I got the idea for this story from an episode review of Scorpion II that was published in Now Voyager, Volume IV, Number I. Among other things, the reviewer mentioned the lack of conversation between Janeway and Chakotay. It's a woeful oversight in the show that every J/C fan is aware of. This comment started me thinking about those ignored conversations: what would these two characters say to each other, anyway? What kind of connection would be created, and how would they create it? The story I finally ended up with might not be what the reviewer had in mind when she wrote her article, or even what I had in mind when I started the story, but I had to try. Now that it's finished, I think I know why the Voyager writers are reluctant to delve into the deep conversations at this point - this is the hardest story I've written to date. Keeping the characters believable, in character, and still moving forward gave me more agony than I wanted at the time, though it was all worth it now that it's over! Please let me hear your comments, good and bad, about this story, and enjoy!

Disclaimer: Paramount owns the characters, Now Voyager owns the review, the reviewer owns the ideas, and the story is from me to you. Share this with anybody you like, but please keep the headers in place.


 

CONVERSATION PIECE

 

by Linda Bindner

 

for Cyclonewoman

Chakotay rang the door chime to the captain's ready room, only half his attention on the action. He was so absorbed in the information on the data padd he carried that he neglected to take his finger off the chime mechanism altogether. Janeway's harassed cry of Come in already! finally broke through his concentration, and he entered her office wearing a sheepish grin.

Janeway glanced up from her own data padd to glare at him. I have a headache, and you aren't helping it any. And don't try to charm me with that grin of yours - it won't work.

Sorry about that, Captain. I wasn't paying attention. Despite his contrite tone of voice, his grin grew wider.

Oh... stop it! Exasperated, Janeway broke into a smile as well.

Chakotay stood before her desk and chuckled. But he sobered quickly. Maybe you should see the doctor about your head.

Hmpf. Maybe you should mind your own business, she retorted playfully.

He shrugged just as playfully. I would, but as we both know it's the first officer's sacred duty to look after the well-being of the captain....

She grimaced. They were both well aware of how seriously the commander took his 'sacred' duties; he reminded her frequently. Instead of responding to his implied statement, she held out her hand for his padd. What have you got for me? It was a rhetorical question: every data padd brought into her ready room was meant for her, hence she would read the material it contained whether the bearer told her about it or not.

Chakotay knew this, as he brought her far more data padds than anybody else on Voyager, but he always chose to tell her all about the contents anyway. This time, however, he hesitated.

Janeway picked up on the pause immediately. Her heart skipped a beat and her face fell. Something had happened. What is it?

This really isn't official business, Chakotay hedged, his fingers gripping tightly to the edges of the padd.

The captain visibly relaxed. Good - no disasters.

He laughed lightly. No. I was just wondering if you would do me a favor and take a quick look at this.

She leaned forward to take the padd. I'd be delighted, just as long as it doesn't involve too much concentration. What are you working on?

Chakotay handed her the padd. Burns and T'vren's algorithm on twenty-third dimension matrices. I'm trying to figure out their proof, but I must be missing something - will you take a look?

With a grin, Janeway took the instrument. The thought of her first officer burying himself in high-dimensional mathematics was extremely amusing to her, and she tried hard to squelch a desire to giggle. She preferred to be supportive of any crewmember's desire to learn. Certainly. But I didn't know you were interested in this type of diversion. She scrolled down the information on the padd as she spoke.

He shrugged uncertainly at the unvoiced thoughts behind her words. I know I'm not exactly of a mathematical nature, but I thought I'd try it. It's rather like you attempting to translate that ancient Rilerian passage for the holidays last month.

Her own face turned pink at the situation he referred to. Touche, Chakotay. I'll stop now while we're even, though it's hardly fair to bring that up. After all, I did manage to get through that passage, and I delivered it perfectly at the ceremony.

It's a good thing Neelix made you recite it for him first, or the captain of the ship might have said -

She interrupted him, I'm well aware of what I almost said. Now are you going to torment me, or will you be quiet so I can concentrate for a minute? She held aloft the padd and raised her eyebrows.

He'd scored, and he knew it. Feeling benevolent, he allowed the subject to drop. But he couldn't stop his grin. I apologize. Please, go ahead. He perched himself on the edge of her desk while he waited.

He didn't have to wait long. Here's your mistake, she said and stood so they could both look at the padd. Their shoulders rubbed comfortably together. Right here. You dropped a negative.

Chakotay cocked his head to stare, stunned. What? He grasped the side of the data padd nearest to him.

A negative. Janeway pointed. See, here it is in this equation, but suddenly.... poof, it's gone. She let him take the padd for a closer look. No wonder it didn't make any sense, she teased lightly.

A negative! He turned to look at her, still amazed. I've been going crazy over this for two days, and all because of one lousy algebra mistake?

Janeway patted him sympathetically on his shoulder. I know, it's rough. But you'll get it. Just remember to never underestimate the power of the negative.

He looked at her closely. Are you making fun of me?

Of course not. He scrutinized her again, and she paused. Well, maybe. You were just too close to it. At his puzzled expression, she explained, First rule of mathematics: if you can't figure it out, take a break. When you come back and still can't figure it out, then you get to start throwing things.

Well, I'm not to the throwing stage yet, he agreed, while slyly fingering the empty coffee mug sitting on her desk.

Janeway hastily reached for the mug and cradled it in her hand. He grinned impudently, but she ignored him. I think I've got just the thing for you.

Are you going to tell me the answer? he asked hopefully.

Not on your life, Chakotay. I want you to suffer as much as I did when I was studying for my academy entrance exams -

You did this for the entrance exams? he asked, his mouth suddenly going dry. If that was the case, his ability was years behind hers. I'll never catch up, he moaned.

