How Can I Retrieve You?

Sparks flew from every panel; Voyager shook as her artificial gravity flickered, trying to compensate for the waves buffeting her. Personnel held onto whatever they could, chairs and railings and occasionally each other. Chakotay tried to keep his eyes on the readouts as he kept the ship in reasonable approximation of position. With Tom in the shuttle, he had been given the helm. He had discovered an extra benefit to the duty -- while keeping an eye on the readouts to fly the ship, he could also keep an eye on the shuttle. It told him very little, as the scans were cutting in and out, but just seeing the shuttle was enough to assure him.

Over the comm they heard Tom intermittently, reporting. Chakotay found himself straining to hear his lover's voice. " begin, Captain... results... after... hopefully I'll meet you..." There was a pause in transmission, then, "switch on... mark... five..." Tom's voice faded out again but Chakotay counted silently as he knew Tom would be aloud. He tensed when he reached zero.

When the shaking ceased abruptly he took a moment to scan for Tom's shuttle. It was still in its original position, nose towards the star and slightly listed from Voyager's artificial horizon. It wasn't moving; Chakotay briefly scanned his panels to check his own damage then focused again on the shuttle. He was about to turn around to report, then ask if anyone had any readings from Tom's shuttle when he heard Tuvok.

"Captain, the shuttle appears to be damaged. I am unable to raise Lieutenant Paris."

Chakotay spun in his chair, saying nothing. He watched as Kathryn stood, glancing his way before asking for more information. "What kind of damage?"

"I cannot be certain. Voyager's scans are unreliable at the moment but I believe the shuttle is unable to fly. Whether--" he paused, almost unnoticeably and continued "it is due to damage to the shuttle itself or if Mr. Paris is incapacitated I cannot ascertain."

"Can we lock a tractor beam onto the shuttle?" The Captain didn't spare him a sympathetic glance this time; more important to rescue Tom now. There would be time enough to worry about him later.

"Yes, Captain, I believe we can."

"Do it. Bring him aboard."

"Aye, Captain."

Chakotay watched Tuvok working, aware out of the corner of his eye that the Captain had turned, now, wondering if there was anything she needed to say. Chakotay ignored her, waiting instead for the word that Tom was home safe. Finally -- it seemed like forever -- Tuvok reported. "I am bringing the shuttle in to bay two."

"Thank you." This time she had Chakotay's attention. "Commander--"

She hardly needed to say it. He was already on his feet and heading for the turbolift. "On my way." Behind him he heard her asking the doctor and an engineering team to meet them. He tried to tell his heart to beat quietly; there was no reason to think anything tragic had befallen Tom until he could see it for himself. He stared at the turbolift walls, repeating the words 'remain calm'.

It didn't quite work, but it kept part of his mind occupied as he made his way to the shuttle bay. The words shattered completely when they opened the shuttle door and he saw Tom lying against the helm -- eyes closed and blood on his face.

In sickbay Chakotay tried to stay back so the doctor could work. Kathryn had met them and was now trying to keep him still -- one hand on his arm to remind him not to pace. The doctor was making noises he couldn't understand. Was that an encouraging 'he'll be fine it's nothing' hmm or a 'my I haven't seen brains scrambled this badly in years' one? Chakotay wanted to grab the hologram and shake an answer out of him; he'd said nothing informative since they laid Tom on the biobed and he began making his initial scans.

The bleeding had been stopped, and after a few passes with an instrument Chakotay didn't recognise, the doctor had begun making more complete scans. He would consult his instruments, check a readout and make those indecipherable noises, then return to make another scan. When he finally turned to the two officers waiting for the prognosis, he looked puzzled. Chakotay felt something inside him drop.

Apparently the doctor noticed because he hurriedly spoke, "Mr. Paris will be fine. A small skull fracture, easily repaired. He should regain consciousness any time now. He'll have a slight headache for a day, but that's all."

Relief flooded over Chakotay like a wave. He tried to stem it by asking, "So what's wrong?"

Again the puzzled look, this time more pronounced. "As you know, last year Mr. Paris had an injury which required me to replace his left kidney with a new one, cloned from tissue from the right kidney."

"Yes, and?" Chakotay tried to tell himself not to jump to conclusions. Tried not to think about that particular away mission. Tom was going to be fine -- the doctor has said so. He felt a reassuring squeeze on his arm.

"The cloned kidney is an exact replica of the right, whereas the original kidney had the usual differentiations -- all parallel organs in the human body have minute differences, which we--"

"What's wrong with him?" Chakotay wondered if the hologram would mind being strangled.

"As I was conducting my examination I discovered that Mr. Paris' kidneys are both original. The left is not a clone of the right." Before Chakotay or the Captain could respond, he continued in a careful tone, "I also noticed that there are no scars on his back."

Chakotay stared at him for a moment, then looked down at the unconscious body of his lover. No scars, no cloned organ. Wrapping himself very carefully in a facsimile of calm he said nothing as Kathryn asked, "Is there anything else?"

"Not that I can detect without a more thorough examination."

Janeway looked at Chakotay; he barely understood the expression in her eyes although he was thinking exactly what she was trying to say. Tuvok had warned them about the possible effects. One of those effects might have been -- apparently was -- a transfer into an alternate universe. This Paris was not their Paris.

