Summary: Paris and Chakotay are stranded together in a shuttlecraft. Paris and Chakotay talk to each other. Paris and Chakotay talk some more (you get the picture). Paris and Chakotay get rescued (you thought they wouldn‘t?). Rated PG. Set near the beginning of the 5th season.

Disclaimer: Star Trek and its characters are the property of Paramount/Viacom. I am just borrowing them for fun, not profit.

Notes: A story by mc moose, "Uplifting

Conversation", where Janeway and Torres are stranded together in a turbolift and have the chance to talk, planted the idea for this story in my mind. Much as we haven‘t seen enough interaction between Janeway and Torres lately, I also feel we haven‘t seen enough interaction between Chakotay and Paris (nor have we seen any transitional scenes showing how and when their attitudes toward each other changed from antagonistic to totally amiable). There is a lot of focus on relationships in this story, both P/T and J/C, so if you are not into these relationships, you are warned. I focus on these relationships as they have been presented in canon, particularly in the past year, but since the writers aren‘t always strong on clarification, this is basically my "interpretation" of canon, and of some of the events from the past seasons. Others may have a completely different, and equally valid, interpretations.


Heart To Heart
by Julie Evans (

"Engines are off line."

"No kidding."

"Navigation is off line."

"It‘s not like it would be worth much without the engines."

"Shields, weapons and sensors are off line."

"Then I guess it‘s a good thing we‘re the only living things in this entire system right now."

"Communications is off line."

"Any good news?"

"All nonessential and non emergency computer programs are off line."

"I didn‘t know voice activation was essential."

"Emergency back up systems for computer access and environmental are on line."

"I guess that explains why we‘re still breathing."

"Situational status: The shuttlecraft Sagan is adrift."

"Thank you! What would we do without the computer here to tell us these things?"

Chakotay watched Tom Paris press several controls repeatedly as he carried out his acerbic dialogue with the impervious computer. There was no point to Tom‘s continued manipulation of the dead controls, except to relieve his frustration. The intense and unexpected ion storm that had rocked the shuttle several minutes ago had knocked out virtually everything. The only systems still functioning were as the computer stated, the environmental emergency systems that gave them air to breathe and kept the zero temperature of space outside the shuttle. And the emergency lighting, though it seemed to be at half the strength it should be. It also seemed a little cold in here, which made him a little nervous....

"Computer, are the environmental emergency back up systems fully operational?"

"Environmental emergency back up systems are at half capacity. Priority is assigned to oxygenating the air of the shuttle interior, secondary priority to regulating the temperature."

Tom groaned at the computer‘s answer to Chakotay‘s question. "Great, does this mean we‘re going to freeze to death now?"

"Emergency environmental systems can maintain interior air and temperature at levels sufficient for human survival for 34.3 days."

Chakotay smiled. "See, Tom, it‘s not so bad.

Voyager will be here within half a day."

"Half a day?" Tom sounded irritated. "They‘re only a system away."

"True, but we sent a class three mayday. The away teams aren‘t scheduled to return for a few hours, and I doubt the captain will recall them from collecting foodstuffs and energy supplies when she knows that we are alive and safe." He saw the glum look on Tom‘s face. "At least we were able to send a message squirt, since it has a manual release. On the bright side, maybe it will only be 7 or 8 hours."

In a dim, cold shuttle. With no food except emergency ration bars, no computer access beyond emergency status reports, not even anything of interest to look at. Tom glanced out the front viewscreen at the planet they were orbiting, its surface a wrap of dull gunmetal gray clouds, with so little color variation that it would probably make a great eye test. And the sensor scan he had performed just before the ion storm had hit them had indicated that the planet wasn‘t only boring to look at, it had no energy resources of any value either. "Why didn‘t the sensors pick up the ion storm before it hit us?"

Tom‘s question was rhetorical, and Chakotay just shrugged. "The Sagan‘s sensors have been a little unreliable before."

"We really have to design a shuttle that is more reliable than these old relics," Tom groused. "The constant rebuilding and parts replacement isn‘t working anymore."

"You‘re right," Chakotay agreed. "But they‘re all we have right now. Of course, if you have a design idea you can always submit a feasibility report to the captain."

"Feasibility report?" Tom echoed. "What is this, Starfleet?" he added sardonically.

Chakotay chuckled. "As far as the captain is concerned it is. But you‘re right about the shuttles. After all the extra workouts they‘ve been through in the Delta quadrant they are beginning to outlive their functional lives."

"The ones you haven‘t managed to destroy, Chakotay," Tom said dryly.

Chakotay gave Tom a narrow look. "Maybe I just put them out of their misery." Tom chuckled at that and Chakotay added, "Besides, I seem to remember you and B‘Elanna took care of the Cochrane pretty well yourselves not so long ago."

Tom shuddered slightly. "Don‘t remind me. That‘s not a pleasant memory." A far away look crossed his face. "Though I don‘t regret it, considering what happened with..."

Chakotay raised an eyebrow when Tom broke off and glanced away self consciously. "Keep going, Tom. I‘ve always wondered what happened between you and B‘Elanna when you were trapped in those EVA suits in space."

Tom leapt up from his chair. "I forgot. There is a deck of cards in the storage cabinet. How about a game of poker?"

Chakotay looked around the dim interior of the shuttle. He‘d have to put his face right up to the console to actually read the monitor blurbs. "It‘s kind of dark in here to play cards, Tom."

"It‘s not that bad. I‘m sure we could make out the numbers.."

"I don‘t really want to strain my eyes," Chakotay said, a trace of amusement in his voice as he watched Tom frown and sit back down. "Why so antsy all of a sudden, Tom?"

Tom leaned back in his chair and a depreciating smirk lifted his lips. "Don‘t tell me you really want to have that heart to heart we‘ve both been so eagerly avoiding, Chakotay."

Chakotay settled more comfortably into the co-pilot‘s chair, kicking his feet up on the main console and clasping his hands behind his head. "Why not? We don‘t have a lot of options to pass the time, and we‘re not going anywhere. So let‘s talk."

Tom looked nonplused, then he snorted. "Come on, Chakotay. You and me? I was sort of kidding."

"Sort of?"

"Yes, I mean..." Tom shook his head. "Let‘s face it, we don‘t exactly have the kind of relationship where we engage in deep meaningful conversation."

"Are you saying after all this time we can‘t manage better than superficial conversation?" Chakotay asked.

Tom was trying to figure out if Chakotay was baiting him, or really had a sudden desire to have a best friends chat. "Well, that is all we have managed so far. If there was weather on Voyager, that‘s what we‘d talk about."

Chakotay smiled. "You‘re right." He leaned up and rubbed his arms. "The weather‘s a little cold in here today, isn‘t it?"

Tom stared at him.

"Tom, kick your feet up and relax. I know we didn‘t exactly start out on Voyager as friends, but we‘re no longer enemies either. Whatever happened in the past is just that, Tom. In the past."

Tom realized Chakotay was serious. He knew he and Chakotay were...well, he didn‘t know what they were. Colleagues, maybe even friends in a casual sense. And he could now admit that the resentment he‘d felt against Chakotay, both in the Maquis and when he‘d first joined Voyager, had been in part displaced resentment toward his father. He‘d adopted his cocky insolent attitude as a teenager, to hide what he really felt inside, a deep desire for his father‘s respect. And later for Chakotay‘s. He‘d failed every time with his father, mostly through his own errors, though perhaps nothing he could have done would have been enough. But he knew that he had earned Chakotay‘s respect. Still, mutual respect wasn‘t quite the same as friendship...

