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Wheel in the Sky

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"Report!"

"Shields are holding."

"No damage reported."

Ensign Allen wasn't a bridge officer, did most of his shifts down on deck five, but spacial anomalies meant Captain Janeway had an extra science officer on hand, which meant someone from deck five was called up to duty all the time. Kris's number seemed to come up more often than most.

This one was different, though. This one might have come from home.

This one also seemed to be firing on them.

"Red alert," said Janeway. "All hands to battle stations. Brace for impact."

Kris didn't have a battle station so he just did the second part, but no matter how many times the ship rocked beneath his feet and tilted and swayed, he never got used to it. Not down on the lower decks where he usually rode them out and especially not here on the bridge where they were taking the brunt of the impact.

"Mr. Allen, can you identify what's being fired?" Janeway barked at him as soon as the ship had stabilized again and Kris had managed to grip his terminal in both hands.

"The energy signature isn't familiar," he said, reading and interpreting the data as fast as the computer was spitting it out at him. They'd poked at the anomaly enough that they had a lot of data to work through, and clearly also enough to invoke retaliation. "It's not a weapon that we've encountered. I don't think it's a weapon at all."

"Oh, it's a weapon all right," said Janeway. "But like the porcupine's quills or the Alterian raben's horns are a weapon. It doesn't have to be designed and built to be dangerous."

"Here comes another one," said Chakotay, and Janeway tapped her comm badge.

"Halt all exploratory operations," she said. "Full retreat. We've made this badger angry enough. Maybe if it sees we aren't a threat anymore it'll stop its retaliation."

"Are you saying you think the anomaly is sentient?"

"I'm saying we don't have enough information to know that," said Janeway. "Mr. Allen."

"All signs point to it being an autonomic function," he said. "Simple cause and effect, stimulus and reaction."

"So let's stop stimulating it and keep our distance."

When they'd first spotted the anomaly, first charted it and took their first readings of its composition, Kris had been mildly curious. They'd seen so many things they'd never seen before in the past two years that something new wasn't cause for excessive excitement anymore, just routine interest.

It was when they detected that whatever this was, it might have come from the Alpha Quadrant, that the excitement had begun. But three days of poking, prodding and testing later, they were no closer to understanding it than when they started. Something about its composition or its origins or even possibly its technology allowed it to move from one part of space to another with apparent ease, gaining matter as it went, but it was nothing that they could yet understand.

"Brace yourselves for impact," said Chakotay, and Kris held on tight again even as more readings flashed across his screen.

"But we stopped poking," said Paris when they righted themselves again.

"Maybe it hasn't figured that out yet," said Janeway. "Shields at maximum. He's only been pushing us so far. Let's not find out if he has teeth."

"There's an organic component to the energy," said Kris when he sorted out more of what the reading were telling them, his mind going in too many directions at once. "Trying to isolate it."

"I think we've bought ourselves some more time," said Janeway. "It's seems to be stabilizing again."

"It looks like we triggered some kind of chemical reaction," said Kris after a few more moments of study. It was hard to be sure, this early in the game, but all signs were pointing in that direction.

"So maybe not even an instinctive reaction to our presence but a purely chemical one," said Janeway. Not sentient. Probably not even alive.

"It looks that way," said Kris. "We'll have to study it further."

"Wait, where'd it go?" That got Kris's attention away from his panel and onto the now-empty view screen. "Give me a wider view."

But the wider view gave them no more insight, and according to the readings that Kris had been following, the anomaly was just...gone.

"No sign of it, Captain," he said. "We've lost all points of contact."

"Damn it," she said. "It can't have just vanished."

"On the contrary, Captain," said Tuvok, taking the opportunity to offer his insight. "It had clearly visited the Alpha Quadrant, among other places, in the past. Whether it was able to at great speed, or due to some other means that we have yet to determine, it stands to reason that if we can no longer detect it, it has gone somewhere else."

Gone back to the Alpha Quadrant without them, and without imparting its secret so that Voyager could follow. Kris knew he was visibly deflating at the news, but he doubted he was the only one.

"Stand down red alert," said Janeway. "But I'm not going anywhere just yet. I'm not convinced we've seen the last of it."

"Permission to return to the science deck, Captain," said Kris. "We've got a lot of data to sift through. Maybe we can find some answers for you."

"Granted," she said, "and if you do find any answers, Mr. Allen, I want to be the first to know."

"Of course, Captain," said Kris, and straightened his uniform and headed to the turbolift in the faint hope that maybe all hadn't been lost when the anomaly had disappeared.

Ships like Voyager, whose original mission had been a strictly military one, didn't come equipped with large science departments. They flew with exactly the personnel they needed to complete the mission, no more and no less. But when they'd found themselves stranded on the other side of the galaxy and forced to integrate two very different crews to prepare for a much longer voyage than they'd originally anticipated, Kris had found himself pulled off ops and into the newly formed science department pretty much as soon as his intention to go back into geology after a career-starting stint in ops came to light. And he couldn't say he was sorry to be there, but there were times like this when he wished he had more opportunity to serve right in the thick of things.

Voyager lingered an additional two days, but when there was no further sign of the anomaly, or whatever it had been, Janeway had to give the order to carry on. They couldn’t stay there forever with the faint hope that one day it would return.

Once more they'd come so close to finding a way home, and once more they'd been thwarted. Kris tried to stay optimistic, but he couldn’t deny that this one hit him harder than any of the ones that had come before. They were taking the long way home, and maybe the time had come for him to accept that.

*

"Why the long face?" said Adam, swinging into his now-familiar seat across from Kris. "It looks unnatural on you."

"It's nothing," said Kris, poking at his food. It quivered under his spoon. "Just had a long few days."

"Well, while you were on special duty," said Adam, "I was stuck making a nuisance of myself in Engineering again. One of these days I'm going to wake up a full-fledged engineer; I've got to be absorbing something while I'm there."

"You aren't disappointed?"

"That there's not a lot for security personnel to do most of the time? Not really. We make up for it the rest of the time."

"No, I mean that we didn't get home."

"I wasn't exactly holding my breath," said Adam. "We've been closer than this before. Or did I completely misunderstand the situation? Because if you know more than I do, Allen, then out with it and don't give me any crap about confidentiality."

Kris just shook his head. "Maybe I just got my hopes up because I was so close to this one. It just seemed real this time. I saw the readings myself. That thing, whatever it is, parts of it were from home."

"That doesn’t mean it could have helped us," said Adam. "Most of the parts of us are from home too, but we couldn't help anyone else get back there." And Kris knew that, he did, but he'd still hoped. He'd hoped that if he examined it long enough, he'd figure it out. "This one really did get you, huh?"

"I guess it did," said Kris. "It felt close. I'd started thinking about, you know."

"What you'd do when you got home?"

"Yeah."

"We've all done that," said Adam. "Hell, sometimes I do it when I'm bored on duty. It's just a part of this whole deal."

"Really thinking about it, though," said Kris. "Calculating how long we've been gone and what might have changed. Not just fantasizing, but planning."

"Yeah, we've all done that, too," said Adam. "Not that all of it's fantasy material for everyone. You want to talk about it? Because believe me, I've got nowhere better to be right now. I'm on brig duty."

"Do we even have anyone in the brig right now?"

"That's why I'm in no hurry," said Adam.

"None of us are going anywhere any time soon," said Kris, and sighed and poked his food again. "I guess I've got a lot to think about."

"Just thinking?"

"Just thinking," said Kris. "For now. If I want to talk about it, believe me, you'll be the first to know."

It hadn't even been two years but it felt like forever ago, the first time he'd sat here with Crewman Lambert, shortly after their crews had been merged here on the other side of the galaxy. Kris had been one of the Starfleet officers who'd made a point of trying to introduce himself to the Maquis, but he hadn't met with a whole lot of success. He hadn't been surprised by that—he knew it would have been difficult for him to if their situations had been reversed—but it hadn't stopped him from making the effort. It was going to be a long trip, and there were a limited number of people to be social with.

He hadn't known that effort was even being noticed until Lambert had taken the seat across from him, leaned in and said, "Now that I'm already sitting down, I hope you really are as friendly as you seemed in Engineering."

Kris had looked up, smiled broadly and said, "Lunch actually tastes like we're out of leola root for the moment. Must be a sign."

"Oh, thank God," Adam had said, and took a big bite. "I really didn't want to have to go on that hunger strike. It's not my style."

And that had been that. Not that it had always been easy. Not that they always saw eye to eye. Not that they didn't have occasionally animated discussions—political and otherwise—that left the people sitting around them warily edging away. But after that day, Kris felt like everything changed a little bit, and the journey didn't seem quite so daunting.

"So," said Adam finally, "what's on the menu today? Or do I really want to ask that question?"

"We've been through that a dozen times," said Kris, giving him a grateful smile. "Food that's red, go ahead. Food that's green, best unseen."

"This stuff is kind of blue," said Adam, giving it a poke himself. "Do we have a saying for blue?"

"We haven't needed a saying for blue," said Kris, and stared a little more dubiously at his lunch. "Before now. Wow, that really is blue."

"Blue as the ocean," said Adam, and grabbed himself a spoonful. Given their conversation the day before, Kris had half been expecting him to say "blue as my balls". "Well, it's probably not going to kill us. We didn't come this far to die from the food."

"We've probably had a lot worse, actually," said Kris, and as always he couldn't let Adam bite that bullet alone. It wasn't as though he'd ever been a picky eater anyway, and all this time aboard Voyager had made him regard a whole new range of foods as palatable.

And treasure his replicator rations all the more.

"It's..." he said around his first bite, chewing thoughtfully. And dubiously, as the consistency wouldn’t have suggested that it would need to be chewed. It was sort of like a chewable soup. He tried not to think about that too hard. "Interesting."

Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. "It's not quite bad enough to waste a replicator ration," he concluded. "We're going to have to come up with a saying for blue, though."

"Food that's blue, just say ew?" suggested Kris. In spite of this, he took another bite. Ew and edible weren't mutually exclusive states.

"I'd like to think we're better poets than that," said Adam.

"I may be a better poet than that," said Kris, "but Ensign Jain would probably argue the point when it comes to you."

Adam stopped just short of facepalming. "How was I supposed to know that he was going to hold a public reading in Sandrine's after we broke up?" he said. "Who does that?"

"Jain Mikal, apparently," said Kris. "It wasn't all bad. You did get another date out of it."

"I got another offer out of it," Adam corrected him, which seemed like a very fine difference. "I've sworn off dating, remember? No more dating until we get home."

It seemed increasingly likely that was going to be a very long wait. "Except on shore leave."

"That's not dating," said Adam. "Dating implies the potential for a future. There is no future in shore leave hook-up, just some good old-fashioned diversion."

"So no more dating."

"Until we get home," said Adam, in a tone that suggested—no, stated—that not arriving home was just not an option, even if the latest faint hope hadn't panned out. "The dating pool here is just way too small. One false move and you're trapped on the ship with a vindictive ex-boyfriend."

"Adam, you have never had a vindictive ex in your whole life," said Kris.

"Except Mikal," said Adam. "There's a first time for everything."

"Oh, be honest," said Kris, "that wasn't a vendetta, that was well-deserved. I know for a fact that the two of you had lunch last week."

"Fair enough," said Adam with an unrepentant grin. "But the fact remains: no more dating on the ship. I'll save my poetry for you. Maybe if we work on it enough, you'll have a whole repertoire for Katy when you get back."

Kris suppressed a flinch; it wasn't Adam's fault that he couldn't read Kris's mind, couldn't know that this was the very topic that had him in knots today.

"Maybe I already do and I've just been holding back my best material."

"Nah," said Adam after a moment of consideration. "You're too honest. I'd have you made in five seconds flat."

"Yeah, you think so?" said Kris, giving him a sly little smile. "You really so sure about that?

Adam tilted his head to the side and scrutinized him more closely, like he could suddenly see more than he'd ever seen before. Kris just sat there and smiled at him and waited for the verdict.

