Part of USS Challenger: New Beginnings

Not Too Late

Entertainment Complex, San Francisco
Stardate 76788.7
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Dinner had been a lively affair filled with good food and loud, often overlapping, conversations. Tom had remained pretty quiet, chiming in here and there, but for the most part he just listened and watched.  He listened to each of the conversations going on, their topics wildly divergent. He watched them loosen up as the evening went on and more alcohol was taken onboard. It had been a good night so far and they still had their bowling tournament to come..

As the group moved towards the holosuite to start their bowling tournament, a figure at the bar caught Tom’s eye. There was something familiar about him; that shaggy blond hair, the beard.  It took him a few moments but he eventually figured it out; the man was Matthias Bentley. He was older – but then weren’t they all – and had a few lines and wrinkles but it was definitely him They’d been at the Academy together. “You guys go ahead.” Tom announced, addressing the group. “There’s something I wanna do first.”

AJ shot him a questioning look but Tom just waved him off before making his way to the bar. He approached the blond man slowly. “Matt?”

“Yeah?” The blond man turned and studied Thomas’ face. Disappointment was the first look that registered on his face, like he was expecting to find someone else standing there. That disappointment was quickly replaced when his eyes widened in shock. “Tom?  Tom Forrester?”

Tom smiled and no sooner nodded than he found himself being hugged. It was a brief, friendly hug between two old Academy classmates. “I almost didn’t recognise you.” Bentley told him. “The beard threw me.”

“You’re one to talk.” Tom shot back with a smile. “I don’t remember you looking this shaggy at the Academy.

The blond man ran a hand through his medium length hair and said, “One of the perks of not being in the service anymore; no regulations to adhere to.”

“So you can finally look like the beach bum you really are.” Tom teased. Bentley’s love of surfing and spending time on the beach had led to him being described as a beach bum during their first year at the Academy. “I didn’t know you’d left Starfleet.”

Bentley nodded. “Two years ago.” He took a sip of his drink before continuing. “I decided the time was right to retire. Took a year off to do some reading, travel a little and then last year I started teaching a course at Kings College in London.”

“You miss it?” Tom asked.

He watched as Bentley took a few seconds to think about the question. He wasn’t providing some rehearsed answer. “Sometimes.” Bentley finally replied. “Life in Starfleet had more moments of excitement, few and far between as they might have been, but on balance? Not really. I love what I’m doing now.”

“Good.” Tom replied with a smile. “Y’mind if I ask you something?” He asked. When Bentley nodded, Tom continued, “You were expecting me to be someone else, right? You’re waiting for someone?”

Bentley let out an annoyed sigh. “I was. He was supposed to be here an hour ago but he’s still not here and I haven’t heard from him.” He looked down at his shoes. “I think I’ve been stood up.”

“I’m sorry.” It had been a while since Tom had dated but he’d been stood up a few times and still remembered the bitter disappointment that mixed with a crushing sense of inadequacy and humiliation. “That really sucks.”

Tom watched as Bentley forced a smile and shrugged his shoulders. “It happens. But I think I’m gonna head home. Been hanging out at this bar for too long.”

“Screw that.” Tom said, surprising himself with the force of his words. “Come join us.”

Confusion crossed Bentley’s features. “Us?”

“Oh,” he motioned over his shoulder towards the holosuites, “I’m here with a few of my senior officers for some team building. We’re bowling.”

Bentley smiled. “I’d heard you finally got that command you were dreaming of. The Waterloo, right?”

Trafalgar.” Tom corrected. “But that’s old news. I’ve just been put in command of the Challenger.” That sense of pride that had come to be so familiar over the past few days filled his chest once more. Of course he’d been proud of commanding the Trafalgar, but the Challenger was a whole different ball game.

The smile on Bentley’s face was a mixture of happiness for and pride in his old friend. “Congratulations, Tom. But I don’t wanna intrude in your team building.”

“Nonsense. We already have a civilian as part of our group.” Tom told him. “The husband of my potential chief science officer. Come on, it’ll be fun”

A smirk slowly grew on Bentley’s lips. “I also don’t wanna show you guys up with my mad bowling skills.”

“Oh I see. So that’s how it’s gonna be.” Tom said challengingly. “I think you’re gonna have to put your money where your mouth is.”

The two men made their way through the complex towards the holosuite that Tom had booked. The program, a recreation of an early 21st century bowling alley, was already running with the Challenger’s senior officers already inside.

“Guys,” Tom said when they reached the group, “I’d like to introduce you to Matt Bentley. We were at the Academy together.” He went round the group, introducing each of them in turn, leaving AJ until the end.

With a teasing glint in his eye, AJ stepped forward. “Good to see you again, Matthias.”

“You too, Alexander.” Bentley short back.

Tom rolled his eyes. Neither man liked people using their full name so they both made sure to regularly use them on each other. The childish teasing often caused Tom to roll his eyes. Apparently some things hadn’t changed in the 20 years since graduation.

“Alright children, play nice.” He warned them. “Let’s get started.”

The first game was an eye opening experience. As he’d expected, Tom was worse than hopeless. Most of the time his ball ended up in the gutter. Thankfully AJ was just as bad so he couldn’t lord it over anyone. AJ could be insufferable when he wanted to be. Doctor Miller turned out to be halfway decent. Apparently bowling was  a favourite pastime of the medical officers of Starbase 11.