"Tom." Chakotay interrupted Tom‘s continued silence, and earned a startled look from the pilot. "I mean that. I don‘t hold your past against you. Maybe I did at first, but I‘ve come to realize that I‘ve made far too many bad judgments and poor choices myself to be in a position to judge anyone else. And whatever choices you made, whatever reasons drove you to make them, it doesn‘t matter anymore." He looked at Tom for a long moment then smiled ruefully. "As it turned out, you were far from the worst choice I made when recruiting the Maquis."

Tom understood Chakotay‘s reference. Seska, Suder, Jonas... He had to admit that as each one fell, he‘d been relieved of some of the guilt he‘d felt at joining Voyager in the first place to betray the Maquis, though at the time he‘d known his scant, outdated knowledge had been of very questionable value. He‘d just been desperate to get out of the penal colony, and willing to go after the only promising avenue to freedom. He hadn‘t known then that it would by circumstance be his avenue to eventual redemption. He looked at Chakotay. "You didn‘t exactly have the opportunity to get character references in the Maquis, and I‘d say most of them turned out to be good choices. And one of them was absolutely stellar."

Chakotay chuckled. "I have to admit, B‘Elanna was the best choice I ever made. If that‘s what it took to know her and become her friend, I‘d make the same mistakes all over again."

Tom raised an eyebrow at that. "I‘d help you make the same mistakes all over again."

Chakotay smiled. "I‘m sure you would."

Although it was very dim in the shuttle Tom could still make out the look in Chakotay‘s dark eyes, that look that appeared mild yet was closely scrutinizing everything, and it made him uncomfortable. Somehow they‘d actually started drifting into a serious conversation. And maybe he didn‘t really mind. Because he found himself suddenly curious. He leaned back and stretched his legs out, though not quite ready to kick them up on the console. "I have to admit, Chakotay, I waited for a long time for you to warn me off, or at least read me the riot act, and you never did."

"You mean about B‘Elanna?"

Tom nodded. "I always figured I was the last person on the ship, maybe in the galaxy, that you‘d want B‘Elanna to get involved with."

"You‘re absolutely right," Chakotay said sincerely, then smiled at Tom‘s astonished look. "You were the last person on this ship, perhaps in this Universe, that I wanted to see B‘Elanna get involved with. During the brief time you were with the Maquis, and for the first year or so after we ended up stranded in the Delta quadrant, I would probably have considered spacing you if you‘d made a serious move on her."

Tom gave him a look of mock alarm. "Wouldn‘t that have been a little extreme?"

Chakotay laughed. "Maybe I‘m exaggerating a little. But I figured at the time that she would be nothing more than another notch in your bedpost, so to speak."

Tom wanted to protest but he couldn‘t. Looking back, B‘Elanna had intrigued him from almost the first moment he‘d met her in a way unlike any other woman, in a way he hadn‘t completely understood. And she‘d been hostile enough that he‘d relied on his instinct for self preservation and hadn‘t acknowledged the depth of his fascination. Not for some time, until after he‘d come to view himself differently, and her differently...

"And even when I did notice that you were starting to actively pursue her, after we‘d been out here well over two years, I got a lot of amusement out of watching her rebuff you repeatedly."

Tom smiled at that. "I didn‘t know you found it so entertaining, Chakotay. But guess I couldn‘t blame her, given my reputation."

"Ah, yes, your reputation..." Chakotay‘s voice trailed off and his eyes bored into Tom‘s for several moments.

"What?" Tom didn‘t mean to sound defensive, but Chakotay‘s intense regard was making him uncomfortable again.

"I‘m the first officer on this ship, Tom, and part of my duty is to be very observant of the crew‘s behavior. Including yours."

Now Tom really had no clue what Chakotay was getting at, but somehow it didn‘t sound good.

"This reputation you brought with you. I was aware of it, obviously." Chakotay‘s voice was dry. "But in my careful observation of you—which I admit was originally motivated by very low expectations—though I saw you flirt with almost every woman on this ship at one time or another, by my deduction you‘ve only had a sexual relationship with one woman since this journey began—B‘Elanna."

Tom‘s fair skin turned pink. He didn‘t know Chakotay had been paying such close attention, though he probably shouldn‘t be surprised at the first officer‘s deductive abilities. He strove for a nonchalant expression, willing the heat in his face to recede. "I got rebuffed a lot," he said in a droll voice. Then he added seriously, "Wisely so, because my previous reputation was far from unearned."

Chakotay didn‘t doubt that. "Well, at least on this ship, your reputation was a facade, that as far as I can tell you never actually acted on."

Tom gave Chakotay a curious look. "So is that why no "hands off" warning speech once it was obvious B‘Elanna and I were...uh, getting together, and why you changed your mind about ejecting me out an airlock? Because my reputation was, well, just a reputation?"

"Actually it had more to do with what happened on the Sakari planet."

"Oh." Sakari. Tom wondered if Chakotay had really expected him to jump on B‘Elanna under those circumstances. "You mean you were surprised that I didn‘t just take advantage of B‘Elanna even though she was obviously not in her right mind?"

"No," Chakotay said matter of factly. He had heard the hint of annoyance in Tom‘s voice. "I knew you well enough by then to know you wouldn‘t take advantage of B‘Elanna, any more than any other male member of the crew would have under the same circumstances. Until it became necessary to save her life."

Tom looked at Chakotay for a long moment. "I half expected you to object when Tuvok suggested that I should be the one... uh, that B‘Elanna and I..." he stammered, then paused and looked out the front viewscreen, at the ugly gray planet below. "Never mind-"

"Did you think I might want to offer myself?" Chakotay asked, half amused, half incredulous. "I‘m one of B‘Elanna‘s closest friends, but it was you she chose, Tom."

"I was there when it started," Tom pointed out, and Chakotay wondered if Tom believed that B‘Elanna would have chosen differently if he had been there, too. "Me and Neelix."

"Okay, that is a pretty limited choice," Chakotay agreed, grinning at Tom‘s wry look. "Not that I mean to denigrate our fine cook and morale officer, but B‘Elanna would make mincemeat of him..." Neither could help the small chuckle that erupted, though both knew that in reality Neelix had almost inexhaustible patience and resiliency. Still, imagining B‘Elanna and Neelix... "Seriously, I don‘t think it would have made any difference if the whole male complement of Voyager had been down on that planet. The chemistry between you and B‘Elanna was clear long before that."

Tom sobered. "So you were bowing to the chemistry between us," he said slowly.

"No," Chakotay answered, and Tom wondered how many guesses he was going to get at this. "I might have still warned B‘Elanna of the transient nature of physical attraction, if I‘d thought that was all it was between you and her. What convinced me that I shouldn‘t interfere, that I didn‘t need to even if I had the right, was what happened after B‘Elanna and Vorik fought with each other."

Tom looked confused. "After? B‘Elanna collapsed from exhaustion."

"In your arms. She was exhausted and sick, and she went straight to you, Tom. Past Tuvok, and past me."

