THE COLOUR OF FREEDOM

By SANDI

"The days before you came

Were really all the same;

The greyness I used to call 'freedom'..."

('No One Can' - Marillion)

I've always been heavily into commitment, to my family, to my wife and son, to the U.S. Navy, to my work. It's the only way I know and anything else is unacceptable. All or nothing, that's me, and I've been lucky. For twenty years I had a job that gave me a sense of self-worth, a wife I adored and a son in whom I found the other half of myself, and in that time there was nothing I couldn't do. I was Superman: I could leap tall buildings in a single bound, I could save the world, design a submarine, coach Little League and balance the nation's budget, and all before breakfast. There was nothing I couldn't do in those days.

And then one morning I woke up and it was all gone.

The day Carol died I made myself a promise: no matter what, I was never going to get involved with people again. The price was just too high, and I'd already paid it - in spades. Let people in and you share a part of yourself with them, a part that leaves when they leave, dies when they die. Let enough people in and one day you turn around and there's nothing left inside, you're an empty, dried-up shell, a shadow passing across the face of time. I wasn't about to let that happen again. Anyhow, I had my work - what did I need with people? It was a symptom of my grief that I didn't stop to consider how the gregarious nature of the human animal demands constant exercise or it, too, withers away and becomes nothing but a shadow. I knew it then, just as I know it now, but at the time I was so consumed by what I saw as Carol's betrayal, I let instinct govern my actions - and I ran. I ran so far and so fast that no one would find me, ever again.

I'd tried to run away six years earlier, when our son was killed, but that time Carol held me back. Robert had died needlessly, when peace was a matter of days away. Died because of one man's obsession with honour and power and position. Rank hath its privileges and he had used his to lead a group of young men to their deaths and his glory, for the sake of a cause in which the majority had ceased to believe. Not that I was concerned with the hows and whys of his death just then. All I could see was that the Navy to which I had committed the greater part of my life had rewarded my loyalty by taking away my only son. The anger and the pain almost destroyed me, turned me in on myself, draining me of every drop of compassion.

In those dark, aimless days Carol became my one salvation. When I wanted to run, she ran with me; when I wanted to hit out, she wrapped her arms around me and held me down; when I poured out my anger like poison, she listened. And when all my ranting and raving was done, she healed me with her love and showed me how to go on.

Then she, too, died five years later I think something snapped inside me. This time there was no one to stop my fall, to run with me or hold me down, or give me a reason to try again. And after a while, when I seemed to survive against all the odds, it was then I decided I didn't need people. More exactly, I didn't want people. Kristin Westphalen calls me a 'beachcomber' and that's just about what I became, drifting from island to island, rising at first light to work and not pausing until the sun crawled beneath the rim of the ocean. I let the world and all the suffering it had come to represent slip away. I had my research, I had beaches to walk on, an ocean in which to swim and fish - what more did I need? Alone on the island, living in blissful ignorance of the changes taking place in The World, I was content to live out my allotted span in solitude. It was a place to grow old in, with my dolphins and my computers. It was a place in which to die. One day some passing stranger would come across a sun-bleached skeleton in the sand and the name of Nathan Hale Bridger would pass into memory.

That's how things should have gone - would have gone, if Bill Noyce had listened to me and not his instincts. Because that was one commitment I'd forgotten: my loyalty to a friendship that pre-dates Robert and Carol and the Navy. A friendship that goes back to two teenage boys standing on a quay, watching a submarine sail down the channel towards the ocean and wondering what amazing things lay in store for her crew. Imagination was everything in those days, and Bill and I had it by the bucketful.

Bill was still a captain under Nor-Pac Command when Carol persuaded me to quit the navy. By the time he tracked me down, six years later, some lunatic had made him an admiral, but he was still the kid I'd grown up with, still the guy who'd stood in line with me at the academy, who had driven me on through the interminable grind of work and study, just as I had driven him. I'd closed the world out for six years, but he kept tabs on me all along. A lesser friend would have been hurt as hell that I hadn't turned to him when I lost Carol, but I guess he knew me better than I knew myself. Where Carol had filled my emptiness with new wonders, Bill gave me space until he judged the time was right. And his timing was, as ever, perfect.

That's how I came to be back at sea, all my promises broken. Bill knew I had salt water in my veins instead of blood, he also knew that seaQuest was as much my offspring as Robert had been - and what man willingly abandons his son? I'd gotten myself tangled in a whole mess of loyalties to people and things and ideals that had long ago ceased to have any meaning in my life, but I was too tired, too worn down by the fight to find my own way out. Bill did that for me - not that I knew what was happening at the time. The sneaky S.O.B. did it little by little, drop by drop, like water torture, wearing away at my resistance. First he showed me seaQuest and all the amazing things they they'd done with my designs, the 'WSKRS' probes and the hyper-reality equipment, the network of tubes that would allow a dolphin access to almost any section, even the Bridge. Then he took me down to SeaDeck and played his ace. Darwin. My Darwin, who was supposed to be waiting for me back in the Caribbean. My dolphin, that I'd rescued from a freshwater current, trained and worked with. To find him there, without so much as a 'by your leave' from anyone connected with the omnipotent United Earth/Oceans Organisation, made me madder than hell - for all of twenty seconds. There's this old saying that it ain't over till the fat lady sings: well, this one was singing like a canary. Or a dolphin. The icing on the cake, the one thing guaranteed to get my attention and hold it long enough for Noyce to jump ship minutes before we sailed... someone had given Darwin a voice.

Part of the research Carol and I had been working on at the time of her death was into the possibilities of developing some way to instantaneously translate a dolphin's clicks and whistles into some form that would be recognisable on both sides, a common language through which we could communicate. I'd grown up with Star Trek and Star Wars and all that other space fantasy hokum, and I had the idea that some kind of computerised translator might work, if we could get the programming right. We were making good progress too. Then Carol died, and the whole project died with her. I didn't have the heart to go on alone and even if I had, I didn't have her technical know-how.

So all the data we'd accumulated over five years went onto the shelf, to gather dust alongside all her other research, while Darwin and I went back to communicating with hand signals.

Now, suddenly, I was face to face with someone who had succeeded where we had failed. And not just any 'someone' - a sixteen year old boy, and a somewhat precocious one at that. He looked like he dressed out of a rag-bag, everything a couple of sizes too big and thirty years out of date and, at a rough guess, I'd say he was about six months overdue for a haircut. And sixteen years old. I found out later why he was there, and it changed things between us a lot, but at that first meeting my only thought was that kids and submarines don't mix.

Especially kids like Lucas Wolenczak and submarines like seaQuest. My opinion of Bill Noyce was crash-diving by the second. So now not only was I the reluctant commander of the U.E.O. flagship - and organisation about which I knew absolutely nothing - I was a babysitter into the bargain. All this, and we hadn't even left Pearl Harbour!

Kids.

It took me a little over twenty-four hours to recognise the potential of my young charge, and to this day he still has the power to astound me with the things he can do, the extent of his knowledge.

Lucas is an enigma, when they made him they really did break the mould. I've never seen anyone handle a computer the way he can, such speed and efficiency, reading off streams of data I can't even focus on like he's reciting a grocery list. In his short life I'd bet he's forgotten more about programming than I've ever been able to understand, and his knowledge is expanding all the time. It's - phenomenal. Yet to look at him, the way he lives, you'd think he was just a normal kid marking time until he can get out into the world and make his mark on it. He's a pack-rat with a penchant for triple chocolate fudge ice cream and memorabilia from the nineteen-nineties - but he's a pack-rat with the mind of a genius.

He's probably also the best thing to happen to me since Robert died.

Like I said, Bill Noyce is a devious bastard and it was pretty obvious why Lucas had landed on my particular doorstep. If a kid's got a puppy and the puppy dies, you buy him another, right? So, if a man loses his son, and you need that man to perform a task vital to the safety of the world, then you find him something - or someone - onto which he can imprint all those paternal feelings that no longer have a focus. Likewise, when you take a son away from his father. Lucas didn't ask to be put aboard seaQuest, wasn't even consulted. It was a matter of convenience, like an arranged marriage, and the dowry was the financial backing that made seaQuest possible. It was for his own good, or so his father said, an opportunity for him to broaden his outlook on life while continuing his studies and all in an atmosphere of discipline which, it was hoped, would help him to control his rebellious streak. The reasons for his acts of rebellion were not addressed, only the solution, and what better place for him to be bombarded with discipline than on seaQuest, twenty thousand feet down in the middle of the ocean, where any attempt at escape was futile. No wonder the kid was wary of any authority. I felt duped into taking command and resented the hell out of Noyce for doing it, but at least I could escape once in a while, turn command over to my Exec, Jonathan Ford, and get away from the pressure. Lucas, by his age and status, was a prisoner, having to ask for even the smallest concession. For a free spirit such as his, such demands were torture of the cruellest kind.

That was how it started. As soon as I could, I set about making life aboard seaQuest more tolerable, both for myself and for Lucas. If we were going to be stuck on board for weeks - maybe months - on end, we may as well enjoy the ride. I began by giving him access to almost every area of the ship, with limited access to the Bridge when I was on duty and at Ford's discretion when I was elsewhere. You would have thought I'd given him the moon. He didn't voice his gratitude - what teenager does without prompting? - but he showed it in other ways, by continuing to improve on his work with Darwin, his readiness to track down a computer virus that was disabling the ship, and even going as far as putting his own life on the line to help find a sub full of frightened children.

