitting next to his plate. "Uh, Chakotay?"

"Yes?" replied the other man as he took as sip of the wine.

"I never could quite get the hang of using these things," said Tom as he picked up the chopsticks.

"Really?" Chakotay seemed surprised. "I figured that was something you would pick up easily."

Tom shrugged. "I seem to be all thumbs when it comes to using them." He demonstrated his awkwardness with them, looking up helplessly to see the man across the table watching him in amusement. "See?"

Chakotay rose from his seat and came around the table to stand behind Tom. "You're holding them all wrong for starters," he said. Leaning over him, he positioned Tom's fingers on the chopsticks in the correct hold then guided his hand to the plate of food. Together they picked up a piece of sweet 'n sour pork and lifted it to Tom's mouth.

Tom, for his part, was more than a little aware of Chakotay's chest pressed against his back and of the other man's fingers on his hand, their touch electric. With difficulty he focused on the food. "Mmm. Not bad," he said as he chewed.

His face next to Tom's, Chakotay said, "Why don't you try it by yourself?"

Tom made a doubtful face but dove in to make the attempt nevertheless and surprised himself by snagging another piece of pork. As he lifted it toward his mouth, Chakotay breathed softly into his ear, "You smell good."

Concentration shot, the piece of pork fell to the plate. Tom started to open his mouth to complain about the other man's tactics but before he got a word out, Chakotay had turned his head and claimed his mouth, his lips moving gently but demanding over Tom's. Caught off guard, Tom had difficulty catching his breath but it didn't take him long to return the kiss enthusiastically. Forgotten, the chopsticks dropped from his hand.

After a moment, Chakotay pulled back, drawing in a deep breath. He gazed into Tom's eyes long and hard before straightening back up to a standing position. "We better eat before the food gets cold," he said calmly, while inside his heart was thundering so loudly he was sure Tom could hear it. He picked up the abandoned chopsticks, returning them to Tom's hand.

As Chakotay returned to his side of the table, Tom stared at him incredulously. "You're really going to make me suffer through the whole meal trying to eat with these things."

"Practice makes perfect."

Tom rolled his eyes before attempting to tackle the food on his plate again. He did all right with the larger pieces of food, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get hold of the rice. At Chakotay's amused laugh, Tom snapped, "It isn't funny! A person could starve to death." The slight smile on his mouth, however, belayed the sharpness of his voice.

Taking pity on him, Chakotay snagged some rice on his own chopsticks and held them out across the table. He watched the other man's mouth move over the chopsticks. There was something very erotic in the movements. Their heated gazes met and held. Inhaling sharply, Chakotay said softly, "Time to talk."

Tom nodded. He said nothing, waiting attentively to hear what the other man had to say. Chakotay gazed intently across the table, trying to read the thoughts behind the blue eyes gazing back at him. Tom's eyes were shuttered once more but Chakotay kept glimpsing hints of wistful longing along with a fair amount of trepidation. He wasn't certain he would have attempted to brave this subject, but the kiss they had shared moments ago had decided him. It was obvious there was an attraction here. There had been an attraction between them for some time now and it didn't seem to be diminishing. In fact, it was becoming rather difficult to ignore.

"Tom, setting aside the fact for the moment that I'm your commanding officer, which I don't really see as an issue, is there a relationship here between us we should pursue? One you're interested in pursuing? And I'm not talking about a simple one-night stand. We tried that already. All it did was make us more aware of each other." Chakotay's eyes dared the other man to refute that.

Tom's gaze flicked down to the tabletop. He was admittedly not at his most comfortable when discussions got personal, but B'Elanna had taught him there could be benefits to it also. It was a matter of trust. Did he trust Chakotay enough to confide in him? The little voice inside him spoke up, chastising him. Thomas, you want the man to be your lover. At some point you're going to have to open yourself up to him. Better to do it now than wait until it's too late.

