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Tabula Rasa

Fresh from several crew changes Arcturus heads to the Talvath Cluster.

Blank Slate

USS Arcturus
December 31st, 2400

Amber warning beacons flashed softly along the edges of the kilometer-long hull of Arcturus, reminding local traffic of the massive disruption to local traffic patterns that she presented while docked to Deep Space 17. With her bow airlock mated to the docking ring, she stuck out quite literally to double the radius of the station. Typically, a ship of her size would orbit the Canopus-class station from a safe distance, as a port of that size wasn’t intended to handle large explorers, but an exception was made so that Arcturus could refuel after two years of uninterrupted operations. Work bees had carefully extended two fueling tubes from the station to ports in the ship’s “neck” section, transferring deuterium fuel from the station into the ship’s large tanks. This operation had been practiced many times, but it still made First Officer Alesser vaguely nervous as he watched the percentages on each partition in each tank fill from the bridge. They were vulnerable until the process was finished. In theory, anyway. DS17 was on the frontier but wasn’t in a particularly dangerous area.

Shore leave had been authorized, but Alesser had left himself off of the list so that he could oversee their last checks before departure the following day while the ship was quiet. That was one of the reasons he was there, anyway.

“Eight hours to go, Captain Alesser,” Commander Harper Bowens reported from the operations station. Recently promoted, the Human now held the station that had been Alesser’s for eighteen months. “Sir, there’s really no need for you to be here for this,” he offered.

Alesser shrugged. “I want to be here when Antares arrives,” he replied.

“You served with Noah Armstrong, didn’t you? On the old Arcturus?” Bowens asked.

Understatement. Alesser knew Noah Armstrong just as fully as any one person could know another. An antagonistic operations-officer-to-science-officer dynamic had transformed into a four-year love-hate first-officer-to-second-officer relationship after a night forced to survive together on an alien world. As far as he knew, though, the only other person who knew about that was Captain Lancaster—a truth revealed when they, too, had been marooned together earlier that year during the Century Storm. After four years apart, they had not been in contact.

“I did. You’re very well-informed, Mr. Bowens,” Alesser said, trying to sound perturbed enough to get the other man to drop the subject. 

“Sir,” Bowens replied, taking the hint and turning back to his station. 

The area within the Arcturus that had contained Admiral Hayden’s office suite and the flag bridge had been reconfigured in the last few weeks to suit Commodore Logan’s tastes. Rather than an office on the exterior hull connected by a secure corridor to the command complex, that arrangement had been replaced with a holographically augmented interior office right off of the simplified flag bridge. When Captain Lancaster had approved the modifications, he got the sense that the commodore would be harder to keep off of the main bridge than the admiral had been—every indication and scrap of information he’d been able to gather on Brett Logan was that he wasn’t one to remain out of the action for long. His presence leading Arcturus Squadron, even after a history of more prestigious units—or at least larger ones—and working directly for the Fourth Fleet’s deputy commander was because he wanted to get back into the field. 

Captain Lancaster was touring the area with Captain of Engineering Okusanya. The commodore wouldn’t arrive until the Antares did later that afternoon. She and her engineers had done work that was quick, efficient, and top-notch, just as he’d come to expect. The flag bridge Hayden had used was half the size of the new one, and there were now just a dozen stations facing inwards in a circle towards a large holographic projection table. It was enough for the commodore’s staff to manage the activities of the four ships in their squadron, the runabout flight, and the scout flight. The extra space had been made into staff offices, which further saved volume in the ship to return to science labs elsewhere. The captain ran his hand along one of the leather seats.

“Perfect as always,” Lancaster noted, virtually signing the report on the holoPADD projected from his WRIST device. “Anything else I need to be aware of?”

The engineer chuckled. “Well, that compliment makes me wonder if you should have your head examined,” she noted. “The first officer has already signed off on everything else we’ve done. Once refueling is complete, we’ll be ready to depart for Overwatch Station.”

Lancaster nodded. “Very well,” he said. The two captains left the flag bridge together, and Lancaster felt an unusual tinge of sentimentality in his stomach. He didn’t like change. “You know, she mentioned that you declined the assignment to build the Daren Array at Overwatch.”

“After building this, I don’t think there’s an experience that could top that,” Okusanya replied, gesturing to the ship around them. “Nehal will do well there. A station’s a better place for a young family with a baby.”

“Aman Nathaniel Nayar-MacRory. The first and so far only baby to have been born aboard the Arcturus,” Lancaster noted idly. “Now that we’re not one wormhole away from being stranded in the Delta Quadrant, I expect there will be more aboard.”

“Are you and Sheppard–” she started to ask.

“Hard no,” Lancaster interrupted. 

“Evri and I had thought about it, but thankfully Andorian-Human biology would be pretty… complicated to navigate,” Okusanya offered.


Okusanya shrugged. “I build ships, not babies,” she said. “Something’s up with you. You’re never this chatty.”

“There have been lots of crew changes. And a mission change. And I’m about to get a new boss. Change is not a feature of life that I enjoy,” Lancaster admitted. 

The engineer studied him for a moment. “Well, you have been with Hayden for most of your career. Change could be a good thing,” she offered. “A blank slate, even.”

“I liked the slate I had,” the captain noted. 

“Bridge to the Captain,” Alesser said over the comm.

“Go ahead, bridge,” Lancaster replied.

“The Antares has pulled alongside. Commodore Logan is ready to beam over with his staff. He’d like a meeting room, too,” Alesser reported.

“Understood. I’ll meet you in transporter room one,” Lancaster replied. “Have the captain’s mess readied.”


Once the channel was closed, Lancaster arched an eyebrow. “They’re early. Hours early,” he observed. 

“Maybe the Antares has a trick or two up her sleeve,” Okusanya suggested.

“She did in the 2380s. My first posting out of the Academy, under Captain Hayden,” Lancaster noted. “I always thought I’d end up in the center seat there.”

“I’m sure Armstrong would trade,” the engineer teased.

“Not on his life.”

Alesser was not expecting Captain Noah Armstrong to be among the six figures who materialized on the platform in transporter room one. Armstrong was standing to the right of Commodore Logan, with his first officer behind him; irritatingly, he was tall and handsome as ever. Logan’s chief of staff and flag lieutenant were on the other side, with yet another commander in the back.

“Permission to come aboard?” Logan asked.

“Permission granted, Commodore. Welcome aboard,” the captain replied.

Logan stepped off of the platform and extended a hand, which Lancaster accepted. With them at the same level, the physical resemblance between Lancaster and Logan was striking; the two men were so similar in height, build, and bone structure that they could easily be father and son, and Alesser was pretty sure that the math on that checked out. 