Wasn't his Tom.

Chakotay closed his eyes for a moment, then returned his attention to his Captain. "We'll have to get him returned and retrieve our own Tom Paris." He was grateful and a little surprised at how smoothly he said it.

"Of course," Janeway said it in that tone of hers that said barring nothing, she would see to it.

Chakotay looked down again at the Lieutenant lying on the biobed. He started to ask the doctor about the man's concussion when Paris opened his eyes.

The doctor moved forward, putting on his 'smile for the patient'. It made Chakotay uneasy -- or perhaps there was another reason for it. "Glad to see you're waking up, Mr. Paris."

The pilot glanced around sickbay before responding. "Thanks, Doc. Did it work?" He directed the question at the Captain, ignoring Chakotay as if he were just another commanding officer.

Janeway stepped forward smoothly. "Yes, Tom, it worked. You did a good job."

The young man smiled at the Captain's praise and Chakotay was reminded of the first time he'd seen that look after something *he* had said. He'd fallen in love all over again at that look. He found himself making a fist and tried to calm down. Wherever his Tom was, the other Voyager's crew would be taking care of him. He had to believe that. They couldn't be that different.

"Thanks, Captain." Paris sat up, brushing off the doctor's attempts to keep him lying down. "I feel fine," he told the EMH.

"You had a fractured skull -- you should not be moving around just yet."

"That explains the headache," Paris gave them a slight grin. Chakotay wondered suddenly if the doctor was wrong. Everything he was seeing -- every expression, every motion -- was Tom. Maybe there was another explanation for the incorrect scans. He looked at the doctor, wondering how to ask.

"Tom, I need to ask you a few questions," Kathryn again took over, letting Chakotay off the hook. He felt relieved -- how could he ask without insulting his lover, or this alternate version of the man? 'Hi, are we lovers?' was a little hard to say.

"Sure, is there something wrong?"

"We don't know for certain there is anything wrong. That's what we need to determine."

Chakotay watched as Tom's face began to show his concern -- he hid it well, as usual, but someone who knew him could see it clearly. He was, obviously, willing to believe that there might not be anything wrong. Apparently this Tom Paris trusted his Captain as much as the one Chakotay knew.

"Fire away," Paris gave a shrug and retrieved his confident grin.

"Tom... this may sound a bit odd. Do you remember Tuvok telling us about the possible effects of using the tachyon emitter?"

"Sure. There was a list of ten possibilities of above 10% chance of occurring. Maybe half a dozen more with lesser chances." From his expression he hadn't remembered the one of significance.

Janeway gave him a smile, reassuring and encouraging. Chakotay remembered how, at her last birthday party, all the crew had signed a card which read 'Happy Birthday Mom' to show her how much they appreciated her maternal instincts to take care of them. Tom had asked if he could borrow the ship for the evening, and several others wanted increases in their allowance. "Do you remember an away mission to Caldorae about eight months ago?"

"Yeah..." He gave them all a confused look. "Why?"

"I'm sorry, Tom. We're trying to... determine whether you're in the right universe."

At that his jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide. For a moment he said nothing, visibly trying to assimilate that the possibility may in fact be reality. Then he shook his head slightly. "What makes you think I'm in the wrong one?"

Chakotay wanted to grab his lover and hold him close. Instead he tried to remember to breathe.

"While the doctor was treating your injury he noticed some... differences. Tom, were you injured on Caldorae?"

"Sure... a scratch on my left hand." He held up his hand, showing them the palm where he'd been cut.

"Nothing else?" Janeway asked.

"No, nothing else." Paris looked from her to Chakotay and back. "Am I in the wrong place, then?"

He looks so brave, Chakotay thought. So scared. What is Tom going through, wherever he is? Does he look as lost, as in need of someone to tell him everything will be fine?

"Yes, Tom. It looks as though you are."

Paris gave each of them another glance, and then asked again. "You're sure I'm in the wrong place? The Doc's scans are right? No offense, Doc."

The Captain started to reassure him, when Chakotay spoke up. "Lieutenant, are you seeing anyone? Dating, I mean?" It felt so odd to say -- so odd because he knew this wasn't his own Tom. There would be no cheeky grin and an 'of course, don't you remember last night?'.

"Yeah, kind of." He shifted uneasily, as if suddenly unsure. "For the last four weeks-"

Chakotay didn't hear anymore. For a moment he didn't see anything except blackness. When he looked over to see the Captain standing beside him, she was speaking.

"We'll do everything we can to get you home, Tom. Don't worry."

"I know, Captain. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Janeway glanced over at Chakotay; he wasn't sure what she was thinking. Usually he could read her fairly well. "I think for now you had better rest -- you *did* fracture your skull, after all." The doctor nodded his approval, although Chakotay could tell he didn't expect Tom to obey.

"I feel fine, Captain," came the protest.

"And how's your headache feel?" The doctor asked.

Tom gave him a flat look but didn't answer.

"You can use our Tom's quarters," Chakotay offered. In a sense he was the only one who could give that permission; he knew Tom hadn't spent much time in his quarters of late and there would be few personal effects scattered around to make this Paris feel uncomfortable.