Gabreille and her husband Christian were pretty good too, managing a solid score. Matthias and Tejara were good, really good. It was clear they had a great deal of experience bowling but the runaway star was Thalev who’d never held a bowling ball in her life but had managed to beat everyone. Matthias and Tejara had insisted on a rematch but everyone else bowed out and swung in behind one of the three players.

AJ backed Tejara, much to the surprise of everyone who’d witnessed their frosty relationship on  the Trafalgar, as did Gabrielle. Christian and Josh swung in behind Thalev while Tom supported Matthias. Standing at the railing that separated the lanes from the upper level of the bowling alley, Tom watched as Matthias chose a ball.

“He’s wearing the hell out of that sweater.” AJ comments as he sidled up beside Tom.

Tom glanced over to where Doctor Miller was sitting chatting to Gabrielle and Christian, confused. “Miller’s wearing a shirt, not  a sweater.”

“Wasn’t talking about Josh.” AJ replied. “I was talking about Matt.”

That comment caused Tom to cast his friend a sideways glance. “Don’t let your boyfriend hear you say that.”

“Josh isn’t my boyfriend.” AJ scoffed. “We were only having a little fun.” He shrugged before continuing, “But we both agreed there was no future in it and it would only complicate our working relationship on the Challenger so we agreed to end it.” AJ let out a long sigh. “Think I’m done with hooking up. It’s time I start thinking about settling down and finding someone to share my life with.”

“Who are you and what have you done with Alexander Mitchell?” Tom asked jokingly.

AJ gave his friend a withering look. “That’s funny.” He took a deep breath. “Look, ever since I came back from the dead, I’ve been looking around at the people in my life and trying to  figure out where I go from here. I look at Pip and Jamie and how they’re happily married but still manage to have their careers and I….” AJ trailed off but Tom knew where he was going.

“You look at me. Married to his career, single, alone.” Tom knew how his best friend perceived him. The sad truth was he was bang on the money.

AJ turned towards Tom. “I love you Tom, and you know there’s no-one I respect more but,” he paused and it was clear that it was difficult for him to say what came next, “I don’t want to end up like you.”

“I don’t want you to end up like me either, brother.” Tom told him with a tight smile, certain the sadness he felt was visible in his eyes. AJ’s words stung, because they were true.

The conversation had taken an unexpectedly serious turn. Tonight was supposed to be fun and the last thing he could have predicted when planning this outing was that AJ, the least serious person Tom knew, would be the one to bring the party down.

“It’s not too late, though.” AJ pointed out. “You have a lot to offer a guy.”

Tom wasn’t so sure of that. “I doubt there are many people who’d be interested in a forty three year old starship Captain who’s already married to his starship.”

“Oh I dunno.” AJ mused. “I think Matt Bentley might. Y’know he had a crush on you at the Academy.”

That was twenty years ago, Tom thought, but he was certain it wasn’t true. “No he didn’t. I’d have noticed.”

“No, you’re the last person who would’ve noticed.” AJ short back. “You’re incredibly dense about these things, Tom. I’ll bet you didn’t even notice that he’s been making eyes at you all night.”

Tom rolled his eyes. “No he hasn’t.” His gaze drifted to where Matt was sitting while Thalev, who was in the lead once more, prepared to take her shot. Matt, it turned out, had stolen a glance while Tom wasn’t looking. Their eyes connected and Matt smiled softly before turning back to watch Thalev score another strike. “Okay, maybe he’s been making eyes at me and I haven’t noticed.”

“Let’s say that you’re right.” Tom said after they’d fallen into a comfortable silence watching the tournament unfolding in front of them. “Let’s say he’s looking for something serious, and that’s not exactly clear. He’s retired from Starfleet and lives on Earth. If he and I got into a relationship it would be a long distance one.”

AJ shrugged. “The Bennetts seem to make it work.

“Yeah, but their relationship is established. A long distance relationship right from the start is much more difficult.” Tom was far from an expert in relationships but he was sure of himself in this point.

AJ was having none of it. “How would you know?” He asked bluntly. “You’ve never had a long distance relationship.” 

Tom didn’t have a good reply. All he could do was huff and remain silent.

“See, this is what you do.” AJ said before letting out another sigh, this one sounding more frustrated. “You come up with all these excuses not to do something. ‘I can’t date someone ‘cause I’m a starship captain, my crew needs me. I can’t date that person because it would be long distance and long distance relationships are hard’.” He paused for a moment and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “I hate to sound cliche but nothing worth having ever came easy. I’d think a man who sacrificed everything you have to follow, and achieve, his dreams would know that.”

That was a lot to take in and as much as Tom hated to admit it, his friend was right. Not that he was going to tell AJ that directly. “Wow, that temporal anomaly really did a number on you.”

“Hey.” AJ punched his best friend on the arm. “I was always this wise. You just didn’t notice before.”

Tom laughed as he rubbed his arm. “If you say so.”

“I’m serious, Tom.” AJ told him. “It’s not too late. Push yourself to take that first step. Whatever happens after that, happens. You’ll never know until you try.” He patted Tom lightly on the shoulder before moving back towards the  rest of the group as Thalev celebrated her second win in a row with her customary icy coolness.

Left alone to his thoughts, Tom’s mind immediately began working its way through his conversation with AJ. He couldn’t help it when his gaze drifted back to Matt Bentley again. This time he was having an animated conversation with Josh Miller. 

AJ was right about one thing, Tom thought, Matt was wearing the hell out of that sweater.