“This is my first officer, Captain Larus Alesser,” Lancaster said, turning to Alesser.

“I’ve heard good things, Captain,” Logan said. He shook Alesser’s hand as well before turning back to the platform. He gestured for the captain that Alesser didn’t know to step down. She was followed by a young lieutenant in gold wearing aiguillettes, carrying two duffle bags slung over either side of his body. “This is my chief of staff, Captain Felicity Stone, and flag lieutenant, Mason Davenport,” he said.

“And Commander Christopher Forrest. He’ll be commanding the support wing, but we’ll talk about that later,” Logan introduced. Perhaps in the interest of making Armstrong jealous, Alesser stared quite blatantly at the way the commander’s red uniform clung to his muscles. There was a brief chorus of “captain, commander, lieutenant” between the five of them before Logan gestured to Armstrong and his first officer. “Captain Noah Armstrong and Commander Margaret Pierce of the Antares.”

“Captain, Commander,” Lancaster acknowledged, shifting slightly in front of Alesser in a way that he likely thought was more subtle than it appeared.

“Captain Lancaster. Captain Alesser,” Armstrong said, his blue eyes landing on Alesser for only half a second. It was both what Alesser wanted—for the other man not to presume familiarity—and insulting—because he was acting like he didn’t already know him. “Quite the ship you have here.”

“The Antares is as well,” Lancaster replied with a thin-lipped smile.

“All three ships in this squadron are special. I’ve asked Captain Gaudain and Commander Rhodes to beam over as well. I’d like to have us all in the same room before we set out tomorrow,” Logan noted.

“With your permission, sir, I was going to offer to host the senior officers from all three starships aboard Arcturus to celebrate the New Year this evening,” the captain said. Alesser arched an eyebrow at the idea of the notoriously anti-social Lancaster volunteering to host a party. “In the meantime, I’ve had the captain’s mess prepared as instructed.”

“Excellent, Captain,” Logan agreed. He turned to Davenport. “Lieutenant, please put the cases in my office and then join us. Captain Lancaster, would you lead the way?”

“Of course,” Lancaster said.

The cavalcade of captains and commanders left the transporter room and followed Lancaster down the corridor to the central stairway, a graceful helix of steps that went almost the height of the primary hull. The captain’s mess was a deck above the transporter rooms. Alesser noticed Commodore Logan looking approvingly.

“I’ve never been aboard an Odyssey-class starship. It doesn’t disappoint,” Logan said.

“We’ll arrange a tour if you’d like,” Lancaster offered.

Logan chuckled. “I think you’ll find that it’s called an ‘inspection,’ Captain, but that can wait until tomorrow,” he chided gently. Alesser could see Lancaster’s posture stiffen briefly at that comment; less than five minutes under a new flag officer, and he’d already been corrected. “Could you have your Chief Engineer and Chief Medical Officer join us?”

“Aye, sir,” Lancaster said before glancing back at Alesser. The first officer tapped the summons into his holoPADD as they continued to walk. The corridors were mostly deserted, but a few junior officers scattered in their wake. The large wooden doors of the captain’s mess opened to reveal that a large briefing table had been created on one side, with a buffet on the other. Commander Voral, strategic operations officer, and Lieutenant Commander Holland, diplomatic and JAG officer, were already present–the two members of Hayden’s staff that had been retained. “The waitstaff are holographic, and the system is compliant with Starfleet Intelligence policies,” the captain explained when he saw Logan’s eyes on one of the waiters.

Logan nodded. “You’ve thought of everything,” he said in a tone that sounded like a genuine compliment. “I see how Admiral Hayden came to rely on you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lancaster replied. 

Captains Okusanya and Anjar entered the room a few moments later, with Sean Gaudain and his first officer following shortly thereafter. The group took their seats, the systems in the room being smart enough to generate place cards based on protocol. Lancaster and Logan were sitting across from each other in the center of the table, flanked on opposite sides by their first officer and chief of staff respectively. Armstrong was next to Logan, and Gaudain was next to Lancaster. The result of this staggering was that Alesser was right across from Armstrong, between Lancaster and Okusanya.

“I think you all know that I’m Commodore Brett Logan. I’ve met some of you before but not others,” he glanced up when the doors opened again to admit Lieutenant Davenport, who took his seat next to Pierce on Logan’s side of the table. “The fourteen of us are going to be working closely together for the foreseeable future. I wanted to make sure that the first thing I did in command here was to get us all around the same table, so I can make sure that my expectations are fully clear to you all. I’ll try to keep this brief.”

Alesser nodded as the commodore spoke, but his eyes kept betraying him and glancing over at Armstrong. He was irritated at how calm the other man seemed to be. That had always been their dynamic, though—Armstrong always had to act like he was above petty things like desire or interest.

“As this squadron has now increased in size, I’m implementing a few structural changes that weren’t necessary when it was just Arcturus and Apollo. First, I want to confirm Captain Lancaster as the squadron’s deputy commander,” Logan said, nodding to Lancaster, who seemed relieved. “Captain Felicity Stone will handle administrative issues as chief of staff and would take command should Captain Lancaster and I both be absent. She has over eight years of experience in the center seat and will be an invaluable asset. If we should all somehow be absent, Regulation 191 would apply, and the line of succession would be Captain Alesser, then Captain Gaudain, then Captain Armstrong, based on the tactical strength of their vessels.”

While Alesser had always assumed that had push come to shove, he would out-rank Gaudain and the Apollo, he hadn’t considered how a third ship might alter that balance. The Ardanan couldn’t help but smirk that he was two places ahead of Armstrong, but even that didn’t seem to phase the other man across the table.

The commodore paused and glanced around the table. “I’m also appointing Captains Okusanya and Anjar as squadron engineering officer and squadron medical officer respectively. They will have authority on engineering and medical matters that would otherwise fall to a sector starbase,” he added. “Finally, Commander Christopher Forrest will command a support wing consisting of a Valkyrie squadron, a runabout flight, and a scout flight. Based aboard the flagship, he will report jointly to me for strategic and tactical-level planning and to Captain Lancaster for day-to-day operational matters.”

That last announcement made Lancaster stiffen again. Effectively, the commodore had just taken the Arcturus‘s runabouts out from under the captain’s direct command. They’d already known that the six fighters coming aboard had meant offloading several shuttles and runabouts, but this was another level of micromanaging that Lancaster was likely to chafe under.

“All of Admiral Hayden’s standing orders remain in effect until I have a chance to review and re-issue them this evening,” Logan said before nodding to Captain Stone, who tapped a few controls at her seat to dim the lights and display a star map. Alesser recognized it as the extreme coreward edge of Federation space near Zakdorn. “You all know that we will be traveling together to the Talvath Cluster, with a stop at Overwatch Station along the way. Once in the theater, it will be rare for all three ships to operate together. Apollo and the scout flight will identify interesting worlds, while Arcturus and Antares follow up as appropriate. Overwatch will provide sensor data.”