"Yes, I'm so sure about that," he said finally. "Everyone has their secrets, but that's not one of yours. It's not worth the trouble, and you'd save your secrets for something you treasure more than that."

Huh. Maybe Adam really did have him pegged.

"Eat up," he said, neither confirming nor denying. "You need your energy for kayaking on the holodeck later."

"How did you ever get me to agree to that?" said Adam. "I'm not the outdoorsy type."

"Because you love me best," said Kris, and tackled his soup with the surety that he was absolutely right about that.

*

This week, the geology and exobiology lab was called Murphy's Mad Miracles, as indicated on the panel on the inside of the door. Next week was Kris's turn to name it again, assuming he didn't lose his latest bet with Adam forcing him to call it The Kris Allen Experience.

"You're late," said DeRoberts, causing Kris to give his station a panicked look and DeRoberts to laugh at him. "Just messing with you."

"Don't you have anything better to do?" said Kris, forcing his shoulders to relax again. It wouldn't have been the end of the world if he actually had been late—God knew he wasn't the easiest guy to get out of bed in the morning—but he prided himself on his work ethic. Maybe it didn't matter as much here, but his father always said that a man's true character was shown by what he did when he thought no one was looking.

"That depends on what you mean by 'better'," said DeRoberts. "I guess I could be planning your slightly-belated welcome back party."

"I was reassigned for a few days," said Kris, "half of which I ended up spending in here anyway. I don't think that calls for a party."

"Any excuse for a party in Murphy's Mad Miracles," said Murphy. "Don't let them steal you away back to ops permanently, Allen. We've got few enough people as it is down here."

"Sometimes I wonder why I was even there in the first place," he admitted as he got to work, returning to analyzing samples from the latest moon they'd visited before their encounter with the anomaly. In retrospect, it was probably a lucky break that he'd been shunted back to science so quickly, if nothing else about their situation was a lucky break. "I guess it seemed a more practical career course than geology. My girlfriend was still trying to convince me to do what was in my heart."

"Little did she know your heart was made of stone," said DeRoberts.

"That's cold," said Kris. "Katy knew what she was getting into."

But as soon as the words were out of his mouth he regretted them, because two years and seventy thousand light years away from her now, Katy really hadn't know what she was getting into with him. Neither of them knew what was coming.

"Did I miss anything interesting?"

"You mean other than that steady stream of data you sent down to us?" said Murphy. "Forgot you were even supposed to be a member of the team."

"I logged extra hours analyzing that data to ease the load," Kris reminded them, but the good-natured teasing just made him smile. He did like his—usually less exciting than this one—stints on the bridge from time to time, but ultimately here was where he belonged. "Not that it came up with much."

"If the thing ever shows up again, we'll know what's up, though," said DeRoberts. "Sort of. Actually, not at all."

"A thundering success, this," said Murphy. "One to write home about."

"We really need to come up with a new expression for that," said Kris before tapping a few buttons to activate his terminal, carefully not looking right at any of them as he said it.

"Don't be afraid of words, Allen," said DeRoberts. "Expressions are allowed to be obsolete."

That wasn't really the point, but then maybe it was. The problem wasn't the choice of expression, it was just what was going on inside Kris's head. They'd spent the last couple of years on this emotional roller coaster, uncertain of their future, and maybe Kris had finally reached his own personal breaking point. Things going back to normal—or as normal as they got on Voyager—wasn't changing any of it. And maybe that meant something else needed to change

*

Sandrine's was bustling when Kris finally made his way down there, freshened up from his shift and ready to wind down. Not that there was a lot to wind down from; things had been quiet since the anomaly. No new discoveries, no attacks, not even any good gossip. Kris had never been a gossip, but on a ship like Voyager it was something of a survival skill.

He waved at Adam when he saw him, but he was already in a crowd of his friends and Kris didn't want to intrude. When they got together like this, even now, there were usually some choice things said about Starfleet and the people who chose to be in it. It wasn't something Kris wanted to be around for.

But when Adam caught his eyes, he didn't just wave back but motioned him over, and once he did that it would have been inexcusably rude for Kris to refuse. Even though he sometimes struggled for things to say to some of Adam's friends.

"Allen," said Crewman Ratliff, giving him a genuine smile that suggested that tonight would not be a night when he found himself letting some particularly vulgar names roll off his back. Other people fought that fight, but Kris preferred to let actions speak louder than words.

"What are we playing?" said Kris, tilting his head and studying the cards on the table, spread out in a pattern he didn't recognize.

"It's called Bishop's Ass," said Adam. "Ashley says they played it on her home colony all the time. Tommy, deal Kris in."

"I don't want to bust in on the middle—"

"Nah," said Ashley, "that's what it's designed for. Moxie point to me!"

"Hey, I invited him, I get the point," said Adam.

"You didn't call it," said Ashley. "First one who calls it, gets it." And with that, she drew another card from the deck with a flourish, playing it crosswise on the one in front of her. "You know this one is going to go to me."

Kris was pretty uncertain of his odds here, but as long as they didn't expect him to put down any replicator rations as stakes, it looked like it would be fun.

"Make some room for him unless you want him to sit in your lap," said Ayala, then laughed and pulled up a chair for him when Adam just smirked at him and didn't move. "Yeah, you think you're being subtle."

"Hey, I'd go for it if it would make it easier to cheat," said Kris.

"Moxie point to Kris!"

"I think I'm going to like this game," said Kris, sitting down knee to knee with Adam and taking the pair of cards that Ashley handed to him. He wasn't a part of this group, but he'd been adjacent to it for long enough now that he didn't feel like he didn't belong. Not in the way that everyone on the ship was now family, because even when someone was family you still didn't have to like them, but in the way that—when politics wasn't the topic at hand—he was a friend.

"Just wait till you hear the rules," said Adam. "I've been playing this for four years and I have yet to win a game."

"That's not the rules, that's just you," said Ayala. "You can't win at cards, face it. Your strengths lie in other areas."

"You know it," said Adam, winking at him. "Is it my draw?"

"It's Kris's draw," said Ashley. "Grab a card, Allen."

"From where?"

"Anywhere on the table, as long as it's face down."

"Still liking the game?"

Kris just drew a card and figured that at some point someone would tell him what to do with it. "I think I'm going to have to win on bonuses," he said. "What do I do with this?"

"Show it to us."

"No, don't!" Ashley put in quickly. "Guard it with your life, Allen. Chell will take you for everything you've got if you let him."

"Well, I haven't got much, so I'm not going to lose any sleep over that," said Kris. "Unless you want my stuffed dog."

"Is it on the table?"

"Now would be a good time to shut your mouth and play," said Adam. "And Ashley has some contraband snacks from last shore leave, if you're very, very good."

"They're not contraband," said Ashley, giving Adam a look that suggested the food was not meant to be shared. "You collect alien sex toys, I find the best food markets. We all have our skills."

"I don't collect alien sex toys!"

"You had a shelf installed in your quarters just to display them," said Ayala, pulling a card off the table, looking at it, then putting it back down in an entirely different place.

"Okay, I might collect alien sex toys," said Adam, "but they're just so decorative. There's this one that has seven different openings, and they're meant to be used simultaneously. We didn't spend nearly long enough on that planet."

"We spent plenty long enough on that planet," said Kris, "and your attempt to demonstrate how that one worked was painfully lacking."

"Well, I had to use my fingers," said Adam, wiggling them before stealing one of Tommy's cards. "It's just not the same."

"You made an honest effort, though," said Kris, watching them a little helplessly. "I'll give you that."

"I did get personal demonstrations," said Adam. "Really didn't spend nearly enough time there. Though I think I might've accidentally gotten married at one point. It wasn't entirely clear."

"You're a menace to pleasure planets everywhere," said Kris, and felt warm as he laughed and nudged him. They might have been far from home, but somehow there was a home here too.

*

"Thanks for..." said Adam as he walked arm in arm with Ashley back to his quarters, just down the corridor from hers, packing it in after just about everyone else. He didn't really have to say for what. "I know the guys don't always—"

"Shut up," she said. "I like Kris. He's sensible and funny. It's not like you're interested in someone like Bronowski. I don't think we could have dealt with that one."

"God forbid," said Adam, "and I'm not...it's not like that. You know it's not like that."

"Of course it's not like that," she said, "but there's nothing wrong with wanting it to be."

Adam just shrugged and didn't see the point in denying it. "It's harmless," he said. "It's not like he doesn't know. But that doesn't mean it's ever going to go anywhere. Flirting is fun."

"And having Ensign Allen in your lap is even funner."

"Funner?" Adam teased her. "It's almost like you've actually been drinking, like the old days."

"No talking about the old days," she said, giving him a little shove as they reached the door to his quarters. At least, no talking about the old days when they didn't have the old crew together somewhere private so they could celebrate and air their frustrations at the same time. "This is you. Unless you're not sleeping in your own bed tonight."

"Been a while since that's been an issue," said Adam. But there were worse things. He was alive and he still had his friends and his principles and a dry spell wasn't going to kill him. As long as it wasn't a life long dry spell. "I'm thinking about hooking up with Mannick next shore leave."

"No, you're not."

"What? Why not. I could be."

"He's not even remotely your type," said Ashley, "and if you do, you know he's going to follow you around like a puppy dog. Hook up with one of the locals instead. Maybe we'll find another pleasure planet."

"They're all pleasure planets if you do it right," said Adam. "You just have to know how to get the party started."

"Something you have definitely never had a problem with," said Ashley. "Tomorrow night?"

"I'm on third shift for the foreseeable future," said Adam, tapping the back of his head against the door to his quarters. "You'll have to enjoy yourselves without me."

"Somehow we'll survive," she said. "What did you do to deserve that?"

"I think it has something to do with the sand fleas we picked up last week and Tuvok's uniform."

"You had nothing to do with that."

"No, but I didn't actually deny it," said Adam with an impudent grin. "Reputations are built on what people think they know. Sometimes the truth doesn't matter all that much."

"It should," said Ashley, giving him a friendly shove, but she was trying not to laugh, he could tell. "The truth should always matter."

"I like to think I'm giving the real culprit the opportunity to carry out another guerilla flea attack," said Adam. "What can I say?"

"You can say 'I'm sorry my stolen glory won't allow me to join your game tomorrow night'," she said. "Maybe we'll get Allen to take your seat."

Adam wasn't sure whether to be happy or afraid of that. "Go easy on him," he said. "He's pretty innocent."

"Depends on what you mean by innocent," said Ashley, smirking at him. "Or maybe you want him to need you around to save him from your big, bad friends."

"Be nice," said Adam rather than dignify that with an argument. Mostly because he didn't have one. "I'll never forgive you if you scare him away."

"If we haven't done that already, it's not going to be as easy as you think," said Ashley. "Kris is tough and smart, and tenacious as hell. Don't worry."

Adam wasn't worrying about it as he slipped into his quarters and collapsed on his bed, but that didn't mean he wasn't thinking about it. If they'd been back home, he would've moved on already, found someone else both his type and available, but they weren't back home. If they'd been back home, he'd never have met Kris Allen in the first place, or if he had they would have been—they had been, however briefly—on opposite sides of the fight.

But that was something he thought less and less over time. The more he got to know him, the less that seemed to matter. The more he got to know him, the harder it was to imagine finding someone else he'd want to be with quite as much.

*

Adam Lambert wasn't actually very good at following orders. Which wasn't a prized quality in a security officer, but everyone had to do something on Voyager and those Maquis who didn't have skills in science or engineering or medicine usually got shunted into security by default. At least he hadn't gotten stuck on perpetual kitchen duty.

Still, most of his orders were stupid, and he followed them when they mattered. He was a consummate professional in that way. He didn't endanger anybody. He just got bored easily, and liked to do things his own way.

Guarding an empty brig was one of the more pointless assignments. He didn't intend to be late, but when he realized he needed to change his uniform it just didn't seem that important to do it at top speed to ensure that he was at the empty brig precisely on time.

Nguyen would have let him get away with it, told Adam he owed her one to add to the pile of ones he owed her, but Nguyen wasn't waiting for him when he got there. Tuvok was.