But it was more even than that. As the weeks and months progressed, I found myself becoming increasingly dependent on him and not only in a professional capacity. Rank may have its privileges, but it also has its drawbacks and, like they say, it's lonely at the top. At the start I'd off-load my problems onto the computer and the holographic projection of its artificial Intelligence that was another Noyce-Wolenczak coat of sugar on the pill. That was fine up to a point, but there are times when you don't want answers or logic. Times when all you need is to look into a pair of warm, living eyes and know that somebody cares enough about you to listen. Lucas listened. More important, Lucas encouraged me to talk, in ways I hadn't been able to do for a long time. We talked about Carol and Robert, how they lived - and how they died, and my anger at losing them, anger that I'd turned inward because there was nowhere else for it to go, making me bitter and cold. He would come to my cabin, ostensibly to play chess or bring me up to date with his work with Darwin, and we would sit for hours just talking about life, with my wife's holographic image watching over us in smiling silence.

Drip ...Drip ...Drip ...

I learned a lot about him, too. I guess it was inevitable that I'd start making comparisons to Robert, even though it was obvious from our first meeting that Lucas was the antithesis of everything my son had been. Robert was a real chip off the old block, military born and raised on a succession of bases around the globe, Navy trained to save the world from all its foes and, according to Bill, destined to follow me into command by the time he was thirty. Lucas, in contrast, silver spoon clasped tightly in one hand and portable computer in the other, had his eyes turned towards an altogether different future. He had dreams, and he had the talent to fulfil them. No wonder Bill, my partner in so many wild imaginings, had singled me out to be his mentor. Maybe in each of us he saw the other's salvation.

Lucas was a young man in love with the world and all it had to offer, in love with life, full of energy and curiosity, often impulsive in his actions but well-meaning for all that. He had been involved in his own share of scrapes in his time on board, but I guess that, too, was inevitable. He was a boy living alone in an adult world and, because of that, had been forced to grow up and take responsibility for his actions at a far earlier age. When I was seventeen I was out there, testing my wings, dating girls and necking with them in the back seat of my dad's Buick at the drive-in, going to ball games and rock concerts: in short, doing everything that all the other kids my age were doing. But life wasn't like that for Lucas. There were no ball games on seaQuest and, while we did have movies, there were no cars to make out in or girls his age for him to make out with. His friends were not his peers but young officers the likes of Ortiz and O'Neill - and Ben Krieg, who had more of a 'disciplinary problem' at twenty-seven than Lucas would ever have. It was Ben who introduced him to the more adult pursuits of poker and beer and 'free enterprise', and it was Ben who was responsible for getting him falling-down drunk on his seventeenth birthday. Poor kid. Took him a long time to get over that one, though I suppose in a way I should be grateful to Krieg because that incident marks the turning point in my relationship with Lucas.

Drip ...Drip ...Drip ...

I don't know when I first realised that my feelings for Lucas were changing, or even if they did. Maybe I'd felt that way about him all along but something in me refused to acknowledge it. Something that was terrified of the consequences of another commitment. But I do know there was a moment that morning when I looked into those blue eyes and it was like being hit by an electrostatic torpedo at close range. Like nothing I'd ever experienced before, even with Carol. To say it changed the course of my life would be an understatement.

I was on my way to the Bridge, to relieve Ford, when I came across Lucas slumped against a bulkhead not far from Krieg's quarters. My first concern was that there'd been some kind of disaster during the night - not only was it unusual to find Lucas anywhere but in his

bunk at that hour, the kid looked like a week-old corpse and was shaking like he'd just seen one! - but everything was as it should be, right down to those subtle vibrations that are the heartbeat of seaQuest. It was only as I got closer that I realised whatever was wrong with him was self-inflicted. To be completely accurate, the boy was drunk.

Kneeling beside him, I took hold of his chin and turned his face up till he could see me. His eyelids looked like deflated balloons and his eyes, when he managed to get them open, like sapphires in raw meat. Neither went with the idiot grin beneath them.

"Hi, Cap!" he giggled, then belched, and the stench of his breath made my eyes water.

There are rules aboard seaQuest regarding the abuse of alcohol. Some of them are the standard U.E.O. regs you'll find on any ship, others I'd imposed myself because I'm well aware of the potential problems amongst a crew where the civilians outnumber the military two-to-one. Okay, so once in a while I've been known to let a minor transgression pass by, so long as no one got hurt and no damage was done, but there were times when I was forced to draw the line - and this looked to be one of them.

"How the hell did you get into this state, Mister?" I demanded. He just carried on staring at me, as if it was all so simple there must be something wrong with me if I couldn't see it.

"Bin celebratin'," he hiccuped. "Gon' wish me Hap - Happy Birthday, Cap'n?"

I should have known, I suppose. The date had been marked in my diary since Kristin brought it to my attention several months before, it had just - slipped my mind. "You should have warned me we were starting the party early," I said, letting go of my anger. After all, a seventeenth birthday is a landmark in any boy's life. However, my biggest problem at that moment was what to do with one hundred and twenty pounds, give or take, of uncoordinated, inebriated teenager without appearing to show favouritism towards him by not applying the same level of discipline I would to any member of the regular crew. I figured my best bet was to get him out of sight as quickly as possible and give him time to sober up. That, of course, ruled out getting him back to his own cabin, two decks down. So I was left with one alternative.

Hauling him to his feet by a double handful of antique 'Terminator' t-shirt, I steered him back the way I'd come. It was like trying to move a life-size rag doll. Why do boys that age always seem to have twice as many arms and legs as anyone else, all of which are far too long and seem intent on working independently of each other and at something approaching warp speed? I just thanked my stars he didn't start singing and I was able to get to my quarters without being spotted.

Unfortunately, we barely made it across the threshold before my uninvited guest turned a delicate shade of green and, muttering something like 'Oh shit!', staggered into the 'head', where he collapsed to his knees, retching noisily into the pan. I supposed I should be grateful that he made it to the bathroom in time.

I remember the first time Robert got drunk ( I learned later that Ben Krieg had a hand in that, too). He was a little older than Lucas at the time and was on leave from the Navy with his first real girlfriend. The resulting hangover, coming on top of the rejection, meant Carol and I were walking on eggshells for the rest of the week, until the guilt set in, then it was heads down and pass the flak-jackets. I hate to admit it, but at the time we were glad to see him go back to the Academy. Now it looked like I was going to go through the whole thing again with Lucas, only this time there was no loving mother to back me up.

Giving him time to get over the worst of it - there are some things a man needs to do in private - I went in to assess the damage, in my best morale-boosting manner. But everything encouraging I intended to say evaporated when I saw that pathetic heap of miserable youth on my bathroom floor. It was Robert all over again, tears of shame and self-pity mingling with the beads of sweat pouring down a face the colour of stale oatmeal. He was hunched up against the shower stall, hugging his knees in a vain attempt to hide their shaking. As if I cared. In thirty years I've seen a lot of men under my command hurt or injured in some way, and I've hurt right along with them, but this went deeper. Maybe at that moment I still saw in him some echo of the son I'd lost. I don't know. All I could be sure of was that he needed more than words of wisdom from his captain. He needed a friend.

There was a wash-cloth in the basin; I soaked it in cold water and wiped the sweat and tears away, talking to him all the time. I can't remember what I said, just that it was the kind of thing I used to whisper to Robert when he had a nightmare, that he wasn't alone, I was with him, and nothing bad was going to happen to him. And after I'd cleaned him up, I held him. Bathrooms on seaQuest were designed to be functional, not luxurious, and space was at a premium, but somehow I managed to squeeze in beside him and get my arms around him. He held back at first and I wondered why, until I realised this kind of intimacy from an adult, of either sex, was not something he would be used to. It had nothing to do with being away from home either. I was away from home a lot when Robert was growing up but we always got in our fair share of hugs when I came home. I had the feeling - since confirmed - that Lucas was rarely shown any form of affection by his father, even as an infant. No hugs, no stories sitting on his father's knee, no games of one-on-one - all the things Robert and I had taken for granted, the things that brought colour into our lives. As I held Lucas I wondered if maybe it was too late for him, but then I felt him relax and snuggle against me, and when he slid his arms around me to pull himself even closer, I knew I'd made a breakthrough.

How long we stayed that way, crowded into the tiny space, I'm not sure. After a while, as the effects of the drink began to ease, he moved, pulling free and sitting up with a look of total confusion on his face. The sickly pallor had gone, though his eyes were still blood-shot and one side of his face was all crumpled where he'd pressed against the fastening of my uniform.

"Captain?" I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. "What are you doing here?" A quick look at his surroundings. "Wherever 'here' is."

"Taking care of you, by the look of things." I drew a glass of water for him to drink. "You're in my bathroom. You ... weren't feeling too well. This place was nearest."

"Your bathroom?" He closed his eyes and sagged back "Oh shit ..."

I couldn't hold back the smile. My left arm was still around his shoulders and I had no desire at that moment to remove it. "How much do you remember?"

A shrug. "Not much," he said, but his gaze skitted away and I knew he was lying. I let it go - for the moment.

"It's okay," I told him. "You will live. Might not seem like it right now, but it'll all look much clearer after a good sleep."

"'m not sure I wanna remember," he admitted, picking at a raged tear in his jeans. "Does it always hurt this much?"

"That depends. How much is 'this much'?"

"Like someone' trying to hack a way out of my brain with a blunt chisel and a ten pound hammer."

Remembering my own first encounter with a hangover of seismic proportions, I nodded. "Sounds about normal."

The time for emotional comfort had passed and what he needed now was more practical help. Standing, I pulled him to his feet and reached around to start the water in the stall. "Why don't you take a shower while I find something to settle your stomach," I suggested.

His eyes widened. "Shower here?"

"Why not? You can't go back to your quarters in that state." Now he was on his feet it was obvious he hadn't made it to the bathroom quite quickly enough. "I think I've got something that should fit." Well, if he could bend the truth so could I . Seemed the gift I'd bought for his birthday would come in useful after all. "Shower, Lucas. I'll be in the other room if you need anything." And with that I left him alone.