She went on. My point is, have you heard about the latest entertainment on board?

If you're talking about the clandestine newsletter being circulated by Stellar Cartography, no I haven't heard about it. At least, not officially, he added. It was her turn to look puzzled. It's the unofficial, underground, under the uniform news of Voyager. I hear it's called Beyond the Briefing. They put in everything Neelix can't say in his official broadcasts.

She frowned, and suddenly her captainly mantra settled over her shoulders again. How bad is this? Is it something we need to get our hands on?

No. He shook his head emphatically. One thing the captain didn't need to do was have her finger in everything the crew devised as means to stay out of trouble. It's harmless. Or so I've heard.

The frown lifted slightly, but she continued to look unconvinced. However, she only chose to say, If you say so, Commander. But no, that's not what I'm talking about. The party. He stared at her blankly. Tonight. His eyebrow rose this time. The dessert party that everybody has been talking about for....

He brightened in understanding. Yes, the dessert party. I remember.

Janeway gave a sorrowful expression. For a minute there I was almost certain that I had heard about something before you had. She shook her head, then returned her attention to him. Are you going? she inquired.

Chakotay paused a moment to fix his algebra mistake and store the information on the data padd before responding. Actually, I hadn't planned on it. I was thinking of giving this another try. He lifted the padd in his hand, indicating the theorem. Why?

Janeway placed a hand on her hip in a show of aggravation. Our good doctor has ordered me to attend. He says I'm not spending enough time relaxing.

Chakotay choked a laugh. Making you go to any function is not the way to encourage relaxation.

I agree completely. However.... She let the rest of the sentence hang in the air, knowing it wasn't necessary to put further voice to the doctor's threats. When it came to the captain, he was notoriously ruthless.

Chakotay smiled encouragingly. It won't be so bad - he started, but she interrupted.

So bad? she repeated, coming around her desk to plead with him. It will be terrible! she declared. I've been to these functions before, Chakotay. We both have. We know exactly what will happen.

His smile turned into a grimace. He was forced to acknowledge that she was right: they had gone to many shipwide parties since entering the Delta Quadrant, and it was never a pleasant situation. As a commanding officer, he was always heartily greeted at the door the minute he arrived, and the nightly beverage was immediately thrust into his hands by some overeager crewmember. After a round of loud and obviously forced small talk by another set of officers, all of whom were carefully chosen by the party's host, he would be given the first run of the food table, in deference to his exalted position in the ship's hierarchy. Next he would inevitably find himself gently herded to a back table where, if he was lucky, the captain was already seated and where they could both sit unobtrusively, talk quietly to any officer with enough clout to speak to the commanders in a social setting, meaning the senior staff, and slowly grow stiff with boredom. Then after the appropriate amount of time had passed for them to leave without appearing rude, they would get up, make excuses about how much work they still had to do before the next duty shift, and depart feeling completely harassed by their own crew. Parties on Voyager were definitely not any fun if you were the captain or the first officer.

Chakotay rubbed the back of his neck. You're right, it will be awful, especially if it's in the mess hall.

It is, she informed him dryly. I think Neelix is already decorating the captain's table. She sat down next to him on the desk. Please, Chakotay, I'm prepared to beg. Save me from an interminable night of Neelix being cheerful and the doctor giving me the evil eye. I think I can face an entire night of forced relaxation if I have a fellow victim to commiserate with.

Ah, you mean you want me to be tortured too.

She tilted her head and grinned. Misery loves company.

He considered his options - a night spent staring at a stupid algebra mistake, or a night spent staring at the captain. Given the choices, his decision wasn't too hard. You owe me, Kathryn, he said.

Her face lit up with hope. Then you'll go?

Yes, I'll go. But I'm going to spend the entire evening coming up with a suitable payback, so be prepared.

Anything, Chakotay, I promise! Kathryn Janeway smiled warmly. And thank you.

The commander stood up, wondering when he had become such a sucker for that smile of hers. All I can say is I hope your headache is feeling better, because I can feel one of my own coming on.

You must need to relax, Chakotay, she teased lightly and headed back to her chair to return to the reports his entrance had interrupted.

I don't know - a dessert party might prove to be too much relaxation for me. Chakotay turned to the door, his data padd firmly in hand.

I'll pick you up at 19:30 hours, she called after him as she settled into her chair, already immersing herself into her routine of reports.

Just as he reached the door, an urge to start paybacks a little early overpowered him. He deftly triggered the mechanism to make the door swoosh aside while at the same time looking innocent as his next words carried clearly across the Bridge. Captain, it's a date!

 

* * *

B'Elanna Torres cursed quietly under her breath, then glanced surreptitiously at the man working silently beside her. He didn't comment, so he apparently hadn't heard her exuberant use of unnecessarily descriptive words. She returned her attention to the relay she was trying to stabilize, and made a promise to herself to stop using profane language while on duty. She knew that he didn't like it, and she hated to disappoint him.

I heard you, Torres.

She hung her head. Damn, she whispered.

Chakotay glanced at her, grinning. I heard that one, too.

Okay, okay, I get the point. Lieutenant Torres paused a moment to let her tool rest against the bulkhead while she attempted to contain her frustration; what was supposed to be a routine maintenance job in Engineering's jeffries access room had dissolved into a six hour repair nightmare. She hated work related frustration more than she hated letting down Chakotay. When she had sufficiently gathered her wits, she returned to the task. I'm trying to cut back on my use of... inappropriate language.

Chakotay offered her the hyperspanner he was holding. I'm glad to hear that. How's it going?

She reached for the utensil, but the laser cutter still in her hand suddenly slipped and she sliced through several components before she could shut the tool off. In response, the lights in the small room dimmed by half. B'Elanna issued a violent assessment of the new development. Cursed mother of a flickin targ!

