How Can I Lose You?

Tom Paris studied the shuttle controls although there was no real need. He knew what all the important readings were and the unimportant ones were... unimportant. The flight conditions were less than ideal, but that didn't matter. He could fly a shuttle through the outlying shockwaves with his eyes closed -- it was all done by feel, anyhow. That didn't worry him.

Nor was he worried about the tachyon emitter strapped to the hull of the shuttle. A delicate piece of machinery cobbled together by Torres and her crew, it would withstand the shockwaves as well as the shuttle and its occupant. No, the exploding star a mere light year away was of no great concern.

It was what would happen in the next few moments that worried Tom.

Once again the universe seemed intent on trapping Voyager and her crew, as if natural and social disasters were on the ship's fate-card for the next ten dances. Flying through an uninhabited region of space, they had had no indication of the imminent explosion. The sensors only picked up the first flutter of the not-so-distant brown star. The Captain had, no doubt, been about to suggest a course change to give it some room when, as was hell's wont, all hell broke loose.

Tom suspected that someone on their ship had some very heavy bad karma to work off. Why he or she needed the rest of them to help, he didn't know. But he wasn't willing to complain just in case it was *his* bad karma. Besides, he reasoned, as he flew the little shuttle in just a bit closer, he ought to be building up enough good karma just being out here today to earn a few nights' rest. Best pilot or no, what he was doing wasn't exactly safe.

The star had turned out to have a very unusual molecular make-up. The explosion had caught Voyager and within its shockwaves were some minute particles -- they hadn't figured out exactly what, yet -- which were effectively holding the starship in place. Systems were shorting just enough to prevent flight or any of a dozen other delicate operations. Nothing had gone completely down but nothing was exactly working, either.

They had determined that a precisely placed burst or three of tachyons would disrupt the shockwaves enough for Voyager to escape. Voyager herself couldn't do it so here was Tom, out in a shuttle, getting ready to thumb his nose at a star. The shuttle was affected, but less so than the ship because no matter how 'manual' the flying of a starship was there were always huge portions of the operations controled by the computer. The shuttle, however, was small enough that a very good pilot could disconnect the computer and fly it throught space between pre-figured coordinates. Line of sight flying was a technique not much talked about outside piloting circles as it tended to upset the pilot's passengers for some reason. Tom wouldn't be able to do much, and not for very long, because eventually the shockwaves would destroy the shuttle. But he was here to prevent that, before it could happen. Thumb his nose at a star.

No problem. He'd always had a problem with authority, anyway. While the shockwaves were disrupted, Voyager and the shuttle would hightail it out of there. That was the plan. However Tuvok had theorised that the resulting disruption could -- a 34.579 percent chance -- have some side effects. Depending on which element or combination of elements was causing the problem, the effects could be any of a dozen different things. Tuvok had gone on to list them all but Tom just shook his head. It wasn't like he could decide *not* to do it.

Tom had volunteered, not thinking about the chances because he knew that flying the shuttle in close enough, through the shockwaves, would require the best natural piloting skills they had. Easy enough for him, not so for anyone else. He'd deliberately refused to hear his lover's arguments -- given in private -- and boarded the shuttle. A 34% chance of disaster was better than the certain disaster that would befall them when the main shocks hit the ship. Two hours was the best estimate.

Tom steadied the shuttle, and called Voyager. He wasn't sure if they'd be able to hear him or not, but he reported nonetheless. "I'm ready to begin, Captain. You should start noticing some results in two minutes after my mark. Hopefully I'll meet you at the rendevous just after."

There was no reply. Tom shrugged and went on with his task. Checking the machine's readouts one last time, he saw that everything looked fine. He could already feel the shocks getting more turbulent, so there was no time to lose. He switched on the comm again. "I will switch on the emitter on my mark, five... Tachyon emitter--"

The shuttle rocked like it had been swatted by a giant hand. Tom felt himself tumbling, still strapped to the seat. Either the chair had been shorn loose or the shuttle's internal gravity had gone haywire. Tom rode it out for a second then, with a glance at the readouts, he saw the shockwaves were disrupted all right. He was going to be able to fly out. He placed his hands on the controls and began heading for the coordinates where Voyager would be waiting, ignoring the rolling in his ears and stomach that insisted that the universe was turning over.

The starfield outside was not spinning, he could see that clearly enough, so he ignored his senses and flew. Seat of the pants, Tom, let these stars see what you're made of. He grinned -- he had an adrenalin rush like he couldn't believe and was anxious to get home and work off the exhultation. Throw his lover to the floor of their quarters and show him how undamaged he'd remained during the event.

Voyager was right where she ought to have been. Tom laughed to himself -- it was about time something went right. Usually disasters lasted longer, requiring days of work and thought to escape. Knock on wood, he thought, and looked around. No wood. Oh well.

He opened the comm as he flew into range. "Paris to Voyager."

"Voyager here. Good work, Mr. Paris." The Captain sounded relieved. It was great to hear -- they must have escaped completely intact.

"Thank you, Captain. I'll have to put this one on my resume. 'Kicking stars in the butt' sounds pretty good, don't you think?"

She laughed. "It does indeed, Tom. I assume you're all right, then?"