"Mr. Lambert," he said, somehow managing to sound as if he disapproved of even Adam's name. "Explain yourself."

"There was a—" he said, gesturing at the front of his uniform in the pattern of a stain. "I'm only ten minutes late."

"If there was a problem with your uniform, it should have been taken care of immediately," said Tuvok. "There's no excuse for being late for a security shift."

"Seriously?" said Adam. "But there's nothing to secure!"

"We might have had a prisoner transfer without your prior knowledge," said Tuvok. "Your duty is to be here at the appointed time, regardless of how you feel about it."

"That's the Starfleet way, is it?"

"It is," said Tuvok, "and you are well aware of that already, Crewman."

"I had to change," said Adam. "Come on, Tuvok, It was only ten minutes."

"Are you arguing with your superior officer?"

Even Adam, with his stubborn streak, knew not to take it that far, or he wouldn't be guarding the brig, he'd be in it. "No, sir," he said. "It won't happen again."

"I find that statement to be untruthful," said Tuvok, "but nonetheless, I believe it to be sincere. See that it doesn't, Mr. Lambert."

"Rough break," said Meyers after Tuvok had finally left again. "One of these days, we're not going to back down."

Adam just snorted and wished he didn't have to back down on that one, because actually there were much more efficient ways to run the operation right now that weren't military, but he knew the way that things worked. He pushed boundaries, because there were a lot of boundaries that needed pushing, but he was always aware of them. And if he chose to ignore a boundary rather than push and see if it could be moved, he did it fully aware.

This was not a situation, and not a boundary, where it would be in any way advantageous to ignore it.

"I just want to feel like I'm not wasting my time," he said. "There aren't enough places for people here."

"That's because it's still a ship and not a home," said Meyers. "Ships have duties and positions. Homes have artists and accountants and chefs. Life."

They needed to be both, and they couldn't be both, not while they were making busy work for former Maquis guarding an empty brig. It didn't have to be that way, but they were in a very confined situation and revolt was not an option. Not for Adam. His annoyance was not a reason to risk their security when they had very few options and safety needed to be a priority.

There would be a time and a place for the rest later.

*

It was one of those days when Kris ached for the life he thought would always be there for him, when Voyager was supposed to be a brief mission and he had not just a girlfriend but a circle of family and friends who meant the world to him. But he joined Starfleet to make a difference in the universe and he felt like he was doing that here, even almost incalculably far from home. It was a small consolation, but it was something he clung to. If this was God's plan for him, then he was going to make the most of it.

When he first looked out the window of a starship, when he was still a child, all he saw were the possibilities of the universe, a place he was sure he would one day explore. Now, as he stood at the window and stared into the blackness on the other side, he really felt the distance between himself and home.

"Who do you think about?" Adam asked him, arriving so stealthily that if Kris hadn't seen his approach reflected in the window he wouldn't have noticed him till he spoke. "When you look out there?"

It wasn't a question Kris had often been asked, or asked anyone else. The blackness outside the ship was ubiquitous, and people were usually caught up inside their own heads.

"My family," said Kris with a wistful smile, a mother and father who supported him no matter what he wanted to do, a brother who was a pain in the ass but who he loved no less for it. "My friends. My girlfriend."

"Do you think she's looking back up at the sky right now?" said Adam, putting his fingertips against the glass. "Do you think she's looking for you?"

"I don't know," said Kris. The stars looked so different from at home; he didn't know these patterns and constellations, didn't know the names of these stars and the stories behind him. As foreign as they were, sometimes he liked to hear Neelix talk about it just to know that there was a history to this place, that it had stories and legends too, people who dreamed and fell in love and watched the stars. "I'm not sure I want her to be."

"I don't want to be forgotten," said Adam, finally pulling his hand again, rubbing his fingers together like the cold of space had seeped through and frozen them.

"I don't want her to forget me," said Kris, "but I don't want her to spend all her time waiting. She's an amazing woman. She's going to do so many amazing things. I'd never forgive myself if this stopped her."

"Would you fall in love with the kind of woman who would let it?"

He didn't think he would, but he was so far away, and every time they almost got home and didn't, it just felt further away, not closer. Every time it seemed more and more likely that there were no shortcuts home. But he had to hope. What else did they have?

"Maybe she could name her company after me," said Kris. "That would be fitting tribute."

Adam laughed, but he also squeezed Kris's shoulder, like a small piece of the hug he wasn't sure he should give him. "I'm not sure you actually name PR companies like that."

"Don't burst my bubble," said Kris, but he was smiling now too. "She could just call it 'Kris'. It's kind of mysterious. Enigmatic."

"It's really not."

"Shut up," said Kris, and his smile turned into a laugh, and Adam's squeeze really did turn into a hug, one armed but just what Kris needed to remember what he had here, too. Before Adam let go, before he left for his duties and Kris left to meet Wildman to go over some reports, Kris took one last look out into the black. There was a big star on the right, bright and attention-seeking. He'd have to ask Neelix what the name of it was.

"Allen! Got a minute?"

"I'll talk to you tomorrow," said Adam.

"Of course you will," said Kris. "You promised to try a rock-climbing with me."

"I was planning to bribe you with a private massage session to get out of it," said Adam, "but either way I'll see you."

"I'm pretty sure that sounds dirtier than you meant it to," said Kris, but then knowing Adam, he probably knew exactly how dirty he sounded. So Kris just grinned at him and shook his head before turning to face Harry Kim.

Voyager was a young ship, relatively speaking, and not just because like the legendary Titanic she'd been lost her on her maiden voyage. A lot of her crew were pretty green too, and because of that a few had even known one another before being assigned to her, gone to the academy together or hooked up at some of the same parties.

Kris had never been close friends with Harry Kim, but they'd known one another, had mutual friends and nodded in passing when they ran into one another in the hallways of Starfleet Academy.

"Ensign Kim," he said, unsure if this was business or if it was personal.

"I found this in with my music," Harry said. "I thought you might want it." Personal, then. Kris didn't know what Harry might have that he could want, until he saw what he was holding. A scrawled scrap of lyrics in Cale Mills's handwriting.

It was like the galaxy had felt his yearning and sent back to him what little that it could.

"How did you...?"

"We used to rehearse in the same hall. It got mixed in with some of my things."

"Cale always did like the feel of paper in his hands," said Kris, taking the page from him and looking at it wonderingly. "I don't remember this song."

"Probably because it's been hidden among the great works for jazz clarinet for the past three years."

"He'd never think to look for it there," said Kris solemnly, then turned and smiled at him. "Thank you. I've been thinking about him lately."

"I can imagine. The two of you were pretty inseparable," said Harry. "If you weren't with Katy, you were with Cale. I wouldn't have been surprised if the two of you'd been assigned to the same ship."

"We thought about putting in a request," said Kris, "but in the end we decided we both needed to stand on your own two feet for a little while, that there would be plenty of time later for other things. Never imagined the separation would be a permanent thing."

"You think he's still got that band?"

"If he doesn't, he's found a couple of people at his current posting to jam with," said Kris. "That's just what he does. He could...he could be here, and he'd still have put a group together who'd play gigs in the mess hall."

"If he was here, I might've joined him," said Harry. "If he was here, he might've convinced you to join him too."

But he wasn't there, and much like with Katy, Kris was simultaneously glad he'd been back on Earth when Kris had been flung to the other side of the galaxy, and sorry that he wasn't there by his side, serving together on Voyager.

And much like Katy, he hoped Cale had been able to make peace with Kris's disappearance and move on, in whatever way he needed to do.

"I've got to—" he said finally, gesturing towards the doors to the mess hall and his appointment with Wildman.

"Don't let me keep you," said Harry. "I'll see you around, Allen."

Voyager was a small ship. They always did. But even so, if Cale had been there with him, maybe Kris wouldn't have made as much effort to branch out and meet the people he has, and that's one thing he could never be sorry for.

*

Adam didn't manage to get out of rock-climbing, and Kris didn't manage to get out of the masquerade ball at Sandrine's, and after that they decided to do something a little more sedate the next time they got together. But when Adam arrived at Kris's quarters he was clearly in a mood from the moment he got there, and when Adam was in a mood sometimes you just had to ride it out.

"Look at you, so proud of that uniform," said Adam as Kris took extra care putting it away, smoothing out a non-existent wrinkle.

"You know I am," said Kris placidly, bracing for the storm. "I earned this. It took a lot of work."

"Sometimes I just don't get it," said Adam. "Sometimes I don't get how it's so black and white for you."

"I never said it was black and white, and we've talked about it enough that you know that."

"The Federation thinks in black and white. You know it's true. We live it every day."

"What I don't know is how you can say that after serving on this ship for two years. If we hadn't been flexible, we never could have survived here. You can accuse the Federation of being bold, but not of being rigid.

"Too bold," said Adam. "And full of bad judgment."

Kris tried not to take affront, because he knew where Adam was coming from. He know some of what Adam had been through in his home colony, and he knew that he lashed out like this when he was thinking about the home he'd be going back to if—no, when—they finally made it.

"People make bad judgment calls," said Kris. "They make a lot of good ones, too. Don't tell me you haven't."

"Personally? Or are you talking about the Maquis?"

"You know what I mean," said Kris. "Why are you trying to pick a fight with me?"

"This isn't about you," said Adam.

"You're right, it's not," said Kris, "but you're trying to make it about you and me right now. And we've had this fight before, Adam. Probably for the same reasons."

"It's never a fight," said Adam, which was true. An argument, maybe. A spirited discussion. But they'd never fought about ideology, strictly speaking. "I don't know how it's so easy for you. Do you just...not pay attention to the things they've done?"

"Of course I pay attention," said Kris. "I know what they did. I know the mistakes they made in the Gellax System a few years ago. I know about the boundary dispute they were on the cusp of being forced to take sides on right before we left on this mission. I know why the Maquis exists. I pay attention, Adam. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I disagree but I'm not sorry that this is the way I chose to try to make a difference in the world."

"You're mad at me now."

"I'm not mad," said Kris. "I'm frustrated. Someone said or did something to you to piss you off, and you come here to take it out on me because you know you can, but telling me that I'm blind or ignorant crosses a line, Adam. You can argue with me all you want about the choices I made, but they are choices, just like yours are choices, and I made them carefully."

"I do disagree with some of your choices."

"Fine," said Kris, "then we can argue about that again. We should be good at it by now."

"I know you're not stupid."

"I know you know that," said Kris. "So what's going on?"

"I'm just frustrated too," said Adam. "Everyone gets frustrated sometimes. Sometimes it feels like nothing ever changes."

"Sometimes I feel like everything's changed too much," said Kris, "and we can never get what we had back."

"Some of us don't want that," said Adam. "Maybe that's my point. All this time together on this ship and there are people who still think it would be all sunshine and roses for everyone if we got home. There's not going to be anybody throwing us a parade."

"And maybe that's part of the problem, too," said Kris. "That even now we're still an us and a them."

Adam was silent for a moment, then: "If we get home, we are an us and a them. No matter what we are to each other right now, if we get back it's not going to matter."

"When."

"Let's not have that argument again," said Adam. "One a day is enough."

Especially when that one was an argument that always blew up hard and fast, and never quite extinguished no matter how many times you stomped on it. Kris had heard fires worked like that sometimes, sitting in an invisible smolder for a long time before flaring up again when and where you least expected it.

Kris thought it made him an optimist, firmly believing that they would get home. But he'd had this conversation enough times that he knew it wasn't optimism to some people, it was a march to doom. Kris didn't think the Captain would let it be, but he didn't know what she could do when she had a ship full of the Maquis they were sent out to capture. He just had to have faith that somehow it would work out, and that home was a better place to be than here.

"I just think we should be realistic," Adam added, and Kris almost laughed because it just figured that Adam couldn't just bite his tongue and say nothing.

"I can be an optimist and a realist at the same time," he said, and this time it really was going to be the end of it before they both got sucked in again. "I can want to be there, and still live in a world where we're not."