It's obviously not going very well, Chakotay commented in wry amusement, then bent down to retrieve the spanner that he'd dropped in response to her outburst. The tool had broken into several pieces. Well, he said prosaically, I guess they don't make these like they used to.

B'Elanna sighed, but withheld any further retorts. We'll have to replicate a new one. I think there's enough rations in the Engineering account to handle a hyperspanner.

I'll do it, the commander volunteered. What's your access code?

Torres chuckled suddenly. You won't believe this - it's dammit beta nine.

Chakotay paused to look at her. You're right - I don't believe it.

Seven came up with it last week when she changed the Engineering account's code. Without my authorization, naturally.

Chakotay's smile was growing. Naturally. Voyager's resident Borg refugee was as notorious for disregarding procedure as its chief engineer was for indulging in unprofessional language.

Torres was smiling now too. When I confronted my staff with the fact that I suddenly couldn't access the replicator account, Seven said she had changed it for me.

How did she explain that?

Listen to this, Chakotay; she said that since she heard me repeating this strange word frequently, she assumed I would want it as my access code because I wouldn't have any trouble remembering it.

He laughed. That sounds like Seven, all right. Dammit beta nine. He headed out to the replicator, shaking his head.

B'Elanna worked on repairing the lights, but had only managed to make them blink twice, go completely out once, then restore them to half power again by the time he returned. Frak! she complained, then had to pause and try to restrain her mounting frustration. I'm never going to get done here in time to meet Tom, she moaned to herself. She attacked the problem again with renewed frenzy.

Are you going to that dessert party tonight? Chakotay asked.

Not if this stupid relay has anything to say about it! B'Elanna had to stop again. Her frustration was quickly dissolving into anger. Losing control was one thing she couldn't afford at the moment.

I didn't know you liked dessert so much, he ribbed, attempting to lighten her mood.

It's not the dessert, it's.... She traded the laser tool for the newly replicated hyperspanner. I don't get to see Tom very often is all, and this was the only time we could both get off this entire week. It's not like I get to sit next to my date every day on the Bridge, she retorted angrily. Chakotay frowned in response, a crease furrowing his forehead. When she realized the import of what she had said, she sighed. I'm sorry, Chakotay, I didn't mean that the way it sounded.

He sighed as well. How did you hear about that?

She regarded him, amused at least as well as frustrated. Come on, Chakotay, you practically yelled it across the Bridge. Everybody knows about it by now.

Chakotay was forced to admit she was probably right. His frown disappeared, replaced by a look of chagrin. I guess that wasn't the brightest thing I've done today, he agreed. Then he smiled softly. It's all right - I'm not angry. I didn't realize you and Tom were having such a hard time of it lately. I can understand your frustration. Look -

She interrupted him. I know what you're going to say, so don't bother. I know that my duty is more important....

Shut up, Torres, he ordered amiably. What I was going to suggest, if you care to listen, is that you go ahead and meet Tom. It sounds like you need a break. I'll finish with the relays.

She was so surprised that she could only stare for a moment. Really? she asked dumbly when she could talk. He stared at her in fond irritation and grabbed the hyperspanner from her fingers. But... I mean.... He pushed her towards the access hatch. What about your date with the captain? she blurted.

Don't worry, I think I can finish this up before she comes by.

If not, she might like fixing this more than attending a party, B'Elanna pointed out, knowing how the captain didn't quite fit in at unofficial social functions.

Chakotay laughed. You might be right. Now get out of here, before something else breaks and you start feeling guilty about leaving your engines. As he herded the engineer out the door, he briefly wondered which she liked better, her engines or Tom Paris. He wisely decided not to ask.

Just as B'Elanna left the access room and he turned to continue repairs, he heard the distinctive voice of Captain Janeway.

I've come to collect Mr. Chakotay, she cheerfully called across the entire Engineering section.

Though he couldn't see her, he heard B'Elanna answer. In the jeffries access room, she said, then in a merry tone, continued, Have a good time tonight, Captain!

He felt himself blush immediately, knowing that every crewmember in the section was silently enjoying the spectacle the captain and first officer were creating that day. It was nothing less than he deserved after he had done the same thing to her that morning. He took a deep breath, forced the color from his cheeks, then leaned out of the open door.

Hi, he said, and was disconcerted by how self-conscious he suddenly felt. He'd always been at ease with Kathryn, until he'd used that word earlier: date. He hoped this wasn't a portent to a disastrous evening. He calmed his heartbeat, then smiled big enough to melt an iceberg.

Kathryn smiled back, and Chakotay was instantly at ease again. She hadn't bothered to change out of her uniform, and her hair even looked like it needed a good brushing. She was obviously not letting the turn of events surrounding this party unnerve her a bit. He was relieved to see it.

Kathryn crossed her arms and regarded her first officer through the open hatch. I went by your quarters, only to discover that I had been stood up in favor of the Engineering department. What's your excuse?

B'Elanna needed some help and I was available, he explained. Now I think the relays need more help than B'Elanna does.

You managed to stop her before she destroyed anything, she observed appreciatively, giving the room a brief once-over. Congratulations.

Thanks. I needed every ounce of diplomacy I have just to get her out the door. I hope you don't mind waiting a few minutes while I finish this.

Janeway stepped through the hatch. Not at all. You couldn't have planned it better - here we are, alone at last.

He was momentarily stunned by her words, but then he caught her grinning wickedly at him and he capitulated. All right, I deserved that.

You certainly did, she agreed pleasantly. Do you suppose they heard me out there? Maybe I should have said it louder. She peaked around the hatch to see if anybody was listening.