"Not even a scratch. The shuttle could use a few repairs, but nothing major."

"Good. Soon as you're docked, we'll head for someplace safer to repair Voyager and your shuttle. Voyager out."

Tom saw the yawning doors of the docking bay begin to open. He headed for them, feeling the shuttle responding a tad slowly, as if it weren't entirely sure where it wanted to go. He encouraged it, aiming for the docking bay with surety. "Come on, just a few more yards and then we'll get you all fixed up."

Tom, unlike many pilots, only talked to his ships when no one else could hear. He settled the shuttle into place gently, and as the engines shut down breathed a sigh of relief. Got to be worth ten points of good karma right there, he thought. Then he jumped out of his chair and headed for the door.

A wildly grinning B'Elanna was waiting for him. "Tom!"

He met her grin, and caught her enthusiastically as she grabbed him. "Hey, you aren't just glad I didn't wreck the shuttle, are you?"

"Don't be an ass, Paris." She scolded him, but Tom saw the laughter in her eyes. He and B'Elanna had become extremely good friends in the last few months, and their previous battles of wits had become affectionate -- and more intense. "I'm just glad you're all right."

Then she kissed him. Bit, more like, Tom realised, even as parts of his brain went into shock. Boy, won't she be embarrassed tomorrow! He let her kiss him, returning it with equal passion -- time had been when he stayed awake at night wondering what it would be like, back before he had admited he was in love with someone else. Before his someone else had admited the same and dragged him to his quarters for tender, heart-stopping sex that left them both unable to walk comfortably the next day.

He let B'Elanna finish the kiss, then grinned down at her. "Wow! If I'd known I was gonna get that, I'd have blown up a star sooner." Torres gave him a swack on the arm. "Ow!" Tom rubbed at the spot, then looked around. "Hey, where's Chakotay?"

B'Elanna gave him an odd look, and replied, "On the bridge, why?"

"Why?" Tom was surprised. "I figured he'd be down here... or did he send you?" He wouldn't put it past his lover, chained by duty to the bridge, to have sent B'Elanna down to greet him, kiss and all.

Again that odd look -- Tom began to get a bad feeling. Something about one of those 'possible side effects.' She shook her head. "He's in charge of organising the repair teams. I'm here to check on the shuttle." She gave him a sultry smile as she said the last.

Somewhat reassured, Tom relaxed. "The shuttle needs some TLC, that's for sure. But not much else." He absently patted her hand when she laid it on his arm. "I'm going to head for the bridge and give the Captain my report." The ship couldn't be too badly damaged if B'Elanna could be spared for a simple shuttle repair.

"After you've done that, come back here and give me a hand." She smiled at him again, and Tom was struck by the realisation that she was flirting with him. His stomach did a flip -- or was this another game? Last month it had been engineering puns.

He laughed and decided to ignore it. "No way, Torres. I just wreck 'em, I don't fix 'em."

He turned and headed for the door, before she could decide to make it an order. It wasn't that he minded helping with the repairs, it was just that he *really* needed to get alone with his lover. Might not be possible, he realised as he grabbed a turbo lift. If he's in charge of the repair teams, he could be working way into the night.

Maybe I can grab him for a quick dinner break later, Tom decided. Surely I can hold out until then.

The turbo lift doors opened and he saw Chakotay standing beside Harry's station, looking scrumptious as ever. Maybe not, he amended. He stepped onto the bridge, heading deliberately towards the Captain. Sublimate, Tom, sublimate. Maybe fixing a shuttle would be the best idea. Keep him busy for a few hours.

He gave the Captain his report, short and to the point for a change. He kept sneaking looks over towards Chakotay, but the other man never looked up, seemingly engrossed in his work. Tom sighed, mentally. He envied his lover's self-control at times. Give us one hour, he told himself as the Captain assigned him to go help B'Elanna with the shuttle, and that will change. Tom considered it his job to wreck that control as often and as thoroughly as he could. In private, his lover enjoyed it. In public, Tom was more likely to get scowled at -- then threatened with extra duties, usually cleaning sickbay or something equally unpleasant.

No matter. Today Chakotay seemed much more interested in his reports than in his returned lover; after nine months Tom was able to accept that it was probably the only way Chakotay could avoid a huge, emotional scene. Last time Tom had returned from a mission almost-killed the Commander had latched onto him for a full five minutes at the staff meeting. The others had understood, but Chakotay hadn't wanted to repeat the display... on duty.

Tom resigned himself to some frustration and headed back down to the shuttle bay. Maybe he could entertain himself by making B'Elanna reveal some of the juicy details of her own love life. Who was she seeing now, anyway? He shook his head. If it wasn't still Garcy, down in Security, he didn't know. The woman was having entirely too much fun working her way through the available and willing ship's complement.

He found her working on the shuttle, upper half of her torso disappearing into a side panel. From within he could hear myseterious fizzing noises. He snuck up and began tapping on the outer hull, about two feet down from where she was working. The fizzing noise stopped, then he heard a colourful Klingon curse. B'Elanna's scowl appeared soon after.

"Paris!" She glared at him.

Tom gave her an unrepentant grin. "Yes, B'Elanna?"