"And speaking of a world where we're not anywhere near Earth," said Adam, "are you ready to brave tonight's meal before we decide we need to argue about the fact that your socks don't match?"

"Of course they match," said Kris, but he still looked, which was enough to finally make Adam laugh. It was as good an end to this as he could have wanted, and now he just had to hope that it lasted long enough for them to enjoy their evening, and hopefully a lot longer than that.

*

"So when are you going to let Adam Lambert take you out?" said Andrew, while Kris was trying to analyze a soil sample (no organic material; not what they were looking for; he set the sample aside).

"When am I what?"

"Can we stop pretending that you're not interested?" said Andrew. "Because the two of you have been flirting forever and if you don't do something about it soon I think he's going to die of blue balls."

"Nobody actually does that, you know."

"It's a very real problem on Karnav VI."

"No human actually does that."

"It's time to do something about it, Kris," said Andrew. "If you keep going the way you're going, it's pretty much just mean. And you've never been a cruel person."

"What? Adam is one of my best friends, how is being his friend being mean to him?"

"You know that Adam likes you," said Andrew plainly, and Kris had to admit that yeah, of course he knew. But it wasn't serious. "Either go for it, or tell him that it's never going to happen. Anything other than that and you're leading him on, at this point. And I think we both know which one of those you want to choose."

"But I don't know that it's never going to happen."

"Exactly."

"But Katy...."

Andrew looked sympathetic, but firm. "You need to figure out what you want to do there, Kris," he said, "because eventually some opportunities are going to pass you right by, and we're a long way from home."

"And you thought now was the right time to talk to me about this?"

Andrew looked around the lab and shrugged, and he did have a point. They were alone, everyone else off on other assignments and other shifts, and there was nothing pressing on their schedules. If Kris was a little distracted, nobody was going to notice and nobody was going to be hurt by it.

"It's complicated," he said finally, and Andrew just laughed.

"That's a cop-out," he said. "Everyone's life is complicated, especially here. You think my life isn't complicated? That doesn't mean you don't have to make decisions. You're special, but you're not special. Your life isn't that different from everyone else's. Lots of us had people we left behind too. Other people have gone on with their lives here."

"It feels like giving up hope."

"Does it?" said Andrew. "I don't think starting something new is hopeless. Change doesn't have to be bad."

"And if we get home next week?"

"If we get home next week, do you really think things will be exactly the way we left them anyway?" said Andrew. "It's been two years on Earth, too. It's been two years for her."

"I know," said Kris. Of course he knew. He thought about it a lot. He already knew that he didn't want her to be waiting for him forever. But still. "It's just a decision that feels very final."

"I think the final was the part that was forced on us," said Andrew, "and the decisions we make are our way of taking that power back."

Kris thought about that as he went back to his instruments, and though Andrew watched him for a little while, he didn't force an answer out of him, he didn't press the conversation any further than that. They'd known each other long enough now that he could tell when Kris was taking something to heart, and when Kris needed a little time, and Kris was grateful for that.

It seemed so trivial, in light of the greater situation they were in, but without human relationships, everything else would be trivial.

He really did have some decisions to make, and it was past time to make them. Though if Kris was being honest, it was time he acknowledged that the decision had already been made, and he just needed to figure out what that meant for the rest of his life.

*

Andrew was right, Kris wasn't the only person who left someone behind. He wasn't the only person in his exact situation. And maybe he just needed a new perspective.

Harry Kim was easy enough to bribe into conversation with something from Kris's stash of treats from the last time they had shore leave. He probably hadn't needed to be bribed at all, but Kris liked to compensate people when he was about to use them.

"Two years," he said, and Harry gave him a wry smile as they claimed an empty pool table in Sandrine's.

"You're thinking about Katy," he said.

"And Libby," said Kris honestly. "I'm thinking about Katy and Libby and Chuck and Kiz and all the people we left behind." Harry nodded as he chalked his cue and just listened. "Do you think you've let go?"

"Depends on what you mean by let go," said Harry. "There are some things that you never let go of."

"So you're going to wait?"

"I didn't say that," said Harry, and that was what Kris thought. That was why he was talking to him. "We never expected this, but we knew something might happen to me one day. We talked about it."

"We talked about it too," said Kris, "but this was never supposed to happen. If I don't wait...how do I explain that when I get home? How do I tell her I gave up?"

"You don't have to call it giving up," said Harry, "and I don't think that you think it is either. You're just worried about how to have a conversation about it after the fact and not before." And really, that was the crux of it. "That's what it's like when you're in a healthy relationship where you talk about everything. When you can't, the whole system gets messed up."

"I've gotten used to it," said Kris, "but I can't seem to make that final step."

"But you do want to move on."

"I think I need to."

"Maybe you should write her a letter," said Harry.

"Is that what you did?"

"No," he said, "but it wasn't something I felt like I needed to do. If you want to move on but you don't want to feel like you're betraying her, then write her a letter."

"That's just symbolic," said Kris. "She'd never get it."

"But would it mean something to you?" said Harry. "And would it mean something to her, if one day we get back and she learns what you did to stay faithful to her?"

"Yes," said Kris. "If I didn't think she would understand, I wouldn't be thinking about this." If he didn't think she would understand, she wasn't the sort of person Kris would likely have been with to begin with. "I hope she's doing the same thing, back on earth. The idea of her being alone, watching the skies for the rest of her life...she wouldn't do that. She'd know I wouldn't want her to do that."

"It sounds like you've already made up your mind."

Kris had known for a while that he'd made up his mind, he just didn't know how to do it. He didn't know, in the absence of contact, how to mark an end to things and a beginning to the rest of his life. He was alive and he was fairly sure that she still was, but they might as well have been dead to one another. He might well be an old man by the time they got home. Starfleet would have proclaimed them missing in action by now.

Maybe Katy had her closure, when they did that. Kris needed to make his own.

"I just know I need to do something," he said finally. "I can't just pretend she's not out there somewhere, or that we never happened."

"I know what you mean," said Harry, and of everyone he spent time with he knew that Harry maybe understood better than anyone. "I don't think Libby would want me to be lonely. I don't think Katy would want you to be lonely either."

"I'm not looking to replace her, I'm just—"

"I'm not the one you need to explain that to," Harry interrupted him. "You don't have to justify your decision."

"No, I just need to understand it," said Kris, nodding at him. He knew that writing the letter would be more for him than her, not just to feel right about it but to figure out just what he was doing, but it did give him something concrete to share with her later. And when they got home, even if Katy was married with grandchildren, he knew that they would still share everything. He just knew it.

"Your break," said Harry, and Kris came back to himself and started to gather the billiard balls with a sheepish grin.

"Thanks," he said as he set up. "For everything. I'll let you know how it all works out."

"I'm sure you will," said Harry, and really, for the moment that was all there was to be said about it.

*

"It's time," said Kris, staring at himself in the mirror and speaking the words while looking himself in the eye. But he didn't have to make it into an order to believe it. He didn't just know it was time, he felt it, and that was what made the difference.

He put on his favorite civilian clothing and showed up at Adam's door uninvited, which was nothing unusual. And when Adam answered he asked him if he wanted to get something to eat, which was also nothing unusual. But it was different this time, every moment they spent together was just a little different, just a little more charged.

After they ate actual food, nourishing if largely unappealing food, Kris was the one to suggest they head to Sandrine's, and Kris was the one who got them a little table instead of joining one of their groups of friends and Kris was the one to order them drinks and sit close enough that they were almost touching.

"One more of these and I'm going to start thinking this is a date," said Adam, emptying his glass.

"What makes you think it's not?" said Kris, grinning around his straw before taking another sip. It didn't matter that they couldn't get drunk off of these, not on the holodeck; that wasn't the point.

"Oh, I don't know, the entire year leading up to this moment," said Adam, but he paused and he was looking at Kris in an entirely new way. "Are you telling me it is?" Kris just kind of shrugged and smiled into his drink and took another little sip. "Oh, so that's how it is. You're just going to trick me into going on a date with you. Maybe I'm not interested anymore, did you ever think about that?"

"Really?" said Kris. Of course it had occurred to him—he'd made a point of not leading Adam on all this time, not when he had Katy back home—but all signals had pointed towards Adam still being open to the option.

Adam laughed and rolled his eyes at him. "I'm not even going to try to pretend," he said, "but if you're messing with me...."

Kris shrugged again. "Seventy years is a long time," he said, as seriously as he'd ever been. "Even these past couple of years are a long time. I've...come to terms with some things."

"Because if you're messing with me, I have friends who know how to hide the body," said Adam. Kris was actually fairly certain he wouldn't have needed any help with that.

"I'm not messing with you," said Kris. "I just wasn't sure how to actually bring it up after all this time."

"Asking me out would have been a good start," said Adam. "We're working the same shift again now. It would've been pretty easy."

"Technically I did ask you to come out tonight with me," said Kris, "I was just unspecific about my intentions. I didn't say it wasn't a date."

"That is a fine, fine line that you're treading there," said Adam, "and you know it."

"All right, you got me," said Kris. "Maybe I should've been clearer, I just wanted to feel things out a little before..."

"Committing?"

"And you did say something about not dating on the ship anymore."

"Kris," said Adam seriously, "you were always the exception to that. Well, now that this is an official date, I'm expecting my evening to end entirely differently. And that's how you give someone fair warning."

"Well, consider this fair warning that I don't put out on the first date," said Kris. He wasn't even sure he would know how, he'd been with Katy for so long. The last time he'd even kissed a guy was back in high school, before he and Katy had gone out.

"Is making out still on the table?"

"You want to make out on the table?" said Kris, deliberately misunderstanding. "Are you sure you don't want to wait till we go back to your quarters?"

"I've already been waiting for a year," Adam said, though. "I really don't want to be waiting any more than I have to. You done with that drink?"

"I am now," said Kris, and it was definitely to a couple of catcalls behind them—Kris couldn't be sure whether they were from crewmembers or holograms—that they left the holobar in what was an obvious hurry.

Kris's quarters were closer, but he still felt more right about going back to Adam's, and besides that, Adam looked like he hadn't even though about going in a different direction. Kris's hand was firmly in his, and if Kris had had any thoughts about keeping this little liaison private—he hadn't, but if he had—they certainly would have been quashed on the way back to Adam's.

His resolve to not put out on the first date was also in peril, but Kris clung to that even as everything that had unintentionally been building between them for at least a year now finally came to a head. He'd thought they'd have dinner, drinks, and a conversation that was a long time coming. But they were already so far past that point in their relationship, and all that had been missing was the green light from Kris.

"Do you want to keep this quiet?" Adam asked him.

"After making that kind of production leaving Sandrine's? I don't think that'll be possible," said Kris. "Unless you want to keep it quiet. Are you worried?"

"About what?"

"That I don't mean it," said Kris. He wasn't going to play games and pretend that there hadn't been a lot of history leading up to this, or that this was a moment Adam hadn't been sure would ever come.

"You don't do anything you don't mean," said Adam. "That's why we didn't do this a year ago. At least, that's why I think we didn't do this a year ago. That's why we didn't do this a year ago, right?"

Kris just laughed. "Well, yes," he said. It was more complicated than that, of course, but yes. "It definitely wasn't a lack of interest." At least, not once he started to be open to the possibility. Not once the distance started to sink in and life started to settle down.

"I know better than anyone just how much thought you put into this, Kris," said Adam, "and you'd better stake a claim on me, then, if you want me off the market."

"Is that a threat?"

"That's a reality," said Adam, but Kris knew better than that. Claim or no claim, and whether or not he wanted to be public about it, this was going to happen now. So he might as well own it.

*

The geology and exobiology lab was called "The Secret Lair of Show and Share" when Kris arrived in the morning, which he didn't think anything of until he saw the look on Andrew's face.

"You know what you need to do now," he said, nodding at the sign.

"What, work?" said Kris. "Yes, I'm familiar with the procedure. Do you want me to start on the next batch of samples?"

"No. Well, yes, I do, because there are a lot of batches and not enough people," said Andrew. "But not until you spill. I might not have been out myself last night, but...."