He shook his head. They might get suspicious, he said, enjoying her light, playful mood. It reminded him of the months they had spent together on New Earth, and of how relaxed they had been with each other. It was good to feel that way again. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed that feeling until now. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed... her.

He didn't have time to dwell on that thought. Kathryn was speaking again. Well, let's get these relays working so we can go to that party so we can get it over with. I know if I don't appear soon, the doctor will come looking for me. She eyed the open panel critically. What should I do first?

Chakotay filled her in on the repairs completed so far, then handed her the hyperspanner he'd retrieved from B'Elanna. Let's restore the lights first. Hopefully you'll have more luck with them than B'Elanna did.

Kathryn bent to work and within a few minutes she had the lights glowing again at full capacity. There, she grinned. Success number one. Now we can see what we're doing.

But before they could do anything more to effect repairs, Tom Paris stuck his head through the still open hatch. B'Elanna Torres, you better be in here or...! Oh, hi, Commander, Captain.

It was obvious by the changing expressions on the lieutenant's face that several different thoughts crossed his mind in quick succession: he realized in a rush that B'Elanna wasn't present, and the two officers who were at hand were completely alone in an especially cramped section of the ship. He probably wouldn't even have noticed this on any other occasion - Janeway and Chakotay were often sequestered together, going over ship's business - but his knowledge of the state of their togetherness on this particular night changed certain things. He almost laughed gleefully at catching them at this historic moment, but swallowed it at the last minute. He knew Chakotay would have his head if he did or said anything that might embarrass the captain. Ah, have either of you seen B'Elanna? he asked, grateful for a diversion.

Chakotay enjoyed Tom's discomfort. The lieutenant wasn't as good at hiding his thoughts as he might like to be. She's probably looking for you by now. I made her leave about ten minutes ago...? He looked questioningly at the captain for confirmation.

She'd been watching Mr. Paris, and had seen the knowing, amused look cross his face before he managed to cover it up. She knew exactly what he was thinking: the captain and the first officer, caught in a romantic situation on their rumored first date, and only the suave flight controller had all the information. She decided to ignore his innuendos but not the circumstances. Hopefully she could make him wonder if he was privy to as much as he thought he was. Yes, it's been at least ten minutes, Janeway agreed readily, her manner far more congenial than the situation warranted. Let me think, 19:30 hours was when I was to pick you up, Chakotay, and first I went by your quarters, found out you weren't there, then I came down here, and now it's... computer, time.

*The time is nineteen hundred forty-three minutes,* the computer swiftly replied.

Yes, she smiled benignly at Tom, it's been about ten minutes. I was sure I had been prompt.

Tom's gaze went from Janeway to Chakotay, back and forth as he tried to figure out what game they were playing with him. He had his suspicions, but he would never have expected mind games from the commanding officers. Do you know where she went? he asked, still hoping to divert the couple.

Perhaps the mess hall, Chakotay suggested. That's where the party is, isn't it?

That's what I heard, Janeway acknowledged.

Tom decided he needed to retreat quickly. Uh, thanks, I'll look for her there. See you at the party. He backed out of the hatch.

We wouldn't miss it! Chakotay called after him, then he chuckled quietly when Tom had disappeared.

That little.... Kathryn stopped herself from continuing. Did you see the look on his face when he first came in? If his smirk was much bigger, his face might crack.

Chakotay nodded. He thought he'd walked in on something mighty interesting from the look in his eyes.

No thanks to you! she accused mildly, and grinned. Chakotay's apology for that date remark that had caused all this intrigue was on the tip of his tongue, but she didn't give him a chance to speak. Tom would never last in a card game with Phoebe, she predicted as she turned back to her work, gamely dismissing the situation. He might have that innocent, it's-not-my-fault expression down pat, but his eyes give him away every time. Phoebe would see through him in a minute.

So does B'Elanna. Chakotay squatted down to rearrange the tools in the repair kit resting on the deck plates, glad that she wasn't annoyed at him. In fact, Kathryn was taking the entire predicament amazingly well, which both surprised and interested him. He was glad to have time in the access room to think through what her attitude might mean. Continuing the work, he handed a tricorder to her and added, That's why B'Elanna likes him.

Kathryn took the tricorder and scanned the relays. Knowing the two of them, it's amazing they've managed to get this close without harming each other! She laughed, then showed him the tricorder readings.

Chakotay grunted at her findings and reached for more tools from the kit. It's lucky for the rest of us that their relationship has been relatively painless so far. He offered her a tool, then went to work alongside her. But I have a good feeling about them.

Kathryn paused to glance at him. Despite everything to the contrary, so do I, she admitted, sounding quietly pleased.

He grinned at her in conspiratorial agreement. She grinned back. Then she turned away and they worked silently for the next several moments. The quiet was a relief after their usually hectic routine, and both officers soaked it up like it was much needed sustenance. A comfortableness pervaded the tiny room, and Chakotay heard Kathryn sigh softly. He glanced at her, noting a little smile curving her lips, and he wondered if she was even paying attention to the repair job she was working on or if she was completely lost in her own private thoughts. But when he reached the point where he needed the tricorder again, she had it ready. At the same time he passed her the device needed to realign the relays she was obviously working on.

Suddenly she spoke, her voice rippling softly through the quiet. Would you like to hear something funny? She glanced up at him, the tiny smile playing across her lips again. Well, it might not be so funny, but -

It made you smile, he filled in for her, and his lips turned up to match her expression. Please, what were you thinking about?

Embarrassed suddenly, she continued her job, but frequently cast looks at him from the corners of her eyes as she said, I was thinking about Hamilton Cord. He was a classmate of mine during my early years in Indiana. He had the hugest crush on me - I remember, we were in sixth form at school, and one day two of our mutual friends set us up. She laughed, enjoying the memories conjured by the retelling of this story. My friend convinced me to meet her behind this old, derelict building we all used as a secret meeting place, though now that I think about it, it was probably no more secret than the public school grounds!