I should explain that Kristin Westphalen is seaQuest's Chief Medical Officer, head of the Science Team, and one of the few women I count as a true friend, without the necessity for any romantic involvement. That's not to say we didn't try - there was a time just after I took command when I thought that maybe ... But then suddenly we'd passed 'maybe' and moved on to a friendship that was far deeper than anything I'd known outside of my marriage. We get along too well to complicate things by sleeping together. It's the job of a CMO to watch out for the captain's welfare and she does that with all the glee of a mother hen watching over her chicks, including - thankfully - a nice side-line in hangover cures and homeopathic remedies designed to keep ships' captains on their feet in times of crisis. She also knows when not to ask questions and values discretion as highly as I do which is why, when I called her up at that ungodly hour to ask her advice on treating a teenager's hangover, she didn't so much as pause to raise and elegant eyebrow before reeling off a patent Westphalen cure.

"Do you need my help, Nathan?" she asked when the recipe was complete. I told her no and promised to explain everything later, and that seemed to satisfy her.

The lethal-looking concoction was mixed by the time Lucas emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later. He was wearing my bathrobe, which was two sizes too big for him, and his wet hair was slicked back from his face like a seal's pelt. And the sight of him stopped the breath in my throat. He was beautiful, all bruised and fragile, like a fallen angel. Okay, so maybe that's a little ... over romantic - no one in their right mind would describe Lucas Wolenczak as an angel - but I know what I felt. Lucas was at his most vulnerable at that moment and it was my duty to protect him, since his father had clearly relinquished that role.

"How do you feel?" I asked as I handed him the glass.

He managed a grin. "Stupid."

"Everyone's entitled to do at least one stupid thing on their birthday." Without thinking, I reached out to brush away the drops of water that had collected along his jaw. His skin was flushed from the heat of the shower and I could feel the peach-fuzz on his chin. As blond as he was, as young as he was, he probably only had to shave every couple of weeks. "It's okay, Luc," I promised, unconsciously using the diminutive that had become something of a habit in recent weeks. "You'll get over it."

"Not when the rest of the crew finds out." His eyes were wide and full of regret. "I'm sorry, Captain. Guess I really screwed up this time."

"The crew won't find out unless you tell them, and you haven't done anything the rest of us haven't done at one time or another. You work with computers, Luc, that doesn't mean you're one of them."

He stared at me for a long time before pulling away, self-hatred darkening his face. "I don't understand," he snapped. "Why are you being so - so nice about it? Why aren't you chewing me out?"

"Would it make any difference if I did?" I countered. "But - I would like to know who was responsible for last night." It was a gamble. One of Lucas' qualities is his innate sense of loyalty to his friends on seaQuest, so getting him to tell me who had organised the party wouldn't be easy, even though I already had a good idea who was behind it. But I needed to know for certain, as his captain as well as his friend.

"What makes you think anyone else was involved?" he asked defensively. Too defensively.

"Give me credit for some intelligence, Lucas. Someone got the beer for you." Deciding to play my hunch, I added "I just wish I knew what it is about Ben Krieg that inspires such loyalty in the rest of my crew." It was a bit like kicking the kid when he was down, but what else could I do? I had to maintain some discipline aboard.

He bought it, right down the line. "He was just trying to cheer me up. He said it wasn't fair for me to be celebrating on my own." And then the light finally came on in his eyes and he groaned. "How'd you guess?"

"Experience. I've been around men like Krieg all my life. They have a special brand of charisma that makes them damn good at their job - and very dangerous to lonely, impressionable ki -- young men."

Our smiles met briefly across the rim of his glass as he sipped the foul mixture and pulled a face. Why do the best hangover cures always taste so disgusting? Then he asked "What will you do to him?"

"I don't know. I'll have to talk to him first."

"You won't bring him up on charges." There was a very real fear in his voice, and I couldn't help wondering if he was suffering from a case of hero-worship where Krieg was concerned. If Lucas saw me as a father figure, maybe he saw Krieg as an older brother? It certainly looked like more than friendship. "You can't, Captain. Not over this."

Fear, and a note of panic. Two-plus-two equals a young man very much afraid that he would be blamed for Krieg's disgrace and therefore lose the few friends he had.

"No, Lucas, I won't bring him up on charges. You have my word. I'll probably give him - forty-eight hours confined to quarters? That okay with you?" I didn't add that I would also give him the stiffest dressing-down of his career and, believe me, he's had a few.

Whether Lucas agreed or not, he appeared to accept it. Hardly surprising, since he was almost out on his feet. I knew there was no way I could let him go in that condition. He needed sleep, and lots of it, and the last thing I wanted was him wandering around seaQuest looking for someplace to crash. Any last doubts fled as I caught the glass as it slipped from his hand.

"That settles it. Bed. Now." His eyes said 'sleep here?' in much the same way as they had when I ordered him into my shower, as if my quarters were sacrosanct and he was defiling them with his presence.

"Don't look so worried," I tried to reassure him "Nobody knows you're here." I gave him a gentle push towards the bunk. "Now, Luc," I insisted then, just for good measure, "That's an order, Mister."

Too tired to argue, he climbed onto the bunk. The bathrobe fell open as he moved and, even though I tried, I couldn't stop my gaze from dropping towards the sight of that young body with its long limbs and flawless skin the colour of honey. He looked up at me, his eyes wide and puzzled by what they saw in mine, his lips parted as if to speak, though no sound came out. I felt the heat rise in my face, but I still couldn't look away from him. It would have been so easy at that moment to gather him up in my arms and crush his mouth with mine. Easy and dangerous. I was Captain of the DSV seaQuest, not a lovesick fool looking for a good time. I had responsibilities, and he was the most important of them. But only a complete philistine could have looked away as he let the robe slid with a wriggle of his shoulders.

"It's too wet to sleep in," I heard him say and I nodded dumbly, accepting the excuse at face value. I didn't know what game he was playing, or even if it was a game - was it possible he really didn't realise what the sight of him was doing to me? - but at that moment I didn't care. I wanted him, and if I didn't get out of there fast I'd take what I wanted.

"I've left some clothes for you," someone very far away told him in my voice as a hand - mine? - indicated the ageing chinos draped over a chair.

"Your shower ...Your bed ...Your clothes ... People will talk, Captain." There was laughter on his lips, in his eyes. Gentle laughter. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat and respond in kind, but the words wouldn't come.

"Sleep," I ordered again and, like an obedient puppy, he turned away, rolling to face the bulkhead. Releasing me from his spell. My hands were shaking as I pulled the covers over him. The golden hair was fanned out over the pillow and I longed to run my fingers through it - but the risk was too great. To touch him then would have destroyed everything, because one touch would not have been enough. "I'll be on the Bridge for most of the watch, so you won't be disturbed." But I will be, I added to myself, knowing you're here... in my bed...

I wanted him to turn over, so I could see those blue eyes smile sleepily at me just once more, but he couldn't hear me. Warm and safe and comfortable, he was already asleep.

That was the beginning. I spent an uneventful morning on the Bridge, had lunch in the Ward Room while made some calls, checked the progress of a project I was working on with Kristin and brought down the Almighty Wrath of Bridger on the unexpectedly contrite head of one Benjamin Krieg. I even managed to fit in a swim with Darwin, much to his cetaceous delight. In fact, I did everything I could to keep away from my quarters to give Lucas time to leave.

All day my thoughts were filled with him, from the innocent sight of him coming out of my bathroom, to the fear I'd felt when I first found him in the entryway, to the softness of his cheek against my hand, to the look in his eyes as he shed the robe. I tried to push the images aside but they kept crowding in on me, like some hallucinogenic nightmare. Lucas crying ... Lucas turning those huge sapphire eyes on me ... Lucas warm and damp from the shower ... Lucas naked in my bed ... When I found myself trying to form images of his naked body in my arms, I knew I had to do something - fast - or we'd all be in trouble.

We were two hundred miles off Resolution Island, where the Hudson and Davis Straits flow into the North Atlantic, at a depth of six hundred feet. I figured that was enough cold water for my needs. I swam with Darwin until my hands and feet were numb and the needle on the gauge was nudging empty, at which point I grabbed a handful of dorsal fin and got myself home by dolphin power, just as my lungs were starting to hurt. It was a dumb stunt and if any of my crew tried it I'd probably hang them up by their balls to dry. As it was, Kristin met me with an expression as cold as my bones on her face and unholy thunder in her eyes. But at least I 'd given Lucas time to sober up and go home - hadn't I?

Some people just can't take the hint, though to be fair he'd cleaned up the bathroom and re-made the bunk. I wondered if the pillow would still smell of him when I went to bed that night. He looked up as I walked in, then away again, the colour rising in his face. I wouldn't like to guess which one of us was the most embarrassed at that point.

"Lucas," I acknowledged, forcing a smile to hide the shock at finding him still there. "How do you feel now?"

"Better. Dr Westphalen stopped by and gave me a shot. And a lecture. She said I've embarrassed you ...I'm sorry."

What could I say? Nothing, but nothing, could match the embarrassment I'd caused myself in the past few hours.

"Did you talk to Ben?" he asked.

You could hardly define it as 'talk'; screamed would have been more accurate. I'd been thinking about the way Luc's hair wound into tight little curls at the ends when it was damp and I'd been angry as hell for letting my imagination get the better of me. Ben had got caught in the backlash of my temper, unfairly perhaps. I can't remember exactly what I said, but words like 'yard arm' and 'keel haul' were in there somewhere. Poor bastard. Part of his job description is Morale Officer, and what could be more beneficial to the morale of a miserable teenager than a birthday party? It was more than the rest of us had thought to do.

Still, I was curious. "Why are you so concerned for Krieg and not yourself?" I asked.

"Because he was only doing it for me, because it's my birthday and he didn't want me to be alone. He knew I wasn't looking forward to it and he wanted to make it something to remember."