"Honestly, if we could travel at the speed of gossip, we'd be home by now," said Kris.

"You finally bit the bullet with Lambert," said Andrew. "I deserve to hear how it went. I have earned this."

Kris was trying to remain serious and disapproving of the question, but he couldn't help smiling. "It was good," he said finally. "It was a long time coming."

"Everyone knows that it was a long time coming," said Andrew. "Alien species we haven't even met yet know it was a long time coming. Worth the wait?"

"I'm still...processing," admitted Kris. But he felt good. He felt happy. He felt very at peace with the decision, though 'at peace' was a terrible way to describe how the rest of him felt after a night with Adam. And it had been a night, the limitations that Kris put on their physical relationship notwithstanding. "It's a big change."

"It's not like you married him," said Andrew, though Kris could see that he understood. They'd been working together long enough for him to read Andrew's body language and the tone of his voice. "It was one date. One night? Was it one night?"

"One night," Kris did confirm for him, because on this ship he was bound to hear it from someone else if he didn't. "So far. We'll see."

"I know you didn't come this far just to have one night," said Andrew. It wasn't even a question or an admonishment, just a statement of fact. "I know what this is."

Kris looked over his shoulder, but no one else was paying particular attention to them. Yet. The sign on the door hadn't come from Andrew alone, though, so he doubted that could last.

"I was ready," he said finally. "I'm ready for this now, whatever it is. I wasn't before."

"Hey Allen, I hear you finally got laid last night!" he heard from across the room. Delaney, who made it her business to know that, of course.

"Not all of us need to get some like clockwork," he called back. He wanted to deny it, because that wasn't what it was, but he was too honest for that.

"I was starting to think you were celibate," she said. "We all were."

"I wasn't," said Andrew. "We weren't."

"Whatever," said Kris. "Can we go back to work now? Is show and share over yet?"

"You haven't shown anything yet," said Delaney, but that was one line Kris wasn't willing to cross. Not in general and certainly not at work.

"I'll just have to leave that to your imagination," he said, and knowing her imagination, he figured she'd probably be satisfied with that.

"You're good?" said Andrew, more quietly again.

"I'm good," said Kris. "Don't worry. I'm good."

*

"You certainly look pleased with yourself," said Adam, swinging into the seat across from him. "Good day at the office?"

"Something like that," said Kris, giving Adam a smug little smile. He was fairly certain they were being watched, not in an official way, just in a curious way. His smile would not go unnoticed. "The rocks are exciting."

"The rocks are exciting," Adam echoed him, and was clearly struggling not to laugh. "You couldn't come up with anything better than that?"

"The rocks are exciting," said Kris. "Why do you think I do what I do?"

"I kind of figured you were more interested in big scale stuff," said Adam. "You know, mountains, plate tectonics, spinning cores. Stuff on a planetary scale."

"Rocks are still exciting," said Kris, and smiled at him as he took a bite of his lunch. Maybe it was his imagination, but he didn't think it tasted that bad.

"Okay, maybe rocks are exciting," conceded Adam, "but I'm pretty sure they're not behind your good mood today."

"You certainly think highly of yourself," said Kris.

"What are you talking about?" said Adam. "I meant the rations you won off Tommy last night, of course."

"Of course you did," said Kris. "Really, it was the only remarkable part of my night. I'm going to save my credits, do something nice for myself."

"Food that's red, go ahead," said Adam, taking a bit of his own. "I'm pretending it's tomato."

"I think it is tomato," said Kris. "Sort of. Maybe some kind of hybrid tomato? I could ask Kes next time I see her. I haven't been down to the hydroponics bay in a while."

"Sometimes I think we're better off not knowing," said Adam. "Makes it go down a little easier."

"I'm not sure there's anything we're really better off not knowing," said Kris.

"Oh, that's just a little too deep for lunchtime," said Adam. "You're going to get existential on me next."

"I try to save existential for after dinner," said Kris. "It gives me something to look forward to."

"And here I try to save it for those rare drunken nights when there's no way I'm going to remember it in the morning."

"Rare? Really?" Kris teased him, and Adam retaliated by stealing the (edible, and known to be delicious) garnish right off his plate.

"Hardly any opportunity anymore, is there?" said Adam. "Next time we've got some of the same time off, I'll show you."

"It's possible my good mood is due to you," said Kris, like Adam didn't actually already know that. "It's possible I've been having a good time with you."

"It's possible I've been having a great time with you," said Adam. "But is it really the real thing until I write you poetry?"

"That's really not necessary," said Kris quickly.

"Or a song, I could write you a song, and perform it in here. I can sing. Did you know I can sing?"

"Really not necessary," said Kris, trying not to laugh now. He imagined Adam's singing to be about as good as his poetry. "I believe you. I believe you."

"I know you believe me," said Adam. "You just make me want to do those things."

Kris couldn't even think of anything to say to that. What they had was fun, and Kris pretty much wanted to spend every free moment with Adam right now, but that statement felt like...more. It felt good. He didn't reply, but he did smile and offer Adam the rest of his garnish and if that didn't tell Adam how much he liked him, nothing would.

*

When Adam came bounding into Kris's quarters after his shift, Kris knew something was up. Not that he'd come directly into Kris's quarters—Kris had chosen to give him access not that long ago—but because he was bounding. Adam really didn't bound, unless something was up.

"Two words," said Adam. "Pleasure planet."

"To...visit?"

"We just went into orbit," said Adam. "I just heard."

Kris wasn't entirely sure how he was supposed to react to that, given what Adam usually visited pleasure planets for. "Have fun?" he tried. He couldn't make it sound even remotely sincere.

"What?" said Adam. "You'd rather few extra shifts when everyone else is taking a vacation?"

"No, of course not," said Kris. "I just...I thought you weren't doing that anymore." Because he might as well get it out there. There was no point to letting something like that fester, no matter how hurt and confused he was feeling.

"Having fun?" said Adam. "You know I've been looking forward to shore leave. I thought you were too."

"I thought we'd do something together," admitted Kris. "I know I just assumed, but thing's've been going well, right?"

"Idiot," said Adam affectionately, giving Kris a look like he was the world's most adorable moron. "I want to enjoy shore leave with you. Why would I need to go looking for anything else?"

"Because you always have?" said Kris, but then Adam had never really been with someone before, not seriously. And Kris wasn't sure this was serious, but he wasn't sure it was not serious either, to Adam. "That's what you do on pleasure planets. Believe me, I've heard all the stories. Maybe not all the stories. I've heard a lot of stories."

"Not when I'm with you," said Adam. "I can't believe you thought I'd do that. No, okay, I can't blame you for thinking I'd do that. But I wouldn't come in here and excitedly tell you about it."

"That part did seem a little inappropriate," said Kris, venturing a smile. "So, pleasure planet? As in an active tourist industry or just...?"

"Every planet's a pleasure planet if you do it right," finished Adam. "We picked up some broadcasts in Ashley's quarters, though. Their resorts are fairly heavily advertised, from what we can tell. It'll be fun."

"I'm sure you're the guy to ferret fun out of any situation," said Kris. "Okay, I'm in."

He arranged for them to have shore leave at the same time, which though they'd been dating for a little while now was the first time he'd really made a statement about them wanting to be together. People requested time off together for all kinds of reasons, so the act itself didn't have to mean anything, but it did, to him.

And the resorts, which were really more gambling resorts than beach resorts—Ashley was right at home, and Chell was better at these games than the ones they played at Sandrine's—were still full of things to do and sights to see. Adam took him to the great waterfall Ashazuthra, "gardener of the planet", and they spent an afternoon in the spray feeling the majesty of a planet in a way that was just impossible aboard ship. It wasn't the kind of thing he thought Adam would have done for himself, which meant he'd done it for Kris.

It made him feel very warm and content to think that.

Of course, some of the things they did at the waterfall, in the privacy of one of the caves, well that was absolutely what he would have expected Adam to do on a pleasure planet.

He probably wouldn't have done it for himself, but Kris willingly let himself be led around the nightlife of one of the resorts, taking in the floor show (and what a floor show) and crashing private parties that Adam somehow managed to find out about the moment he arrived. Kris had never been that guy before, and it was kind of fascinating.

Afterwards, when they were back in their own suite (generously purchased for them for the night from Ashley's winnings) he began to suspect that the hors d'oeuvres might actually have been mild psychotropic drugs rather than actual foods, strictly speaking. But he was still feeling in control of his decisions and his decision that night was to enjoy every moment of it with Adam.

It was hard going back to the ship afterwards, but it was good, too. A person couldn't live like that forever, after all, and he and Adam had those memories they shared now. They would always have that.

*

Adam had been anything but celibate on Voyager, and anything but celibate in his time with the Maquis before that. He liked to have a good time, and he wasn't sorry for it. But there was a special kind of excitement coming back to the same someone at the end of the day. Maybe they weren't sharing quarters, that kind of thing was a long way away, but odds were good they'd both be in one or the other and everyone knew it.

It had been a long time since Adam'd had the same someone for very long at all, and he made a joke of that most of the time, he didn't mind it, but he always knew it was what he wanted. And maybe he'd finally found it, here, in the most unlikely place and the most unlikely person.

But he didn't want to get ahead of himself.

"Honey, I'm home," he said as the door slid open in front of him, and was glad Kris was there in his quarters because he would have felt silly if he hadn't been. Not that there was anyone else there to be silly in front of, but still.

"Honey?" said Kris, wrinkling his nose at him in the cutest way.

"It's from this thing Paris showed me, on the holodeck," said Adam.

"I thought you didn't like Tom."

"We're over it," said Adam. Maybe some of his friends still didn't like or trust Tom Paris, but Adam didn't have the patience for that. There were few things he couldn't get over, given time and incentive, and being part of the crew on Voyager gave him both. "He has this thing about classical stuff."

"I don't always get him," said Kris, "but Harry thinks the world of him, so there's got to be something there."

"Harry's a good guy," said Adam. "Good like you're good."

"I don't even know what that means," said Kris.

"It doesn't matter," said Adam, and dropped his things on a chair and went to push Kris onto the bed. "We have more important things to worry about."

Kris laughed and pushed at him, but not to push him off. It was barely a push at all. Adam could tell the difference.

"What?" he said. "Don't tell me we don't have time. No one's expecting us anywhere for at least an hour."

"I'd like to take more than an hour with you," said Kris, which Adam thought might have been the dirtiest thing he'd ever heard Kris say, "but I like a little something first. Conversation, music, maybe a little food."

"All three, or just one of the above?" said Adam. "Because I gave you conversation already. What more do you want from me?"

"Romance," said Kris, and he said it with a playful smile, but Adam could tell he was serious, and what was more, Adam was glad he was, because he kind of wanted that too. "But not poetry."

"Yeah, God forbid," said Adam. "You've already heard my best stuff anyway."

"Yeah, which is why I'm stipulating no poetry," said Kris. Adam noticed he still didn't push him off.

"How about this, then?" he said, and stretched out beside him and kissed him. Just kissed him, long and slow and very wet. It was a long time before he pulled away, and when he did Kris instantly licked his lips. His eyes were closed.

"That...works," he said, so much pause between the words that it was almost like he was having trouble forming them. Adam chalked it up to his significant skills and kissed him again. Just kissed. Kissed fast and slow and deep and light and from every angle that he could manage, until his lips hurt from it and his chest felt tight from lack of air.

Maybe he wasn't sure of where Kris saw this going, but he was sure of this moment. Kris never gave him any reason to doubt that when they were together, they were together, and Kris wasn't thinking about anybody but him.

"That's not an hour yet, is it?" Kris murmured finally, lips hardly moving, and Adam was kissing them again before he'd even finished talking. He'd always liked kissing, but being with Kris brought a whole new eroticism to acts that Adam had only considered foreplay now. They weren't likely to do anything more than kiss before they had to go out, and Adam was fine with that. It wasn't just an hors d'oeuvre. It was the whole meal.

And if eventually Adam was going to want more than that, they had a lot of time ahead of them to get there. He felt very sure of that.