Paris gave him an uneasy look. "That's not necessary. Isn't there anything I can do to help find a way to trade us back?" He appealed to the Captain.

"I'm sorry, Tom. Doctor's orders. You're relieved of duty for the rest of the day. Tomorrow morning we'll put you to work. In the meantime, Tom, if there's anything you need... please let me know."

"Thanks. Um... are his quarters in the same place as mine?"

"I'll show you," Chakotay offered. It startled him to find himself making the offer, but somehow he felt as if he ought to do it. As if doing his duty for the man he loved, as well as his duty to the ship. Paris accepted the offer and jumped down from the biobed, masking his grimace of pain with ease. Chakotay saw it, knew it meant the man was in pain but considered it too minor to acknowledge. His Tom wouldn't appreciate it being pointed out. Chakotay was becoming adept at offering backrubs and hot drinks in the guise of casual comfort when pain relief was their true aim.

It felt so strange to walk out of sickbay with Tom Paris at his side and feel nothing where his desire should be. His body -- or perhaps it was his spirit -- apparently understood that this was not the man he loved and responded accordingly, treating him as if just another guest of the ship. Chakotay wished his mind would get the message, and stop telling him this man needed comforting, needed to be held and reassured and loved. Several times he stopped his hand from reaching out and touching Tom.

When they reached his lover's door Chakotay realised Paris had been talking the entire time. He had no idea what his responses had been, but the Lieutenant was behaving as if his companion had not been completely ignoring him. Chakotay gave himself a moment to regain his grounding before indicating the door.

"This is it," he said quietly. He keyed the lock open, and then changed it to a standard guests' passkey. He told Paris the combination as they stepped inside.

Paris looked around. "Mine is about three doors down... I think. The decks seem a bit smaller here." He stepped into the living area; Chakotay remained just inside the door.

"I can give you access to the unclassified specs to the ship. Our Voyager may be smaller than yours."

The other man turned, giving him a wide smile. It was the polite, 'I'll be nice to you so you'll leave me alone sooner' smile. "Thanks, Commander. I'm sure that'll keep me occupied while I'm off duty."

Chakotay just nodded. "Feel free to ask for anything you need. Neelix will have dinner ready starting at 1630 hours." He felt as if there should be more to be said. Chakotay realised that he wanted little to do with this stranger -- wanted to send him back home as soon as possible and get Tom back here where he belonged. When Paris said nothing more to him he simply excused himself and left.

The next day found Chakotay and B'Elanna standing at the engineering station on the bridge double-checking the calculations they had spent the night before making. The rest of the team had gone off duty three hours before after pulling a double shift. B'Elanna had only once asked Chakotay if he wanted to stop for the night and get some sleep -- fully intending to remain awake, herself, working. Chakotay had simply shaken his head, not even able to consider it.

Now he stared at the panels, watching the computer draw probability lines of 31 percent, 48 percent, or the more distressing 9 percent. He looked again at the line at 9 percent. Hadn't that been the most reasonable-sounding solution? He reached up and rubbed his head.

"Don't worry, Chakotay. We'll find something." B'Elanna's voice was quiet so it wouldn't carry to anyone else on the bridge.

"I know. I'm just trying to be patient."

She gave him a smile. "Just think of the reunion you'll have when we get him home."

At that he laughed. "No thanks; I'd like to be able to concentrate on my work." She returned the laugh, then looked back at the simulations. Janeway walked up behind them and asked for a report.

The Chief Engineer answered with frustration showing clearly in her voice, "I get the feeling we're missing something. We've gone through every known method of transferring into parallel universes, including an approximate re-creation of what happened yesterday. Each time we run a simulation we get nothing."

"Nothing?" Janeway sounded as if she didn't believe it.

B'Elanna clarified, "Well not nothing, but it certainly isn't good." She gave Chakotay an apologetic glance. "Nothing we could risk attempting at this point." She went on to detail each of the various scenarios they had run through, beginning with the most probable and ending with the least. Chakotay listened to her report, trying to maintain some sense of detachment. This was a task like any other, a technical problem they had to answer before Voyager could move on. When it was done he would return to his quarters and curl up on his bed with his lover as he had almost every night for the last several months.

He realised B'Elanna had completed her briefing and the Captain was looking at him sympathetically. He glanced at B'Elanna -- no help there, she was doing it too. He opened his mouth to apologise; Janeway reached out and touched him briefly on the arm. "Don't worry, Chakotay. We'll get him back."

"I know, Captain."

"Why don't you two get some rest, let the second shift work on it for a few hours." Her sharp look forestalled both of their protests. "Consider it an order if you prefer."

He considered protesting anyway but knew she would only end up throwing him off the bridge. He wouldn't put it past her to confine him to quarters if necessary. Truth was he was tired, but he knew he wouldn't rest. Better to not rest in his quarters, where the Captain wouldn't see him not resting and try to order him to do the impossible.

Spirits, please don't let this be impossible, he thought to himself as the turbolift doors closed on the bridge.