One important fact came out of all that: why, when there was so much significance attached to it, would he not be looking forward to his birthday? Now that I had the reality of his presence, I was able to stop fantasising and slipped easily back into the role of surrogate parent. There was clearly more here than a party got out of hand and I got the feeling he needed to talk, to explain - to himself as well as to me. So I sat him down with a can of soda, poured myself a very strong black coffee and set about finding out the truth.

"Okay," I said, "You want to tell me why Ben thought you needed cheering up? A celebration I can understand, but it sounds to me as if last night was more like a wake."

He stared at the unopened can. "Maybe it was," he said bluntly. "Maybe I was mourning for my lost youth."

"That sounds - very dramatic."

"But true." He popped the tab and gulped down half the contents, slaking the raging thirst left by the hangover. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he stared at me from across the table and in that moment I realised that the 'kid' wasn't a kid any more. He was a young man, very hurt, very disillusioned - very alone. His next words confirmed it. "Everyone around here thinks of me as a kid. I'm a nuisance to some of them, a joke to the others. Some of them even see me as a threat because I'm different. So I'm good with computers - so what? Why's that any different from being good at sports? If I'd won a heap of gold medals on the track, I'd be a hero. But they don't see it that way. I'm 'Lucas the Wonderboy', I'm 'Superkid'. They even make cracks about Kryptonite... They hate me for what I am. Far as they're concerned, I'm a fuckin' freak, Captain - and it hurts. It hurts so damn much ..."

The can whistled past my head, splattering the walls with grape purple. At any other time I would have bawled him out for losing control, but when I looked back at him it was into drowned blue eyes that begged for understanding. I expected him to cry - a week earlier and he probably would have done - but he held it in, controlled it, using his anger as a barricade, and I had the awful feeling that if I didn't try to get through to him right then, I might lose him forever.

Reaching across the table to take his hand was like reaching across the massed oceans of the world as I fought down the desire to pull him into my arms and kiss away his pain and self-doubt. Instead I wrapped my fingers around his and forced him to look into my eyes, to see me and not the ghosts chasing him. "You're not a freak, Luc, and you're not a joke," I told him as firmly as I could. "You're an important part of this crew, and if the others can't deal with that then it's their problem, not yours. I need you here. You're the one person I can trust to tell me the truth in a crisis and not what you think I want to hear. I value that in the same way I value our friendship. You're important to me."

"But you won't always be here, and I'll always be a kid to them, someone who gets in the way."

I slapped his hand, hard enough to make my own sting, determined not to let him slip any further into self-pity. "Dammit, will you listen to me! You are not in the way, Lucas."

"My father thought I was, that's why he sent me here."

"Then your father is a poor judge of his son!" I thought about Robert and Carol, and how much it had hurt to lose them, then I asked myself how much more painful it must be to have the people you love walk willingly out of your life, to know they're still out there, somewhere, living their life without a place in it for you. My wife and son had not wanted to go and, although their loss had been devastating at the time, the memory of them was untarnished by resentment. I knew that if they could come back, they would. What Lucas had suffered was rejection of the cruellest kind and it had scarred him deeply.

Then I saw the single tear that spilled over and slid down his cheek, and my anger evaporated. "I'm sorry, Luc" I said. "I shouldn't have said that."

"Why not, it's true," he responded bitterly, and something in his tone sent shivers down my spine. Something that sounded remarkably like defeat. "I haven't thanked you for the present yet." The sudden change in subject caught me off guard. He asked me where I'd found it and when I told him a store in San Francisco, he smiles. "That's the difference between you and my father. Want to know what he got me for my birthday? A credit transfer for five thousand dollars."

I blew a silent whistle. My seventeenth birthday gift from my parents had been a beat-up '74 Pontiac Firebird that it took me three months to fix up. "That's some gift."

He shook his head. "It's a buy-off. He does it to everyone. Every birthday, every Christmas, he gives his accountant a list of names and amounts, from the gardener right on up to my mother. Sure, five grand is a lot of money; but I'd rather have a baseball cap or a comic book off the stand outside his office, just as long as I knew he'd taken a few minutes of his precious time to chose it himself." He fingered the t-shirt, the once bright colours now faded by three decades of wear, and he smiled. "This isn't just a shirt, Captain, it's part of your life. That's the difference."

His words reached down and touched something deep inside me, and I couldn't speak. I remembered the day clearly; the heat of the sun on the sidewalk, the swirling dust, the smells and sounds of the city, so alien after the cool, filtered air of seaQuest. I'd been in town for a conference and had a few hours to kill before my rendezvous with the launch, so I went shopping. Lucas' birthday was then still some weeks away, but it was so long since I'd had anyone to buy gifts for that I indulged myself in the pleasure of hunting for just the right thing, imagining his pleasure when he opened it. By the time I got back to the dock I was hot and tired and had blisters on my feet the size of golf balls. Was it worth it? At the time I wondered, but as I sat there, weeks later, looking into his eyes, all the doubts faded. It was worth the pain of every blister if it made him happy.

" 'Woodstock '94' " he read upside-down. "I had an uncle who was there. Said it was three days of rain and mud. Not that it was the real Woodstock," he grinned, enjoying the chance to show off his knowledge of contemporary history. "That happened w-a-y back, in the sixties."

I suddenly felt like Methuselah. "I know" I muttered "I was there."

"Really?" He looked impressed. I think I'd just gone up a few notches in his estimation. "What was it like? I mean, I've seen the movie, but ..."

I shrugged and wished I'd kept my mouth shut. "Three days of rain and mud?" I offered. "Lousy food, being herded around by my mom and her friends. I spent most of the time bare-ass naked ..."

His jaw dropped. "You?" he laughed. "I thought you only did that with Darwin." Take my advice, never go skinny dipping with a dolphin, they can't keep secrets.

"Watch it, kid," I threatened playfully. "Anyhow, I was only three years old. The folks from the commune where we were living at the time wanted mom to go, so I got dragged along for the ride. Didn't really get much choice in the matter."

"Where was your father?"

"Vietnam. Mom wanted him to go to Canada, but - I guess he was his father's son."

His hand was still in mine: without looking away, he turned it over and laced his fingers with mine. "When I was four my parents went away to Europe for six months. They left me in Washington with a nurse who hardly spoke any English."

How could they do that? How could they take his love and trust and throw it back in his face? How could they reject him to the point where something as simple as a second-hand shirt could mean so much to him? I'd known him for less than a year, yet I would have moved heaven and earth to protect him. That was when I finally gave up the fight. Despite all my promises, despite all the care I'd taken to hold myself apart from the people around me, avoid involvement, I'd failed. This amazing young man, with his energy and his love of life, and all the infuriating, wonderful quirks of a teenager's personality, had found a way through my defences and forced me first to care, then to love. One sparkle of those oh-so-blue eyes, one smile, one laugh, and another commitment was made.

But it was to be another few months before I fully realised what I'd gotten myself into...

In the weeks that followed I came to understand how much of a liability loving Lucas would turn out to be. At first I tried to convince myself that we'd been drawn together by mutual need - his for a father, mine for a son - and at first it was easy. I allowed him into my life, sharing experiences with him, encouraging him the way I used to Robert, but it was an illusion. He wasn't Robert and never would be. He was a young man, with his own ways, his own life, and I was falling in love with him a little more each day. I became acutely aware of all the things I'd taken for granted in the past, like how often I touched him - unconscious gestures innocently meant, but indicative of my need to continually reassure myself that he wasn't just a figment of my imagination. Had I always touched him like that? I began to add up all the time I spent in his company, on or off duty, and what I found worried me. I no longer thought of him as a surrogate son, our friendship was too deep, the bonds between us too strong. I had become as dependent on him as he was on me, and dependence in my job can be dangerous. How soon would it be before I started putting his safety before that of the entire crew?

Loving Lucas as a son would have been difficult enough; being in love with him was infinitely worse. It was an impossible situation which, as the weeks progressed into months, started to affect my ability to make rational decisions where he was concerned, but by the time I realised what was happening I was in too deep to back out.

Lucas needed to be loved. There was a great gaping hole in his life where the love of his parents should be and no matter how he brushed it aside, or tried to convince himself that their actions had been motivated by love, it became harder and harder for him to believe the longer he remained separated from them. I wanted to fill that void - but not with parental love. I wanted him - wanted to hold him, kiss him, make his senses soar with passion the way mine had in my youth. Wanted to teach him that the most advanced computer in the world can't replace the joy to be found in the arms of a lover. But it could never happen. I'm no prude when it comes to sex - Carol and I were lovers for twenty seven years, not just husband and wife - but this was different. After Carol's death I hadn't expected to ever fall in love again, least of all with a man and certainly not with one young enough to be my grandson. It had nothing to do with regulations. No, this went back much further, to something in me that told me time and time again that my desire for Lucas was wrong. As much as I wanted him, I could never allow our relationship to become anything other than platonic.

Unfortunately, my imagination had other ideas. No matter how I fought to keep my mind on other things by day, I couldn't control my dreams and, if I'm honest, I welcomed the fantasies that softened the edges of my own loneliness for a few hours. I even managed to convince myself that my dreams were harmless, that I wasn't hurting anyone. Anyone except myself. My subconscious refused to accept the danger, even when I knew each dream strengthened his hold on me. Even though when each fantasy ended it left me more alone, more empty than before. And more in love. I was like an addict looking for a fix, and Lucas was the drug. The more I had of his company, the more I craved and to be without him made cold turkey look like a walk in the park. The only way out I could see was to keep as far away from him as possible - and that's not exactly easy on a submarine.

August arrived and seaQuest was ordered to the Philippines. The North Pacific Confederation had begun drilling off the Mariana Trench six months earlier and now a spate of volcanic activity in the area had them worrying about their investment. Never mind the people, never mind that the effects on the environment could be devastating for years to come; as long as their money was safe, they were happy.