Chakotay nodded, intrigued to be invited to hear more about the captain's childhood. It was nice to know that even after so many years alone in space, there were still stories he hadn't heard about her. Parents always know more than their children think they do, he agreed with her, recalling his own 'secrets.'

It's probably better that way, now that I can think about it from an adult's perspective. Anyway, I said I would meet her, but she never showed up.

Don't tell me, he said, this fellow -

You guessed it. There he was, throwing rocks at the side of the barn, waiting for me. I walked up behind him, said hello, scared him half to death, and then he threw a rock at me.

Chakotay stared at her in surprise. This wasn't what he'd expected to hear. Did he hit you?

Yes, right here. She pointed to her left arm, just below her shoulder. He was mortified when he realized what he'd done. She crossed her arms, savoring the story. He came right up to me, saying how sorry he was and he hadn't meant to do it, that I'd scared him, and what the heck was I doing walking up behind men who were practicing their throwing techniques anyway, and more mumbo jumbo along those lines. He grabbed both of my shoulders, still talking, mind you, and - I'll never forget this part - he said, 'Kathryn, it was meant to be.' And then he kissed me.

Enthralled, Chakotay could only stare at her, listening, with a silly grin on his face. When he could trust himself to speak without being disrespectful by laughing hard, he asked, What happened next?

She looked at him with a smile. Are you kidding? We both ran like hell in opposite directions!

His laughter escaped this time before he could stop it.

Kathryn laughed with him, enjoying the memory, and particularly enjoying sharing it with him. Hit by a rock and my first kiss all in a span of five minutes - it was almost too much for me to grasp at the time. Of course, I had no trouble understanding Phoebe's teasing - that lasted for weeks!

How old were you?

I was eleven years, two weeks and three days.

When he had calmed down, Chakotay hazarded to ask for further information. So what did you do then? Was this Hamilton suddenly competition for your school work? He had heard enough of her history to know that she'd been a uniquely diligent student.

Kathryn laughed again. No! He moved the next day and I never saw him again!

I'm sure he was devastated, Chakotay said, still chuckling.

What about you? she asked, returning to work but unable to stop watching him.

What do you mean? He scanned his progress with the tricorder, and she stopped her own work to hold the device while he minutely adjusted the relays to the tricorder's new specifications.

Your first kiss, she prompted with an encouraging smile. There must be some kind of story that you can tell, a legend or parable... or something.

He turned to her, flattered by her curiosity, though he caught the mischievousness behind the request. She was looking at him innocently, but her mention of a possible legend to illustrate what he might say didn't go unnoticed. You want to know?

I asked, she pointed out.

There's no legend around this event, I'll tell you that first.

What, no rocks? she joked.

No, definitely not! My milestone had a little more dignity, I think, than yours. It was from my first cousin, he told her. When she purposefully stopped her work to listen, he continued. My grandfather had died and we were all gathered to pay our respects. I remember the adults were sitting around a table, talking and telling stories about my grandfather, and my cousin and I were kneeling behind this big... plant... or something of that sort. It was big enough to hide us completely from everybody else in the room. Or at least that's what we thought. Just as my great aunt Rinee was finishing a story, she spotted us. I had leaned in to kiss Iranta, my cousin, and my aunt yelled right at the same time, `There it is, the family trait - all the men spend their time kissing the girls!' Of course everybody turned to look. Chakotay laughed at the memory. Iranta and I were so startled, we lost our balance and hit the plant, which fell over with us all tangled up in leaves and branches.... I didn't think my mother would ever stop laughing!

But, Chakotay, that's awful! Weren't you embarrassed?

He smiled. No. I was only five years old... I didn't know what was going on!

She laughed, and the tricorder moved, messing with the readings. Five years. Well, you certainly were a young Casanova.

I can't help it; it's in my genes, he explained, equally as mischievous. At least my experience wasn't accompanied by throwing objects.

She had to laugh with him again. Oh, that was quite a day! she admitted. I had a heck of a time explaining that bruise to my parents! Kathryn picked up the hyperspanner again and made a few more adjustments. I haven't thought of it in years - I guess it was bringing up Phoebe that made me remember it.

I would like to meet your sister, he said suddenly, bringing them back to the present.

That idea delighted her. I wish you could, she said earnestly. I think you would like her... and she would like you, she added almost as if she had never considered that possibility before. Her voice trailed off, and her forehead puckered in thought.

Before either of them could say anything more, the doctor's voice cut into their cozy comraderie.

Captain Janeway! What are you doing? What's going on here!

He was standing in the doorway, his mobile emitter gleaming in the light, an expression of severe ire on his face. Hands balled into fists, he struck a dramatic, and very angry, pose.

Kathryn suspected the hologram would attempt something like this eventually. She had hoped to finish the repairs and make her appearance in the mess hall before he could start any tirades. The repairs must be taking longer than Chakotay had anticipated. Of course, stopping frequently to tell stories and talk hadn't shortened the job any, either. At the same time, she hadn't felt this.... When she stopped to analyze what she was feeling at the moment, the only word that came to mind was complete. Though the more logical part of her mind brushed that aside as faintly ridiculous, she wouldn't trade this last half hour with Chakotay for anything. Especially not for a ship-wide party! But even as Kathryn turned these thoughts over in her mind, she tried her best to mollify the doctor. Doctor, I'm on my way....

The doctor righteously exploded, Don't try to fool me! You're not 'on your way' to anything! You're working instead of relaxing at the party like I ordered you to do. And you! He turned to glare at Chakotay, who was so surprised that he took a step back. What are you doing letting her get away with this outrageous behavior!