"She was still affected by the pon farr-"

"Tom, don‘t argue with me." Chakotay was gratified by the taken aback look on Tom‘s face. "And it wasn‘t B‘Elanna‘s reaction that necessarily convinced me, it was yours. When she came to you, and you gathered her in your arms and stroked her hair, I saw the expression on your face. You rarely let your real feelings show from behind that mask you like to wear, but you did then, even if it was just for a few moments. I could see how deeply you felt about her, and that is what convinced me that what was happening between you two was inevitable, and real, and that I had no right or reason to interfere."

Tom was silent for a moment. "I have to admit for months I still expected that lecture that never came. Not even after we recovered from the Hirogen invasion, and I started acting like a jerk." Chakotay had lectured him then about his tardiness and unprofessional behavior on duty, but hadn‘t brought up the subject of B‘Elanna. "I know I pushed her away then, and she was deeply annoyed with me." And hurt.

"It‘s not my place to offer unsolicited personal advice to you or B‘Elanna," Chakotay said simply. "Besides, relationships usually regain their balance better with a minimum of outside interference, as I hoped yours would. And, for what it‘s worth, I don‘t think B‘Elanna expects you to be her knight in shining armor, Tom. You‘re human, and a pretty imperfect one at that." Tom was barely able to mutter "thanks" before Chakotay continued. "I expect you‘ll continue to do things that annoy her. People do that, even when they love each other." A small smile crossed his lips. "Though given B‘Elanna‘s mild temper, she probably never does anything to annoy you."

Tom laughed. "Never. Unless you count the fact that some days I can‘t talk to her without us getting into an argument. But the next thing I know, something happens..." His expression softened, and he shook his head wonderingly "...I just look at her and my heart stops dead, and I want to make love to her until- uh, I mean..."

Chakotay laughed this time at Tom‘s stricken look. "I‘m familiar with the feeling, Tom. And if it makes you feel any better we‘re more or less off duty right now, since we can‘t actually perform any duties, so anything you tell me doesn‘t need to be sanctioned by Starfleet."

"Yeah, that makes me feel better," Tom said dryly. Actually he was starting to wonder why he wasn‘t more resistant to this conversation. Not too long ago he‘d found it hard to tell even B‘Elanna what he was really feeling. Now he was having this conversation with Chakotay. About the most personal thing in his life, his relationship with B‘Elanna...

"I suppose B‘Elanna and I do have a rather volatile relationship-"

"Which isn‘t necessarily bad."

"No. I don‘t think we‘re the kind of couple who are destined to have a quiet, peaceful existence," Tom said with a wry smile.

Chakotay gave Tom a searching look. "No, B‘Elanna isn‘t someone who feels at peace very often," he finally said quietly. He‘d never forgotten her words to him after the Vidiian prison incident, before the doctor had reintegrated her human DNA, and he knew her internal struggle with her dual nature was akin to two separate people engaged in a battle that would probably never end. At least that‘s how she had seen it at the time.

Tom looked out the viewscreen again, thoughtfully. "Two restless souls," he said, barely audibly, though Chakotay caught the words.

Chakotay didn‘t reply and after a few moments Tom turned and looked at him. "Sometimes after B‘Elanna and I..." Tom hesitated, then continued. "After we make love, which is almost always...intense..." Chakotay was simply watching him silently, neither shocked nor embarrassed, "we just lay there holding each other, and B‘Elanna is so quiet, so completely still, even though I know she‘s awake. And I get this sense that she does feel at peace, at least for those few moments. And so do I." His mouth curved into a small smile. "I know that doesn‘t make much sense, since I‘m hardly someone who generally elicits a peaceful reaction in anyone, particularly B‘Elanna."

Chakotay smiled. "Who ever said love makes sense? Sometimes there‘s no telling why two people "fit", no matter how unlikely a match they seem. And if you had taken a survey early on I‘m sure you and B‘Elanna would have been considered one of the most unlikely pairings on the ship. Most people would have predicted that your equal...contrariness would drive each other insane."

Tom smiled back. "Sometimes it does, but they just don‘t get what happens between the moments we drive each other insane." Then he shrugged. "Or they can‘t imagine what she sees in me."

"Hmmm." Chakotay gave Tom another long look. "Believe it or not, I know exactly what B‘Elanna sees in you, Tom. Someone who accepts her as she is, who‘s not intimidated by her, who doesn‘t want her to try and be someone she‘s not. When Vorik propositioned B‘Elanna during his pon farr, he told her that he would be good for her, that his calm nature could help her control her aggressive Klingon nature, as if it was a bad thing, something she needed to hide or subdue."

"It‘s not, though she‘s still not completely convinced of that." Tom looked thoughtful for a moment. "I almost wonder why she didn‘t take him up on it."

"Because deep down even B‘Elanna realizes that she can‘t subdue what is essentially part of her, she has to face it, and accept it, even if she still fights it sometimes. You‘re one of the few people who sees her not as a half human, or a half Klingon, more one or the other, but simply as B‘Elanna, whatever that is or turns out to be." Chakotay paused, his expression reflective. "Do you know what she said to me after the incident in the Vidiian prison, after her Klingon DNA was restored and she was completely "herself" again?"

Tom had no idea. He hadn‘t had a chance to talk to B‘Elanna himself until almost two days later. He‘d tracked her down in Engineering, convinced she was avoiding him. By then she was, as Chakotay said, "herself" again. She‘d dismissed his concern, and assured him she was fine, even though he‘d seen a shadow of something sad in her eyes. But she was back to her closemouthed surly self and he hadn‘t pushed the subject further. She had called his name as he‘d walked away, then stared at him for a long moment when he turned around, and had finally murmured a brief, soft "Thanks, Tom". He‘d never been sure if the thanks had been for his presence in the Vidiian prison or because he wasn‘t pushing her to pursue the thread of genuine connection that had occurred between them there...

"Tom, that was a rhetorical question." Chakotay smiled as Tom‘s faraway look focused again. "She said you were very supportive in the prison, which seemed to surprise her. Hell, at the time I was even pleasantly surprised. She also said that you barely reacted to the physical change in her, after your initial shock. That you didn‘t seem to see her any differently, or treat her any differently, whether she was human or Klingon, or both."

Tom shook his head. "It‘s ironic, but when the Vidiians separated B‘Elanna, and I spent time with her as a human, and later saw her as a Klingon sacrifice herself to save the rest of us, that was the first time I really did see "her". And understood the whole, complete B‘Elanna. And realized the vulnerability under her surly, standoffish attitude, and the struggle she goes through to integrate the two sides of her nature." He frowned. "Honestly, Chakotay, you were right about me. Before that, before I saw who B‘Elanna really was, I didn‘t look beyond the obvious exterior, and any thoughts I had about her went about as deep as thinking she would be one hell of a challenge, sexually speaking."

Chakotay raised an eyebrow "Really, Paris?"

"Really. It was a passing thought, and I knew it would take all my resources and charm, and might not work, but if it did..." Tom paused, not sure why he was admitting this, but he continued on. "At the time I thought that mutual sexual satisfaction would be enough justification, that I could make it worthwhile for both of us, as egotistical as that sounds. But after the incident with the Vidiians, when I saw how vulnerable she really was, I was pretty sure that it wouldn‘t be that simple for B‘Elanna, and I knew I wouldn‘t take the chance of hurting her. So I dismissed the idea, flirted a lot, and even imagined for a while that my feelings for Kes might be something deeper." He smiled in memory. "Kes was so easy."