Given that the UEO base at Pearl Harbour was less than a day's journey away by plane and jet shuttle, it didn't really come as any great surprise when Bill Noyce dropped in unannounced, claiming he was only there on a 'social' call. Social call be damned! I know when someone's checking up on me. That sixth sense of his was working overtime - at least, I hoped that was all it was. In any job there's always an element ready to stab you in the back for a chance to take a step up the ladder.

But, whatever had brought him there, it was good to see him again. We did the whole 'visiting brass' show, the tour, the inspection, the informal dinner in the Officer's Mess. I balked a little when he requested that Lucas join us, then I remembered the Wolenczaks' involvement with the UEO and I told myself it was only natural for him to want the kid there. By then my paranoia was out of control and I was seeing collusion in everything. I even got it into my head that there was some deep significance in the fact that Lucas arrived with Ben Krieg and spent most of the evening with him. By the time dessert arrived I'd decided that the two of them were having a passionate affair and Lucas was slipping away to Krieg's bed every night. Truth was, I resented the fact that he was going on with his life, enjoying himself, while I was tearing myself apart over him. And it wasn't helped by the fact that he and Krieg looked so right together. There was just enough difference in looks and age and personality to make it interesting.

That whole meal became a nightmare of repressed anger and self-doubt, and when Bill invited me back to his quarters for a nightcap and a chat, I jumped at the opportunity. I think I would have done anything to get out of there.

Once in his cabin, Bill pulled a bottle of cognac from his bag. "Thought you could probably do with a drop of the good stuff, after the swill they serve in the Mess." He grinned at me. I inhaled the fumes: good was an understatement. I decided I'd better limit myself to one glass.

"This is fine," I told him enthusiastically, settling back to enjoy the rest of the evening and the chance to unwind. He lowered himself into a chair and I felt those grey eyes on me, boring through the captain's fašade to examine what lay beneath.

"And are you, Nathan?" he asked at length.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to prickle: I knew what he meant, but I wasn't playing ball that easily. "Am I what?"

"Fine. I got the feeling back there things are - not all they could be between you and your people."

Now the skin between my shoulder blades was starting to crawl. I thought I'd done a good job of hiding what was going on inside my head during dinner, but I'd forgotten how perceptive my old friend could be. "I don't know what you mean," I lied, gulping at the brandy and almost choking. If the stuff wasn't a hundred years old, it was damn near close.

Bill peered at me over the rim of his glass. He used to do that a lot at the Academy, when he was worried about me. Bill often worried about me. I worried about him. That's how a friendship gets to last thirty-five years. "You always were a lousy liar," he informed me confidently. Too confidently. Someone had definitely been talking to him - I only hoped it wasn't Lucas. "Talk to me, Nathan," he said softly. "Something's gone wrong, hasn't it? Let me help. No ranks, no protocol - just two old friends with a lot of time invested in each other."

His voice was hypnotic and that, with the warmth of the cabin and the effects of the alcohol, beavered away at my resistance. "A lot of time?" I laughed. "A lifetime."

"One hell of a lifetime!" he beamed. "Remember Bangkok?"

How could I ever forget? "I remember you and that blonde in San Diego," I teased. "Did her brother ever catch up with you?"

"Think I'd still be here if he did? She was worth it, though."

"They were all worth it at the time." He nodded and replenished our drinks. I sank further into the reminiscences and abandoned my good intentions regarding the cognac. "Where did it all go?" I wondered.

"It didn't, it's still out there. We're the ones that moved on, got ourselves a whole mess of responsibilities. What I wouldn't give to be seventeen again." He sighed and raised his glass in a salute to memories I shared. "Seventeen and in love."

Whatever made me think he didn't know? I thought I'd stopped wearing my emotions on my sleeve when I met Carol, now here was Bill, reading me like a cheap novel. "You can't turn back the clock," I replied sagely "No matter how much you want to."

"Would you want to? Think of it, Nathan - all that energy, all that fire, the future spread out before you like a long road, leading wherever you want it to go ..."

"Full of cracks and potholes, traffic cops on every corner." I tried to make light of it but the words came out empty and cynical. My life in microcosm, a few peaks on a bleak and lonely landscape.

"What do you want, Nathan?" Gentle concern washing over me, eroding my defences in a final onslaught.

"Out" I heard myself say, and the look on his face told me that was the last thing he expected to hear.

"What do you mean, 'out'? Out of what?"

I waved my hand to encompass the cabin and everything beyond. "All of it. The U.E.O., seaQuest - life. I'm getting too old for fighting other people's battles, Bill. You promised me this would be an easy ride.

"Are you telling me it isn't?" he laughed. "As for the rest - well, someone has to take charge down here."

"But why does that someone have to be me? I've done my bit for World Peace, let someone else play Don Quixote for a change."

He leaned back in his chair, and I could see the wheels and cogs whirling in his head. We'd been friends for more years than either of us cared to remember, and I guess he knew me better than anyone alive. That day he came to the island to find me, he knew he was going to have a fight on his hands, but he stood his ground. His faith in me was that strong. So it was a pretty good bet he knew I was grabbing at straws now.

"When are you gonna tell me the real reason you want out?" he asked, when the silence was so thick you could slice it like meatloaf.

"What makes you so sure there is another reason?"

"Because I know you, my friend. This is your life - always has been - and to give it up now would be ... slow suicide."

More than he knew. To give up seaQuest would be to give up everything I'd worked for; to give up Lucas would be to turn my back on everything that had brought meaning and purpose back into my life. Slow suicide? Bill didn't know that half of it. "I have my reasons," I told him.

"Which are?"

"Personal."

"We both know there's no such thing in the Navy," he reminded me. He had a point. Joining the navy was not unlike selling your soul to the devil, but - oh, what rewards! I'd sell my soul ten times over for some of the things I've seen, the wonders that only a chosen few are privileged to see. "Is it a woman?"

Too close to home. I buried my sudden fear in sarcasm. "Oh sure. Kate Hitchcock, maybe? Or how about Kristin? Now there's a marriage made in hell. Can't you just picture the two of us together?"

"I can think of worse things." So could I, but that was another matter. "Like living out my days as a lonely, bitter old man ... Who is it, Nate? Who's got you so tied up in emotional knots you're ready to throw away everything you've achieved?"

Why fight when the odds are stacked against you, when you know in your heart you can't win and fighting only prolongs the inevitable agony. I didn't want to admit the truth to him - I was having a hard enough time admitting it to myself! - but I could see it was the only way to bring the whole painful confrontation to an end.

So I told him ... I expected him to be shocked. I expected him to march right out of there, back to his masters at the U.E.O., and start making arrangements for me to be removed from command, dishonourably discharged. The last nail in my coffin. Maybe, if I was very lucky, they would let me quietly resign. He did none of those things. A smile, a nod as he poured more brandy, then, "What's wrong, Nathan? Waiting for me to start yelling? This is me remember?"

"You knew?" I asked. Dumb crud! Of course he did. "When did I give myself away?"

"Just about every time we've talked in the last - oh - six months. It's been 'Lucas this' and 'Lucas that' ... I thought it was just a - fatherly interest. Guess I was a little off-base, huh? When I stopped listening to what you were saying and started listening to the way you were saying it ... It was easy to see there was something more."

"More?" I laughed at that, couldn't help it, he made it all sound so - trivial. Like a head cold. "You do realise what I mean?"

"You've fallen in love with young Wolenczak," he said casually. I do wish he hadn't used the word 'young', it was like rubbing salt into an open wound. He was also assuming rather more, however true, than I cared for.

"I wouldn't go that far," I protested.

"I would. It's written all over you, now I know what to look for. Am I right?"

I swallowed the last of my drink - my third - and closed my eyes, because I didn't want to see his face when I told him. Superficial acceptance is fine but would it be so easy to accept once I'd laid it on the line? "Yes," I whispered "God help me."

"Does he know?"

I assumed he meant Lucas and not the Almighty. "I haven't told him. I hope he never finds out."

"Why?"

Christ, what a question! "Because it's not exactly something I'm proud of. I call it love because that's the only way I can deal with the truth - that I'm a pathetic old man, lusting after a kid with pretty face." There, it was said. It didn't make me feel any better, but I figured if I told myself enough times then maybe even I could start to believe it, because the real truth - that I was hopelessly, helplessly in love with Lucas - was too terrible to contemplate.

We sat in silence for a long time, the bottle ignored on the table between us. We didn't need it any more, it had done what Bill had intended. But the atmosphere remained strained. I was out of my depth and so, I guessed, was he. Not that I blamed him, it couldn't be easy having one of his oldest friends suddenly admit to the kind of desires I was confessing to.

But there comes a time when friends have to stand up and be counted, and Bill hung in there for me, playing his favourite role of devil's advocate. Through the alcoholic fog cushioning my brain, I heard him ask "Have you - you know - done anything about it?" Euphemisms from Bill Noyce? Maybe he'd been more shaken by the turn of event than I'd imagined.

What is it they say about the thought being the act? If that's true, then I'd made love with Luc a thousand times. "What the hell do you take me for? He's seventeen, Bill. It'd be like - like doing it to Robert." I felt like the world was caving in on me. By the time this was over I'd have nowhere to go and no friends to turn to. "What am I gonna do, Bill?" I begged. "What the hell am I gonna do?"

He leaned towards me, gripping my arm, all the joking gone. "Well, first of all, maybe you better decide which it is - love or lust. Only you know."

"That's the point, I don't ... and I'm not sure I want to."

He understood in a way no one else ever would. "Because one way you betray Carol and the other you betray yourself. Why isn't anything ever straightforward with you?" he laughed, then more gently "Okay, let's try it another way ... How does it compare to what you felt for Carol?"

My stomach crawled. I'd asked myself the question time and time again - and I hadn't liked the answers. "C'mon, Bill ...do you really think I could feel the same about Lucas as I did about my wife? That kind of love only comes once in a lifetime. What I feel for Lucas ... I don't know. He's bright, he's full of life - any father would be proud of him."

"But you want him as more than a son."