*

In some ways it was actually harder, being with someone on the ship. With Katy, although he missed her all the time, he didn't worry about her that much. She was on Earth, so she was safe, and he could rest easy knowing that (at the same time feeling guilty that she couldn't say the same about him). But with Adam, there was the constant worry that he would disappear on an away mission, that he would be killed by the Kazon, that he would have his organs stolen, that something Kris hadn't even thought up yet could happen to him.

It wasn't that he hadn't worried about those things before, but now that they were together it was a more pervasive thing. He guessed that you took the bad with all the good, having these feelings for someone again. That finding a cure for his loneliness had its price.

What they found themselves on wasn't necessarily a dangerous away mission. It wasn't an investigation into some dangerous phenomenon or a rescue mission for one of the crew. They were finding food. It wasn't likely that anything would go badly wrong, but the possibility still existed and so Kris considered it. One the one hand, it was great that he and Adam had been assigned together, a very rare occurrence. On the other hand, they were both equally in danger.

As if he could see the wheels turning in Kris's brain, Adam gave him a little nudge as they assembled for their orders and assignments.

"Allen, you'll work with Chell," said Chakotay at the end of the list, without even looking up from his roster. Kris looked up, disappointed, at Adam, who was looking at him right back. "Problem, gentleman?"

"No, sir," said Kris, and it wasn't a big deal, really, They were on duty, it wasn't a recreational visit to the planet. But still, it would have been nice to work alongside Adam in the sunshine, since they didn't get a lot of opportunities otherwise. Not in non-crisis situations, anyway.

"Don't worry, Allen, I'll take good care of him," said Marceau, clutching his arm. "And if we disappear into the caves for a little while, don't worry, it's only business."

Even if Marceau hadn't been a curvaceous young woman, Kris wouldn't have been worried. "Make sure you put a blanket down," he said instead, giving them a wave. "Rocks leave scratches."

"Good advice," said Adam, waving back.

Chakotay just shook his head at the lot of them. "We meet back here at seventeen hundred hours sharp," he said. "The sun will set quickly. I don't want any stragglers. We aren't familiar with the dangers of this system, and atmospheric changes can happen with little notice."

Kris looked up at the blue sky and just couldn't bring himself to feel more alarmed than the vague sense that they were away from the safety of the ship. He should have. He knew better than anyone the perils of a new planet, geologically. But it was just such a beautiful day, and the ground felt particularly stable under his feet, and he spent enough time worrying that he couldn't worry about a blue sky on top of it.

"I'll keep an eye on your boy," said Chell, and Kris just gave him the eye.

"I'm nobody's boy," he said.

"That's what you think," said Chell. "Now start praying to that deity of yours that we find something edible and delicious, because if we come back empty handed it's leola root soup again."

"Your definition of edible and mine aren't exactly the same," said Kris, and Bolian nutritional requirements were radically different, too, "but those berries over there look like a safe place to start."

He gave one last look at Adam before turning and heading over the hill. They couldn't complain if they met over lunch. But he still couldn't help that small part of him that wanted to protest that he and Adam could be completely professional if partnered together. After all, it wasn't as though the bridge crew weren't partnering up left and right when it suited them, and they were in charge of things a lot more time sensitive and volatile than surveying a new planet and looking for new food sources.

He wouldn't say more important, though. Locating palatable food was high up on a lot of people's list of priorities.

Chell was usually a talker, but they worked mostly in silence, which suited Kris fine. He got along with the Maquis, and Adam's friends in particular, but that didn't mean they all had to like him independent of Adam. He couldn't say for sure, but he felt like a few people were even a little colder to him now that they were actually and officially together. Chell was one of them.

"Do those look like fruit to you?" said Kris, standing at the base of a very, very tall tree and squinting up into its branches. It reminded Kris a little bit of a palm tree, which did not mean that those things that looked like fruit were anything like a coconut.

"Only one way to find out," he said, "and I'm not the one who's going to be climbing that tree."

Kris sighed, but he sucked it up and started shimmying up the tree as soon as he could get a good handhold. He hoped it didn't have any kind of defense mechanism that was going to spike him at any moment. That wasn't just a random fear. He'd seen it happen, and even knowing that he could be patched up fairly easily didn't make him any more comfortable.

"Heads up," he said when he reached the top and found something that was, in fact, nothing at all like a coconut aside from being vaguely round. "I'm sending one down to you. Let me know if I should pick the rest."

Chell took his time about scanning the fruit-like object and finally looked up at Kris and nodded his head. By that point Kris's legs were already getting a little shaky from clinging to the tree, but he hung in there and cut the rest of it down, dropping it into Chell's waiting net. Only once he had most of it—there were a few that were clearly immature—did he shimmy back down and land on the ground on wobbly legs.

"Would've thought you could take more than that these days," said Chell mildly.

"What, because you think I'm climbing Adam like a tree?" said Kris.

"Something like that," said Chell. "You know he likes you, right?"

Kris was sort of baffled by the turn of the conversation, and wondered if there was some nuance to the translation of "likes" that he was missing. "Of course I know he likes me. I like him too."

"So you know it makes him vulnerable," said Chell.

"To...?"

"Everything," said Chell, but then Kris finally caught up with the conversation. He meant at home. It made Adam more vulnerable back home, which was something that Kris had considered, both now and before they ever got together.

"But not right now," he said, "Right now, it's not an issue."

"Not that kind of an issue anyway," said Chell. "I like you, Kris."

Again, with the translation of like. "Are you sure?"

"But I like Adam more."

"Yeah, I get that," said Kris. "I get that. I'm getting the speech, right? The 'don't hurt him' speech?" Only they weren't worried about Kris breaking Adam's heart, or if they were it wasn't enough of a concern to confront him about it. They were worried about what came after. "I'll do everything I can. I won't ask him to do anything he can't."

And if it wasn't a detailed plan about how to handle their arrival back in the Alpha Quadrant, if that ever happened, it at least seemed to be enough to satisfy Chell.

"There's some more of these trees over there," he said, gesturing up the hill. "Let's just hope they don't taste like shit."

"Only one way to find out," said Kris, and cracked one open. It wasn't exactly the nectar of the gods, but it was faintly sweet and acidic and given some of the things they'd eaten in the past, he'd be happy to find this on his plate every day. "Yeah, let's gather up everything we can find."

They'd hauled back a respectable amount of fruit before they called for lunch, probably more than anyone else, though someone had found some sort of leafy plant that had a lot of bulk, and another a dense, plum-looking fruit that he was told tasted more like a cucumber than anything.

Adam and Marceau were the last ones back, with some kind of fungus.

"You really did go into the caves?" said Kris, laughing as Adam sat down on the ground next to him.

Adam just shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he said. "Those mushrooms are edible, and the local wildlife seem to think they're pretty delicious, so we thought we'd give them a go."

"The local wildlife?" said Kris. "Adam, did you run into something?"

"Nothing to worry about," he said. "Rodents, I think. They were a lot more scared of us than we were of them; we really only got a fleeting scan."

"Good," said Kris, "because losing you to rodents, after everything we've been through...."

"I promise not to be killed by tiny rat-like creatures," said Adam. Which wasn't actually a promise that was his to make, all things considered, but it made Kris grin all the same. "This place is beautiful, huh?"

"It's a little sparse for my taste," admitted Kris. "I like dense foliage. And bluer skies."

"Can you imagine it, though?" said Adam. "A little house, right over there. An orchard of those blue things."

"We don't trust blue," said Kris promptly. Adam just gave him a shove.

"A little fence to keep the rats out. Neighbors just over that hill there."

"It sounds nice," admitted Kris. "And you'd be bored to tears inside a week."

"Well, I'm not saying there wouldn't be transport to the nearest city," said Adam. "Do you ever think about it?"

"Living off the ship?"

"Yeah," said Adam. "Finding a planet somewhere. Staying a while."

"I guess," admitted Kris. "But I think it would only happen if we didn't have the choice to move forward anymore. Even if we spend our lives on the ship, I can't imagine that most people won't want to keep moving on."

"I wonder sometimes if there'll come a point where we don't have much of a choice anymore."

"If we don't have a choice anymore, then we'll adapt," said Kris. "We'll built a little house with a rat-fence and a mushroom farm in the basement and we'll have a life somewhere. But I don't have a plan for that. Do you?"

"I kind of do," said Adam. "It doesn't involve the farm, though."

"I kind of figured it didn't."

"But there are a lot of places we've stopped that I could imagine myself calling home, if I had to. Cities we've been to. Planets with a good interstellar transit system. I think we could do that."

"I hope, if the time comes, we find a place you like," said Kris. Suddenly, it all felt a little more plausible.

"I hope, if the time comes, we find a place we both like," said Adam.

They sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying the planet and the air and thinking about the possibilities of a future, until Chakotay called them back to work.

"See you back on the ship," said Adam, and pressed a kiss to Kris's temple and Kris spent the afternoon thinking about a house in the suburbs, with Adam by his side. It was a bit of an odd thought, and at odds with their current task of making sure they could go further away, that they could survive aboard ship, but it lingered with him all the same.

*

The seat next to Adam was empty, and while once Kris would have assumed his friends were holding it for someone else, tonight he felt sure that it was open for him.

"It's my favorite player," said Ashley. "Come and I'll deal you in."

Kris looked at the configuration of cards on the table and groaned. "I don't know this game," he said. "How do you know so many games?"

"How do you know so few?" said Ashley. "That's what you get for growing up on Earth. Your gaming education is woefully incomplete."

"It did me just fine before Voyager," said Kris, and it wasn't as though his time at the Academy had been entirely devoid of late-night card games. "All right, tell me how I'm going to lose this one."

"Spectacularly, I expect," said Ashley, "but you may pull out an upset. No one else knows this one either."

"So you could be making up all the rules as you go and nobody would know the difference?" said Kris. "That's a pretty sweet deal for you."

"You know it," she said, winking at him as she dealt the cards. Chell groaned at his hands, but Kris didn't even know enough to know where this cards were good ones or bad ones. He snuck a glance at Adam, sitting beside him and rubbing Kris's ankles with his toes, but his expression gave nothing away.

"This is not a partnered game," said Chell, giving them a pointed look.

"It could be," said Adam. "You don't know how to play."

"I know that much," he said.

"Don't be grumpy just because you struck out with that girl when we were last on shore leave," said Ashley. "I told you you were coming on too strong."

"It wasn't a girl, they have five sexes," said Chell, "and I wasn't coming on too strong, ze just preferred Gerron."

"He didn't actually...?" said Adam, finding the conversation much more interesting than his cards. "Because the Gerron I know would have fled that scene pretty quickly."

"He did," said Ashley, a little bit gleefully, "but he won't give me any details about her."

"Not a her," Chell pointed out again. "Ze was of their fourth sex, but I wasn't clear on what role that was."

"Maybe that's why you struck out," said Ashley. "You should have paid more attention. Okay everyone, toss a card in the middle."

"Which card?" said Kris, but he didn't feel that further instructions were likely forthcoming. "So how does that work exactly? Do they need all five sexes to procreate? Or...?"

"You're asking the guy who was trying to pick up someone who's sex organs he wasn't even sure of," said Ashley. "You'd be better off asking Adam?"

"Asking me?" said Adam. "The only time I saw them on display was in the floor show, and they weren't in use at the time. But in my expert opinion, the roles are not necessarily all needed at the same time. So if you were sitting there imagining a lot of group sex—"

"I was," said Ashley.

"I wasn't!" said Kris.

"—then you're probably not entirely right," finished Adam. "But you're probably not entirely wrong, either. You can get into some fascinating configurations with five sexes to work with."

"I can imagine," said Kris. Adam probably didn't have to. "Actually, no, I really can't, but I think I'm okay with that. I'm sure it's fascinating, but I don't think I'll ever find myself in a situation where I desperately need to know."

Adam just grinned at him and rubbed his ankle a little bit more with his toes, which was what had gotten them into this whole line of conversation in the first place. "You might," he said. "You never know where you're going to find yourself."