As he suspected, Chakotay spent the first hour of the morning pacing his quarters. Running through his mind were all the scenarios they'd formulated to bring his lover back. Each detail hung clearly in his mind before giving way to the next; somehow they had to coalesce into a picture, somehow they had to make sense. He tried to fool himself that he was going to rest by preparing for bed. He took a shower -- thoughts of various types of shock waves running along his skin with the soap. Maybe it would be possible to create one this afternoon and tomorrow Tom would be home. He asked for a cup of hot tea, knowing he would be unable to eat and drank it, mathematical equations solving and re-solving themselves in his mind until only the equal sign blazing in the center could be understood. Fortunately he wasn't responsible for solving the math; B'Elanna and Harry and the computer would do that.

As he undressed he saw the probability graphs redrawing themselves. One of them had to work. One of them had to create a line close enough that Kathryn would give her okay. When he finally laid down on the bed he stared at the ceiling. Time to shut the brain off, he told himself. Time to let others do what we pay them for -- be the second shift while the first shift takes a break. Spirits, it almost felt normal. Work a while on the crisis then hand it over, retire to your room and wait for your next turn. Like a bad novel, where the details overtake the reality until all you are thinking about is how exactly the prime waves can fit into a universe set up against Hegelian physics and you forget that it's your lover out there, trapped by the circumstances and the tragedy means you may never see him again, instead of just finishing the story and wondering where the sequel is.

Chakotay closed his eyes and tried to think of Tom; tried to shut out thoughts of interstellar and intradimensional dynamics and all those other terms that meant Tom was lost. Temporarily, he reminded himself. 'Voyager has done a lot of things in her time, and her crew has beaten spectacular odds. We can do anything that really needs doing. We have to -- no one else will do it.'

He realised for perhaps the first time in a very long time, that Voyager was indeed alone out here in space. Sitting in a place of no other consequence, it showed up on no star charts as a trading route or militarized zone, it mattered to no one except this lonely ship that did not belong. One man, one life out of how many billions who might look through a scope and see this patch of sky and not even see the ship, never imagine the man now fighting sleep in a bed alone, wondering when he would hold his beloved again and what, if anything, he would say when they were reunited.

Sleep did descend; Chakotay was barely aware of the moments passing between his spinning thoughts and the quiet as his body shut down. His eyes closed, and as he fell the last step into sleep he reached out a hand to snuggle himself in deeper against the warm body of his love and never woke when he hand hit only blankets.

He opened his eyes all at once, sitting up and calling for the lights before he remembered why he was so alarmed. The lights came on full intensity, forcing him to blink for a moment as his eyes adjusted. Chakotay held a hand before his face, rubbing slightly. Tom. They were looking for Tom. He pushed himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom, wondering what had woken him.

"Computer, time."

"It is now 1424 hours."

He'd been here for at least six hours, then. He supposed he should be grateful for the rest but he felt only chagrined that he'd been out of touch so long. Surely by now they had something! He hurried through the necessities and rushed out of his quarters, fully dressed and alert, leaving behind the eerie feeling that somewhere someone was watching all of this and thinking now would be a good time for someone named Chakotay to pay for all his sins.

He tapped his comm-badge as he headed for the turbolift. "Chakotay to Torres."

A moment passed; maybe she'd finally gone to sleep? "Torres here."

"B'Elanna, where are we?" An image flashed -- back on the Snake Roars, his first Maquis ship, he walked down a dark deck, struts shining silver and shaking with echoes of battle. He'd felt his first taste of death then -- the first moment he'd believed he could be killed. Walking in a hallway, yards away from being able to affect the battle around him even as he hurried to the bridge. What would it mean to a warrior, to die walking? Struck down without a chance to return fire?

The white walls surrounded him as the image faded. "I've only been down here for an hour, Commander, but I've reviewed all the suggestions and notes Peters and the other have made. I'm not sure," and he didn't need to hear the words, the tone of her voice said it all. She was excited, and Chakotay felt his feet begin to fly towards the turbolift. "We may have found a way."

Once, Chakotay wasn't sure when but it had been sometime in the middle of the nine months they'd been together, he and Tom had gone on a date. Nothing unusual in that of course, they'd been socialising for months before, and more vigourously after, the day he had asked the younger man if he might kiss him once to see how it felt. They'd saved their rations for a couple of weeks then splurged a bit on the necessities. Kathryn had teased them about it the next time they had reviewed the ship's daily reports but honestly, they saved so much eating together that a few embellishments had to occur to use up the rest. Or so he'd told her, grinning at the way she smiled and laughed at him.

The date had been unexpectedly fun. Rather, fun in ways neither had planned for. They had their blanket, basket, and lunch all packed for the picnic and walked arm in arm down to deck eight. Chakotay had expected the holosuite and had said nothing in surprise when Tom showed him into a deserted storeroom. Crates were stacked along each wall but through the middle was a large enough space to work -- checking lists and sorting through boxes when the need arose. Also, so they discovered, large enough for one large blanket and two willing bodies.

Tom explained he'd just that morning donated his holosuite reservation to Birdman and his newly agreed fiance, giving them not only their two hours but the use of the romantic program he'd prepared. Chakotay had been unwilling to argue -- he was delighted for them both and Tom was already halfway undressed by the time he'd finished assimilating where they were. Chakotay gave up any comments about the decor, checked the lock, and helped his lover complete the task.