The room tilted around me. "What I want ... you don't want to know."

"Yet you're willing to give up before you've even discussed it with him. How come? The Nathan Bridger I know wouldn't give up so easily."

Hundred year old brandy can do that for you. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There I am, looking for a way out, and there's Bill urging me to do the exact opposite. "Easy? You call this easy? I want out because there's nothing left. I sit on the Bridge daydreaming about making love to him; I'm running an experiment with Kristin, and all I can think of is whether he'll stop by for a game of chess later. He's turning me into a basket case! There's times I even wonder if I'm fit to command any more. How in heaven's name can I stay here under those circumstances?"

"How can you leave if you really are in love with him?" he threw back. There was a smug grin on his face and I found myself fighting the urge to knock it off. "It's a new world, Nathan. The moral codes they forced us to live by don't exist any more - thank God."

"But there are still rules and the age of consent in the U.S. is still eighteen. We're talking statutory rape."

"Not while you're in U.E.O. territory. Under our laws, the age of consent is sixteen. You can't ask someone to face the danger and then tell them they're too young to enjoy the pleasures of life."

"Do you really think his family will care about the difference?" I could visualise myself facing the wrath of the Wolenczaks at my Court Martial, my only defence that the U.E.O. had said it was okay for me to screw their son.

Bill, however, was shaking his head with that infuriating 'you're talking through your butt again' expression hovering on his lips. "You know as well as I do that when his family asked the U.E.O. to find him a place they also handed over responsibility for his discipline and upbringing. What the legal nuts used to call 'in loco parentis'. They were given chapter and verse on U.E.O. regulations and they accepted them, right down to the dotted line. Now, I'll grant you that you're both still answerable to the laws of the United States when you set foot on American soil, but since the treaty was signed all oceans are held to be international waters and all military vessels are U.E.O. territory, and therefore subject to U.E.O. law." He spread his hands and gave me a look that said he thought I was out of my mind. "Nathan, the two of you could get married - or whatever the hell they call it these days - and his family could do damn all to stop you."

"As long as we stay at sea for the next eight months," I reminded him bitterly, adding exile to the list of possible future scenarios. But, as ever, Bill had and answer to that, albeit a compassionate one.

"You lived alone on that island for six years after Carol died. Would eight months at sea, with someone you love at your side, be so hard to face?"

He had a point, but it wasn't just a matter of rules and regulations for me, or whether the U.E.O. would back us or not. It was more, too, than the difference in age and rank, or the fact that we were of the same sex, it was a question of attitudes nurtured over a lifetime. "If it was just a question of staying aboard seaQuest until his eighteenth birthday, of course I could handle that. But what about Luc? How can I ask him to give up his family, his home - his future?"

"So what you're saying is it's easier to run away."

Run away. Leave seaQuest. Run, and keep on running, the way I'd always done when life kicked me in the gut. We were going round and round in circles and at any minute the top of my head was going to explode. I wanted it over. I wanted out - now - before anyone else got hurt. "Get me out of this, Bill," I begged. "I don't care where I go or what I do, I just want it all to stop!"

I reached for his hand, gripping it until the flesh turned white beneath my fingers. His face was swimming before my eyes and I couldn't tell if it was the booze, or tears, or both. "I love him so much but ...I'm scared of what it means."

A new look crossed his face then, a mixture of pain and pity. He raised his hand and I felt it touch my cheek, wiping away the wetness leaking from my eyes. "You poor bastard" he sighed. "It's still there, isn't it, even after all these years."

And in a handful of words he laid my soul bare. I knew where he was headed and I didn't want to hear. Not this. If I kept it locked away in darkness then I could control it, no one would ever know. No one except Carol - and Bill. But when I opened my mouth to dent it no sound came out. There was no way I could stop him from stripping my past to its bones and exposing the cancer that festered there.

"This isn't really about Lucas at all, is it?" he said gently. "This is about Hank Slater."

How can a name hurt so much? How can a dead man reach down inside you and tear your soul to shreds? How could he take something as bright and precious as my love for Lucas and make it into something as foul and diseased as he had been?

Hank Slater was Exec when I was a newly-promoted Lieutenant, back in the late Eighties. He was an overweight, overbearing man who lived high, played hard and took his pleasure any way he liked - and what he liked most were young men fresh out of the Academy, with their na´vetÚ and trust still intact. Those too scared to refuse him he used time and again; those who turned down his invitation he took by force. I was already too old and 'seasoned' to be of interest to him, but I was still full of ideals so, once I'd pieced together what was going on, I confronted him with it. I thought I could scare him into stopping by threatening to go to the Admiralty, but all he did was laugh in my face and tell me they'd never believe my word over his record and, to prove the point, he had his thugs drag me down to the engine room late one night and made me watch while he raped a nineteen year old boy.

I got him soon after. Slater was so damn cock-sure of himself he couldn't see past the fact that I was young and new and, apparently on my own. He didn't know I had friends in high places, even in those days; friends I'd made along the way, friends of my father. Influential men who were prepared to put their faith in what they knew of me. Slater was Court Martialled and died in prison four years later of an AIDS-related illness, but even his death couldn't wipe out the screams of that boy in the engine room, or the look of agony and desolation on his young face as Slater rammed into him. In time, with help, I was able to lock the memories away, but every now and then the shutters would slip and those howls of degradation would haunt my nightmares again.

"You bastard!" I spat at Bill. "You swore you'd never bring that up again."

"And I kept my word - until now. But I won't stand by and let you throw everything away over something that happened thirty years ago. What Slater did was - inhuman, but if you let it come between you and Lucas, then Slater wins again. I don't think you want that."

"No?" There was sour taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the alcohol. "Better that than put Luc through the same kind of humiliation."

"Dammit, Nathan!" he lurched to his feet, almost overturning the chair. "That was rape! Slater didn't give a flying fuck about those kids, and he wasn't doing it for pleasure. It was about power. For God's sake, when they questioned him in court he couldn't even remember their names!"

My head was spinning with the emotional overdrive and all I wanted to do was dig a deep hole and pull it in after me. But Bill wasn't ready to let up on me; he had the single-mindedness of a terrier with a rag and was determined as hell to make me see reason. In the spirit of that, he suddenly asked "Do you remember your twenty-first birthday?" Confused about what new game he might be playing, I could only nod. "We picked up those twins in that bar on the Reeperbahn, in Hamburg. What a night! Four of us in a bed, doing it every which way ... Neither of us could walk straight for the next three days." His grip tightened and he leaned in until he was so close I could see the flecks of gold in his eyes. "And no one got hurt, did they Nathan? No one was forced to do anything they didn't want to do. And we all enjoyed it ... didn't we?"

The memory surfaced: a tiny hotel room, a crowded bed, a confusion of hands and mouths all intent on sharing the pleasure, riding high on an excess of schnapps. I remembered a touch on my face, a hand on my thigh, a familiar voice telling me that everything would be fine if I just - let myself relax and go with the moment. And then I began recalling other times, other places pre-dating that night of abandonment. Times that fear and guilt had blocked from my mind. Like the summer of my eighteenth year, when Bill and I had gone back-packing in Yosemite. Or later, at the Academy, those long nights of study interspersed with youthful experimentation, learning ourselves, teaching each other. How could I have forgotten something so important to our friendship? And why had Bill waited until now to remind me?

And then I looked at Bill, and I understood. In the weeks that followed Slater's trial, Bill had been my only anchor to reality. When I needed to talk he listened, no matter how gruesome the details, reliving the horror with me; when I needed to cry he held me, allowed me to heal myself, offering his quiet strength and common sense and asking nothing in return. His voice was the voice of reason - and that same voice was reasoning with me now, chipping its way through the barriers I'd never had any reason to tear down - until now. It was as if that one incident had erased everything that had gone before, back in the days when Bill and I were like minks in heat and the world was our playground.

For the first time in what felt like weeks, I smiled. "No one got hurt," I conceded. "But it was four days, not three."

"You never did have the stamina," he laughed, and the sound forced the shadows further away. "Look, Nathan, if you decide your feelings for Lucas are wrong because of your rank, or your age, or your sex, then let him go. But don't do it because of Slater. And whichever way you decide, talk to Lucas first. He's not a child, he deserves the chance to chose for himself. And you never know, you might be in for a surprise."

Again I wondered if Lucas had spoken to him, but when I asked him outright he shook his head. "Just intuition. Kids today ... they're a different breed. They live each moment like it's their last. Lucas is - special. Don't let him slip through your fingers."

He refilled our glasses and we drank a last toast to each other. But there was one more thing I wanted to know, now that Bill had given me back my past. "Do you ever wonder if things might have been different for us, Bill?"

"You mean if we'd let what we did as kids develop into something deeper? Yeah, I've wondered," he confessed, and at last I was rewarded with the faintest of blushes on his cheeks. "But I don't regret the way things turned out."

"Did you ever tell Susan?"

"Did you tell Carol?" he countered. For a moment he touched my face, as he had that first time all those years before. Remember what I said, Nathan. There's nothing wrong in what you feel for Lucas, and if he happens to share those feelings then you'd be a fool to let him go."

It was almost dawn when I finally crawled away to my cabin and once my head hit the pillow I slept until noon. There were no nightmares, no ghosts, only sweet, sweet dreams of swimming through warm tropical waters, with Lucas at my side.

Bill's visit helped me to put my past into perspective, to take the memory of Hank Slater and, instead of hiding from it, learn to live with it, to treat it as one bad memory in a lifetime of good. It had happened and nothing I could do was ever going to change that fact, but it was time to let go of the anger and the guilt and the shame, to believe that there really hadn't been anything I could've done to stop that boy from being abused, and to remind myself of all the other nameless, faceless boys I had been able to save. If I could achieve that, then maybe the rest of it would fall into place, given time.