“What do we know about the Talvath Cluster, sir?” Captain Gaudain piped up.

“There are a large number of G-type stars in the region, which suggest the possibility of habitable worlds, but gas and dust clouds shroud many of these systems. It bears some similarities to a stellar nursery but with stars that are far more mature. Starfleet’s still trying to figure out how it exists at all, which is where we come in,” the commodore explained. “Overwatch is designed to cut through the interference, but it’ll be four more years until the telescope is finished.”

“Sounds like fun,” Gaudain replied with a grin.

“It won’t be boring,” Logan agreed. “I’m sure I can’t say the same thing about this briefing for most of you, though. This is all pretty straightforward. So, let’s say you’re formally dismissed, but I encourage you to take advantage of Captain Lancaster’s hospitality and introduce yourselves to your new colleagues,” he said.

Not really one for mingling, Captain Lancaster remained close to the table as the senior officers of Arcturus Squadron spread out into the rest of the captain’s mess—his personal mess. Before he could blend into the woodwork, Commander Forrest approached him and offered his hand. 

“Commander,” Lancaster acknowledged, accepting Forrest’s firm grip. The blonde man was about his height but more blonde and more muscular. He’d glanced at Forrest’s service record when he’d thought he’d be accompanying Logan as an adjutant and knew that he was also more than seven months shy of his thirtieth birthday—something it had taken Lancaster nine more months to earn himself. “Your record is very impressive.”

Forrest smirked. “Thank you for saying so, sir. Command of a ship like this one in your thirties is definitely aspirational,” he said, and Lancaster couldn’t fully discern who he was praising in that sentence. There was something off-putting and smug about him. “I’m excited to be working with you.”

“Working for me,” Lancaster reminded him. “I’d like your training plans and proposed squadron roster by the end of the day tomorrow. We haven’t had fighters on this ship before, and doubtless there will be a need for some refresher courses in close-in maneuvering.”

“It’s already submitted, Captain,” Forrest replied, not seeming phased by Lancaster’s comment. “We’ll be operationally ready before we reach Overwatch.”

“Good. You’ll fit right in, Commander,” Lancaster replied. His badge chirped with impeccable timing. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said before leaving Forrest standing there while he went over by the windows to tap his badge. “Lancaster here. Go ahead.”

“It’s Kaplan, sir. What’s the word on New Year’s?” Ensign Kaplan asked.

“The word is ‘go.’ Please make sure there’s bourbon there,” Lancaster responded.

The yeoman couldn’t stifle a laugh. “Understood, sir.”

Alesser didn’t mind mingling the way his captain did, but Armstrong’s presence had him feeling introverted. He chatted briefly with Lieutenant Commander Rhodes of the Apollo, though even he wouldn’t be so shameless as to flirt with the young man in such a setting. Maybe later. Thankfully, he saw Armstrong and his first officer seemingly making a round of ‘good byes,’ which he was eager for. His hopes were raised too soon, though, as Armstrong crossed the room on a direct course for him.

“Ari,” Armstrong said, in a low voice, getting close enough that Alesser could feel his breath on his ear. His posture emphasized their height difference, and Alesser hated that he still loved that. “I have to get back to the Antares, but we can talk tonight at the party. There’s no reason this has to be awkward because everyone here can see you’re doing your best to avoid me, and that’s not a good look for either of us.”

“Not even a ‘good to see you, Ari’?” Alesser scoffed. “Fine, Noah. We’ll talk.”

“It is good to see you, but the transporter room was hardly the place for that,” Armstrong said, a paternalistic tone creeping into his voice. “I would have expected you to understand that by now.”

Alesser exhaled slowly. “Save it for later,” he muttered to avoid screaming at him for being patronizing.

“You’re right. I’ll see you later,” Armstrong said, briefly touching Alesser on the shoulder and then leaving the room.

Alesser hated that he liked that as well but tried not to react either way. A few moments after Armstrong left the room, Captain Lancaster joined Alesser and gave him a quizzical look.

“Everything okay?” Lancaster asked. After their rocky start on the Arcturus, Alesser had never thought that he’d be on cordial, let alone friendly, terms with Lancaster, but things had changed after their impromptu camping trip together. They worked well together as captain and first officer, and the similarities that had once caused friction now served as a way of bonding them together. “I could beat him up if you like.”

Alesser chuckled. “No offense, but neither of us would stand a chance. It’s a nice thought, though. I’m fine. Moments like this make you realize that the universe is a lot smaller than you think it is,” he replied. “Of all of the captain’s messes in the fleet, he has to walk into yours.”

“You have the home-field advantage, though. I could ask Sheppard to flirt with you. Make him jealous,” Lancaster suggested, which was probably the most mischievous thing that had ever come out of his mouth in Alesser’s presence.

“Well, not ‘no,’ but let’s get you checked for an anaphasic alien before this party. You’re all empathetic and playful. It’s weird,” Alesser teased.

The captain rolled his eyes. “There’s the Larus Alesser I know,” he said. 

Captain’s Table

Private Dining Room, Arcturus Prime
December 31, 2400

New Year’s Eve on Arcturus had come to be associated with the ship’s birthday. Commissioned just after the start of 2399, the ship and her crew had spent just about two years in service as the sun began to set on 2400 and usher in 2401. This particular event was set to be exceptionally bittersweet as the last of the crew rotations were scheduled for the next day, which meant saying goodbye to old friends and welcoming new ones. In addition to it being a chance to show off for the crews of the other two ships in the squadron, even Michael Lancaster could admit to feeling slightly sentimental, and so he’d had all the stops pulled out. 

Even those crewmembers who had been on shore leave had returned to the ship, as they knew it was going to be more exciting than what the lounges and bars of Deep Space 17 would be able to offer, and the only ones not at the party were those who absolutely had to be at their posts in engineering or on the bridge and the security guards who were confirming the credentials of the line of Apollo and Antares crew entering through the bow airlock between The Plowman’s Tap and the forward observation lounge on deck 12. The smaller lounges and greenspace on the promenade that ringed the deck had been configured to give all personality types and biologies a combination of music, food, and atmosphere that they could enjoy. While only the center door was ordinarily open for fire and damage control purposes, all three sections of the wide hatch connecting the grand foyer to the atrium had been opened for the occasion to allow for maximum mobility (and, frankly, to show off).  