Chakotay watched the play of emotions cross the other man's face. Sometimes Tom was so closed off he couldn't tell what he was thinking. In the past few moments, however, some of those shields seemed to have dropped away.

"I don't know about you," Tom said, his eyes meeting the other man's, "but I think we've reached a good point in our friendship for two people who started out not liking each other much. I don't want to jeopardize that."

Chakotay felt his heart drop to his stomach. Obviously he had misjudged the situation. Tom wasn't interested in pursuing a long-term intimate relationship with him. It alarmed him to feel the depth of his disappointment. He had already unconsciously committed himself more deeply to this relationship than he had thought. Tom's next words, however, caused his heartbeat to speed up.

"If we decide to attempt this," Tom continued, completely oblivious to Chakotay's swinging emotions, "I think we need to take it carefully and slowly." His eyes, suddenly smoldering with passion, met those of the man sitting across from him. "I want you, Chakotay. I want you here and now. What happened yesterday, when we nearly lost you, brought home to me just how important you are to me."

Chakotay felt himself relax as he realized that Tom had the same fears he did, yet he still wanted to pursue this relationship. His head bowed, giving a silent prayer of thanks.


He looked up to find Tom's concerned gaze on him. Smiling, Chakotay said, "You scared me there for a moment. The way you started out I thought you were going to decline."

Tom reached across the table, taking the other man's hand in his. Staring at their intertwined fingers, he softly said, "I have to admit, this has taken me by surprise. You're probably the last person on Voyager I ever thought I would end up with, but it feels right, doesn't it?" He looked to the dark eyes for confirmation.

Nodding, Chakotay said, "It feels very right." He squeezed Tom's hand reassuringly.

Smiling, Tom offered, "Harry seems to think Kathryn and B'Elanna would approve of us."

Chakotay frowned. "Harry knows about this?"

A mischievous twinkle in his eyes, Tom said, "Prepare yourself. Seems most of the ship had it figured out before we did. Harry said everyone's getting rather impatient for us to get on with things."

"Never underestimate the power of the rumor mill," Chakotay murmured. "Especially on a ship this size. I guess we shouldn't disappoint them, should we?"

Tom's pulse quickened. "Meaning?"

"Spend the night with me, Tom."

It was on the tip of his tongue to say yes, but to his surprise Tom found himself shaking his head. "I'm not sure we're ready for that yet."

"I just want to be able to hold you," Chakotay told him. "It doesn't have to go any further than that."

"Chakotay," breathed Tom in frustration, "do you honestly think if you put the two of us in a bed together that nothing is going to happen?"

"I'm willing to risk it." Now it was Chakotay's eyes twinkling mischievously and there was a definite challenge in them.

No time to waste, whispered the little voice within and Tom found himself nodding. "All right," he agreed. "I'll stay."

Dinner dishes cleared away, the two men reclined on the couch. They sat there for several moments in silence, seated on opposite ends of the couch. Tom finally laughed self-consciously. "This is ridiculous. I feel like a kid on my first date."

Smiling self-consciously also, Chakotay reached a hand across the back of the couch. Tom reached back. Their fingers intertwined and Tom moved to Chakotay's end of the couch, moving in to touch his lips to the other man's. Chakotay responded eagerly. As they kissed, their hands slid over each other, gently touching, exploring, caressing. Chakotay pulled Tom's shirt from the waistband of his trousers, sliding his hands up underneath the shirt and running them over his ribcage.

Tom's hands had already moved underneath Chakotay's loose white top. His hands roamed over the other man's back, tracing sensual patterns there. Pushing Chakotay back against the couch, Tom pressed himself against the other man, who moaned in pleasure. His breathing ragged, Tom pulled away to fall back against the couch at Chakotay's side.


"I know," sighed Chakotay. "Do you ever feel like saying to hell with it and just going for it?"

"Yeah. Right now." Tom's voice was both wistful and cautious.