"For that you're doing the diagnostic." She handed over the scanner she'd been using, slapping it into Tom's hand.

Tom laughed and headed for the open panel -- nothing like obedience to keep someone off balance. "You know you're beautiful when you're covered in grease." He gave the streak of blue gel on her uniform a brief nod as he stepped past her.

A growl came from behind him and he was grabbed. A hand at the back of his collar yanked him backwards; the scanner went flying. B'Elanna was staring at him, a fierce intensity to her gaze that worried him. He expected her to say something, return his joke or threaten him with life assignment in the kitchens.

Instead she held him tight and kissed him again. This was no mere 'someone asked me to give this to you' kiss. Tom brought his hands up, trying not to lose his balance, and finally pushed B'Elanna away. He stared at her, her face flushed and breathing heavily. She looked like... ye gods, she looked like she had the time she'd pounced on Joshua in the mess hall. It had taken a judicious application of frozen mung worms to separate them long enough to fend them off into privacy.

"B'Elanna?" He backed up a step. Surely she wouldn't... but it sure as hell looked like it.

"Tom," she growled at him, advancing slowly. She looked like a tiger, stalking her prey. Tom was beginning to get seriously worried.

"Shouldn't you be attacking Garcy? I can call her if you like." he held up his hands to ward her off. He'd hate to call security to defend him from a maniacal engineer. Even if she was a friend.

At that, B'Elanna paused. "Garcy?" Her voice was honest confusion. "What does Garcy have to do with any of this?"

Tom stopped his retreat. There was something very seriously wrong, here. He thought about Tuvok's warnings -- heighten the explosion, tear the shuttle apart, rip the space-time fabric of the universe or at least a local area of it. Switch dimensions, flipping his shuttle into a parallel existence which might -- or might not -- be similar to the one he'd left. Tom felt a cold lump in his stomach.

It would at least *explain* Torres' strange behavior. So how was he going to find out, without dangerously insulting the already half-crazed half-Klingon in front of him?

"B'Elanna... what are you doing?" He kept his tone calm. He didn't want to upset her -- or himself, he realised.

This time her confusion was replaced by disbelief. "What does it *look* like? Tom, are you playing hard to get or did you just hit your head on the control panels again?"

Tom swallowed. "It looks like you're trying to jump my bones. And the rest of me." He didn't want to think about the implications.

B'Elanna smiled encouragingly. "That's right, Tom. Now if you'll shut up so I can--"

"But you shouldn't be."

"What?" Arousal was fading from her stance, and being replaced by anger. Not such a huge difference, Tom reminded himself.

That cold sensation in his stomach was growing. Instinct made him ask the question. "How long have we been lovers, B'Elanna?"

She shrugged. "Four weeks, give or take. What's the matter, Paris, forgotten already?"

Tom didn't answer.

The Captain was standing beside the bed. She waited quietly as the Doctor finished his examination, keeping Torres calm with a firm glare and sharp command. Tom didn't say anything, afraid to make this any more real than it was. He hadn't asked about Chakotay. Hadn't asked for his lover to come down and hold his hand, make everything better simply by being there. After his initial and brief statement that something had gone wrong and he seemed to be in the wrong universe, he hadn't said a word.

Maybe it was a joke, and Torres had decided to up the ante from puns to practical jokes. But this was too serious -- and he was scared. There was no way his lover would stand by for the sake of a prank and do nothing. Too many times a mere whimper of discomfort from Tom had brought out a fiercely protective guardian and comforter in his lover. Tom closed his eyes as the Doctor completed his exam. He wanted Chakotay here. Needed him.

"Well?" The Captain's voice was calm, soothing... familiar. Exactly the same, in fact, as it had been yesterday. Was she the same person? Tom didn't want to open his eyes.

"Everything appears to be fine. Mr. Paris is undamaged from the incident."

"So? What's wrong with him?" B'Elanna sounded angry -- a sign she was ready to break something.

"Mr. Paris' readings are almost entirely consistent with those of a healthy Lieutenant Paris."

At that Tom opened his eyes. The Captain spoke for him. "Almost?"

The Doctor nodded. "He is not the real -- or should I say, *our* Tom Paris. He is from a similar but separate dimension, although the difference appears to be less than .00935 percent. Physically, at least." The Doctor began to explain, "The last time we had "visitors" from parallel dimensions I was able to take readings of the molecular structure of their bodies. I noted that there is a slight difference in the DNA strand which is the same for any human from *this* dimension, or universe, or I suppose you could call it a 'reality'--"

"We get the idea." Torres' growl interrupted him.

Point zero zero nine three five. Tom said nothing. Such a tiny amount, to mean the entire universe. His eyes closed again and he looked at the comforting blankness.

Captain Janeway's quiet voice was almost soothing, as she asked, "Tom, are you all right?"

Finally he opened his eyes and looked at her. She looked just the same. She sounded just the same. He nodded, and dug out a believable grin. "Sure, Captain. I feel great. Just a little... disoriented, you know?"

She nodded, and patted his arm reassuringly. That, at least, hadn't changed. "I can imagine. You must be wondering what else is different between our realities."