By 2000 hours, the party was already in full swing, with the notable absence of Captain Lancaster, a few of the other senior officers, and a cadre of more junior ones. A separate pre-party had been Dr. Sheppard’s idea, not just to warm the taciturn captain up to the duties of hosting nearly three thousand people but to allow him a moment in private to express some emotions that he’d prefer not to express in front of everyone. The private dining room in Arcturus Prime, the simulated steakhouse within the atrium, had been chosen for the occasion.

Joining Lancaster and Sheppard were First Officer Alesser, Commander Van Dorland, and the recently-promoted Commander Bowens. Counselor Carver and Lieutenant Belvedere were there as well, being close to both Sheppard and the real honorees of the evening: Lieutenants Windsor, Hidalgo, Stanton, Sarcaryn, Robinson, and Taigan, all of whom had earned promotions in position to department deputies aboard the Antares. Lancaster had begrudgingly allowed Sheppard to extend an invitation to the demoted Ensign Galan, who was also leaving for the Antares in a deputy’s role. For all of the acrimony his actions had caused during their evacuation mission from Romulan space, the captain couldn’t help but feel some level of affection towards him. Plus, he rounded their numbers to fourteen, and there was no sense in tempting fate on a night like that.

This group was only some of the officers who were moving up and out, but they had developed into a cohesive cadre, all of them men interested to some degree in other men, with a web of professional, romantic, and platonic relationships that made Lancaster understand why most of them had wanted to stick together. Of the junior officers, just Belvedere was going to remain on the Arcturus, and Lancaster could see regrets in his eyes from down the table, though he knew the young man was staying for Carver. Thanks to Sheppard’s ability to be friends with everyone, most of them had at least had a drink with him and his husband, but Carver and Sheppard were the links between the captain and this cadre of lower deckers.

“I think you all know that I’m not one for speeches, but I just wanted to express to all of you how pleased I have been with your work here over the past two years,” Lancaster said once everyone was seated. 

Lancaster and his husband had taken opposite ends of the table, and the more senior officers had gravitated towards Lancaster’s end while the more junior ones had ended up closer to Sheppard—probably because he was more fun, he intuited. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Lancaster enjoyed keeping tabs on the scuttlebutt, as it made him feel more connected to his crew. It also made him nostalgic for the lifestyle he and his husband only got to have for a few years when they lived on Earth; a consequence of Lancaster’s rapid rise through the ranks was losing the ability to fit in on an equal footing with those around them. He’d always either be a captain while station-side or the captain aboard Arcturus, after all. 

“I have high expectations, and this group has met them,” Lancaster continued, the compliment blunted from ‘everyone here’ to ‘this group’ because of the presence of Ensign Galan. “Captain Armstrong and the Antares will be lucky to have those of you who are moving on.”

Lancaster glanced at Lieutenant Hidalgo, who smiled and stood up from the table, holding a small wooden box, the familiar sign of an imminent promotion. While it wasn’t a surprise to the recipient, the rest of the assembled officers looked curious for a moment.

“There’s one last item of business,” Lancaster said. When he stood, protocol compelled the rest of the room to rise as well. “Lieutenant Nathaniel Windsor, I have been authorized by Starfleet Command to promote you to the rank of lieutenant commander, effective immediately. Congratulations,” he said, prompting Hidalgo to go around the table to pin a hollow pip onto Windsor’s uniform while his peers applauded.

Windsor’s tenure on Arcturus had seen him grow from a green, naïve junior lieutenant to a seasoned, dependable bridge officer and hazard team leader. He’d even been awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor for actions during the Tkon Campaign to save the lives of two fellow officers, including Lieutenant Stanton, who was standing next to him. While still a little naïve and often grinning from the sheer exuberance he possessed, Lancaster could see a first officer’s or captain’s chair in his near future. For now, he’d be serving as the second officer on the Antares.

“Thank you, Captain,” Windsor said, beaming. Lancaster extended his hand, but Windsor went for a hug instead, squeezing the surprised captain for a moment until he briefly returned the gesture, and the two parted. Counselor Carver let out a wolf whistle. “It’s been an honor serving under you. And with all of you,” he said, turning back to his colleagues. 

Lancaster cleared his throat. “Likewise. All of you,” he said. There was a beat. “Now, let’s eat,” he said, sitting down to allow the rest of the room to do so as well.

“Nice speech, skipper,” Alesser said, offering Lancaster an inscrutable grin from Lancaster’s right-hand side before they sat down. As much as their relationship had warmed, Alesser still had a tendency towards cattiness with him. “You’re really tugging at my heartstrings this evening.”

“Brought a tear to my eye,” Commander Van Dorland added from the left.

“Don’t help, Jack,” Lancaster replied, turning to the blond engineer for a moment. The two of them had been academy roommates, and though Van Dorland was hardly the life of the party, he had a cool confidence that Lancaster had never been able to master. He was there without fellow engineer Noah Slater since their erstwhile relationship had cooled significantly. That was a topic he intended to interrogate his friend about later. Lancaster’s eyes flickered back to Alesser. “It’s my prerogative to awkwardly stumble around displays of emotion just enough to make my officers feel appreciated but not enough to make them want to skip the real party.”

“We love you, too, sir!” Lieutenant Robinson exclaimed from his seat between Carver and Taigan. For a young officer who started as the admiral’s pretty boy helper and dogsbody, Robinson had managed to earn a spot as a bridge officer in relatively short order, even without any nepotism. He’d never lost the sass that came with the confidence of being, in his eyes, Admiral Hayden’s right-hand man. “Do the rest of us get hugs? Maybe a peck on the cheek?”

“Can someone put something in his mouth, please?” Lancaster quipped as he pressed a button near his place at the table to call into existence holographic menus for each of the guests. He tapped the items he wanted, prompting the restaurant’s kitchen, replicators, wine stores, and holographic waiters to spring into action to simulate waiting for one’s food and drink. “Other than his foot, I mean.”

Sheppard, Van Dorland, and Carver were the only ones around the table who weren’t stunned that Lancaster had returned the sass so adroitly. Alesser looked amused and perhaps even proud, while the others present were initially not sure how to respond. Lancaster found that his demanding demeanor and insistence on professionalism on the bridge made people believe that he did not actually have a sense of humor, but he’d just become adept at keeping his sharp tongue quiet. While he had never been never as brazen as Robinson still was, Lancaster started his career using sarcasm every second or third sentence.  

“Hands up if you haven’t already,” Carver replied, to laughs. 

“Bullied with scandalous innuendo by my esteemed—and very handsome—commanding officer and a muscle-bound mental healthcare professional? I’m aghast,” Robinson said, clutching the neck of his dress uniform. “Aghast, stunned, and a little turned on.”