A bark of laughter was surprised out of Chakotay. Reaching over, he pulled Tom to him so that the other man's back rested against his chest. Tom relaxed against him, simply enjoying the moment. His breath falling softly against the other man's hair, Chakotay said, "Let's go to bed. Whatever happens will happen."

Deciding that was the best idea he had heard in a long while, Tom got to his feet, pulling Chakotay along with him. Hand in hand, they made their way to the sleeping quarters.

As Chakotay silently started to undress, Tom's hands came around him from behind, pulling his shirt over his head and undoing the trousers. He nuzzled at Chakotay's neck, nibbling at an ear. Chakotay stood there, eyes closed, enjoying the sensation of the other man's hands running over him. Then, unable to stand still any longer, he turned into Tom's embrace and captured his mouth in a passionate kiss.

Still kissing, Chakotay undid the fastenings on Tom's shirt and drew it off his shoulders and down his arms, forcing Tom to abandon his caresses of Chakotay's body so his shirt could be removed. Both stepped out of their shoes and the pants soon followed the shirts until they stood together, clad only in their underwear. Pressed together, they both took great delight in the feel of the other body against theirs. Hard muscled chest pressed against hard muscled chest and firm thighs pressed into firm thighs, both felt the evidence of the other's arousal. Neither said a word, letting their touches speak for them.

Fingers trailing sensuous patterns over Chakotay's back, Tom's hands slid downward slowly until they were cupping the other man's backside. Chakotay's hands, with a life seemingly all of their own, roamed over the other Tom's shoulders, to his chest, where his fingers grazed the nipples, eliciting a moan of pleasure from the other man. He lifted his hands to Tom's face, tracing the planes of those handsome features. His fingers traced Tom's cheekbones and the aristocratic looking nose before moving to his lips. Tom's mouth engulfed Chakotay's finger. Chakotay pulled Tom in for another kiss, their tongues performing a seductive dance.

Tom's hands slipped beneath Chakotay's briefs to caress his buttocks as Chakotay fingers drifted southward to the other man's hips. Hooking fingers in the waistband of the briefs, he pulled them down, letting them slide to Tom's ankles. As he stepped out of them, Chakotay, pulling him in close, trapped Tom's erection between them, the friction of their bodies causing Tom to give a low moan of agonized pleasure.

Tom slid Chakotay's briefs off, he felt as if he were about to explode. Wanting to prolong this moment as long as possible, he stepped back in an effort regain a little control. His gaze ran admiringly over the other man from head to foot and back again. Chakotay, to his mortification, felt himself blushing. No one had looked at him like that in a long time. He soon forgot his embarrassment though as he let his own gaze travel over Tom. Perfection. Long lean limbs with a strength that wasn't evident when he was clothed. Light dusting of blond hair across his chest and down further . . . Chakotay smiled at the evidence of Tom's arousal. He reached out to pull the other man closer. Their erections brushed, startling gasps out of both men. They clung together, striving for some control, neither man wanting this moment to end too soon.

"Bed!" Chakotay gasped.

Nodding, Tom moved for the bed, pulling Chakotay after him. They tumbled onto the bed in a tangle of arms and legs. Laying side by side, facing each other, they both leaned in for a long slow kiss. "Mmmm," murmured Tom as he wrapped his arms around the other man. They lay together for several breathless moments, sharing kisses and caresses and trying their best to take it slowly. Their traitorous bodies, however, wanted to move things along at a much faster pace.

Chakotay pushed Tom over onto his back and leaned down, taking one of the other man's nipples in his mouth to tease it. One of his hands reached down to stroke Tom's hardness. Tom's hands grasped futilely at the bed sheets. He arched up against Chakotay before pulling the other man atop him and bringing his lips down to be hungrily consumed.

Drawing back slightly to gaze down into his eyes, Chakotay stared for so long that Tom's face began to color from the close scrutiny. "I want you," Chakotay told him softly. "I want to feel you inside me, but . . ." He let his hand trail down the other man's side to his hip then moved his own hips suggestively in a thrusting movement against him. ". . . since I seem to have you right where I want you." He smiled suggestively.