Time, unfortunately, was a luxury I found I didn't have. Three days later I returned to my quarters at the end of watch to find Lucas waiting for me ...

He was standing at the computer station, staring at the hologram, an odd look on his face as he gazed at his own likeness. I felt my face start to burn: in a moment of weakness, safe - or so I thought - in the knowledge that only he and I could access the Artificial Intelligence, I'd programmed it with his photograph to keep me company when the loneliness I'd imposed on myself became too much to bear.

"What happened to Danielson?" he asked softly, referring to the default programme of my old Academy professor.

"Oh, he's still in there, somewhere." I wanted the deck to open up and swallow me. Some explanation was due, but the words wouldn't come. "What can I do for you, Lucas?" I asked his back, making a show of sitting down at the desk and pulling the first of several reports from the stack of files. This was the first time we had been alone together in weeks and I felt awkward in his presence, almost as if we were strangers.

"I wanted to talk to you." Now he turned, and all my good intentions flew out the porthole. He looked tired, even a little sick, and there was a tortured, haunted look in his eyes that I knew was my doing. It stopped the protest I had been about to make. "I wanted to ask ... is it true?"

"Is what true?" My heart was pounding: had Bill told him? Wasn't there anyone on that damn boat I could trust? Rumours travel fast on a submarine, even one the size of seaQuest. A casual word, an alert ear, and suddenly you're playing Chinese Whispers and the end result bears no resemblance to the original.

"That you resigned. That you're leaving seaQuest."

"Who told you that?" I wanted to know. Needed to know.

"Does it matter? I'm just glad there's someone around who cares enough to let me know." He glared at me, his head held high, accusation in his eyes. "I always thought that would be you."

The bitterness in his words tore at me. This - hurting Lucas - was the last thing I wanted. I couldn't meet his eyes, ashamed of what I'd done to him. To us - whatever 'us' might mean.

"Is it true?" he asked again, and I couldn't lie to him.

"I've been thinking about it. We both know I can't stay here forever and I'm not getting any younger."

Stone-faced, bleak-eyed, he nodded. "Well, thanks for being honest with me at last, Captain," he said coldly, every word slicing into me. I'd hurt him, more than I ever could have imagined and he was fighting back, going for the jugular. Bill had been right, he did deserve honesty. "So - what did you plan on doing? Leaving me a note? Or maybe you were gonna get Darwin to tell me after you'd gone." Then his face darkened. "No ...You were taking him with you, weren't you. You couldn't even leave me that much."

Clutching at straws, I shook my head. "What Darwin chooses to do is up to him, you know that. You know I could never force him to give up this life, he loves it too much."

Lucas spread his hands in a gesture that demanded explanations, reasons. Answers. "I love you - but you're forcing me to give you up. Where's the difference?"

One sentence from him and that safe little world I'd created for myself, the illusion that I was in control of my life, shuddered and crumbled into dust. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. I refused to accept that he could possibly mean what, in my heart, I longed for him to mean. Luc hadn't really said that he loved me - had he? - or if he had, he was surely talking about friendship. Yes, that had to be it.

"We don't have to stop being friends just because I might be leaving."

"No," he agreed. "We don't - if all we have between us is friendship."

Deliberately misunderstanding him, I sat back and forced a smile. I could feel myself shaking as the minute grain of hope began to germinate in the darkness. "Maybe it is more than friendship," I allowed, treading through the conversation as if it was a minefield. "I admit I've grown very fond of you, Lucas. After Robert died ... Well, lets just say you reminded me I'm not as old as I thought I was."

His smile oozed sarcasm drop for drop with his voice. "Well I'm so glad I could help. Maybe I could come visit you when you've settled into your new life. How about next father's day?"

"I'll always be there if you need me, you know that," I promised lamely, ignoring the rest.

He came closer, stopping just a few feet away from me. Close enough for me to smell the sweet, newly-washed scent of him. "What if I said I need you now?" he whispered. "What if I asked you to stay?"

"seaQuest can manage without me," I responded automatically. I wanted this to end. I needed to be anywhere but here.

"But I can't!" A cry from his heart to mine. A cry I could no longer ignore. I realised then that for the last few months I'd been so caught up in protecting him from my desires, and in the possible consequences to my life if I allowed myself to love him, I'd never once stopped to consider what shutting him out of that life might do to him. I'd selfishly convinced myself he would get over it, go on with his life. He'd survived without me for sixteen years, he could do so again ...

"Why do you have to go?" he asked sadly. "I don't understand. Was it something I did that made you want to leave?"

"I don't want to leave," I told him, shocked that he could think it was his fault. "And it's not because of anything you've done. Trust me."

"The way I trusted my parents? I thought you were different." Confusion was quickly giving way to anger, but it was no longer the petulant anger of a child who can't get his way. This went deep. This was an adult's anger, a subtle blend of injustice and betrayal and vindictiveness. In his eyes I'd taken his trust and loyalty while it suited me, only to throw it all back in his face now, when he needed me most. "I always thought I meant something to you."

"You do - " I told him, trying to make him believe.

"But not enough."

"More than you realise ..."

"A substitute for Robert? Great! Well I've got news for you, Captain - I do not want to be your son." He leaned down, palms flat on the desk, and suddenly I found myself almost nose-to-nose with one very pissed off young man.

Silence closed in: I pushed it away. Silence now would be the end of everything and I'd finally come to accept that I didn't want this to end. I needed Lucas in my life as much as he professed to need me and it was time I started doing something about it. Starting, perhaps, with an apology. "Luc --" I covered his hand with my own. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" he asked, a brittle laugh fracturing his words. And then "You didn't ask me to fall in love with you, that happened all by itself."

It was like holding out my hand for a pebble and finding instead that it was filled with diamonds. This time I let myself believe it, and just to hear the words stripped away my fears, brought light to end my darkness. "I didn't know ..."

"You weren't meant to." He sat down hard then in the empty chair. "I guess everyone was right about me still being a kid. I thought I could love you without you ever knowing about it, but ... It was okay at the start, all the time we spent together made it easy. Then you began shutting me out. I thought I'd done something wrong, or maybe you'd guessed and you were embarrassed to be seen with me in case people got the wrong idea about it. Then I heard you were leaving."

I squeezed his hand. "You should have told me."

"Oh sure! What was I supposed to do, come to you on the Bridge and say 'Excuse me, Sir, but I think you should know I'm in love with you'? Well I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not into masochism. What I feel for you is very special and very private."

"And very real," I added softly. It was there in his eyes, in his voice, in the despondent droop of his lips. Not the respect of a crewman for his commander or the love of a son for his father. He loved me, just as I loved him and it was time we both stopped lying - to ourselves and to each other. "Ah, Lucas ..."

"I've ruined everything, haven't I?" he murmured. "I'm the one should be sorry."

Now, when it mattered most, I found it easy to separate the two sides of my feelings for him. On the one hand there was desire - and I still didn't know if I would ever be able to accept that in myself - but on the other hand there was love, pure and simple. So much love. I could at least give him that, couldn't I? I could accept his love and offer mine in return, and it never had to go any further than that. "No you didn't. If anything, you've put it all right again."

"If I have it'll be a first." He managed a laugh, letting me see his eyes for a moment before he turned his head away again. "You don't need to resign," he told me softly. "I'll go..."

"Neither of us is going," I said. I touched him then, stroking his cheek with the backs of my fingers, trailing them down until my hand curved against the nape of his neck. I could feel the warmth of his skin, the life pulsing through his veins, and I thought how easy it would be to take what I wanted. What I needed. He closed his eyes and leaned against my hand and a single tear slid from beneath his lashes to scald my heart. How could I have dared to put so much at risk? "Your life is here, I won't take that away from you," I promised him. "You belong here."

"And what about your life? Where do you belong?"

"Here," I heard myself say. "With you." As easily as that the pact was made. Stay or go, we belonged together. "I never meant to hurt you, Luc, I just - didn't know what else to do. I didn't mean for this to happen. Falling in love again at my age ..."

He looked up sharply at that, his blue eyes wide with shock. In the same way that I'd never given his feelings much thought, it had never occurred to him that his love might be returned. "What?" he hissed, and I felt the laughter bubbling up inside me. I didn't try to stop it. We'd known each other for more than a year, yet it looked as if we hardly knew each other at all. He was looking at me like I'd gone crazy, and maybe I had. I only knew for certain that in that moment all the problems, all the reasons why I shouldn't love him - in every way - vanished. To hell with what I shouldn't do, Bill was right, it was a new world and I was wrong to throw it all away because of something that happened in the old, when people were too concerned with maintaining an image.

"I love you," I told him, and felt the sunlight warm on my face, lifting me high above the world. Getting to my feet I pulled him to his and, taking his face between my hands, I dared stroke a thumb across his lips. "I love you," I repeated, as much for my own benefit as his. And then I did what I'd wanted to do for such a long time: I kissed him. Not a passionate kiss, more a grazing of my lips against his, but it was enough to wrench a sob from him as his arms wrapped around my waist and he hung on tight. So tight I couldn't breathe - or was that the effect of finally getting what I'd wanted for so long?

"Captain?" He drew back to look at me with eyes full of confusion and hope. "If this is a dream ..."

"No dream," I assured him quickly. "I promise." I cradled his jaw in my hand and this time, when I kissed him, I brushed his lips with my tongue, encouraging them to open. I had no idea how experienced he might be and I willed myself to take it slow, afraid of spooking him by asking too much too soon. But his mouth opened to a sigh and I felt the whisper of his tongue against mine, hesitant at first, slowly growing in confidence as we held each other. He tasted of youth - chocolate and oranges - underlined by the clean tang of herbs that clung to his skin. I drank deeply, feeling the satin of his inner lips, the hard edge of teeth. There was no mistaking it for anything but a lover's kiss and the depth of his involvement was all the confirmation I needed that he wanted this as much as I did.