“Poor baby,” Lieutenant Belvedere said. It’s likely that the young communications officer could have secured equivalent roles to his friends on the Antares, but his relationship with Carver seemed to be there for the long haul. “I think we’d have a little more sympathy if you didn’t love the attention so much.”

As they continued to banter, a pair of holographic waiters began bringing out cocktails and other beverages for the group. Lancaster found himself smiling absently before an amused glance from Sheppard brought him out of his reverie to focus on the Manhattan which had been placed in front of him. The far end of the table remained a lot livelier as Belvedere and Robinson kept teasing each other, and he noticed that the quieter Taigan and Sarcaryn were both getting their licks in as well. 

“Have you always been such a softie, or is there something in that drink that’s put you into such a good mood?” Alesser asked, warm amber eyes flitting between Lancaster and his cocktail.

“It’s not a margarita, so I doubt it will be mood-altering,” Lancaster said, leaning slightly to the side so that only the first officer could hear them. 

During their survival adventure, Lancaster had lifted the restrictions on the survival replicator from their crashed shuttle, and they’d had margaritas on an alien beach. Whether that was before or after they were under the influence of inhibition-lifting spores was unclear. With no other sentient beings for light years, surviving together had certainly been an opportunity for the two of them to get to know each other better—and it did lead Lancaster to select Alesser as first officer—but there were still parts of it that were awkward to remember.

Alesser blushed slightly, his bronze skin turning copper along his cheekbones. “Touché. I guess that means it’s the other option: you’re only an ice queen on the outside.” 

“You already know that,” Lancaster pointed out. “But if this cohort knew how entertaining I found them—and how much my spies have told me about their relationships and drama—I’d never get any sense of decorum back.”

The first officer nodded. “Probably true,” he agreed. 

Lancaster glanced over to his left where Commanders Van Dorland and Bowens were chatting. To his knowledge, the two of them didn’t know each other very well. Van Dorland generally kept to engineering, and Bowens had been in the command division until a few days prior. After comparing their efficiency scores and service records, Lancaster had actually offered his friend, Van Dorland, the chief operations officer slot that had gone to Bowens instead, but he’d declined, citing a desire to remain off of the bridge as much as possible. Like the officers moving to the Antares, Bowens had made a name for himself on Arcturus, and Lancaster was glad to keep at least one of his success stories.

“How are you finding promotion treating you, Mr. Bowens?” Lancaster asked. “I hope the first officer isn’t being too hard on you.”

Bowens offered a polite smile. “I have no complaints, captain. I was a little sad to hang up the hazard team jumpsuit, though,” the commander replied. As a senior officer, Bowens would have to pass the mantle of training the ship’s hazard teams to someone else. Strictly speaking, he’d left the actual leadership of his former team at his last promotion but had always found ways of accompanying his teams into the field. “I appreciate the vote of confidence from you and Captain Alesser.”

Alesser chuckled. “The commander is being polite. I believe I was a little short with him on the bridge, earlier,” he interjected. “Nerves over having fueling lines draped over the hull and losing such a fine cadre of officers. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you, Mr. Bowens.”

“I didn’t perceive any shortness, sir. The bridge is no place for cross-talk, anyway,” Bowens said, always the model of deferential professionalism. While Lancaster ran a tight ship, he almost found Bowens to be a little too deferential sometimes, and he had to wonder what Alesser may have said to spark this exchange. “I’m looking forward to proving myself, serving under two captains who were themselves operations officers.”

“You’re awfully well informed,” Lancaster replied, though he didn’t put any particular tone into that statement. “Good. I prefer it when my officers know what they’re talking about.”

“The captain prefers it when everyone knows what they’re talking about,” Commander Van Dorland amended, making Bowens smile for a moment. “At the Academy, he had the Starfleet General Operating Manual for Starshipsmemorized by chapter and verse within six months of arriving.”

“It’s hard to imagine you as a lieutenant, let alone a cadet,” Alesser said.

“He didn’t just start at captain?” Arturo Hidalgo teased from Alesser’s other side.

“Nope. He was once right where you are, Ship,” Van Dorland replied. “I wonder if that nickname’s gonna stick when you get over to the Antares.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Windsor, Hidalgo’s fiancé, interjected from across the table.

As they kept chatting, salads and other starters began to emerge from the kitchen. The energy in the room ebbed and flowed between gleeful nostalgia about their adventures to moments of bittersweetness as individuals realized that this was likely not a gathering that they would be able to repeat. Before they knew it, dessert was being served—there was still the rest of the New Year’s party to go to, but this was it for their gathering.

Sheppard tapped on his glass with a knife. “Before we have dessert, Nate has something he’d like to say,” he said.

“Captain, those of us who are moving on got together to get you something to show you how much we appreciated the opportunity to serve under you,” now-Lieutenant Commander Windsor said, rising from his seat with a glass of champagne. He nodded to Hidalgo, who passed a box tied with a bow to Alesser, who put it in front of Lancaster. “We know that sentimentality really isn’t your thing, so we tried to come up with something practical.”

Lancaster pulled the ribbon open and removed the lid of the box. Nestled among some tissue paper was a titanium records case, a slim folio for holding isolinear storage chips with data too sensitive to be stored directly in the main computer. The front cover had the ship’s name and seal embossed. He flipped it over to read, “From the Junior Officers of the Arcturus to our Captain, Stardate 2401.1.” The captain was momentarily at a loss for words.

“On the inside, the names of everyone who’s served aboard this ship under your command are engraved,” Windsor noted. Sure enough, on opening it, Lancaster could just barely make out a list of names inside each of the slots for data chips, engraved small enough to get every single name of the ship’s enormous crew there. 

“I really appreciate this. Thank you all,” Lancaster managed.

“To the Arcturus and to the Captain!” Windsor offered as a toast.

Those gathered returned the toast, leaving Captain Lancaster feeling both pleasantly surprised and uncomfortable at having all of the attention in the room on him. His husband caught his eye again, and the two of them shared a moment from either end of the table. On the one hand, he hated surprises, but he still found room within that to appreciate whatever help Sheppard had been in orchestrating it. As it approached 2200, members of the cadre began to excuse themselves from the table. 

Lieutenant Sarcaryn was one of the last to leave. The young Risian had been severely injured six months prior during an explosion on a Romulan starship. He nearly lost the use of his legs entirely, but Dr. Anjar had persuaded Starfleet Medical to allow him to try a combination of treatments, including cybernetics, nanites, and genetronic replication. He was still wearing leg braces, but all indications were that the young man would eventually make a full recovery.

“Thank you for including me, Captain,” Sarcaryn said.