"Quit talking and -- ahhhh!" Tom couldn't contain the involuntary moan drawn out of him when the other man's touch tightened on his erection, stroking it. "That's, yes, that's, ahhhh, more like it," he gasped.

Grabbing the tube of lubricant from the bedside table, Chakotay moved down Tom's body, coming to rest between his thighs. Coating his fingers with the lubricant, he slipped one finger into Tom, gently sliding in and out. Another finger soon followed and then another. He watched Tom, whose head had arched back in ecstasy, the long line of his throat revealed. Tom's hands clutched at the bed sheets in ecstatic misery.

"Chakotay. Now! Please," he gasped.

Obliging him, Chakotay lifted the other man's legs to his own shoulders before pressing the tip of his lubricated erection to Tom and slowly pushing into him. Tom pushed back, wanting to feel Chakotay fill him. Then Chakotay was all the way in, Tom tightly clenched around him and encouraging him on. Chakotay began thrusting in and out, their pace quickly moving to a frenzied orgasmic tempo. Grasping Tom's erection, Chakotay pumped it in time with the thrusts. All the while he watched Tom's face, bathed in a slight sheen of sweat and an abandonment in his features that was glorious to see.

"Chakotay!" Tom exploded, shuddering with the intensity of it. Seconds later, Chakotay peaked and erupted in a blinding explosion of colors.

Gasping for breath, Chakotay pulled out of Tom and collapsed next to him. Tom, his own breathing ragged, pulled him into an embrace. They lay in each other's arms, waiting for their breathing to return to normal.

Finally, still slightly breathless, Chakotay said, "That was--"

"--intense?" Tom finished for him. He chuckled.

"What?" asked a bemused Chakotay.

Rearranging himself so that he was half draped over the other man, Tom said, "I was just remembering something Sandrine once said to me."

"You want to share it?" asked Chakotay, wriggling a bit as Tom teased one of his nipples.

In a distracted voice, his attention more or less focused on teasing the other man's body into another reaction, Tom said, "She once told me if I every truly let myself go with a lover, I would be a passionate Red Stroke."

Chakotay didn't understand the reference. "Red Stroke?"

"Um," murmured Tom, trying to focus on the conversation and pleasing his lover's body at the same time, "think of a painting, vivid colors splashed on the canvas. Sandrine said I reminded her of the red stroke:  bold and passionate but needing the right lover to uncage it."

Chakotay liked the reference. It fit Tom. "Red Stroke, huh?" He let his hand travel in a sensuous crawl down Tom's stomach to where the stirring of another arousal was beginning. "Well, Red Stroke, you think you have enough uncaged passion left for another round?"

"Again?" Tom's voice was filled with mock horror. He rolled atop Chakotay, peering down into his warm laughing eyes.

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

"You've got me, Chakotay. All of me."

Using his body much as an artist uses a brush, Tom stroked away old sorrows, painted new passions, erased the borders until they had merged into one painting. Two Red Strokes splashed across the canvas as they came together in a burst of red passion. Tom took Chakotay to new heights and together they soared through the night on thunderous moments of tenderness . . . passions uncaged.

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Moonlight on canvas, midnight and wine
Two shadows starting to softly combine
The picture they're painting
Is one of the heart
And to those who have seen it
It's a true work of art

Oh, the red strokes
Passions uncaged
Thundering moments of tenderness rage
Oh, the red strokes
Tempered and strong
Burning the night like the dawn

Steam on the window, salt in a kiss
Two hearts have never pounded like this
Inspired by a vision
That they can't command
Erasing the borders
With each brush of a hand

Oh, the red strokes
Passions uncaged
Thundering moments of tenderness rage
Oh, the red strokes
Fearlessly drawn
Burning the night like the dawn

Quoted lyrics are excerpts from How Do I Live written by Diane Warren and The Red Strokes written by James Garver, Lisa Sanderson, Jenny Yates, Garth Brooks.

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