Carefully, he said only, "How soon do you think we can get me back home?" Tom kept his voice steady, and his eyes away from B'Elanna. She had been sticking close to him since the shuttle bay, and had been asking questions nearly non-stop until the Doctor had asked her to cease interferring with the exam.

Janeway gave his arm a squeeze. "We'll get to work on it right away. B'Elanna," she turned towards the engineer, still simmering quietly at Tom's side. Tom was glad when she turned her focus away from him and onto the Captain. Janeway continued, "I want you, Tuvok, and Harry to see what you can come up with. Doctor, can Tom be released from Sickbay?"

"Of course, Captain. He's perfectly healthy."

Tom almost wished he'd said no. He was surprised by the desire to stay here and hide, something he hadn't felt in a very long time. Over a year, he realised. But he gave the hologram a grin, and jumped off the biobed. "Great! No offense, Doc."

"Come on, Tom. While they're working on a way to get you back... and to get our *own* Tom Paris returned, you can give the repair crews a hand. There's no point in finding a solution to your problem if the ship's still too broken to do anything about it." Janeway was smiling, and she led him out of sickbay. Tom could only follow, barely glancing as Torres went past them, brushing her fingers lightly along his arm as she left.

He didn't want to think about what she might be thinking. He hadn't exactly explained to her the problem -- although it had been obvious that her answer back in the shuttle bay had been the clue he'd needed to figure out there was a problem. But she hadn't asked, and he hadn't volunteered. The Captain hadn't asked for any details, either, simply accepting his report that he wasn't where he was supposed to be and leaving it to the doctor to verify.

He followed her to the turbolift and said nothing as she directed them to the bridge. Hopefully this would all get straightened out soon, and he'd be back where he belonged. On Voyager. With Chakotay.

The turbolift door opened and he started to follow Captain Janeway onto the bridge. He stopped when Chakotay met them, padd in hand and a serious look on his face. Tom felt his heart stop, then restart with a audible chug as the man began to speak.

"We have to re-wire most of the shipboard systems; with everybody working on their own departments' boards we should have everything completed in a day or so." He paced Janeway as she headed onto the bridge. After a moment, realising that he was going to draw unnecessary attention, Tom followed. He looked around the bridge, but everything seemed the same.

Chakotay kept talking, apparently oblivious to Tom's distress. Well he is, Tom told himself. He doesn't know me from Adam. Tom felt a deep thunk in the center of his gut. What if Chakotay has someone, over in this reality? He forcibly closed that part of his mind off, unable to stand the picture of Chakotay looking at someone else the way Tom needed him to be looking now....

He turned his attention back to the Captain as she spoke. "I want Mr. Paris to assist with the repairs while we look for a way to get him back to his own dimension."

Tom gave Chakotay a weak grin in response to the Commander's look. It was an old one -- that look of doubt and distrust he hadn't seen in years. He knew what Chakotay was thinking. What his Chakotay would be thinking. "Can I trust this one? Is he worse that the one I know? Or is he better?"

Chakotay glanced over at the Captain. "I'll have him work with someone. We don't know what sort of technical differences there might be, between our Voyager and yours." He'd turned his gaze back to Tom; again that measuring stare that Tom knew so well. Hated for so long, years ago. He wanted to say 'it's OK, you can trust me'. But he didn't know that he could. So he waited for them to assign him a partner, consoling himself that in a day or two he'd be home, curled up in his lover's arms, whispering how much he had missed him.

Tom rolled over on the bunk. The mattress was cold, hard, and the blankets were thin and rough. Or perhaps it was just that he was alone. He hadn't slept alone a single night in the last five months. It amazed him to discover how much he'd grown to need a warm, comforting presence beside him, holding him and cuddling him and listening to him in those last few moments after the light was shut off and before sleep came. Tom had learned a lot about himself, just from having someone listening to him night after night. It was one of the best things about his and Chakotay's relationship.

It had been decided that Tom should stay in the quarters of this reality's Paris. Not because it wouldn't be like an invasion of privacy, but because there were no other quarters to spare and Tom could not imagine accepting any of the half-glanced offers he'd received from some of the crew. Was their Tom Paris that salacious? Or were they imagining that they were kind, inviting him to share a bed in a strange universe? He didn't ask. He didn't try to explain his disinclinations. He let himself be led to a stranger's quarters and tried to get some sleep.

He'd taken a few minutes to look around, first. Try to discover what he could from the belongings left here. Not much -- clothes, of the same style he wore, a few souvenirs from worlds he didn't recognise, data disks which he left alone, and a photo of a girl he didn't know. The skyscape behind her suggested it was taken on earth but there was no way to be sure.

He left them all alone and headed for the shower. That, at least, was familiar. What was the other Tom Paris finding, he wondered. A room that hadn't been lived in for weeks, relegated to storage and a place a few steps closer to the holodeck than Chakotay's. Useful for those times when an hour or two in the holosuite left them needing more, needing privacy, and the Commander's quarters were much too far away. They'd started talking about moving in together and had agreed to give it six more months. If they were still living together anyway -- and Tom would bet anything they would be -- they'd give up Tom's room and move him officially into Chakotay's.