Tom paused for a moment, realizing how that sounded. "Not in that way, but easy to know, to talk to," he amended, though he knew it was unlikely Chakotay had misunderstood. Kes had been the epitome of an open book. "Calm. Maybe as logical a choice for me as Vorik thought he would be for B‘Elanna. But eventually I realized that there was only one woman on this ship I really wanted to pursue, to be with, no matter how long it would take or how hard it would be, and that the reasons had completely changed. I was definitely interested in something more than a quick sexual liaison."

"Good expansion on that answer, Tom," Chakotay finally said after several silent moments. "You saved yourself from an unpleasant EVA experience without a suit."

"Down, overprotective father," Tom said quickly.

"I suppose I do sometimes feel a little overprotective of B‘Elanna," Chakotay admitted.

"You, Harry, Joe, the Doc...and the list goes on. If she only knew..."

"Scary thought," Chakotay said. Then he grinned.

"She‘d kill us all."

Tom chuckled in agreement, then grabbed the front console as the shuttle lurched suddenly. Chakotay had gripped the arms of his chair at the thudding sound and barely kept from falling over, with his feet still propped on the console. He thought tractor beam for a moment, but as the shuttle continued to rock, he realized that something had hit them. "What was that?"

Tom stood, still gripping the front console as the rocking began to subside, and looked out the viewscreen, though he knew there was nothing to see. The impact had been on the aft hull. And all that was visible was the planet, still the same unchanging dull gray, but now wobbling in his view from the shuttle‘s continued vibrations. "Something hit us. It must have been pretty small, since we‘re not spinning. Computer, what is the extent of the damage to the hull?"

"Sensors are off line. Insufficient data available to assess damage."

Tom frowned. "Great." He turned then and strode quickly toward the back of the shuttle.

Chakotay resettled himself in his chair as the vibrations stilled, with his feet planted firmly on the floor this time. He looked up inquiringly as Tom returned to the front a couple of minutes later.

"No obvious compromise of the hull‘s integrity," Tom said as he sat back down. He knew Chakotay could have figured that out. The impact would have been much harder, and the hiss of air escaping from something the size of the Sagan would have filled their ears.

"Our initial scans didn‘t show anything but space dust in this planet‘s orbit," Chakotay said after several silent moments, staring out the front viewscreen.

"Some bits of "space dust" are more like small rocks," Tom pointed out. "Though the chance of something of any measurable size impacting with our shuttle was pretty unlikely." He looked at Chakotay and managed a small smile. "So I guess it‘s even more unlikely that it will happen again."

"Ever notice how often we attract the unlikely in the Delta quadrant?"

Tom smirked. "Is it you, or is it me?"

Chakotay grinned. "When it comes to shuttles..."

"I‘ll be magnanimous and call it a tie."

"Gee, thanks," Chakotay said dryly. "I wonder if it did any damage to the outer hull?"

Tom shrugged. "Maybe a dent, but the impact didn‘t seem hard enough to perforate it. Though I guess we won‘t know for sure until we get a chance take a look."

"Planning on going EVA again, Tom?"

Tom gave Chakotay a "like hell I am" look. "No. I meant we can inspect it when we get back on board Voyager."

Chakotay nodded. "I agree. In the meantime I guess we‘ll just try and relax again until Voyager gets here."

"Yeah." Tom didn‘t exactly feel relaxation creeping over him. But Chakotay had settled more comfortably into his seat and was spearing Tom with a speculative look. Tom raised an questioning eyebrow in response.

"Since you brought up EVA-"

"I didn‘t bring it up!" Tom protested.

"Since it came up then," Chakotay amended. "You never answered my original question. What happened between you and B‘Elanna when you were stranded in space in EVA suits?"

Tom shifted uncomfortably.

"Tom, if you don‘t want to talk about it-"

"It‘s not a big deal," Tom said. Well, it had been maybe the biggest deal of his life, as it turned out. And, what the hell, they were on a real communication roll here, though he was starting to think it was a little one sided. He looked at Chakotay. "We were pretty sure we were going to die. In fact we were damned sure."

Chakotay nodded, remembering. "The captain actually blanched when she found out that the oxygen levels in your suits was virtually at dead zero when we rescued you."

"Yeah, a few more minutes..." Tom shuddered. "There is a pretty strong desire to unburden yourself when you know it will be your last chance."

"You and B‘Elanna shared your feelings with each other," Chakotay guessed.

"B‘Elanna told me she loved me." Tom glanced out the viewscreen, at the gray planet below. At least they hadn‘t had to look at that in what they‘d believed were their final moments. Just black space, the stars, and each other. "We were down to our last breaths, literally. I really had a hard time focusing on what she was saying, let alone absorbing it." Though after she‘d said those words he‘d found himself completely focused and awake. "I‘d been trying for months just to get her me, hoping it would lead to something more." He chuckled a little self depreciatingly and glanced at Chakotay. "Looking back I guess my response was pretty classic Paris. Her last words were "I love you", and my last words were "you picked a great time to tell me"."

Chakotay didn‘t look particularly shocked by Tom‘s confession. "They weren‘t your last words though," he pointed out.

"No, as it turns out." Tom sighed. "I was completely surprised by her confession, it was far more than I‘d hoped for. I was also a little...not angry...disappointed, I guess. Sad. Finally she accepted my persistent overtures—in a major way—and that‘s it. It‘s over before it even began."

"So your words were an honest expression of your feelings," Chakotay deduced. "She didn‘t try and kill you later, after you were back on Voyager, so she must have understood that."

"I guess she did," Tom agreed. "She looked pretty sad, too. We were both pretty out of it by then. We just looked at each other for a long moment, glad that the last thing we would ever see was each other..." Tom shook his head. "We couldn‘t even touch each other. All we could do was try and hold each other through 25 kilograms of environmental suit material and padding and wait for the end."

"But it wasn‘t the end," Chakotay said. "We got you back." And the rumor that Tom and B‘Elanna had been beamed aboard virtually cradled in each other‘s arms had spread through the ship before the two had even been helped out of their suits and transferred to Sickbay. "So you got your chance later."

"Chance?" Tom asked, confused.

"To tell B‘Elanna that you love her."

"Oh. Uh, yes."

Chakotay‘s gaze narrowed at Tom‘s hesitant tone. "I assume you‘ve told her." Then he held up a hand before Tom could answer. "Maybe that‘s not really my business. Neither is this, but I‘m going to ask anyway, although I‘ve never had any reason to assume otherwise. You do love B‘Elanna, don‘t you?"

Tom felt Chakotay‘s hard gaze boring into him, pressing for an answer. Did he love her? B‘Elanna, who was so prickly, so temperamental, so passionate about everything, and so incredibly beautiful. Who set his pulse racing just by being in the same room, who sometimes drove him to utter distraction, and who had given him moments of happiness he‘d never expected to feel again. Hell, he‘d known that answer for a very long time. He looked straight at Chakotay. "Yes. I love her."