Lancaster noticed that Ensign Galan was right behind him, looking at his friend with concern. The Romulan had a stated fondness for Sarcaryn. Indeed, it was that fondness that had led Galan to force a Romulan refugee to disclose vital intelligence about rogue Romulan elements that were pursuing them—at phaser point, he’d demanded a blood sample, as the information had been encoded molecularly. Galan had been charged with assault and insubordination. He should have been sent to a rehabilitation colony by all rights, but the refugee had declined to testify. Admiral Dahlgren dismissed the charge of assault and demoted Galan to ensign with a two-month brig sentence. It felt unjust, but Lancaster was secretly happy that a resource like Galan’s linguistic talents wouldn’t go to waste.

“Of course, Lieutenant,” Lancaster said, nodding to Sarcaryn. “Good luck on the Antares, Ensign Galan,” he said, catching the Romulan visibly by surprise. 

Galan nodded. “Thank you, Captain. I will endeavor to make my service worthy of the second chance I have been given,” he said simply before departing with Sarcaryn. 

Eventually, Lancaster and Sheppard were left alone in the dining room as everyone else went off to the next phase of their evening. In a good mood from the champagne and from how well the party had gone, he left his seat and moved to the other end of the table to perch himself on his husband’s lap, placing his arm behind the broader man’s shoulders for balance. He kissed Sheppard on the temple.

“That went well,” Lancaster noted, showing Sheppard the case the junior officers had given him.

“Was there any doubt?” Sheppard replied, smiling up at him. “I know you don’t like hearing this, but you’ve really mellowed since taking command. It’s nice to see you enjoying yourself with the crew,” he added.

Sheppard reached up to briefly run his fingers through Lancaster’s hair before returning his locks to the way he found them. While Lancaster thought about what he had said, he allowed himself to just enjoy the affection. 

“The first officer is nervous about having Captain Armstrong at the reception,” Lancaster noted.

“You can just call him by his name, you know,” Sheppard replied. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to now be working with someone you have unrequited feelings for.”

“Maybe don’t tell him that. I get the sense that he’d like to believe he’s over it. The problem is that Armstrong seems to actually be over it,” Lancaster replied. “I told Ari I could ask you to flirt with him to make him feel better.”

That made Sheppard chuckle. “You’re going to loan me out just like that?”

“It’s not like you wouldn’t enjoy it,” Lancaster replied, hopping off of Sheppard’s lap and extending a hand to him. “Want to guess the odds of them ending up in bed together regardless?”

“Never bet on a sure thing,” Sheppard replied. The Italian man took his husband’s hand and stood up. “We should probably get to the reception you’re supposed to be hosting before you find a reason to sneak out of it.”

“Probably. That sounds like something I would do,” Lancaster agreed. “As well as this dinner went, I think the crew does have more fun when I’m out of the room, so we can take that as an excuse not to linger, at least.”

Sheppard laughed. “Spoken like a true party animal,” he said.

The two of them left the dining room in Arcturus Prime, where other groups were having their own gatherings in the main part of the restaurant. Things began to get more raucous as they passed through the atrium and the promenade toward the Plowman’s Tap. The last night of 2400 was already one Lancaster would remember, and he could already tell from the pulsing music coming from inside the bar that it was just getting started.


Not a Blank Slate

USS Arcturus, Plowman's Tap
New Year's Eve, 2400

Alesser joined the New Year’s party in progress at around 2300 hours. He’d always enjoyed the catharsis that came with the ticking over of that fourth digit on the stardate, especially with the Human traditions that came with it: overindulgence immediately preceding a quest for penance. The white mess dress uniforms gave everyone an air of glamor, which were an amusing juxtaposition to the scantily-clad holographic waiters that Miss Nomer had selected for the evening. An extension of the Emergency Hospitality Hologram, they allowed flesh-and-blood staff to take the night off.

“I counted them before I put them out, Captain!” the drag queen hostess teased, clearly catching Alesser admiring the black and red leather harness the computer had created for an Orion hologram. 

“I was just admiring your taste, Chief,” Alesser said, sidling up to the bar. Miss Nomer was wearing a black and red dress along with a headdress composed of matching feathers; Alesser had never seen her out of drag, let alone in a uniform. Out of the corner of his eye, the first officer saw Noah Armstrong laughing and talking with a mixed group of Arcturus, Antares, and Apollo senior officers; Armstrong never could resist a chance to hold court like that. “Could I have something strong enough to be civil with an ex but not so strong that I end up sleeping with him?”

The bartender laughed. “That’ll be a tough needle to thread,” she noted, thinking for a moment before she started grabbing bottles under the bar and putting a wide variety of things into a shaker. “Who’s the ex?” 

Alesser cocked his head back towards where Armstrong was.

“Who would have thought you and the captain would have the same taste in men,” Miss Nomer teased, beginning to shake the drink. Alesser hadn’t quite made the connection between Sheppard and Armstrong, but after that comment, he couldn’t un-see it. They were both inarguably tall, dark, and handsome, so it wasn’t worth protesting. She poured something bright green into a cocktail glass and then topped it with champagne. “The Mind Meld. Should be just what you need, hun.”

“Thanks,” Alesser said.

The Ardanan man took the drink and left the bar. It was sweet and had a fizz to it, so it didn’t immediately smack him in the face with an overwhelming alcohol content. Still, he wasn’t particularly willing to walk right into a group to peel Armstrong away and have the talk he had demanded earlier that day. He found Dr. Anjar and Captain Okusanya chatting with an Andorian woman in civilian clothing near the viewports. It took him a moment, but the context suggested he was finally about to meet Okusanya’s wife, an FNS reporter.

“Enjoying the party?” Alesser asked.

“If there’s one thing we’re really good at here, it’s throwing a party,” Anjar replied in what was more or less a non-answer. Neither the doctor nor the engineer was a particularly social creature. “How was dinner?”

“Entertaining. You should’ve come instead of signing off on intake paperwork,” Alesser replied. He turned to the Andorian woman and smiled. “We haven’t met. I’m Larus Alesser, first officer. You must be Evri.”

“I must be,” she agreed with a chuckle before glancing at her wife. Her transport had arrived during Lancaster’s dinner, meaning that Okusanya had also bowed out of the engagement. It would be interesting—i.e., challenging and probably inconvenient—to have a reporter aboard, and Alesser wondered if Lancaster would have approved it had she not also been married to his chief engineer. “I’ve heard so much about you—off the record.”

“Only good things,” Okusanya supplied. “More or less.”

Alesser chuckled. “Let me guess: you already know that I’m a gorgeous, well-meaning narcissist?” he suggested.

“I can confirm one of those words may have been used,” Evri replied. “Don’t worry. Besides being here to be with my wife, I’m here to report on the ship’s mission, not on you.”

“I mean, you can report on me a little,” he teased. “Your readers are going to want to hear all about me, I assure you.”