Their love-making had been gloriously fun, as both had been hoping. Chakotay had only been able to form one rational thought after Tom had begun licking his hands -- I hope the walls down here are soundproof. After that all bets and restraint were off and Chakotay had let himself be laid back, howling to the moons. Tom had the gall to look smug for the few moments it took Chakotay to recover, then he was the one whimpering and moaning and trying to encourage his lover to hurry the hell up and stop taking the scenic route. Great fun, even when they broke it off for lunch.

That had been the expected part. The unexpected part was when their lunch preparations -- designed for a picnic in the great outdoors, or holographic fascimile thereof -- set off the storeroom's fire safeties. Drenched in green foam with the alarm blazing in their ears they'd waited calmly until Security showed up and informed them everything was under control. The teasing he'd received from the Captain after that one was enough to schedule himself a different duty shift for a couple of weeks.

He and Tom had never quite lived it down, and he knew when he saw the inscription in the official Voyager Log of Incidents that they never would. Someday he would be able to add a story about B'Elanna and get even with her for her adding it to the book. The record of infamous incidents and validated gossip would outlive them all, and he wanted to ensure future generations laughed at them all equally.

Right now he just headed for Engineering, eager to hear how soon they could swap their missing crewmembers back. Perhaps he'd even be able to say a kind word to the other Tom Paris, take a few swift moments to get to know him before he left for good. His Tom would be eager to know what the other man was like, and would pump Chakotay for all the information he could get. Chakotay skidded off the turbolift and ran to Engineering.

He was met outside the door by the captain, also on her way inside to hear the details. Janeway gave him a hopeful smile, confidence and pride in her crew showing clearly. Chakotay let it buoy him further, telling himself that they'd have to tie him down to keep him from floating away. He let the captain precede him inside and they walked over to the station where Torres was entering numbers and scowling at the readouts.

When the Chief Engineer looked up she broke into a grin. "Captain, Commander, I think we found a safe way to re-create the original accident which swapped the two Tom Parises."

"Would that make us a Parisi?" The lieutenant in question asked. Chakotay only noticed then that the alter-Paris was even there, standing behind Torres. B'Elanna gave him a quick mock-glare to hush him -- though his grin didn't fade -- and resumed.

"We didn't want to risk restarting the actual circumstances of the star's pre-eruptive disturbance because of the risk to Voyager and the fact that those very disruptions would prevent our controlling the changeover. But we've found a possible explanation for the dimensional break which transferred our Tom Paris with this Tom," she gave him a friendly nod. "We can utilize just those particles which created the exchange -- creating a pseudo-explosion in a centralized area, which can be controlled and hopefully directed."

"Sounds excellent, B'Elanna." Captain Janeway didn't hide her appreciation of their accomplishment. Chakotay just grinned at them, meeting B'Elanna's look of relief with an expression of impatient joy. "How soon can we try it?"

"I need to run a few more tests, before we try creating a small explosion in the lab. Once we get that working, we'll know better how to create one large enough to exchange them."

"So how long? A few days?" Chakotay asked.

Kathryn placed a hand on his arm, to hold him still. B'Elanna just smiled at him, that look of understanding written so clearly on her face. He reminded himself that B'Elanna was one of Tom's best friends and was no less eager than he to get him back. Perhaps slightly less eager. "A couple of days at the least, Chakotay. We can't risk not doing this right, and we have time to make all the necessary tests and models first. Within a week, though, we should be ready to get him back."

Chakotay nodded and tried to contain his cheer. He glanced over and saw Paris giving him a strange look; figuring out a probably reason, he turned his attention to the man. "Mr. Paris, I see you've recovered from your injury."

"Yeah, I'm fully recovered." Paris was still giving him that odd look, but it had retreated to just shining in his eyes. "I've been down here since nine this morning, helping configure all the details of the star's explosion."

"Excellent. It sounds like you'll be heading home, soon." Tom will be home soon! He wanted to shout.

"Yeah," Paris didn't try hiding his confusion this time. Perhaps, Chakotay mused, I didn't restrain myself well enough. Carefully the lieutenant asked, "You must be fond of your version of me, huh?"

It was interesting to hear the note of hesitation, Chakotay noted. Not because Paris didn't sound as if he expected a warm welcome from his commander, but simply confused by the intensity of it. Chakotay was astonished himself, from time to time, at the intensity of the love he felt for his lover. Like a dam opening and everything rushing through and filling him up at the same time. He took a moment to try to explain -- plenty of leisure, now, to talk to this stranger who would soon be leaving.

"I take it no one has told you...." Paris shook his head. Chakotay took a deep breath and nearly laughed at the absurdity of it. "Tom and I have been lovers for nearly nine months. We're thinking of making it permanent."

Paris was not the only one who gasped. Oh yeah, we hadn't told anyone that part of it yet, he realised. Chakotay grinned. Paris was shaking his head. "Wow... that one -- no offense, Commander -- is going to take some thought. You and me? Er, the other me? Huh..." He trailed off, obviously thinking about his own Chakotay and whether such a thing was conceivable. Finally he shook his head. "I think Commander Chakotay would never go for it. Besides, he's not exactly my type." He said it with a small glance towards B'Elanna, who laughed.

"Me? Looks like I beat you out over there, Chakotay."

"Looks like," Chakotay agreed, not caring. Entirely too giddy at the prospect even of running tests for days, Chakotay turned to the captain. "Is there any problem with our staying here while we run the tests?"