We were both shaking by the time we pulled apart but his smile was radiant, if a little shy. "You okay?" I asked.

"Are you?" His laughter echoed round us. "I feel like - you just dismantled my whole life and put it back together again the way it always should have been. He reached to lay his hand against my cheek. "Do you really love me? I mean ... do you want me?"

I couldn't answer, not straight away. No, let's be honest, I was afraid to answer. Afraid that he still might run if he knew what I really wanted. Of course Luc, being Luc, wasn't prepared to let it rest at that. With the appetite of youth for honesty, he was determined to get an answer.

"Would it make any difference if I told you - I want you? And that I have done for a long time."

"Do you know what you're saying?" I asked, needing to be sure before I let things get out of control. I had the feeling it would be very easy to lose control with Lucas.

"I'm seventeen, Captain, I know the facts of life - and what to do with them. The way you kissed me just now makes me think you feel the same, but I need to be sure, before this all gets out of hand."

I envied him his directness. I also realised this probably wasn't the first time he had considered our relationship to be something more than captain and crew. Some sixth sense I didn't know I possessed told me loving Lucas was going to be - interesting. "It's not that simple for me," I evaded.

"Why not? You already admitted you're in love with me, and I know I'm in love with you, so what's to stop us? Your rank?" I looked at him, wondering what he saw when he looked at me. "I'm not Navy and I'm over the age of consent, so they probably wouldn't give a damn. The fact that we're both guys?" He ticked each reason off on his fingers as he spoke and one-by-one I felt all my excuses fading away. "I've never had any hang-ups about that and you don't seem to me like the type that would either, so ... That leaves age." I don't know if he saw something in my face, but suddenly he nodded and those beautiful lips curved in a knowing smile. "Oops! That touched a nerve."

My face was getting hot again, and it was difficult to meet his intense gaze. "What did you expect?" I asked. "In case it escaped your notice, I'm old enough to be your father." I decided to leave out the part about the grandfather.

"True," he acknowledged. "But that doesn't make me young enough to be your son. I've been places, seen things that most kids my age only dream about. Dr Westphalen says I'm seventeen going on seventy and maybe she's right."

He stepped closer and took my left hand in both of his and abruptly all the joking was over. All that was left in those blue eyes was an overwhelming look of love, and all of it directed at me. "I love you, Nathan," he said again, the unexpected use of my name making it somehow different this time, a solid reality. This was no whim, no child's adolescent crush on a figure of authority. He was as much in love with me as I was with him. "I want us to be lovers. You want the whole truth and nothing but? I want to be with you: I want to share your life the way I used to and - I want to share your bed." He slipped his arms around my neck and pressed close and I could feel his warmth and smell his scent, and I knew I could never give him up. Not now - not ever.

"You know we can't do that aboard seaQuest," I argued lamely. "The whole boat would know in a week."

"Whether we do it or not doesn't matter, but I need to know that you want it."

I slid my arms around his waist, lifting him against me, burying my face in his neck. "With all my heart," I told him, and it was true and always would be. The rest of my life was here, in my arms, and nothing would take it away from me, not if I had any say in the matter.

Our third kiss was a frantic collision of lips and teeth and tongues, a desperate need to be so close, to each become a part of the other. His hands were everywhere at once: mine were in his hair, holding us together as I devoured his mouth, wanting to absorb his essence before he disappeared like the apparition I still half thought him to be. Sanity was put on hold. I felt him hard against my thigh and the shock of something so adult from someone so young almost drove me insane with the desire to take him, there and then. But reality intruded once more as I felt him reach between us and tug at the zipper on my uniform.

"We can't" I gasped, aware of how my body was fighting against what little common sense I had left. I took his hands in mine and pressed them to my lips, hoping to make him see reason. "Not here."

"Where then?" His eyes were glazed with need, a fine gloss of sweat across his skin. Now he was hurting in an altogether different way, and one that was even harder for me to put right. I'd stopped caring what people might think for my own sake, and Luc never cared much for public opinion, but I was still Captain of seaQuest and, as such, I had to consider the well-being of my crew. How would they feel knowing their commanding officer was involved in a sexual relationship with the youngest of their colleagues? There are good reasons for the non-fraternisation rules in the military and I was going to have enough trouble convincing myself that I wasn't taking advantage of Lucas, without having to convince them too.

"I'll find a way, but you have to be patient."

"I could find us somewhere. One of the storage bays maybe ..."

I shuddered inwardly. That suggestion held too many memories of what happened with Slater and I didn't think Lucas was ready to hear about that side of my past just yet. "No," I said, resorting to the kind of deviousness I'd learned from Bill in our youth. "I don't want a quick fuck in a dark corner," and the rush of colour to his face told me that my deliberate harshness had hit the mark. Then I went on more gently "I want to make love with you - I hope you know the difference."

He considered this for a moment, then nodded and took a step away from me. "You're right. I never thought of it that way. " Then he said something that made me smile. "If waiting till we can do it properly proves to you I really love you, then I'll wait."

"I don't need any proof, Luc."

"Even so, don't keep me waiting too long. Like I told you before, I'm not into masochism. Self-abuse is okay as a last resort, but I prefer someone warm and responsive to snuggle up to."

"Self-abuse?" The question was out before I could stop it and I could have bitten off my tongue. It wasn't as if I'd never been seventeen myself.

He nodded. "Since I came aboard seaQuest. Before that ... " His voice trailed away into embarrassment. Then, very softly, he confessed "You're not the first."

"Well, you're not exactly the first for me, either" I reminded him, again without thinking, again without taking the time to interpret the look in his eyes, until I saw them flare with anger the instant before he pulled away from me.

"Dammit, Nathan, that's not what I meant! You won't be the first man I've had sex with. That's one of the reasons my parents sent me here."

Of course, the infamous 'disciplinary problem'. Too much intolerance to support him, too much conscience to throw him out, they did the next best thing, no doubt assuming the discipline aboard seaQuest would rid him of his 'aberration'. I also realised now how Bill had been so sure that Lucas would not turn me away.

Overwhelmed with love for him, and sympathy, and anger against his family, I touched his face, guiding him once more into my arms. I thought about Bill and all those crazy teenage nights, and at last I understood. Bill and I could never go back, but maybe I could recover some of what Slater had taken from me after all.

"It may surprise you to know," I whispered into his ear, pausing to kiss the warm skin beneath, "That you're not the first man for me either." I felt him react, the momentary tightening of his body, before he relaxed against me, his lips against my throat.

"Admiral Noyce?" he enquired, and I nodded. "But it didn't last."

"No, it didn't last. Things were a lot different in those days, Luc - a lot different. There were too many other things to consider - or so we thought."

"Like Carol?" he asked.

"Like Carol and the Navy. And public opinion - public fear."

His arms tightened around me, as if he was afraid to let me go. "And - since Carol?"

"There's only you," I promised him. I drew his hand from around my waist and raised it to my lips, kissing the open palm. "Only you from now on." And then, to tease him into smiling for me, "I don't have the energy for anything more."

His eyes shone with devilment. "Long as you've got enough energy for me, I don't care," he informed me, pulling me into a kiss so fierce it left me gasping for breath and so hot for him I could have come on the spot. It was a long time since anyone had turned me on so fast or so hard. I slid my hands to cup his beautiful ass and pull him tight against me, wanting him to feel what he was doing to me, wanting to remind him that he wasn't the only one who could play games. "What about you?" I asked, when at last he let me breathe. "Do I have to fight my way through an army of your admirers?"

"What do you think?" Then he lifted his chin proudly. "Not that I haven't had offers. They just never matched up to what - who - I wanted."

"None of them?" I wondered aloud.

"Closest I ever came was with Miguel Ortiz, but that was before he got it together with Tim." The shock caused by that remark must have registered on my face because he suddenly grinned at me. "You didn't know about them?"

Tim O'Neill and Miguel Ortiz were two of my senior Bridge offices. I worked with them every day. And Luc was right, I had no idea that they were anything other than fiends. "I'm starting to think I don't know much about anyone on my crew. Anyone else you'd like to fill me in about?"

He leaned closer and brushed his lips across mine. "Some other time, when we've got an hour or two to spare."

I decided not to argue. I mean, a person can only stand so many shocks in one day, and I was already well over the limit. "I will work something out for us," I vowed. "Somewhere away from seaQuest."

"Somewhere warm, near the ocean," he breathed, moving back into my arms. "Where we can make love on the sand." My mind flashed on a scene from a movie I'd seen when I was a kid, when it was already a classic - Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, on the beach in 'From Here to Eternity' - and I laughed aloud. "What's so funny?" he wanted to know.

"Some other time," I echoed "When we've got an hour or two to spare. Right now ... I'm meant to be going over these reports for Admiral Noyce."

The smile that crept over his face as he took my hand and led me to sit on the bed, confirmed Bill's involvement in all this.

"Somehow I didn't think he'll mind too much if they're a bit late," he grinned, laying back on the pillows and pulling me with him. I went willingly, content to let him take the lead, certain he would let things go so far and no further, until we were safely away from seaQuest. Certain, because I knew this was as important to him as it was to me.

Gathering him into my arms, I took his mouth again, gently this time, reaffirming my love without starting any fires we'd be unable to put out. I knew the road ahead would be anything but smooth for us - there were too many unanswered questions, too many pitfalls lying in wait to catch us unawares - but we'd taken the first step and for now I was content to let things take their course. We'd solve the problems as they came along, the Fates willing. One thing I did know, the future promised to be anything but dull.

I gazed down into his eyes and saw a smile hiding there, and then a laugh bubbled on his lips. "What?" I asked, wondering what new twist his mind had taken this time.

He shrugged, his fingers doing strangely wonderful things in the hair above my right ear. "I was just thinking ..."

"What?" I demanded. Like all kids, he could be damn infuriating when he wanted to be.

"Which one of us is going to break the news to Darwin ....?"

* * * * * * * * * * *