“I think I know which word Okusanya used,” Anjar quipped. 

The four of them kept chatting for a while, long enough for Alesser to drain his drink and obtain a glass of champagne from a passing holowaiter. Anjar was pulled away to answer a question from sickbay over the comm, and then Okusanya and Evri circulated to continue making introductions, leaving Alesser alone. Just as Alesser grabbed a fresh champagne flute, Luca Sheppard and Austin Carver approached him. The two medical officers were easily the hottest men in the crew if your turn-ons were square jaws, height, and muscle. They were also best friends and workout partners, and Alesser would be lying if he said he hadn’t manufactured reasons to be in the gym when they were.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, gentlemen?” Alesser asked, earning a smirk from Carver.

“Well, sir, we were hoping you could settle a bet for us,” the counselor replied, sidling up close enough that the first officer could smell his cologne. Noticing Captain Lancaster across the room speaking with Lieutenant Belvedere, it was pretty clear that they were there under ‘orders.’ “It’s pretty easy: which one of us do you think is more attractive?”

Alesser shook his head, grinning at the audacity of the question. “Have you had too much to drink, or have I not had enough?” he asked.

“This is a perfectly sober and objective inquiry,” Sheppard said, definitely being the more serious of the two of them. “I think it’s Austin because he has nicer eyes.”

“I also have bigger biceps. See?” Carver said, taking Alesser’s free hand and putting it on his arm muscle before flexing. Alesser couldn’t confirm that his arms were bigger than Sheppard’s without tactile comparison, but they were objectively impressive. “I do think it’s probably Luca who’s more attractive. He’s a little taller, and he tends to be more on the quiet and brooding side–people like a little mystery. Plus, there is the aspect of being forbidden fruit since he’s the captain’s husband.”

“A last appeal of humility?” Alesser teased. “You both have so many attractive qualities. How could I possibly choose between you? Can’t you both be perfect tens?”

Sheppard grinned. “Michael said you’d say that, so I guess he wins the bet.”

“What did he win?”

Sheppard winked but didn’t say anything. What could the man who has everything possibly win? Alesser glanced back to where the captain was still chatting with Belvedere, and the two of them looked relatively relaxed and friendly with one another. 

“You left poor Matthew alone with him?” Alesser asked.

“Michael said that you would benefit from a social cloaking device, and part of the ‘deal’ was that he would be friendly to Matthew,” Sheppard said, glancing over his shoulder towards where Armstrong was still the life of the party. “Not that we mind.”

“I guess that means he’s briefed you two,” Alesser said with a sigh. He tossed back the rest of his champagne, which burned on the way down from trying to swallow too many bubbles at once. “I’m not particularly proud of being so irritated about having him around. Mature adults should be able to have conversations with people they were formerly romantic with, shouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know if I can speak to the neuropsychology of your species specifically, but powerful relationships leave deep connections that are hard to unlearn,” Carver offered; Alesser was so used to seeing him in his usual presentation as an affable hunk that he sometimes forgot that he was also a psychiatrist. “Pretending it’s nothing wouldn’t be particularly healthy. You know, we can talk about it.”

Alesser frowned and snapped for the holowaiter to bring a tray of drinks closer. He exchanged his empty glass for a full one and moved to sit in one of the rounded couch alcoves under the windows. It was really meant for two, so Sheppard and Carver ended up pleasantly close to him when they sat down on either side of him. He exhaled slowly, glancing around the room for a moment.

“I’m not sure I’d really like to work all of this out on the counselor’s couch. No offense,” Alesser said.

“A lot of my client sessions are in the gym, anyway. You should think about it,” Carver replied, not seeming offended. That idea was pretty appealing. “You’re not the first alpha male to be scared of counseling.”

Alesser scoffed. “I bet you expect me to refute that. It’s not about fear or ego. I’ve spent several years repressing Noah Armstrong, so I’d prefer to keep that all packed up in my subconscious.”

“Sounds healthy,” Sheppard observed. “If it’s been a few years, this might be an opportunity to start fresh,” he offered.

Alesser nodded. “Hopefully. Generally, though, a fresh start is easier without baggage, though,” he noted. “He asked to talk to me tonight.”

“Is that what you want?” Carver asked.

“I’m not sure what I want,” Alesser muttered. He doubted the two other men had much experience with being the party on the supply side of an unrequited match, let alone having to worry about not feeling inferior to an ex. Sheppard and Carver’s close presence, plus the drinks he’d consumed, were making him feel pleasantly warm and cocooned. “On the very bright side of this, though, I’m quite enjoying having your undivided attention,” he added, grinning as he clapped a hand to a thigh on either side of him.

“You don’t need an excuse for our friendship, you know. You’re our favorite hyper-confident flirt on the ship,” Carver said, balancing equal degrees of flirtation and teasing. “Especially now that you’ve figured out the formula to avoid constantly irritating his husband,” he added, nodding to Sheppard.

“Complement, don’t compete,” Alesser summarized, taking his hands off of them to retrieve the drink he’d put on the coffee table. He saw a break in the conversation Armstrong was having and made a snap decision to get the conversation over with. “Thanks for the confidence boost, boys. I’m going to go act like a captain now,” he said before leaving the two of them in the booth. 

When Alesser intercepted Armstrong, the other man had just got a fresh glass of champagne and was thankfully alone. As ever, Alesser had to tamp down his anxiety in Armstrong’s presence. Nearly half a decade had done nothing to diminish his physical attraction towards him, even if the rational part of his brain knew that was not something that should even hint at crossing his thinking. Armstrong offered him a polite, captainly smile. The last time the two had seen each other before that day was when Alesser had woken up to an empty bed on their last morning serving on their old ship.

“Quite the party you’re throwing,” Armstrong said.

“Glad you’re enjoying it, Noah. Can you imagine if the old Arcturus had a venue like this?” Alesser replied, thinking about their time together on the current vessel’s Ambassador-class predecessor. Though a comfortable posting, she was an obsolescent workhorse from another era. “You said you wanted to talk?”

Armstrong nodded. “I think it’s important that we get on the same page about a few things,” he agreed. “It was pretty evident earlier today that you’re not ready for us to have a professional relationship.”

“I’m not the one who went out of my way to ignore you when you beamed aboard, Noah,” Alesser said, immediately seeing red. “I’m perfectly happy for the two of us to have a professional relationship, especially since we have no choice.”

“We both know that unless I shower you with affection, you jump to the unsupported conclusion that I hate you. That’s the way you have always been,” Armstrong countered; that had always been his contention throughout the romantic portion of their relationship. He sighed. “Look. I’m not trying to start a fight with you. You’re right: we are going to have to work with each other for the foreseeable future, and acrimony is in no one’s best interests.”