Janeway shook her head. "None that I know of. I'll head up to the bridge and make sure. You all get started on those tests, and keep me informed of your progress."

"Aye, Captain."

As she left Janeway gave him an indulgent grin. "Permanent, Chakotay? That'll be interesting." She left before Chakotay could ask what part of it was meant to be interesting. Tom had maintained that the coolest part would be the partying before and after the ceremony. Chakotay thought the coolest part would be getting to call him petnames on the bridge.

"Commander?" He started, and looked over at Torres. She put her hand down and shook her head. "Are you going to be able to concentrate long enough to help us lug some stuff into the lab?"

He gave her a glare. "Of course not. That's what subordinates are for." He turned to Paris who was still giving him a lop-sided grin. "Lieutenant, round up some ensigns to do some 'lugging'."

"Aye, sir!" Paris gave him a jaunty salute -- so like his doppelganger, how could they differ? Tonight when they stopped for mealbreak he'd have to talk with the young man and find out. B'Elanna just gave him a swat on the arm and handed him a Padd to 'lug'.

They worked steadily and enthusiastically for the rest of the afternoon and well into evening. Near the end of gamma shift Chakotay called a halt to their work and ordered everyone to the mess hall for supper. Torres begged off, saying she had saved her rations just so she could use them on real food.

Once in the mess hall, seated with trays full of things Neelix was calling food that day, Chakotay once again turned his attention to Lt. Paris.

The man was smiling at him, almost laughing. "Now I understand why it took finding a way to switch us back to make you nice to me."

Chakotay flinched, but nodded. "I'm sorry... but the thought of losing Tom....." It still scared him. Everything was going well, and everyone had reasonable hopes that this time next week the entire incident would be behind them. He looked back to see Paris watching him, blue eyes staring at him that said nothing of the love he was used to seeing.

"It's all right, Commander. I understand." His mouth quirked. "Well not *exactly* but I can accept that it would be hard on you. I won't take it personally that you're so eager to get rid of me." He grinned, obviously aware that here was his chance to tease his commanding officer and get cleanly away with it.

"It's hard to believe that you two could be so different from us. I mean, from what little I've seen you and my Tom are... not *exactly* alike, but so far I haven't seen any substantial differences."

"Aha, now I know why you wanted to eat with me. The interrogation."

"I wouldn't call it--"

"It's all right, I admit I'm curious myself. What is it about you that makes the other me love you? Back on my Voyager, Chakotay and I have finally become friendly -- he doesn't growl at me anymore and I don't have to try so hard to annoy him. It's still fun, of course--"

"You *are* alike," Chakotay observed. Tom just grinned.

"But I can't really see loving him. Not the way you obviously love your Tom."

Chakotay shrugged. "I don't know how well I can explain it. I have trouble sometimes explaining it to myself. Maybe we just fit, here. There's something about him that makes me want to be near him, always. I'm not just talking about the physical attraction," Chakotay paused to remember the smoldering and looked forward to doing much more. "I just feel so much better when I'm with him, or even thinking about him than I do when I'm not near him."

"Huh." Paris was watching him seriously, a curious look on his face.

"You may have noticed it doesn't take much to get me going about him," Chakotay apologised.

"That's okay. I enjoy hearing about him. B'Elanna has been telling me stories from the last four years. It's like a huge 'what if' has come to life. What if I'd never gone to Paris for a year? What if I'd never served aboard your ship with the Maquis? It's--"

"What?!" Chakotay dropped his fork. "You served on my ship?"

Tom half grimaced. "Not for long. I was captured by Star Fleet on my first mission. That's when I was sent to Auckland."

Stunned, Chakotay replied, "Tom was taken on board Romer's ship when he joined the Maquis. About a week later Romer turned pirate and headed for another sector. The whole lot of them were captured a couple of months later. Tom was among those sent to minimum security prison on New Zealand because the authorities couldn't disprove his claims that he hadn't participated in any of the actual raids." Chakotay had heard his lover's stories of those times -- the type of coercion Romer used to get his reluctant crew members to not mutiny had made the year in prison a relief. As such they were not Chakotay's stories to share. "His father campaigned for nearly eight months to get him released on probation and was the one who convinced Captain Janeway to take him along on Voyager's mission. His time served on Voyager would have completed his sentence."

Paris was looking at him with amazement. "I never thought... you, and B'Elanna and Carey all have been telling me that I act just like your Tom Paris. I would never have thought our lives were so different." He looked uneasy, then said calmly, "My father was all too happy to see me shuffled off to prison. He'd washed his hands of me long ago."

Chakotay reached over and took the other Paris' hand briefly. "Tom's father had been in a hospital for a few years before Tom was arrested. He was being treated for schizophrenia -- trauma-induced -- he'd made Tom's life a living hell for three years when he was a child." It sounded cruel to say it so matter-of-factly. So many times Chakotay had held his lover at night while he tried to explain another of his stories from childhood, why something that happened long ago had made him the man he was today.

Paris looked up, the distant terror fading somewhat from his eyes. He half-smiled. "I guess we aren't so different. My life wasn't exactly a living hell, but it never really stopped, either." He looked away again, and Chakotay realised they needed to change the subject.