Chakotay had watched the play of emotion across Tom‘s face—tenderness, desire, maybe even a twinge of healthy fear. And love. He knew Tom was telling the truth. "The words are important. But whether you say them frequently or rarely, or you tell her by your actions, I do know that B‘Elanna wouldn‘t be with you if she didn‘t believe that you shared her feelings."

"She does know how I feel, Chakotay," Tom said softly.

Chakotay knew he meant that. He could have told Tom that B‘Elanna wasn‘t the type to ask for confirmation or reassurance, if she had doubts she‘d keep them to herself, deep inside where she kept everything else. But Tom already knew that. He just sometimes had as much difficulty getting past his own insecurities as B‘Elanna did. But despite that, at least they were trying. "It would be a lot worse if you felt it, if you lived with it every day and couldn‘t say it or show it because it wouldn‘t be welcomed."

Tom wondered for a second what kind of left turn the conversation had just taken. Chakotay had uttered those last words almost as if he were talking to himself, and his eyes were focused somewhere else. It took Tom only another second to make a good guess. "So what is going on with you and the captain?" he asked.

Chakotay gave Tom a surprised look, then his expression became blank. He glanced toward the back of the shuttle. "I think maybe we should give those cards a try. It‘s not as dark in here as I thought."

"No, it‘s pretty dark in here, Chakotay. I don‘t want you to strain your eyes."

"I‘m touched by your concern, Tom."

Tom grinned. "I‘m that kind of guy."

Chakotay made a half hearted attempt to return the grin, then looked out the viewscreen at the gray planet. It came to him that it was exactly the color of a Borg cube. Another reason to despise it. He turned and looked at Tom again. "There‘s nothing going on between me and the captain, Tom. Did you think there was?"

Tom returned Chakotay‘s bland look. "There‘s always some speculation." And that came and went. It had been in full swing two years ago when Janeway and Chakotay had returned from two months on "New Earth", then it had ebbed, then resurfaced again after rumor got around that the captain had received a "Dear John" letter from Mark What‘s-his-name. Lately it had died down again. The bond between the two was obvious, but no one could quite figure out if it was just friendship borne of the sharing of command burdens, or something more. Tom smiled. "You two are very hard to read, but the crew keeps trying."

"Obviously they don‘t have enough work to do," Chakotay said dryly.

"You know how gossip is on a ship, especially on Voyager."

"So what is the crew‘s opinion right now?"

"At the moment the speculation has kind of died down. It rises and falls, depending. Though there is one rumor thread that never quite dies that states you and the captain have been...intimately involved for some time and just hide it incredibly well."

Chakotay smiled wryly and shook his head. "No one could hide it that well."

"Well, that‘s the hard core romantics rumor.

Honestly, I‘ve never thought that was the case." Though he had thought that deep down Janeway and especially Chakotay would like it to be the case.

"You‘re right, Tom. It‘s most definitely not the case." Chakotay sounded resigned.

"Why not?"

Chakotay looked slightly taken aback by Tom‘s direct question.

"I hope I‘m not being out of line, but the...chemistry between the two of you has been obvious for quite a long time. Why haven‘t you acted on it?"

"There are some long standing principles against a captain getting involved with someone under his or her command, Tom, and for good reasons."

And Tom knew there were also some about senior officers and crew members in the same department getting involved with each other, but they were guidelines rather than set rules. "There are no hard and fast rules, Chakotay," he said, stating his thought.

"Maybe not. But we‘ve...discussed it, and even if we wanted to, we‘ve agreed that it wouldn‘t be a good idea."

Even if? Yeah, right, Tom thought. "Starfleet is pretty flexible when it comes to extenuating circumstances and I think being stuck on this ship for four years, and still facing the possibility of spending most of our lives here, are extenuating circumstances. Even Starfleet wouldn‘t expect us to give up all semblance of a personal life."

"And the captain knows that, Tom. She‘s never tried to interfere in anyone‘s personal relationships. Well, except in that one instance."

Tom grinned sheepishly. "I guess we got a little...carried away."

"You were unprofessional," Chakotay said flatly, though there was a grin lurking on his face. "And at the time the captain was being manipulated by those experimenting aliens. Like I was, like you and B‘Elanna were. Though I‘d say your manipulation was a lot more enjoyable."

Tom grinned wider. "I have to admit most of the motivation was already present, so it probably didn‘t take much prodding on their part. But we‘ve tried to be a little more circumspect since then."

"You have been. I know it‘s impossible to keep personal lives and relationships completely out of view when we live in such confined quarters." Something Kathryn Janeway was too aware of. And Chakotay couldn‘t disagree that everyone would know if their captain became romantically involved with her first officer.

"I suppose that‘s particularly true in mine and B‘Elanna‘s case," Tom admitted.

Chakotay smiled. "Yes, it is. It‘s noticeable with any couple, but with you and B‘Elanna, it‘s always pretty clear when your relationship is going through a rough spot. But the captain has no complaints about you two. In fact, she was a little upset that B‘Elanna didn‘t feel comfortable sharing her concerns about your behavior when you were being impersonated by Steth."

Tom frowned at the reminder. He still seethed inwardly about Steth stealing his body and wreaking havoc on Voyager, but especially about what he‘d said and done to B‘Elanna. He frequently regretted that he hadn‘t had the chance to get his hands around the creep‘s throat and squeeze really hard. He dismissed that pleasant though unproductive thought. "I know the captain doesn‘t disapprove of our relationship. She even told me recently when I turned in a helm diagnostic report ten minutes early that B‘Elanna was obviously a good influence on me."

"Tom Paris not just on time, but early," Chakotay joked. "Reason enough for the captain to endorse your relationship."

"It‘s too bad she won‘t relax her own standards a little," Tom said, and he meant it. He thought it must be very hard, and very lonely, for her to curtail her personal life so severely to maintain her authority as captain, and he wasn‘t sure that it was really necessary.

Chakotay glanced out the viewscreen, silent for a long moment. He looked at the dull gray planet below, its drab uniform color contrasting in his mind with the vibrant blues and greens of New Earth, where he and Kathryn had been prepared to exile themselves for a lifetime. Together.


"At this point I don‘t really see the captain relaxing her views on the matter," Chakotay said, and the tone in his voice clearly said "end of subject".

"Maybe not," Tom conceded. "Unless the circumstances change."

Chakotay didn‘t reply, but Tom deliberately didn‘t take the cue. "I‘ve always wondered how different things might have been if we had colonized instead of committing to getting back to the Alpha quadrant." Actually he hadn‘t wondered much about it until B‘Elanna had brought it up while they had been lounging in one of her beach programs a few months ago, Tahiti maybe. He‘d been surprised to hear B‘Elanna speculating about what it would be like building a colony instead of nursing an aging starship, as if she had actually at one point contemplated it. He hadn‘t remembered that strange conversation until now.

"We had that opportunity once, when we were invited to join the human settlements on the planet where the "37‘s" were exiled," Chakotay pointed out. "None of us wanted to give up the chance to get home. And colonizing would amount to that in a sense, giving up." Especially to Kathryn, he knew. "Though in another sense it would be starting a whole new life, with different priorities. Survival always foremost, but by the process of building and procreating."