Would Chakotay tell the other Tom Paris what sort of relationship they had? Would... oh gods, Chakotay would be sleeping alone tonight as well. Tom rolled over, twisting the sheets in his fists.

"I miss you...."

The next morning he reported to the bridge. Yesterday he had worked with a young woman named Deli on the computer systems which controlled the helm. She was the back-up pilot, and had told Tom several of her flying stories while they worked. She was a friendly person, and from her stories had flown Voyager through some adventures as nasty as the ones Tom had seen. She never spoke of the other Tom, only giving him curious looks from time to time. He had remained charming and friendly all day despite his growing desire to go home.

The systems had had few differences, mostly ones of configuration and design, not of actual technology. Today they were supposed to finish the helm then give a hand to whomever else needed it. The work had been fairly easy.

Except that Commander Chakotay had decided to check up on Tom's work on an hourly basis. Everytime the facsimile of his lover came near, Tom had to add a layer to the veneer of unconcern, reminding himself that this man was not torturing him intentionally. By the end of the day some of the distrust seemed to have vanished, but Tom suspected that would not prevent the Commander from checking up on them today.

He gave Deli a smile as he stepped onto the bridge. She waved and remained seated by the open panel she was working on. Tom saw Tuvok and Harry over at the science station and detoured. Tuvok looked up at him as he approached.

"Hey... how's it going?" It came out tentatively. He didn't want these people to think he was going to be a nuisance, but he had to know. He hadn't slept very well at all.

Tuvok gave him a level stare. Normal for the Vulcan. "We have not yet decided on a method of transfer. There are several possibilities, but it will take time to thoroughly examine them all. We cannot run the risk of returning you to an incorrect dimension, after all."

"Oh... yeah, I hadn't thought of that." Tom swallowed.

Harry gave him a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry, Tom. We'll get you home," with a glance at Tuvok, he added swiftly, "if we can."

Tom just nodded. He left them to their work and went over to join Deli. She was buried in rags and gel packs and tools. As he sat down she gave him a smile.

"Looks like you're becoming part of the helm," he observed.

She gave him a wink. "Every good pilot does."

Tom laughed. "Here, let me take care of this." He picked up one of the boards and took over where she'd left off. They were essentially re-wiring everything, taking it apart and putting it back the way it was, tricking the hardware into thinking it had been repaired. Since it was never really broken to begin with -- just frazzled -- it was sufficient. It was a simple job -- anyone in their second year of the academy could do it. A lengthy process to be sure, but simple.

He was a third of the way through when he felt someone standing beside him. Looking up, he saw Chakotay.

"How's it going, Mr. Paris, Deli?"

Deli answered first. "Just great! You wanna do one? They're really fun."

"No, thanks. I'll let you two have all the fun." He smiled. Tom looked away.

"You're all heart, Commander." She gave him a grin -- Tom was beginning to think she was naturally perpetually cheerful -- and went back to her work.

"And how are you doing Mr. Paris?" The words were careful, tone even. Tom realised that the other man still didn't know whether to trust him. It was, after all, the First Officer's job to protect the ship. Even from someone who looked like a member of their crew but claimed not to be.

"Going just fine, Commander." If he stuck with the simple things, short sentences and didn't elaborate, he could talk to him. He wouldn't accidently call him something he shouldn't, or tease him or make jokes or ask him.... Tom shook his head. This was just another alien ship, and he had to remember that.

"What's wrong?" Chakotay's voice interupted him.

Tom looked up. "Huh? Oh, sorry... just reminding myself I'm not where I think I am."

At that the Commander's gaze softened for a moment. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. Tuvok, Harry, and B'Elanna are doing everything they can. I don't know about where you come from, but here, those three are the best."

Tom tried to smile. The glimmer of the man who loved him had peeked out in that brief gaze. He wanted to grab onto it. He wanted to see it full-force, aimed right at him. "They're the best where I come from. I'm not worried."

Chakotay clapped him on the back, and moved away to check on the other repair teams. Tom watched him for a second, then turned back to the board he was holding. This circuit needed to be re-attached here, and this one needed to cross over to there...

Chakotay continued to stop by every so often to check on their progress. Tom kept biting his tongue, hearing the voice in his head saying things he did not want to hear. Once the Captain stopped as well and he was able to say nothing except that he was waiting patiently. He stopped looking at Chakotay, stopped meeting the man's eyes, stopped saying anything at all unless asked.

Finally, mid morning, he realised what he was doing and told himself to stop it. 'One day, one fucking day and I fall apart? I don't think so!' Tom scolded himself. He installed the boards he was holding and wiped his hands off. 'I can survive one day -- one week, if need be -- without my lover. Even if his voice and face are floating around on someone else's body.'

"OK, Deli, what now?" He turned to the woman.

"Now, we eat!" She stood up, wiping her hands on her pants. "Come on, Tom, I'm starving!"

With a grin he followed her to the turbolift. "You guys don't have leola root, do you?" Her rueful smile told him in fact, they did. He sighed. "Well, I guess it can't be any *worse* than ours."