"How exactly did you and B'Elanna get together?"

The week was spent in much the same manner as that second day. Chakotay woke early, always puzzled in that first moment wondering where his bedmate was. Then he would rush through his morning routine, giving his prayers and thanks to the spirits and gods and whomever else was listening as he went. In the lab by 0800 he would assist with the tests which would soon bring Tom home.

He did not talk of the hours at night when he would lie awake wondering where his love was, whether he had the time to wait for them to ensure their method would work. Chakotay told himself firmly, each night before he could fall asleep, that the alter-Voyager was taking good care of him and would no doubt be ready to return him themselves soon. Perhaps even before they had a chance to complete their tests -- Tom might show up any day now, smiling and offering to give the other Tom a ride home.

Each mealbreak he would spend with Kathryn, B'Elanna, and Paris talking about the progress they'd made since the last report and sharing stories with Paris about his alter-ego. The presence of the other two kept the stories light, away from the traumas that had befallen each man. B'Elanna told of the time Tom had saved her life; Paris was delighted to share an almost identical story of his own.

Chakotay could see how Tom and his B'Elanna could have made a couple. They had become friends once Tom's brash manner had worn off and B'Elanna had let down her guard long enough to consider the young man as someone worth talking to. It had helped that Chakotay had done the same; lending encouragement to the other former Maquis to resolve their differences with the outsider. In the last two years Tom had become an embraced member of the crew -- some doing more and better embracing than others, Chakotay said once, eliciting laughs from all at the table. Paris had been pleased to hear it and modestly spoke of his own acceptance on his Voyager -- perhaps not as complete, but warm and respectful all the same.

Each night, after a long and tiring day of working in the lab, Chakotay would return to his quarters and meditate. It was the best way he had of telling Tom he missed him, there in the calm center of his mind he could reach out and touch the man he loved so much. He could hear, sometimes, his lover's voice calling back to him. When the visions faded Chakotay would rise, spend some time catching up on ship's business, then retire. He had taken to cuddling a pillow, to let his arms remember the position they slept so well in. Soon, he told himself, it will be Tom lying here, safe and warm beside me.

On the sixth day they were ready to try the first controlled experiment outside the lab. Chakotay was nervous, shifting from one foot to another -- stopping only when he realised not that he was doing it, but that the habit was one picked up from Tom. He stilled himself without even needing the look of amusement from Kathryn. They stood on the bridge, watching the screens as the shuttle settled into position.

"We're almost ready to begin," Roger Preston, one of the engineers who had shown the most flair for creating elegant solutions to the tricky difficulties they'd discovered during testing, spoke over the comm. He'd won the place of honour of shuttle testor by unanimous vote. Janeway had been more than happy to let the young man take the place at the helm for the first test-run; this would be only the first two steps in creating the complete controlled explosion that would propel a ship through to the other universe. It would determine how well the explosion could be controlled outside the lab, and determine what measures needed to be taken to direct the resulting trade appropriately.

If it worked, they would first trade a small beacon with whatever dust was occupying a patch of empty space. It would explain to the other Voyager what their plan was, and direct them to return the beacon with their agreement to set Tom Paris in the shuttle in the right spot for the trade. Hopefully, all things being equal and fair, Tom would be home within a day.

Chakotay was bouncing on the balls of his feet -- another habit he'd acquired from his lover. He stared at the screen, deciding he would only do something else to embarrass himself and shatter any image of dignity he had if he tried to quell it. Roger's voice came over the comm. "We're ready to begin, Captain." Torres was in Engineering, ready to complete her half of the test, monitoring the explosion to see how well she would be able to control it remotely.

Janeway smiled, and nodded. "Whenever you're ready, Mr. Preston."

"On my mark.... five...four...."

Chakotay tried not to flash back. Even if the test failed there was no real danger to Preston or the shuttle. The worst case scenario was going back to the drawing board, refining the techniques they were using to create the necessary explosion. Preston's voice continued, as soon as he said 'zero' they heard, over the comm, the beginnings of the miniature psuedo-stellar explosion.

They saw the shuttle rock slightly, then heard Preston's excited voice. "I think it worked! Chief, what'd you get?"

B'Elanna's voice was a moment in answering, her excitement just as evident though more subdued. "I'm double checking the readings now but it looks as though everything is acting as we predicted. I can direct the explosion from here, Captain. We can ready the beacon and send it through anytime."

Chakotay looked at his captain, wondering for a moment if she would order another series of tests, just to be sure. It would only take a few more hours and was entirely reasonable but Chakotay knew he couldn't wait.

"B'Elanna, let's run the test again just to be certain we can control it." Janeway gave Chakotay an apologetic look; he shrugged, smiling. "I don't want to risk anyone's life unless we're as certain as we can be that it will work."

"Of course, Captain. Roger, bring the shuttle back and we'll compare readings. Torres out."

B'Elanna didn't sound upset by the order; Chakotay knew she would have expected it. He didn't want to risk his lover's life, but he wasn't certain he could wait patiently for the rest of the day. Kathryn walked over to him and gave him a knowing look. "Commander, would you prefer to assist with the follow-up tests or take the rest of the day off?"