A small smirk crossed Tom‘s lips. "Procreating definitely being the more enjoyable process," he said, then grinned as Chakotay rolled his eyes. And though he hadn‘t thought a lot about it even after B‘Elanna had brought it up, he knew there was a reason most of the personal holodeck programs were outside locales. Trees, grass, sky, oceans, mountains. They all missed standing on real, solid earth sometimes. He looked at Chakotay consideringly. "What about you, Chakotay? Would you have preferred to colonize at some point rather than continue trying to get home?"

Chakotay looked somber for a moment. He‘d certainly contemplated it. After all, he‘d experienced it for a while, on New Earth, and he knew exactly what it could mean. It was far from an unpleasant prospect. "I‘m not as dead set against it as some of the crew. There would be advantages, an ability to simply live our lives, focus completely on the present, instead of living with the sense that part of our lives are being held in a state of suspension until we get home." He paused, then shook his head. "But no, that wouldn‘t be my preference. Unless the alternative became the likely destruction of Voyager and her crew, then it would be an easy choice for me." As it had been some months ago, when he‘d felt Voyager had little chance of surviving the Borg. But Kathryn had been dead set to push ahead, and in the end they‘d survived it. And now were that much closer to home.

"This crew wants to get home," Chakotay said. "And I want to get them there as much as the captain does, so long as it remains reasonably possible for us to get there alive." Though he knew he and Kathryn hadn‘t agreed on the definition of "reasonably possible" in the past, and might not again.

Tom nodded. "I can‘t say I‘ve always been all that eager to get home. But there are some things I miss back there. And I certainly wouldn‘t want to stand in the way of so many who have only good expectations of getting back. I don‘t suppose I‘d want to colonize unless it did become a question of outright survival." He shrugged. "Until then contemplating what it would be like isn‘t much more than a mental exercise I guess."

One that Chakotay had abandoned some time ago. "There‘s not much point speculating on something that will likely never happen."

Tom looked at the gray planet that crossed half the viewscreen. It suddenly reminded him of another ugly planet, only one that had a much more volatile, and corrosive, atmosphere. "But it already has happened. On Hellbound."

It took Chakotay a moment to realize what Tom was referring to. The demon class planet, that someone had aptly named after they‘d left, referring to the fate of the...duplicates they‘d left there. Hellbound. He had agreed readily to donate his DNA, as had every single member of the crew, unwilling to leave the Tom and Harry duplicates alone on the demon planet for a lifetime, despite the discomfort that the idea of essentially being cloned had precipitated in most of them. But he honestly hadn‘t thought much about those duplicate people after Voyager had lifted off. It had seemed so surreal, copies of themselves surviving on that deadly planet.

"Do you ever wonder what they‘re doing, how they‘re surviving?" Tom asked curiously.

"Not really," Chakotay said. In the end they‘d found out very little about the mechanism for survival in the strange protosentient sludge that had created the duplicate Tom and Harry, and later had duplicated rest of the crew. "They‘ll certainly survive, since part of their essence is the planet itself."

"They don‘t really need shelter since the weather doesn‘t affect them. And I guess they don‘t need to eat, which is a good thing since there‘s no food on that planet," Tom said. "Which kind of puts Neelix out of a job."

Chakotay smiled. "Poor Neelix. And it didn‘t seem like they needed a morale officer, considering the euphoria we witnessed in your and Harry‘s duplicates." Definitely the whole thing had been bizarre.

"I wonder if they sleep." Tom gave Chakotay a sly look, then added, "Or have sex."

Chakotay shook his head. "You have a one track mind, Tom."

Tom grinned. "Just a curious one."

"Well, I don‘t guess we‘ll ever know whether they decide to build a colony and raise houseloads of children, or whether they‘ll all just sit and stare rapturously at the landscape for years on end. Maybe someday in the future Starfleet will get out to the Delta quadrant and contact them, or their descendants." Chakotay paused, then shrugged dismissively. "In any case, it‘s a sure bet we‘ll never see them again."

Tom thought it was interesting that they‘d left that planet as if they couldn‘t get away fast enough, the corrosive atmosphere notwithstanding, and no one had ever looked back. Few had even bothered to watch the strange sight of over a hundred and thirty people, who were essentially themselves, standing there in silent vigil as Voyager lifted off. And it had almost immediately ceased to be a topic of conversation, unlike other planetary adventures that were ruminated over endlessly in the Mess Hall, Holodecks and other public areas of the ship. He and B‘Elanna had been consumed at the time with their mutual relief that he had just barely avoided dying on the planet himself. Later they had spoken of the incident and what it had wrought only once, briefly and whimsically, then had left any further thoughts of their duplicates fates unspoken. "No, I don‘t suppose we ever will know what happens to them. Especially now that it seems pretty likely we‘ll get back to the Alpha quadrant."

Despite their talk of colonies Chakotay knew that chance was the strongest it had ever been. Though the Dreadnought had been a hoax, they did have the slipstream drive specs, and there was hope they might eventually get it to work. "It seems so, and quite possibly sooner than we expected. That would probably be a better focus for your attention, Tom."

Tom had avoided thinking too much about it even when they had recently thought they might be about to get home. Not just how Starfleet would react after all the time that had passed, and after everything Voyager had been through, but how his own family- and his father- would react also. And about what it would mean for him and B‘Elanna to be back in the Alpha quadrant, part of billions of interacting lives again instead of insulated in a community of less than a hundred and forty confined to a starship. Faced with dozens of decisions about what direction their lives would go, and whether they would go there together, decisions that were made for them as long as they were cocooned here on Voyager...

"It gets a little complicated, doesn‘t it," Chakotay remarked quietly, and not without sympathy, reading Tom‘s sudden pensive silence well. In reality it would probably get very complicated, for a lot of the crew, when they eventually got home.

Tom nodded. "Yeah."

Chakotay had purposely avoided thinking too much about those complications himself, music to face, ghosts to put to rest, lives to start over. At least for those Maquis who had ironically been saved by being unwillingly thrown into the Delta quadrant, there was a future to look forward to, whatever it might hold. He was immensely grateful that they had been given a second chance, but that didn‘t alleviate the sadness he felt for those who had been denied that chance. He sighed, then realized Tom was watching him. "I don‘t know what will happen when we get back, but the Federation is in the middle of a war for survival against the Dominion, and the Maquis are no longer an issue." He smiled wryly. "Those facts alone will probably make it easier for Starfleet to be somewhat disinterested in prosecuting us."

Tom had seen the melancholy expression on Chakotay‘s face, and he knew Chakotay was still deeply saddened by the fate of the Maquis in the Alpha quadrant, as B‘Elanna was. There was little he could say that would be comforting, especially coming from him. He hadn‘t had the opportunity to know many of the Maquis well, and his own overwhelming emotion was gratitude that those he had gotten to know later, on Voyager, were safe. Had they remained in the Alpha quadrant it was likely that Chakotay and his Maquis crew would be dead now, probably at the hands of the Cardassians. Including B‘Elanna, and that thought made his blood run cold. "I know the captain will do everything she can to make sure we get a fair deal," Tom said finally. "And she doesn‘t give up when she wants something."

Chakotay smiled. "No, she doesn‘t. I have no doubt she‘ll fight tooth and nail for us, including you, should Starfleet still want to take any action against us." And though he‘d been used to waging his own battles in the past, he didn‘t really mind. As if he could ever stop Kathryn from being herself, which meant fighting like a tigress to protect those she cared about. "I expect in the end we will be allowed to resume our lives unimpeded."