"I hope not! Neelix does wonderful things to it, but it still tastes like leola root." She made a face and Tom laughed. They continued comparing Neelix's culinary exploits as they headed down to the mess hall. Tom found himself enjoying her company and wondered who's, if anyone's, double she was. Where had their Deli ended up, if not on Voyager? Had she died in that first encounter?

Don't think about it, Tom. Just go eat lunch. He followed her inside and hoped that lunch would be good.

The other crew members gave him strange looks as they headed through the line and found a table. He knew why, and their curiousity was understandable. He hoped no one would ask for details, searching for those differences between the two of him. He didn't want his life examined, didn't want to be the center of morbid attention. So much worse than the first few months on Voyager, when at least they pretended not to stare and wonder what he was.

"May we join you?"

He looked up at Janeway's voice, starting to say yes and freezing when he saw Chakotay standing with her.

"Yes, of course Captain, Commander," Deli spoke up for him. The two sat down, Chakotay giving him a concerned look.

Janeway just smiled and Tom decided that her liked her, too. "So, Tom, how are you doing?"

"Fine, Captain. The re-wiring is going smoothly. It looks enough like what I'm used to that I don't seem to be making any mistakes. That's what Deli says, anyway."

"It's true, he's doing a great job."

"I'm glad to hear it. I imagine you're anxious to get home." She gave him a lead, with that motherly tone and that understanding look in her eye. Well of course she'd understand. They were all of them anxious to get home again.

"Yes, Captain. I am." He toyed with his fork, not looking at her.

"Tom..." Chakotay began. Tom looked up at him. "I've noticed you seem a little uneasy around me. I just wanted to assure you...." He broke off, and then said, "Our Tom Paris is a respected and valuable member of our crew. He and I had some differences in the beginning but we worked them out. I think he worked them out with just about everyone." Warm eyes tried to stare at him, encouarging and oh, so familiar. Tom tried to wrench himself away. "You don't have to prove yourself, here."

Tom half-smiled. "I guess we have that much in common. Any word yet on when you can get me back?" He looked at the Captain.

"No, Tom. I'm sorry. As soon as we know anything, I'll let you know."

"Thanks." He tried to remind himself that it would take time. He picked at his food for a moment, then decided he wasn't very hungry. "If you'll excuse me?" He stood up, leaving his tray on the table. As he walked out he heard nothing behind him.

There was nowhere to go, he realised. No haven to run to, as the holosuites weren't working and to be honest he didn't want to find out that Sandrine's had never been made. Besides, with everyone working on repairs he coudn't justify taking that much of a break. A quick walk down to the gardens showed him that Kes was not on board. Plants were being grown for ship's use, but not with the loving hand that he could see on his own Voyager. It didn't feel comforting, the way Kes' warm circle of growing things enveloped you when you stepped in, flowers and leaves filling the air with fragrance. He couldn't tell if she had left some time ago, or had never been on board.

He couldn't go to his quarters as it only reminded him of where he was not. Couldn't go to Chakotay's for obvious reasons. Nowhere at all, but back to the bridge and back to work. At least he could stop thinking about how long it would be before he could see his love again, and concentrate on getting his hands covered in blue goo.

Three days later the ship was fully repaired. The Captain had informed him every day, in the privacy of her ready room and with tender, hopeful voice that they hadn't found a way back yet. Each time Tom nodded, told her he had faith in them, and left to spend another night alone in Tom's room, staring at the empty walls. Deli was beginning to give him worried looks, and Harry seemed to apologise every time they saw each other. Chakotay was leaving him alone, except on duty.

Tom still wasn't sleeping. How could the presence of someone he'd slept without for decades, be so vital now? Whenever he managed to doze off, he'd find himself wide awake reaching out for his lover, wondering why he hadn't heard him get out of bed and wander away. He wanted to talk to someone about how scared he was -- he knew, from the things the Captain wasn't telling him, that the expectations of finding a way back were decreasing. He wanted to tell someone that he needed to go home, that he missed Chakotay more than he thought possible. He wanted to tell the man that he loved him.

There was no one to hear. No one would understand. B'Elanna might have understood losing a lover, as hers was identically gone. Tom grinned at the image of the other Tom Paris propostioning his friend B'Elanna. Would she have broken anything before discovering the mistake? But the Chief Engineer had not emerged from engineering, at least not when Tom was around. Maybe she did, in fact, understand.

He started to ask the computer to locate her when the comm chirped.

"Janeway to Paris."

"Paris here." He felt a tremor. Was this the news?

"Mr. Paris, would you please meet me in my Ready Room?"

Oh gods. "Of course, Captain." He stood up, his knees shaking like they were filled with gelatin. That was not the voice of barely suppressed excitement. That was not the subtle note of triumph. He barely made it to the door, did not hear it swish open. That was the tone of a Captain who had made a very difficult decision and regretted having to tell her crew.

Maybe this is just how this version of Captain Janeway sounds when she's tired, Tom told himself. Maybe the comm system is still fritzing, and it's distorted her voice. Maybe... He continued to tell himself the possibilities, all the way to the turbolift. Maybe she's going to tell me she's really a Havian demi-worm and she wants to eat my brain.

Tom didn't notice the ride, startled when the doors slid open. With a jolt, he stepped out and headed for the Captain's door.