He gave her a sheepish grin. "I'm not sure how much help I'd be. Maybe I can sequester myself with some reports that need writing. Something brain-numbing might keep me distracted for a few hours."

She laughed. "I'll be happy to give you some of *my* reports, if you like."

He returned her good spirits with a smile. "I'll let you know." He left the bridge, heading for the small office that served as First Officer's Ready Room. It was one level down, just down the corrider from where the Captain's Ready Room was placed above. Its most important function was providing the first officer a place to get some work done that needed a desk and chair. There was no point in making the XO do work in his or her quarters, a practise Chakotay appreciated now that he had better things to do once he got 'home' for the day.

He went there now, glad for a change that he had work piling up from the last few days.

By the end of the beta shift they had conducted the test three more times. Although they got variations in the readings, each was well within a controllable range. Torres and Janeway gave their official seal of approval to the procedure at 1858 hours. By 1904 Chakotay was seated on the bridge, exuding a calm he hadn't felt all week long. The other bridge officers were excited, Harry couldn't keep his voice down as he spoke with Suzanne about the look on Tom's face when they shared some of the things they'd learned from the other Paris.

Chakotay tuned it out with ease; focusing on the task at hand, waiting for others to carry out their orders. A waiting game well-learned by those in command and one he was good at -- with the exception of this week, when he had played a larger part in the nitty gritty of solving the problem than usual. Now he was back in his proper place, on the bridge, giving orders and passing along those of the captain.

Inside he was calm as well, which surprised him greatly. Perhaps, now that he knew Tom would be home soon, he could relax. He suspected it would not last -- as soon as Tom appeared within arm's reach he planned to grab him and hold him, not letting go for at least an hour or three. More, if he could get them someplace private. No doubt he would be able to do so -- he doubted anyone would stand in their way even if he had to carry Tom across the captain's body.

He smiled. Apparently he wasn't as calm as he felt. He tensed, suddenly, then heard B'Elanna's voice. "We're ready to begin the transfer. The beacon will disappear exactly four point two seconds after the initial explosion."

"Understood." He could speak calmly, that was something.

"Countdown begins on my mark...."

Chakotay didn't listen. He couldn't -- the image of the beacon, frozen on the main screen, took up his entire consciousness. Somewhere out there, his Tom was waiting -- even if he didn't know it -- for this beacon. It would arrive, Voyager would retrieve it and return it with their own message and then, mere hours from now, he would have his Tom back. It had only been a week -- gods knew they had been separated before during the course of a mission. Gods knew there had been times when the return had not always been certain. But this was the first time that Chakotay was so completely out of touch with his beloved. In another universe, so far away that nothing short of a technological miracle could bring him back. Luckily Voyager had a few miracle workers onboard.

The beacon vanished. Chakotay tensed; he hadn't heard B'Elanna's countdown and the abrupt disappearance startled him. Hadn't even noticed the explosion, tiny and controlled though it had been, so caught up in his thoughts. For a few minutes he simply watched the empty space, listening to B'Elanna report that all had gone smoothly and then begin collecting data from the various sensors that had been trained on the beacon, to double and triple check what already appeared obvious. He glanced sideways at the captain.

"Now we wait for them to send it back." She smiled encouragingly. She was good at that.

"It shouldn't take long, even if they've left the area the long range beacon will be picked up by the Star Fleet receptors. Paris assures us they're similar enough to our own transmittors."

She let him reiterate what they'd been saying all along. "And even if they've been going at top speed for the past week, they'll be within range and be able to return. It may take a week," she warned. Chakotay nodded. It'd be a week of hell, but he could manage. Lots of cold showers and hot tea and meditation. "But we can sit here for a week and wait if need be. Chances are they've remained in the area trying to find a way to make the trade, as well."

That was one thing he was grateful for. There was no reason why they couldn't remain here, attempting to recover their errant crewman. It would play hell on Chakotay's nerves but if it took them a month to get Tom back there was nothing standing in their way. No other sentient races were living or flying through the area, and according to what they'd seen in the previous week none were likely to anytime soon. A backwater, deserted spot in space.

"Even if they did give up they would have stayed for a day or two." Chakotay repeated some of the things he'd told himself at night when the dark walls could not close in. "So it shouldn't be a full week for them to return. If they stayed nearby, the beacon should return anytime now."

"If it hasn't returned in an hour, I'm ordering you off the bridge until it arrives." Kathryn leaned over, a serious twinkle in her eye.

"Yes, Captain." He tried not to fidget in his seat.

In fact it took half an hour. The beacon returned, the ship's main sensors displaying it in full detail. Chakotay's stomach twisted into a knot; the captain ordered it given complete scans, not allowing it brought back on board. Chakotay could not tear his gaze away until he heard Harry's report.

"It has been blasted, Captain. Some kind of phaser fire, and from the placement of the blast it is undoubtably deliberate. You can see how they aimed it," they could all see, on the screen as the beacon was rotated. "They -- whoever they are -- wanted to send us a message."

Like sending the messenger back with the arrow through his heart. Chakotay felt his heartbeat slow until he could barely feel it. He could barely feel anything. All he saw was the beacon, carbon scoring streaked across its mainplate.

In a voice he barely recognised, he spoke in the silence of he bridge. "What happened to Tom?"

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