But as an intact crew of a starship? Tom really didn‘t want to think about how likely that was, or whether it was more likely that of all of them, now a family here on Voyager, would in the Alpha quadrant go their separate ways in the end. He quirked a suggestive smile at Chakotay, determined to inject some levity, rather than contemplate those heavy issues he‘d rather not face until it became absolutely necessary. "Well, one positive is that the captain will have achieved her goal in getting us home and will be relieved of that responsibility. Then I suppose she‘ll be able to focus on...other matters."

It took Chakotay a second to realize what Tom was implying. He shook his head. "Tom, I have to admit you are persistent."

Tom grinned. "And you admire that about me."

"Well, I wouldn‘t say it‘s admirable in every situation-"

Both men blinked at each other as the shuttle interior suddenly brightened. The overall change was small, just enough to chase the deeper shadows into the far corners, but it was enough to startle Tom and Chakotay into several moment‘s silence.

"The emergency lighting kicked to full capacity," Tom finally said, unnecessarily.

"I noticed," Chakotay replied dryly. "Isn‘t that a little odd?"

"Yeah." Tom glanced around the shuttle as if he was expecting a ghost to pop out from one of the remaining shadows. "Apparently there is a hidden short in the system. It‘s happened once or twice."

"Hmmm." Chakotay shook his head. "What were you saying about a new shuttle design?"

Tom smiled. "I don‘t think that‘s where we were in the conversation, Chakotay."

Chakotay looked at Tom for a long moment. "You know, Tom, I think we might have just enough light to start that poker game."

Tom‘s brow furrowed. "I don‘t know, Chakotay. No telling when the lighting level might drop again. Besides, I‘ve been enjoying our chance for a little heart to heart..."

"Really?" Chakotay asked. "Well, now that you mention it, there is one thing we haven‘t talked about yet. Holoprograms."

Tom gave him a confused look. "Holoprograms?"

"Yes, last week when I was preparing to enter my program codes I found a file still on the system from the previous user, deactivated but not closed. A minor oversight, I‘m sure. It was"B‘Elanna‘s Beach Tour", I believe."

Tom‘s eyes widened, as Chakotay looked at him innocently. "I didn‘t reopen it, but I have to admit I was very curious about just what kind of "tour" B‘Elanna would take you on..."

"One of every osteoregenerator unit in Sickbay if she heard you say those words," Tom said with a sheepish grin. "I‘ll get the cards."

Chakotay smiled as Tom jumped up and moved to the back cabinet to get the cards. He didn‘t plan on mentioning it to B‘Elanna—never had—and he knew Tom wasn‘t too deeply worried on that score. But objective accomplished.

"Here we go," Tom said as he returned to his seat with the deck of cards. He pulled the small shelf out of its cranny in the front console, convenient for the placement of food or drink, or cards. "Five card stud, draw, or seven card?"

"Seven card," Chakotay said as Tom shuffled the deck expertly.

Tom dealt and they began a long, competitive game of poker, occasionally engaging in light conversation between hands, or during hands when Tom put to use his favorite method of distraction, mindless chatter, with limited success. If both were aware of a new ease between them, another small but significant lessening of the restraint that had characterized their relationship, they didn‘t acknowledge it, but simply accepted it. When a small jolt interrupted them, they immediately recognized the resulting gentle insistent tug on their shuttle, and they waited patiently, squeezing in a few more poker hands, as Voyager steadily reeled them in.


Less than ten minutes after Voyager‘s tractor beam had locked onto the shuttle, the Sagan drifted gently on air cushions to the deck as the huge outer doors of the Shuttlebay slid laboriously closed behind it. Tom and Chakotay used the manual release and pushed the shuttle doors open, then stepped gratefully out onto the Shuttlebay‘s solid, well lit flooring. The Captain and the Chief Engineer stood waiting, with Joe Carey and Freddie Bristow.

"Welcome back, gentlemen," Janeway said smiling at both of them.

Joe smiled at Chakotay and clapped Tom on the shoulder as he passed them and stepped into the shuttle, and Freddie walked toward the starboard aft section of the shuttle, where the dent of a small impact on the hull was visible. B‘Elanna looked Tom up and down in one quick, fully assessing motion, obviously assuring herself that he was uninjured. Chakotay grinned at her as she turned her assessing gaze on him.

"I‘m sorry it took us a while to get here, but we since we knew you were both fine, we finished gathering the supplies we needed."

"We expected that, Captain," Tom said quickly, though his gaze was trained on B‘Elanna. "Isn‘t a malfunctioning shuttle a bit of a minor problem to call the Chief Engineer from her duties?" he asked her, grinning.

B‘Elanna frowned at him, then at Chakotay. "Whenever either of you is in a shuttle something bad happens to it, so I guess it was really asking for trouble to put you both in one at the same time."

"Hey, it wasn‘t our fault," Tom protested, rather cheerfully. "The sensors forgot to warn us that there was an ion storm approaching. If the shuttles were a little more reliable, we wouldn‘t be here."

B‘Elanna moved both hands to her hips.

"Yes, and Tom apparently has some ideas about designing a new, less fallible shuttle, so we don‘t have to deal with these constant problems," Chakotay added.

B‘Elanna glared at Chakotay while Janeway looked at Tom consideringly. "You can submit a feasibility report on that, Tom."

Tom groaned as B‘Elanna smirked at him.

Janeway moved her gaze to include Chakotay. "It looks like you two managed to survive a few hours in each other‘s company without any ill effects."

Chakotay smiled. "Of course, Captain. There was no power, no computer access beyond emergency status reports, but we managed."

"What did you do?"

Chakotay shrugged, an innocent look on his face.

"We talked."

Janeway stared at him, then at Tom. "You...talked?"

"Sure, you know, talked," Tom said. "Shared confidences, hopes, dreams. That kind of stuff."

Janeway looked like she could barely keep from snorting. She glanced at B‘Elanna. They both looked at Tom and Chakotay with complete disbelief.

"What?" Tom asked plaintively. "Only women can talk about real issues? Men can talk about more than the weather, you know. We can talk about feelings, and relationships, and cooking..."

Janeway did snort this time, as B‘Elanna simply rolled her eyes.

"We didn‘t talk about cooking," Chakotay whispered to Tom.

"You talked for eight hours?" Janeway asked incredulously.

"Well, no, maybe for three hours," Chakotay said, enjoying this immensely. "Then we played poker."

"Uh huh." Janeway and B‘Elanna looked at each other. "What do you want to bet they didn‘t say ten words to each other the whole time?"

"It‘s hard to take that bet, Captain," B‘Elanna said. "Tom never shuts up when he‘s playing poker. But I can assure you he doesn‘t talk about feelings."

Tom shrugged. "Fine. You got us. We played poker and talked about the weather for eight hours."

Janeway smiled, satisfied.

Joe Carey stuck his head out through the shuttle doorway. "Looks like a complete recalibration of virtually every system." He gave Tom and Chakotay an accusatory look. "But nothing we can‘t handle, Chief."

Tom gave Joe a look like he‘d been stabbed in the back, while B‘Elanna spoke. "I‘ll get back to Main Engineering then, and leave you to handle it."