Me? Chakotay could only splutter. I'm fixing the relays.

The doctor was not amused. I was under the impression that it was the first officer's job to look after the captain's welfare. And knowing our captain as we do, you should have realized she would try something like this! Subterfuge, sneaking around in jeffries tubes to get out of going to a party... it's very unprofessional! he announced.

Kathryn stepped forward, insisting, I apologize, Doctor. I assure you I had every intention of going to that party like you ordered, though forced relaxation is -

Forced relaxation is better than none at all! the doctor prophesied direly. He crossed his arms in a show of his famous stubbornness.

The captain tried again. You don't understand. Chakotay's company and a hands-on maintenance job have done wonders for me; I haven't felt this relaxed all week.

The doctor was unmoved. I doubt that. He twisted his lips in professional disapproval. One thing I've learned on this voyage is that you, of all people, have very little idea of what is and is not good for you.

Kathryn lost her patience at that point. Perhaps, she said in her most authoritative voice, but on this occasion, I think I have the final say. Go away, Doctor, we're having fun.

I beg your pardon? the doctor said, taken aback by her order.

Emboldened by Kathryn's announcement that his company did wonders for her, Chakotay jumped in. Fun, he supplied helpfully. It's a form of relaxation for humanoid species.

The doctor glared again at him. I'm well aware of that, Commander.

You should try it yourself, Kathryn suggested then, and placed a hand on the doctor's arm to assist him out of the access room.

The doctor inspected both of them critically, looking for signs of further duplicity. When he didn't find anything, he had no other choice but to give in. Of course, he didn't have to do it gracefully. Very well. I can see that you're going to refuse to listen to me. Just don't blame me tomorrow morning if you both wake up with tension headaches. Then he gathered his dignity and managed to glare at them both. As for me, I'm going to the party, where I will surely be more welcome than I am here. Good night Captain, Commander. I hope you have a pleasant evening! he threatened.

He left, still muttering dire predictions as he disappeared into the bowels of Engineering. The thrum of the warp core eventually overrode his voice, which, though holographic, had amazing projection.

Well, Kathryn said.

Guess we won't be going to Sickbay any time soon, Chakotay added.

At least not for headaches.

He turned away from the door after the doctor had disappeared and glanced at her. She was grinning again, as if she had just succeeded in some particularly daring undertaking. You look pleased.

I haven't had such a good time pulling rank in years, she said, then grumbled, Although you weren't much help.

Who, me? Chakotay couldn't help but to teasingly repeat, As I said, I'm here to fix the relays.

You're supposed to be my date at a party, she blurted with a laugh.

She was joking, Chakotay knew, but it was the first time she had ever referred to a relationship with him that went beyond the command structure or the friendship they shared. He was so flustered that he could only accusingly remind her, I thought you told the doctor you were having fun.

Kathryn paused for a moment. Suddenly her expression softened after her own accusatory remark. I am, Chakotay, I am.

So am I. And he was. He hadn't felt this good or this relaxed in... at least as long as Kathryn.

Then the moment passed. Well, she said briskly, her expression changing from something soft and warm to a more general one of enjoyment. Should we get back to work? These relays, unlike the party, won't wait.

Chakotay bent to retrieve the tricorder from the floor near the repair kit. How's your headache from this morning? he asked, reminded about it by the doctor's visit.

Kathryn waved her hand in the air. That? Oh, it went away not long after you came to the ready room.

You were probably all tense about going to that party, he said.

She laughed at him before putting all her attention on the open relay panel. The relays adjusted easily enough, but they weren't staying adjusted. It took both sets of hands to hold the instruments necessary for the work. Chakotay held the tricorder for Kathryn to glance at while she used the hyperspanner on the relays. I admit, I felt a lot better when you said you'd come with me, she said absently, most of her concentration on her task.

Well, like you said this morning, misery loves company.

She cringed at his words. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry, Chakotay.

He shrugged. You know I don't really mind. Even a party seemed to be better than that stupid theorem!

Still, it was a little too much like pulling rank. I didn't mean it that way at all. I just wanted... I thought we could... She sighed, suddenly nervous, gathered her thoughts, then calmly tried again. I thought we could talk....

She was cut off as Seven of Nine appeared, one hand braced on the edge of the hatch for balance as she peered in at them. Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay, she announced in the deep, flat tones that everybody associated with the ex-borg. Mr. Paris informed me of your attempts to repair the relays in this section. I am here to assist you.

Chakotay saw a brief expression of irritation flash across Kathryn's face at Seven's appearance. Just as quickly, it was gone. He understood and sympathized with her; for a fraction of a second he had also been overcome with irritation. He felt sure Kathryn had been about to confess something of great interest to him. He wanted to continue his talk with Kathryn, by themselves, without interruption from more crewmembers needing the commanding officers' constant attention. He felt like his personal space had been rudely invaded. Of course, that didn't make any sense at all. Somebody was always interrupting his discussions with the captain. He couldn't explain why he thought this time should be different. Maybe it had been her mention of the date. There's that word again, he said to himself, amused. Standing in close quarters in the jeffries access room, fixing stubborn relays was hardly a date.

Unless, it suddenly occurred to him, the evening was turning into a date despite their surroundings and activities.

As well-meaning as the offer is, it's not necessary, Seven, Kathryn was saying diplomatically. Chakotay blinked to clear away his thoughts and looked at the two women. Kathryn's notorious mask of command had settled in place, and Chakotay doubted that Seven had even noticed her slip.

Seven refused to be dismissed so easily. But I am available and have extensive knowledge of Voyager's systems....