"Come in."

No. She did not sound particularly enthused. Tom straightened his back and walked in as if he did not already know. "Yes, Captain?"

The look on her face would have been enough. Tom stopped, halfway to the chair she had indicated he take. Everything was silence, then carefully the Captain spoke. "I'm sorry, Tom."


She walked over to him, rested a hand on his arm. It felt so odd, as if she were real, as if this could actually be happening. "We've examined every possibility... but we can't stay here any longer. We've detected signals from a Kralzor fleet. They're headed this way... we can't be here when they arrive."

"The... who?" Tom could not understand her words. Maybe this was just a holoprogram, and he'd forgotten to program in a plot that made sense.

"The Kralzor. We signed a treaty with them a year ago. We're allowed passage through their territory as long as we don't interfere with their civil war. As a sign of faith, we avoid each other completely." Her explanation was delivered calmly, to the point. As if all he needed was a briefing then he would be sent on his way.

He looked up at her. When had he sat down? He blinked. "I think we call them Kazon."

She gave his arm a squeeze. "I'm so sorry, Tom."

Tom looked around her office. Suddenly it seemed alien, every tiny detail standing out as wrong -- the shade of the carpet, the arrangement of her desk, the position of her viewport slightly off. All flashing warnings that he was not where he was supposed to be. He looked back up at her.

"We'll continue to study the problem, but Tuvok--" her voice caught, "Tuvok believes that by leaving the point of transfer, the chance of returning you to your proper place drops by 42 percent."

It was probably more than that. It was probably 42.73865, and she's just rounding it down to make me feel better. Less intimidated. Less...

"We can't risk a war with the Kralzor, Tom. We have better weapons, and shields, but they out number Voyager. If we broke the treaty--"

"I understand." Tom cut her off. "Our Kazon are pretty intimidating, too. I... One man just isn't worth risking the lives of so many." He swallowed, trying to regain his balance. "It isn't as if I'm lost on an alien world." He grinned, not feeling amused at all. "I'm not much more lost than I was before, with the rest of Voyager's crew."

Janeway said nothing for a few moments, then she sat down on the edge of her desk, facing him. "Tom... I'd like you to go through the pilot's training course, to make sure you are familiar with our systems, our regulations. And so we can ensure that you are qualified to be the ship's pilot. I know Deli said there were some small differences, but we'd better make sure that you know about the important ones. Whatever they turn out to be."

"Yes, Captain." He barely heard his own voice. What important differences could there be? He stared out of the porthole, at the stars beyond. How important could those miniscule changes in configuration be?

A week went by. Tom was officially off-duty, spending his time studying for the pilot's exam so he could regain his status as a useful member of the crew. Most of the time he was in the holosuite, flying programs designed to test a pilot's technical skill. He had to fly with half his systems working, fly with the sensors relaying inverted, mixed, or missing signals, fly with the helm sparking and rebuild the console after a large metal club smashed into it.

He spent most of each day flying. When he was not flying, he pored over schematics, regulations, Federation Law, and dug through the ship's duty log of the past five years. When he wasn't flying, and wasn't reading, he was lying in bed -- his, now, the owner wouldn't be reclaiming it -- staring at the ceiling waiting to fall asleep. When inevitably he did not, he would get up and start reading again.

The crew was avoiding him. Deli had said, early in the week, that they were giving him time to adjust. When he'd ignored her she eventually left him alone as well. He supposed he should be dreading having to prove himself again, spend months being mistrusted and misunderstood by people who thought they knew him but could not possibly know. He, too, would have to get to know these people who wore his friends' faces but had personalities he could only guess at.

Harry still seemed like a nice, friendly kid. Tuvok was as closed off and logical as ever. How the two of them ever got together he didn't know. But perhaps Harry would be his friend again. Maybe he would forget the other Harry except as someone he once knew, long ago in a distant quarter of the galaxy.

Tom flung himself onto his back, lying crossways on the couch. He'd packed up the other Tom's personal things, stacking them in a crate in the closet. The clothes he'd kept out, lacking enough replicator rations to recreate his own. The couch he wished he could have flung away, missing the extra-long, soft sofa he sometimes fell asleep on, when waiting for his lover to come home.

Pressing his hands into his eyes, he tried to shove the tears back. There was nothing to be done. Ironic, that now he should know how his crewmates had felt when they'd discovered they were too distant from their loved ones to ever truly imagine seeing them again. Chakotay was out there, somewhere, healthy and whole and just out of reach.

Perhaps not whole. If what Tom was feeling was any indication, he doubted Chakotay could consider himself 'whole'. The ache in his chest radiated throughout his body making him wonder if he could even sit up without shattering bones. He never imagined, when he first whispered the words 'I love you' in Chakotay's ear just as the man was about to step away from him as they'd danced together late one night at Sandrine's, that he would ever, ever feel like that love could kill him.

Tom realised he'd screamed only as the sound of it echoed off the walls.

Where was Chakotay now? What was he doing? Are you thinking about me, love? Are you imagining how my hands must feel, pressed against your arms, holding you close to me and letting your head rest against my shoulder? Are you thinking what my voice would sound like, soft and trembling as I sing to you? Are you wondering, are you hoping, are you telling me you love me too?