"I think I do, though," said Kris, and he didn't think it was his imagination that Adam's smile got a little softer at that, before they got on with the game.

*

Kris waved Adam over, not to a private table, which was their longstanding lunchtime habit from long before they started dating, but to a larger table with Andrew and Murphy and the Delaney sisters, who were definitely not talking to or about Tom Paris, and if they weren't, neither was anyone else.

It wasn't that Adam didn't spend any time with Kris's friends. He'd been to Andrew's birthday, and on a camping trip in the holodeck, but he still didn't hang out with them at mealtimes or even at Sandrine's. Not very often anyway.

But as he sat down, he realized it didn't feel awkward or uncomfortable at all. He didn't worry what they were thinking about him, or what they might say.

"So I hear you were part of the away team that found the ruins," said Murphy as Adam poked at his food, and as Ensign Wildman joined the end of their table, giving him a warm smile. "What was that like?"

"The part where we realized that the entire civilization had fallen at least a thousand years before we got there?" said Adam. "Or the part where the roof nearly caved in on us?"

"I hear they were wiped out by plague," said Andrew. "The whole planet. But that seems highly unlikely."

"Nothing has that kind of mortality rate," said Wildman, "and if there'd been any evidence of it, we'd've been the ones to find it anyway. I hear it was a solar event."

"I heard it was a meteor shower," said Kris, "but it wasn't. Nobody asked me, though."

"We didn't need to," said Adam, taking a tentative bite. Not bad. He thought maybe they'd even used those mushrooms he'd helped bring back in today's soup. "They left a forwarding address."

"They left a what?" said Murphy.

"They moved on," said Adam. "Abandoned the planet and moved on to greener pastures. There had been a pandemic, but it didn't wipe them out. They just had a small enough population and a destroyed enough planet that when given the opportunity, they moved on. We might find them a couple of months from now, if the directions they left are accurate."

"Bizarre," said Murphy. "I'm betting they won't be keen on visitors when we get there."

"Their dome nearly caved my head in," said Adam. "I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be keen to stop by. I don't think there was anything there that warrants a deliberate visit, unless something on the ship needs emergency repair when we get there."

"You didn't tell me you were nearly caught in a cave in," said Kris under his breath.

"I may be exaggerating slightly for effect," said Adam, just as quietly, admitting to Kris what he absolutely would not admit to anyone else. "There was a falling rock, though. And it did come from the ceiling."

"That really doesn't count," said Kris, but it was worth it to see him relax again, and enjoy the presence of his friends and to have them all welcome Adam into that circle too.

At some point, a corner had been turned in this relationship. What had started as two best friends trying something out with each other became something genuine and solid and Adam realized, looking at Kris and looking at his friends and looking at the rest of the people in the mess hall and the ship herself and everything outside of it, that this was it for him. He was done looking. Kris was what he wanted.

*

"They want you up on the bridge," said DeRoberts without looking up from his PADD. It was only when Kris didn't move that he finally looked at him. "Seriously. They do."

Kris looked at his comm badge, then back at Andrew. Andrew just smiled and rolled his eyes.

"Okay, they wanted one of us up there, and we took a vote in your absence and decided it was you. You're our official Bridge Boy now."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that," said Kris. "It used to be a rotating position." He ignored the look Andrew gave him when he said 'rotating position'.

"The vote was unanimous," said Andrew. "Any time before end of shift is fine."

"The vote wasn't unanimous," said Kris. "I was in stellar cartography. I didn't get a vote."

"Would you have voted for someone else?"

"Well, not necessarily—"

"Then it was unanimous," said Andrew. "Seriously, the rest of us aren't all that interested in dealing directly with the bridge crew, except the Delaney sisters and I think they just wants to be up there to spill something over Paris's head. You're the best man for the job."

Kris knew when he was beat. "Tell Wildman that I need to push back our meeting."

"Will do," said Andrew. "Bon voyage. Bring us back some souvenirs."

"I promise not to forget the little people," said Kris, giving them a wave over his shoulder as he headed for the turbolift to the bridge.

He was intercepted before he ever got there, when Kes got into the turbolift with him.

"Are you the one they assigned to help me in hydroponics this morning?"

"I...don't think so?" said Kris. It was hard to be absolutely sure, when all of them wore a number of hats. Maybe the message to report to the bridge had gotten muddled along the way. "Are you looking for someone for something specific?"

"Nothing specific," she said, which Kris probably wasn't needed for any soil analysis abilities. "I can just use the extra set of hands, with the visitors, and it's a very peaceful environment. You look flustered."

"A little," he admitted, "but there are still a lot of people who'd benefit from a peaceful environment more than I would, and I'm expected on the bridge."

"Oh, are you involved in the negotiations?" said Kes. "Good luck!"

Kris had known they'd stopped, obviously, but that was nothing unusual. He didn't know there were negotiations going on, or for what, or what his role might be, but at least now he was facing the situation with slightly more information than a few minutes ago.

"Ensign Allen," said Janeway when he arrived, motioning him over. "I'd like you to accompany T'I'Chl to give him a tour of the ship."

'I'd like' meant, of course, that it was an order without her wanting to have to make it one. He hardly thought he was the best person for that particular job, but he hadn't been asked by accident and it wasn't the time for stupid questions, so he just said "Yes, Captain" and awaited further instructions.

Tours were sometimes a courtesy for visiting guests, but usually openly; this visit, while obviously not classified, certainly seemed to have a layer of secrecy to it from the start. T'I'Chl was of a species they hadn't encountered before, tall and lithe with fine, drifting tentacles from their heads and backs. He—and Kris was assuming he based on fundamental bone structure, but he had no confirmation of that—seemed very quiet and very serious as the captain spoke.

"I cannot stress highly enough how much this project must not be leaked from this bridge," she went on. "We've gotten people's hopes up too many times before. I'd like to know if this is viable before we let the word out."

It was only then that Kris began to understand the magnitude of this particular assignment, if not the details. This could only be another way home, and despite her just saying not to get their hopes up, Kris did. Even knowing nothing of the particulars.

"We thank you for your hospitality," said T'I'Chl, with a quiet, comfortable and faintly hissing voice.

"Ensign Allen, please assist T'I'Chl with anything he needs," said Janeway, giving Kris a significant look that, thankfully, he was able to read. Give him any information about the ship that he wants. Nothing is classified. It felt a little bit reckless, but surely they'd vetted him as much as they could before Kris ever arrived. It meant this was a real and imminent possibility.

"Of course, Captain," he said, and looked at T'I'Chl and nodded at him and hoped he wouldn't make any cultural faux pas as he led him into the turbolift.

"Where would you like to go first?" he asked him as the doors slid shut.

"Where would you like to be first?" T'I'Chl asked him in return.

Kris's instinct was to take him down to where he worked, or maybe take him down to the mess hall where he knew Adam would be grabbing a quick bite, but instead he took him to main engineering. It seemed like the most responsible thing to do.

B'Elanna was happy to show him the inner workings of the warp core, give him any calculations he needed to see, but while T'I'Chl paid diligent attention to whatever she showed him, his interest seemed to be in the rest of the people working in engineering, what they were doing and where they were going. He looked at the numbers and the percentages and the component parts, but if he was recording data on them in any way, Kris saw no sign of it.

"Do you always walk?"

Kris was startled by the question, and took a moment to figure out how to answer it.

"For most of my species, this is our default means of locomotion from early childhood through to late adulthood," he said finally, "but it's not exclusive."

T'I'Chl made an expression that, to Kris, read as confusion, as if Kris had answered the wrong question, but he didn't ask anything further.

They visited sickbay next, where the Doctor was happy to recite any information that T'I'Chl required, and a whole lot more besides. Kris tried to glean just what he had, just what technology he possessed that Voyager wanted so very badly, that could get them home, but he gave no clues and it wasn't Kris's place to outright ask.

And it could get him stripped of rank if he so much as hinted to anyone else that they ought to.

T'I'Chl seldom asked Kris any questions, no matter how friendly—not too friendly, treading the line between companion and officer—Kris was, and about two hours later asked to be escorted back to the bridge.

Kris hoped he'd be enlightened about the particulars about the technology that T'I'Chl possessed at that point, but he was dismissed back to the science deck with a thank you from the Captain and a look that suggested he'd be debriefed some time soon.

He tried not to be excited. He really did. But some things were just too big to box down.

*

Of course, despite their best efforts—and he had to admit he doubted if it was everyone's best effort—word got out before the end of the shift. First there were whispers, that their visitor wasn't just a politeness, then there were the questions Kris couldn't answer, then there were the outright statements flying about all around him.

Finally, Janeway made a shipwide announcement that mercifully freed Kris of his confidentiality, as if he'd ever had much to tell at all. Their visitor possessed technology that could significantly shorten their journey home. He was currently assessing its compatibility with Voyager. That was all.

After shift, Kris stopped dead in the corridor outside of Adam's room, ignoring the strange looks he got from anyone passing by. How did he even talk about what happened today? How did he even start that conversation? He needed to find a way, because this was something that was going to happen to them a lot of times, and in a lot of different ways—assuming they weren't home tomorrow, and Kris was not prepared to assume that yet—and he needed to not go through the same roller coaster of emotions every time.

Adam wasn't as animated as Kris might have expected him to be when he finally burst in. But then, Kris's expectations had been based on what everyone else was doing and not what he actually knew about Adam.

"It know it's just speculation," he said, trying to keep a lid on his own excitement. After all, he knew more than anyone that things were more complicated than they seemed. There were a lot of ways in which this might not work out.

"It's not just speculation," said Adam and reached for him and added. "It's okay to be excited."

"I know it's okay to be excited," said Kris, and bounced on his heels a little and didn't give any more outward signs of it. "It's okay not to be excited too."

"Mostly I'm hungry," said Adam, "but if we go to the mess hall, it's all they're going to be talking about, isn't it?"

"I've got a decent surplus of replicator rations," said Kris. He was finally getting better at cards, apparently. "Tonight might be the night to stay in and use them."

"And other things?" said Adam hopefully, but Kris could see the strain in the question, like he was trying too hard.

"We could cuddle," said Kris.

"I am actually, literally going to die of blue balls," said Adam. "I am going to give myself hormone poisoning."

"That's still not a real thing," said Kris. A part of him wanted to give Adam what he wanted, since he knew Adam had mixed feelings about going home at the best of times, but the bigger part didn't want to do this for the wrong reasons. Not now, after everything.

"I'm making it a real thing," said Adam. "Can we at least call it making out instead of cuddling?"

"We don't have to call it anything," said Kris. "We don't even have to talk about it. We can just do it."

"Do we have to talk about anything"

Kris shook his head, even though he sort of desperately wanted to. What would he even say about it that wouldn't complicate things between them? What could he say now that hadn't been said already, if under less urgent circumstances?

"But we do have to eat," he said. "We don't get to skip that stuff just because you need to get your pants off."

"I can eat pantsless," said Adam, but Kris noticed he didn't make any move to remove his uniform yet. Or get anything to eat. "Let's just have a normal night. Can we do that?"

"We can do that," Kris promised him. Maybe it didn't feel like every other night, but if going to Adam every time he had something to share, and waking up with him in the morning, was normal, then Kris was pretty happy with that. No matter what else was going on.

*

"It's my turn this morning," said Adam as Kris slowly woke up beside him, blinking up at him blearily until Adam showed him his PADD. "Show and tell. I'm up."

"Better you than me," murmured Kris, but Adam wasn't so sure about that. It had already been two days of vague information and secret meetings and high levels of distraction while various crew members showed their visitor various parts of the ship, and this wasn't the kind of duty Adam was usually chosen for. He wasn't sure if it was because he wasn't needed elsewhere, or because of some other criteria. Given what Kris had told him about his time with T'I'Chl, Adam may well have been deliberately chosen by him, for some unvoiced reason. "Do I have to get up too?"

"Yes," said Adam, if only because misery loved company. "Is there anything I should know?"

"I don't know," admitted Kris, and he looked a bit troubled by that. "There's nothing about this visit that seems as straightforward as it should. Just show him what he wants to see, and tell him what he wants to know. It's all you can do."