The captain was about to make a second attempt, but Chakotay intervened. We know you do, Seven. However, it might be a good idea for you to take advantage of the party in the mess hall; you need to be as knowledgeable about relating with the crew as you do the ship's systems, and this is an excellent opportunity, he pointed out.

Seven faltered. By the look on her face it was obvious she was considering his suggestion. Perhaps you are correct, Commander, she said. A second pause was followed with a look of confusion.

What is it, Seven? Kathryn asked, setting aside her tools.

She hesitantly confessed, I do not understand why the crew feels that gatherings such as the dessert party in the mess hall are necessary. I overheard Mr. Neelix talking to Ensign Kim about the success of the party and that everybody was having fun, but I fail to see the point of wasting time ingesting sugary foods when there is work that needs to be done.

Weren't you having a good time? Chakotay guessed.

Seven hesitated again. Finally she explained, Nobody would talk to me.

Kathryn glanced at Chakotay. Well, we understand that, at least, she murmured under her breath.

Maybe you should try talking to them, was the commander's next suggestion, after he'd spared a second to flash Kathryn a commiserating grin.

I attempted conversation several times, Seven continued, and I inevitably said... the wrong thing. She took a step forward into the access room, making the tiny space even more crowded. I am far more useful here. I request permission to assist you with repairs.

Request denied, Kathryn immediately stated.

I do not understand, Seven responded just as quickly.

Kathryn sighed, clearly aggravated, but forced herself to be patient. The commander and I are perfectly capable of handling the relays. But as Chakotay suggested, you can use all the practice you can get associating with the rest of the crew.

But, Captain, Seven relentlessly protested, I have appropriate skills -

Kathryn suddenly looked like she wanted to personally strangle Seven of Nine. Chakotay came to the Borg's rescue. Seven, look at it this way. We know you can fix the relays. But so can I, and so can the captain. Unlike you, we rarely get the opportunity to work with the components of the ship. Though we both enjoy general maintenance, our command responsibilities don't give us the time. But a party, on the other hand....

Kathryn took over now that she understood what Chakotay was trying to do. We go to many parties, and they're not nearly as pleasant as spending time together fixing relays. Look on this as doing us a favor, Seven.

She was still perplexed. A favor? As in an act of kindness specifically done for the benefit of others?

Something like that. Chakotay forced himself not to laugh at the innocence and poignancy of Seven's dilemma. Like when you changed Engineering's replicator access code for Lieutenant Torres.

I see. She appeared to ponder this new insight. After a moment of staring silently at them, she came to a decision. Very well, I will do this... favor... you request. Though I believe I need further explanations to fully appreciate the benefit of such an action. She turned to go, then paused again. Perhaps Ensign Kim will enlighten me. He has more patience with my questions than most. Without waiting for a formal dismissal, she was gone.

Chakotay and Kathryn expelled a long sigh at the same time, and the sound settled heavily in the now quiet room. They let a moment pass without speaking, both savoring the lack of noise and responsibility and commitment that the encounter with Seven represented, and which had gone with her when she left.

Chakotay, Kathryn said after another minute had passed, that was the most beautiful redirecting of energy I have ever seen in my life. I feel like I've just been saved.

I feel like we should lock the door, he muttered in response.

As if on cue, Harry Kim hopped through the open hatch, startling them both. Kathryn dropped the hyperspanner, and it clattered across the floor, coming to rest at the ensign's boots.

Harry bent to pick it up. Sorry! he exclaimed and handed it back.

Chakotay inspected the tool carefully. At least it didn't break this time, he observed.

With a hand placed restrainedly on Chakotay's shoulder, Kathryn sent the message that she would deal with this interruption. What is it, Harry? But in spite of wanting to save the commander from another encounter with a crewmember, she sounded weary and slightly put out. She cleared her throat.

Harry glanced at them, suddenly remembered the rumor he'd heard about this evening being their first date, and decided to make it quick. I was just looking for Seven. She said something about coming down to help, and -

She's at the party! they both burst out before Harry could even finish.

Oh. Harry had the definite impression that he was intruding. I'll look for her back there, then. I was just hoping to.... Kathryn had stepped forward, forcing him to back out of the hatch. ... hoping to ward her off, or.... He was in Engineering again, staring through the door at two very irritated superior officers. You know what, I think I'll be going now. He turned and fled.

Kathryn touched the key pad and the door slid shut, closing out the sounds of the remaining Engineering staff as well as the thrum of the warp core. This time the silence was profound.

Finally, some peace. Kathryn wiped a hand across her face like she was trying to wipe away the stress the three visitors had brought with them. I know I shouldn't have reacted quite so aggressively - poor Harry! - but I don't think I have the gift for handling people that you do. She gave him a small, apologetic smile.

That's alright, he said, quietly laughing. You have other gifts.

She smiled at him, and this time her expression was one of comfortable joy. Thank you, Chakotay. She reached out to place a warm hand on his shoulder.

He grinned down at her, inexplicably happy at her simple gesture.

Suddenly the look on her face changed. Softness returned, and yearning, and tenderness... the simple touch of her hand on his shoulder turned into a caress.... Just as quickly, she started to pull back. Chakotay watched her expression change again, the softness falling away, replaced with something not nearly as pleasant: the first hints of self reproach, followed by bewildered sadness, which she was beginning to cover with another bright, captainly smile.

Chakotay refused to let her escape, not after that look that left so much unsaid. Without thinking, he purposefully laid a comforting hand on her arm, his grip encouraging yet insistent enough to keep her from retreating. What did you want to talk about earlier? he asked in a quiet voice. He suspected that this sudden emotion on her part wasn't completely without thought. She had wanted to discuss something specific with him this evening. Maybe she had invited him to the party for that exact purpose.