Tom opened his eyes. The ceiling stared back at him. Time to go read another chapter of Federation Law.

The observation deck was deserted. Not surprising, as it was middle of delta shift and most folk who were off duty were asleep, adhering to planet-born custom of maintaining a regular day. Tom had taken to reading here by the starfield, watching the universe sail by whenever he glanced up from the Padd. At this distance the stars looked exactly the same as the ones he knew so well -- he could almost believe he was nowhere but home. He could watch the stars and be grateful that this at least had not been stolen from him -- the ability to fly among them. He'd already broken a couple of recorded flight records on this Voyager's simulator.

Tom glanced back down to the Padd, wondering how much he truly cared about the trusteeship council. He hadn't cared the first time he went through the academy. But it wasn't like he had much else to do.


Tom dropped the Padd in his lap. Wiping the surprise off his face, he turned. "Commander."

"May I talk with you?"

"Sure," Tom shrugged. He'd have to learn how to talk with him eventually. He couldn't spend the rest of his days on Voyager avoiding his immediate CO. Chakotay walked over, and sat down in a chair near his. With a fierce attempt at control, Tom smiled. "What can I do for you, Commander?" It wasn't at all like the tone he used to tease his lover about maintaining ranks.

Chakotay gave him a half-smile. He looked so like the man he loved... Tom gave himself a shake. He's an alien, Tom. A holographic projection. An evil twin.... "I thought there might be something I could do for you. I imagine you must be having a difficult time adjusting."

He sounded so relaxed, his voice so inviting. It was the voice that enticed him, late at night, to whisper his secrets and darkest fears. The voice that encouraged him to share his hopes, his dreams. Tom looked away at the starfield. "Yeah, I suppose."

"Mr. Paris -- Tom, I do understand. Somewhat, at least. When the Maquis came aboard Voyager we all had to get used to a new home, learn to work alongside people who had been... not exactly our enemies, but not exactly friends, either. I know that isn't exactly like your situation... but if you want to talk about it, it isn't completely foreign to me."

Tom said nothing. How could he? After a moment Chakotay spoke again.

"Tom, I know that Deli would be willing to listen, if you'd rather talk to her."

It would have been easier if this Chakotay had been just a little bit of the annoying jerk Tom had once believed him to be. Or completely cold, or arrogant, or something -- anything -- besides quiet and understanding, radiating calm like the man had nothing else inside. Tom wanted to throw himself into the other man's arms, cry on his shoulder and let his lover hold him.

If that were possible there wouldn't be a need, now would there, Tommy boy? Tom shook his head.

"I realise you must--"

"Commander," Tom interupted smoothly, finally glancing over, briefly. That made it too hard to talk so he turned back towards the stars. "It isn't that. Really. I--" he tried again, "I appreciate what you're trying to say. But it isn't... it isn't being here that's the problem." Tom turned and faced the man who might have, in some other universe, been anything else. His nemesis, his confidant, his brother, his subordinate, his prisoner, his captor. Anything but this, simple kindness and concern. Anything but this which made it hard to remember where he was.

"I don't understand." The quizzical look was his. Definitely, without a doubt, his. Chakotay's. It must be genetic, Tom supposed.

Just say it, Tom. Say it and stop talking to yourself.

"I left someone behind."

He hadn't expected the admission to tear a new hole in his soul. Turning his face back to the starport, he saw none of the stars. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes and maintain control.

"Tom I'm so sorry."

He couldn't stop them. Even the inflection was his. Nothing to differentiate this man from his lover except the physical motions -- by now his Chakotay would have wrapped him in an embrace, laying gentle kisses on his face, whispering words of love and comfort. Tom pressed one hand against his eyes, rubbing ineffectually at the tears.

A hand touched his arm and he jerked himself away.

"I was just--"

Tom shook his head. He couldn't deal with this. He didn't want to. "You don't understand. Chakotay...." He stopped, holding himself tight, squeezing his fists and wanting to scream at the man to go away.

"You and Chakotay -- your Chakotay. You're lovers?"

Tom nodded.

"How long have you been together?"

"Forever." Tom laughed; it was the same answer he'd always given Chakotay whenever the man asked how long since the first kiss, how long til the next anniversary. How long til breakfast, how long can I hold you before we have to get out of bed? He realised the Commander had spoken of the relationship in the present tense. Be grateful for small favours, he told himself. I can't face this yet. Tomorrow I'll wake up and he'll be right here. Tomorrow I'll wake up and he'll be gone forever.

For a minute there was silence while Tom tried to focus on the stars again.

"Would you prefer if I left you alone?" This time some distance had come into the Commander's voice. No longer speaking as he would to a friend, but rather to a junior officer. Kind, still, but no longer in danger of trapping Tom in the sound.

Tom looked up. "Yes, Commander. I would."

Chakotay nodded, and stood up. Without another word he walked off the observation deck. Tom watched as the door slid closed, the slight swish echoing long in the empty room. He dropped his hands into his lap, knocking away the Padd and stared out at the starfield. It looked so empty. So inviting.

It looked like home.

Next Story: How Can I Retrieve You?