"I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to let me play ambassador," said Adam. "I'm not exactly known for my tact."

"Maybe that's what they want, then," said Kris.

While Adam doubted that, he let the idea simmer as he got dressed, letting Kris sprawl all over the bed as he did. He might want him awake, but he wasn't going to be cruel about it. And besides, looking at Kris sprawled in his bed was the highlight of his morning.

"I'll see you for lunch?" he said, and Kris nodded a sleepy promise as Adam headed for the bridge.

He'd seen T'I'Chl around, of course. Everyone had. He'd been poking into every nook and cranny of the ship, and every nook and cranny of their lives. But he still wasn't quite what Adam had been expecting. He was thoughtful and graceful and blunt, and under other circumstances Adam might even have thought about befriending him. But under these circumstances there was an insurmountable distance between them.

"What do you do after a song?" T'I'Chl asked him, as though it was as predictable a question as when he'd asked to be shown the shuttle hangar. Adam wasn't sure whether he was supposed to answer, or how, but T'I'Chl was looking at him in that quiet, expectant way of his.

"After performing or listening?"

"Are they different things?"

"Yes," said Adam, then thought about it. "Sometimes. It depends on the context, live or recorded, whether I liked it or not, the type of music it was, whether or not I was familiar with it..."

T'I'Chl nodded like Adam had just answered his question, even though he'd just set out a series of conditions rather than an actual response.

"Why did that crew member look at you just now?"

Adam looked back down the corridor at Yu's back, then back at T'I'Chl. "I didn't realize she looked at me. Maybe she was looking at you. Many of the species in the Federation are naturally curious."

"She was looking at you."

It was a declarative that brooked no argument. "We don't get along," he admitted finally. "I've...done things she doesn't agree with. And she's done things I don't agree with."

T'I'Chl looked away then, and Adam figured the inquisition into Ensign Yu's alleged look was over.

"Where do you keep the inoculations?" he asked then, and Adam was back on expected footing.

"All standard medical equipment is in sickbay," he said, "but you've already been there."

"You know I've already been there?"

"My... Ensign Allen took you there, on your first day on the ship," he said. "He told me about it."

"He's your friend."

"He's my... we're dating," said Adam. "He's my boyfriend." He wasn't sure if the terms translated appropriately or not, since several terms seemed to be proving difficult, or offering too many potential meanings to translate well. But T'I'Chl nodded in that fluid way of his and they moved on.

Adam tried not to think too hard about the significance of the question, but Kris had certainly been right about one thing about T'I'Chl's visit—it seemed to be as much about understanding Voyager's crew as her system specifications.

"If you have any more questions for the Doctor, though, I'm pretty sure he'd be happy to answer them."

"The Doctor is also your friend?"

Adam stumbled over the question for only a moment. "Yes," he said, "the Doctor is also my friend. More or less. When I'm not injuring myself unnecessarily."

"Let us make a visit, then," said T'I'Chl, and firm footing or not, they were once again on their way.

*

Some people were so sure that T'I'Chl's so-called miracle drive meant they were moments away from home that they were packing. Some thought it wasn't only not going to work, but was a hoax to begin with. But everyone was talking about it.

It wasn't always the easiest or most comfortable conversation.

"So what's your feeling?" Kris asked him, sitting on the floor with his back against the bed.

"It doesn't matter what my feeling is," said Adam. "You know more than I do."

"I really don't," said Kris. "I mean, I hope that it's going to work, and it seems plausible from what I know, but that's not really my area of expertise."

"You want it to work, though."

"Well, yeah," said Kris. "this can't be a surprise to you, Adam. You know me."

"And if we get home?" said Adam. "If we get home and Katy's still waiting?"

Kris still didn't want to think about Katy still waiting for him, an idea that he hadn't quite managed to banish yet. Still loving him, yes, because he still loved Katy and that was never going to change. But not waiting for him. But more than that, he didn't want to think that after all this time together, Adam still thought about Kris being with her.

It made him think a lot harder about where this whole conversation was coming from, and whether it was just about Adam's precarious position upon returning to the Alpha Quadrant after all. Whether it ever had been.

"You're worried I'm going to change my mind."

"She's your Katy," said Adam. "I've been hearing about her since the day I met you. Sometimes I think I even heard about her before I met you, that's how much I know about her."

"You want me to make you promises," said Kris. "Guarantees. Would that change anything?"

"I want you to want to make me promises," said Adam, "because if you don't, then you want something else more than you want to be with me. I want to not have to ask."

"Adam, if I hadn't already made a choice and a promise, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place," he said. He thought it would make him feel uncomfortable to spell it out like that, to himself all over again as he did it for Adam, but it didn't. It felt like something he was at peace with. "I've said good-bye to Katy. I'm sure she's already done the same to me. If you know as much about her as you think you do, you'll know that she's sensible like that."

"There's nothing sensible about this situation," said Adam, "and I don't expect everyone to act rationally. You didn't believe we'd be going home. You made a decision to be with me believing that we weren't."

"I made a decision considering all of the options," said Kris. "It wasn't just loneliness, and you were never second best."

"You say that now—"

"Either you trust me or you don't," said Kris. "Adam...you can't just make this about what decision I made. You made choices too. You have other choices ahead of you."

"It's not the same thing."

"Only because you say it isn't," said Kris. "This isn't all on me. This can't be all on me. I don't decide your future, I want to decide our future. I want to stop feeling like you think I'm going to jump ship, because I've never done anything to make you think that."

"Not intentionally."

"Adam—"

"No, I meant it," he said. "Before me, you were going to marry her."

"A lot of people on Voyager were married, or going to be married, or in love, before we left," said Kris. "You just got to hear more about mine because we were best friends before I fell in love with you."

"You—"

"Don't pretend that's a surprise," said Kris. "You knew that. You know that. I know you're in love with me too."

"You knew that before we dated."

"You weren't in love with me before we dated," said Kris. "I know the difference, and that's the point here. I know the difference between infatuation and love. I know the difference between just making do, and having something I want. I'm with you because I want to be with you, Adam, and if it took long enough that you thought I would never get over Katy, that's only because I wanted to be sure."

"Kris, I didn't—"

"But if I'm making promises, I want promises from you, too. Because this is about us. This isn't just about you getting what you want because you're insecure about how much I want to be with you."

"I promise," said Adam. "Whatever it is we are, or will be, or can be, I promise that I'm to try to be it with you."

"If we get home, and Katy's still waiting, I'm going to tell her that I'm very sorry, and that I hope she finds someone who loves her as much as she deserves," said Kris. "But she's smart and she's strong and she's not going to be pining, Adam. I will always love her, but there's too much time and space now and we've both moved on. I believe that."

"I want to believe that too," said Adam. "I'm going to start."

"Good," said Kris, "because I refuse to have this conversation again. That's it. This conversation has been had, Adam, okay?"

"I kind of like this forceful you," said Adam, because of course he had to make Kris smile right then when he was being all assertive. "I always did."

"Yeah, I know," said Kris, "but how about we have our next forceful conversation about breakfast foods instead? This conversation is had."

"I love you," said Adam. "Ridiculously."

"We wouldn't even have been talking about this if you didn't," said Kris. "If we both didn't."

It felt good to have it said, but not as good as it felt to fall into bed with Adam after that and finally not hold anything back anymore.

*

Kris was on the bridge when T'I'Chl arrived, just coming off duty and about two minutes from missing the moment entirely.

"This is it," someone murmured to his right, but Kris was just waiting for T'I'Chl ask them the ratio of nitrogen to oxygen in Earth's atmosphere, or how many toilets there were on the ship. "We're going home."

Kris didn't feel like it was a big moment, even though T'I'Chl was dressed differently, and just looked in some significant way different today.

"What can we help you with today, Ambassador?" Janeway asked him, friendly but straight to the point.

"The time has come for us to part," he said. "I will be returning to my ship shortly."

"You have news for us, then," said Janeway. "Can we begin work on upgrading our systems?"

"I am sorry," said T'I'Chl. "You are not yet capable of powering and operating the device. It will not integrate."

There was a shocked silence, then a growing hum of noise, no distinct words but a general sense of protest. Or maybe there were words and the buzzing, rushing sound in Kris's head wasn't allowing him to make them out yet.

"I'm sure with some work—" Janeway said finally.

"We have investigated," said T'I'Chl. "It will not integrate."

The vagaries of the translation, which they'd been struggling with all along, left it unclear whether it wouldn't integrate with the ship's systems, or wouldn't integrate with its crew. And as Kris's heart sank he wondered if he'd played some small part in this rejection, if something he'd done or hadn't done had helped to make up T'I'Chl's mind.

"Is there anything we can do," said Janeway. "Anything at all." If he had noticed that the reluctance might not be entirely technological, of course she had too.

"Perhaps we will meet again," he said. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Kris didn't think those were just empty words. Maybe in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, T'I'Chl would come back. Maybe in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, they'd be ready for it then. "I must insist on returning to my ship now."

For a moment Kris was worried that someone was going to do something rash, try to stop him, but then Janeway took her read of him and nodded her head and called for him to be transported back to his ship. Moments later, he was gone.

Silence fell again, but a different kind of silent this time. Not shocked, just resigned.

"Was it even real?" someone asked finally, but that wasn't the point anymore. Whether it had been real or a pipe dream, it was no longer in their grasp.

"Set a course for the Alpha Quadrant," Janeway said, with a finality that quelled any lingering mutterings. "Warp Seven. I'll be in my ready room."

*

Kris didn't do anything after shift but go back to his quarters, waiting for Adam to show up and obsessing about what he could have done differently, what they all could have done different. When Adam did come, they didn't even talk about it for a little while. Adam just held him, and then he lay with him, and then they went about their business quietly, changing and washing up and putting things away.

"Are you okay?" Adam asked him finally.

Kris nodded. "I'm okay," he said. "I think in the back of my mind I knew this was going to happen. Something hadn't been sitting right."

"I'm sorry."

The fact that he even said that, the fact that they weren't going to argue about this, or have to agree to disagree, actually managed to make him smile. And he stopped Adam in the middle of what he was doing just to kiss him.

"So things go on as they have been," said Kris. "I'm okay with that, Adam. But maybe we should prepare ourselves a little more, for the next time." Because there would be a next time. And probably several next times after that.

"What if we do get home next time?" said Adam. "What happens then?"

"What's going to happen to you if we get home?" said Kris. "Realistically. Not just best or worst case scenario. What do we need to plan for, Adam?"

"I'm a fugitive," he said. "Maybe it will make a difference, that we've been Voyager's crew during the journey. Maybe that won't matter at all. Realistically, I'm probably not going to be locked up for life, but I'm probably not going to be welcome on a Starfleet vessel any time soon. And I can't imagine you want to do anything else."

"I don't want to leave Starfleet if I don't have to," agreed Kris, "but I don't need to stay with Voyager. I might have started out in ops, but I'm pretty firmly in the science department now. Science personnel often get assigned to stations. And stations are a pretty healthy mix of Starfleet and non-Starfleet personnel."

"You love being on a starship."

Kris just shrugged. "I like travelling," he said, "but I don't need to be assigned to a starship to do that. The question is, would you be willing to settle down?"

"I still believe in the Maquis," said Adam, and Kris just nodded because he had been expecting nothing less, "but there are other ways to fight that battle. They don't always mean living on ships and ducking and running. There are ways to influence things without being in the thick of the action."

"And that's something you'd be willing to do?"

"We need to compromise somewhere," said Adam. "If you can compromise on a station, I can compromise on a station too."

For the first time in a long time, Kris felt like he was breathing easier again. "So whatever happens, we're in this together?"

"We're in this together now," said Adam, "and just you try to get rid of me."

"I don't think that's ever going to be a problem," said Kris. Nobody said it would be easy; you had to work for the things that meant the most.

Maybe they would get home tomorrow, or maybe they would spend the rest of their lives crossing the galaxy in Voyager, but either way neither one of them would be doing it alone.