“Fine by me. Don’t you think you could start with an apology, though?”

“For what?” Armstrong said, looking genuinely confused; Alesser was incensed that the other man didn’t even realize why he might deserve an apology.

“You didn’t even say goodbye the last time I saw you,” Alesser replied. 

“Isn’t almost four years enough time to get over that?” Armstrong replied, shaking his head. He sighed. “I’m sorry that the way we parted didn’t live up to your expectations.”

Alesser frowned at the poor apology but decided that he’d have to take it or leave it. Armstrong’s ego didn’t allow for the possibility of him being wrong, so he’d never developed the ability to apologize.

“Thank you,” Alesser muttered. 

“It is good to see you,” Armstrong added, offering one of his trademark recruitment-poster-worthy smiles. Alesser hated how seeing that again made him feel. “I’ve missed having a sparring partner.”

Of the seven years they had served together, three of them had been in a full-on rivalry. Alesser was a lieutenant and the ship’s chief operations officer, while Armstrong had been a lieutenant commander and chief science officer. Sometimes, they fought about ideology–Alesser was more conservative and favored more aggressive solutions, while Armstrong was more willing to risk trusting the unknown—and, sometimes, they just descended into a pure conflict of personality. While being forced to survive together on an alien world, their relationship turned sexual, and so the latter four years on the old Arcturus were marked by a continued rivalry with periods of romantic detente. To Alesser, it had been a relationship, but Armstrong had never quite seen it that way, and it was clear he still didn’t.

“I’m sure that was difficult for you to admit,” Alesser replied. “I never thought you were going to propose marriage, but if you missed me, why didn’t you send even one message in almost four years?”

“Because I know you too well—you’d get your hopes up. I’d be adding more significance to what we had, and that wouldn’t have been any better for you than keeping my distance,” Armstrong countered. He glanced at a passing lieutenant who may have heard too much. “This is hardly the place to have this conversation.”

“You’re the one who wanted to have it at the party,” Alesser reminded him. “Just tell me what you want from me.”

Armstrong glanced around. “I’m not sure what I want from you.”

“Don’t… Noah, that’s probably the worst thing you could have chosen to say,” Alesser grumbled.

“Because you don’t know what you want from me, either,” Armstrong surmised, smirking at him.

“Maybe. But I know I want a few things. First, I want to be treated with the respect owed to my rank and office. You’ll get nothing less from me in public,” Alesser replied.

“Fair enough, Captain,” Armstrong said. “What else?”

Alesser chewed on the corner of his lip momentarily. “We have history. That matters, and I don’t want to pretend that we don’t,” he started. “But I also don’t want the past to define our future interactions.”

“That seems reasonable,” Armstrong agreed. “A blank slate is probably not possible without a memory wipe, anyway. Besides…”

“Besides what?”

Armstrong stepped a little closer. “Neither of us has many peers out here. As captains, there aren’t many people we can talk to. It wouldn’t be ideal if we cut that number down one further by being at each other’s throats,” he said.

“Agreed,” Alesser said. He didn’t like how much he liked being close to him like that. “I’m still allowed to be mad at you, though. You can earn your way back into my good graces.”

“I didn’t think ‘good graces’ were something you really did for anyone,” Armstrong quipped. He leaned in even closer to speak directly into Alesser’s ear. “I still like a challenge, though.”

Alesser had forgotten what it was like to be around Armstrong. Arguing and flirtation were just two sides of the same coin. He glanced around the room and found fewer eyes on them than he had anticipated, but this was a fairly normal feature of his personality. He was thankful that most of the drinks he had consumed that evening had been synthehol, but there was just enough real booze in his system to make him feel a little flushed.

“I’d wager that neither of us are particularly eager to be seen by a room full of our colleagues getting any closer than this tonight,” Alesser reminded him, prompting Armstrong to step back.

“Probably not,” Armstrong agreed. He surveyed the room. “I think I’ve made a sufficient appearance here. There are a few reports left to approve on the Antares before we leave tomorrow. If you’d like to continue this conversation in private, you know where to find me, Ari,” he said, gripping Alesser’s shoulder for a moment before making his way out of the party.

None of the next ten minutes really registered for Alesser as he made small talk with his fellow officers. Following Noah Armstrong was a very bad idea, but that was the tradition of the holiday, wasn’t it? It’s also something that he knew he wanted very much. Just minutes before the chronometer was due to tick over, Alesser slipped out of the party. He chimed Noah Armstrong’s door with just a few seconds left in the year 2400.

The first thing Alesser saw on the first day of 2401 was Noah Armstrong’s muscular back dappled in the multicolored lights radiating from Deep Space 17. He leaned over to kiss him between his shoulder blades and stayed close for a few moments—until the realization that he was on the wrong starship came into full resolution in his mind. He slipped out of bed and quickly found his underwear, but he wasn’t stealthy enough to avoid detection.

“I hope after giving me a lecture on not saying goodbye that you’re not about to sneak out,” Armstrong chided.

“I’m not sneaking anywhere,” Alesser said as he pulled on one of his socks. Armstrong sat up and reclined with his hands behind his head on the pillows, offering Alesser a leonine smirk. “I can’t say I want to leave,” he added.

“I have to say… I’m glad we didn’t go the ‘blank slate’ route. Last night was pluperfect,” Armstrong said. The compliment made Alesser tingle a little. Armstrong had never been particularly effusive. “I certainly hope a repeat can be scheduled upon our arrival at Overwatch Station.”

Alesser rolled his eyes. “Buy me dinner, and I’ll think about it,” he quipped. “It was, though. And, yes, I understand that we’re not dating, so there’s no need to manage my expectations.”

“Glad to be on the same page,” Armstrong replied. Alesser managed to find the rest of his clothes relatively quickly, and he was getting more eager to get back to the Arcturus before anyone noticed that he wasn’t in his own bed. When he sat down to put on his boots, Armstrong slipped out of bed to move over and sit next to him. He kissed him on the cheek. “I’m not sure if this was the smartest thing either of us has ever done, but I don’t regret it.”

“Don’t get soft on me, Armstrong,” Alesser teased. “I’ll see you at Overwatch,” he added, standing up.

Alesser tapped his badge to connect with the Arcturus computer and order a site-to-site transport. A few seconds later he vanished in a column of sparkles from the captain’s quarters aboard the Antares and reappeared in his own quarters on the Arcturus. He was hit with a sense of both smugness at once again going to bed with a man as attractive as Noah Armstrong but also a deep, gnawing feeling of regret at his own impulsiveness. 

“Computer, schedule a counseling session with Lieutenant Commander Carver. First available.”