"Gee, B‘Elanna," Tom said as Joe stepped back into the shuttle, "couldn‘t Joe have just called you in Main Engineering with that extensive and detailed technical report?"

"I guess I‘m just a hands on kind of Chief Engineer, Tom," B‘Elanna said, turning on her heel.

Chakotay had to wonder if B‘Elanna had deliberately set herself up for that as Tom leaned toward her and said in an appreciative voice loud enough for he and the captain to hear, "I‘ll say you are."

B‘Elanna turned and glared at him, and he gave her his most beatific smile.

"Well, unless you want to hang around here a while longer, and take shore leave on the planet below..."

Tom and Chakotay gave each other a horrified look at Janeway‘s comment.

"...then Tom, I think you are needed on the Bridge until we clear this system. After that I‘m sure you‘ll be more than ready for some time off after your day‘s adventures." Chakotay noted that there was a hint of dry amusement in the captain‘s voice.

"Yes, all that talking," B‘Elanna said sarcastically.

"Yes, maam," Tom said to Janeway, ignoring B‘Elanna‘s comment. "I‘m on my way."

B‘Elanna had uncharacteristically dawdled just long enough for Tom to follow her closely out of the Shuttlebay. Chakotay watched Tom‘s hand graze B‘Elanna‘s waist, and B‘Elanna push it away. Then Tom leaned over and said something to her, and he rested his hand lightly on her again, his fingers brushing her shoulder as the Shuttlebay inner doors opened. She didn‘t push his hand away this time, and as they slipped through the doors and out of sight he thought he caught of glimpse of B‘Elanna‘s hand brushing precariously close to Tom‘s rear end. It was all subtle enough to be questionably innocent. He wondered if they‘d manage to sneak at least one passionate kiss in the turbolift before going their separate ways.

"Sometimes they seem so carefree," Janeway commented. Chakotay noted a hint of wistfulness in her voice. He looked at her, a bit surprised, and she met his gaze. "As long as they display the proper decorum while on duty, I don‘t object. Especially for Tom and B‘Elanna, since I know their lives have generally been anything but carefree. It‘s nice to see them enjoying each other."

"Envious?" Chakotay asked softly.

Janeway looked at him. "Sometimes," she said simply, truthfully. "I‘m glad it‘s an opportunity they can take advantage of."

Chakotay understood her meaning. It was the kind of opportunity she didn‘t feel she had the privilege to accept in her position, and she seemed to need to voice her feeling on the subject out loud periodically, whether to convince him, or herself, he didn‘t know. It was a subject they‘d batted around before, always reaching the same conclusion. A conclusion he tried to pretend was completely mutual.

"Freddie, you want to take this data scanner to Engineering," Joe called from just inside the shuttle.

Chakotay waved Ensign Bristow back down as he started to rise from where he was engaged in running a damage diagnostic scan on the dinged shuttle hull. "I‘ll take it, Joe."

"I‘ll hand it out in just a sec," Joe called, as Freddie resumed his work.

"I feel a need to stretch my legs after being cooped up on that shuttle," Chakotay said. "Meet you on the Bridge in a few minutes?"

Janeway nodded, looking a bit perplexed. "I‘ll see you there." She glanced at the open shuttle doorway, where there was no sign of Joe yet, then back at Chakotay. "Dinner tonight?" A small smile played on her face. "You can tell me all about this heart to heart talk you had with Tom."

Chakotay smiled slyly in response. "Sure, on dinner. Then I‘ll show you how to tricked Tom out of a week‘s worth of replicator rations with a very good poker bluff."

"You‘re on," Janeway said. Her hand brushed his lightly as she turned away, as it often did when she was speaking to him, or standing close to him. She was by habit a toucher, a habit that had the strange irony of giving him both a sense of intimacy and a feeling of emptiness.

"Here you go, Chakotay."

Chakotay took the scanner Joe proffered, then turned to watch the captain walk out of the Shuttlebay. He stared at the closed doors and turned the scanner over and over in his hand unconsciously. Though it was primarily Kathryn‘s choice that their relationship remain platonic and that they not pursue, or speak of, any deeper feelings they might have, he‘d accepted her decision, since he had little choice. If the balance of their relationship shifted some day, if the time or the circumstances became "right", then perhaps it would happen. Or it wouldn‘t. But he had come to realize that he couldn‘t put his life on hold waiting for it to happen, any more than any of them should keep their lives on hold waiting to get home. And he had finally resolved to live his life completely right now, and enjoy whatever came his way, including his relationship with Kathryn Janeway as it was, whether that closeness of mind and spirit between them some day evolved into something more or it didn‘t.

"Chakotay, is there a problem?"

Chakotay glanced back at Joe, who had popped his head out of the shuttle again, and was looking at him questioningly. Chakotay shook his head and smiled. "No. I‘m on my way to Engineering. If B‘Elanna calls, tell her not to get impatient and start throwing those little tools out of her smock."

"Nah, she quit wearing that thing. Decided it wasn‘t any more convenient than just carrying the tools in her pocket."

"Oh." Chakotay hadn‘t noticed.

"Besides I think she took the long way back, so she probably won‘t be looking for you yet." Joe winked conspiratorially.

Chakotay smiled as Joe disappeared into the shuttle, then turned and strode out of the Shuttlebay, thinking that it was strange how some relationships started, or conversely were stymied, simply because of circumstances. He‘d seen many relationships defined by the situation, be it high school lovers, or love affairs between people working together on the same Starfleet stations or starships, or between those bound together by a shared fight, like in the Maquis. Once the situation changed, and the lives involved went in new—and often divergent—directions, often the relationship ended. Love defined by circumstance, then left behind. It was the rare kind of love that transcended circumstance and endured no matter how the situation changed. Rare indeed, and the result not only of very powerful feelings but of a lot of determination and perseverance.

"Engineering," Chakotay said as he stepped into the turbolift, still deep in thought. Of all the couples that had formed on this ship in the past four years, he thought Tom and B‘Elanna‘s feelings for each other might be strong enough to endure, if the will was there. And if they could persevere through whatever obstacles were sure to come, as obstacles always did. They both had incredible stubborn streaks, and if they weren‘t working against each other, that would serve them well. As with everything, only time would tell. But either way, they‘d changed each other already, opened themselves up to each other, and affected each other‘s lives in ways that were irreversible. Whatever eventually happened with their relationship, he knew in the end they would both be the better for it, and he admired them for taking the chance and following their hearts.

Chakotay surprisingly found himself only a few steps behind B‘Elanna as he entered Main Engineering. She turned to look at him, and he grinned at her, remembering Joe‘s comment. Long way back indeed. B‘Elanna read his expression and knew he was aware that she had just gotten there herself. He managed not to chuckle at the light flush that crept up her cheeks as she averted her eyes. He could have told her that he didn‘t mind her and Tom discreetly sneaking a moment or two together, and that her reaction was kind of endearing, but she would probably have hit him for that. So he handed her the scanner, squeezed her shoulder affectionately, and strode toward the doors. Then he stopped short, remembering something.

When he turned and looked back at B‘Elanna she was still standing in the same spot, staring at the scanner. And he saw that Joe was right. She had quit wearing that god awful smock. He smiled again and slipped through the doors, headed for the Bridge.


the end