I'm sorry, Chakotay, she said abruptly, but she didn't attempt to step back. His blunt question had caught her off guard. She averted her gaze, unwilling or unable at this point to match his candor, though she tried. I didn't mean... I had no intention - Her hand fell from him shoulder, hesitantly, as if she had just discovered its presence there and didn't know what to do about it. I'm misleading you, I think....

Are you? he questioned again, his tone still steady and soft and encouraging.

I was thinking about Tom and B'Elanna, she blurted suddenly. Her gaze continued to center somewhere near his communicator badge, but she seemed to have found renewed courage. She crossed her arms, and he released his own hand from her shoulder, knowing she wouldn't retreat now that she had managed to begin to explain what was on her mind. They seem to be dealing with their new relationship quite well.

Chakotay nodded. I think it's working out. What does this have to do with what you wanted to talk about? he persisted.

I'm getting to that, she replied, a trifle testy. But she didn't say any more. Kathryn took a turn around the room, her hands cradled around her elbows as if she was cold, or extremely uncomfortable.

It wasn't an attitude that Chakotay was used to witnessing in the captain. If he didn't do something to make her relax soon, the doctor would be banging on the door, claiming that after monitoring their life signs, he had decided they needed sedatives. But before he could think of what to say, she had turned and faced him.

I realize that this... date, as you labeled it... is in reality little more than a penance for me, she started, then a tiny smile lifted her features. An excellent choice of paybacks for asking you to endure that awful party with me, by the way.

Chakotay groaned at her reference. You're wrong - it was a very poor choice of words. It just popped out of my mouth. Another excellent example of me sticking my foot in it before properly engaging my brain. He grimaced, and so she couldn't see his expression, concentrated on returning the tools to the repair kit. He doubted they would get much further with the repairs on the relays that night.

I don't know. I thought it was... nice.

He turned to look at her. It was hard to tell if she was serious, or if she was simply trying to make him feel better. The look on her face revealed very little of the thoughts behind the words. Is that the real reason why you asked me to go with you tonight? For a date? he gently inquired.

No, she immediately answered. Then she said, Yes, just as forcefully, and crossed her arms again. Then she placed her hands on her hips, regarding him squarely for the first time since the conversation had begun. Yes. In all honesty, I would have to say.... No... I don't know. I've missed you, Chakotay. She pushed the sleeves of her uniform up half way to her elbows, an action that clearly indicated how uncomfortable she felt, but she seemed determined to see the whole thing through now that she'd started. I know I've made mistakes, bad judgment calls about myself and the crew, and I can't help but wonder -

Kathryn, my feelings haven't changed.

The slow, gentle statement stopped her struggling explanation. An expression of almost pained relief washed across her face. She sighed softly, gave a half smile, and whispered, I know.

So, this was it, the conversation they had been avoiding but inevitably building towards since the night of the plasma storm on New Earth. A lot had happened since then, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it personal and raw. Chakotay had the impression that whatever they decided now would affect the rest of their voyage home. Good or bad, this was definitely it.

They watched each other, both hesitant and uneasy, scared to make a wrong move, or any move at all, for that fact. One misunderstood word and they could be worse off than they had been while traversing Borg space. Neither wanted to hurt each other like that again. Warily Kathryn crossed her arms, though the action made her look more vulnerable than he'd ever seen her. She held herself tightly and finally managed to gently inquire, Why did you wait so long to say something?

Chakotay answered with equal caution. Though my feelings for you are important, the risk of upsetting what we've built here by speaking without encouragement was too much. You knew that.

She nodded and stared at the floor, still being so careful not to move too fast. I did, and I understand your decision. But... Now she lifted her gaze to meet his. I was under the impression that you thought loving someone is always worth the risk.

When did I say that? he wondered to himself in surprise. The philosophy was certainly one he supported, but he couldn't recall ever saying it to her. Even talking about relationships, as they had tonight while discussing B'Elanna and Tom, was something they studiously avoided unless a decision for the crew demanded it. Then they handled the subject as if they were helping Neelix write the weekly menu for the mess hall. Distance, detachment; those were the unconscious defenses they employed against the dangerous emotions they always held in check.

At last he thoughtfully said, Had I ever suggested anything, you probably would have simply said no, and that would have damaged everything, and I didn't want to put either of us in that position. It was up to you to say something first.

Kathryn's brow furrowed. She carefully argued, I couldn't say something first. If I initiated something that developed into... she hesitated, still reluctant to give a name to what they were proposing, ...something, and that... something fell apart, it would be my fault, and my guilt to carry for... well, for who knows how long. I couldn't consciously make a decision to do that, not to this crew. Not to you. You deserve better.

First move - it all came down to that. She wouldn't, and he couldn't. Suddenly, he grinned wryly. For the commanding officers of the ship, we're impressively indecisive!

She laughed at that, and suddenly the tension slipped away, erased by the sound. Not indecisive so much as scared, she concluded honestly. Her thoughts continued, We're scared of everything: each other, ourselves, of what might happen....

I think we're scared it might work, he finished, almost as if he knew what she was thinking. She looked so startled, he smiled. I suppose that's typical of first officers and captains who are talking about what... we're talking about.

She chewed on her cheek while regarding him thoughtfully. She chose to rearrange the topic a little. You know, I noticed something earlier, while we were fixing the relays. You and I... it was almost as if we knew what tool the other needed before we needed it.

He nodded, glad of the reprieve she offered. It gave him time to gather his thoughts and calm his jittery nerves. I noticed it too. My only guess is it must be something we picked up on New Earth.

Like that disease! she joked roughly.

Chakotay had to smile and agree. That planet was full of surprises.

Kathryn moved close to him and settled herself against the bulkhead, comfortable with him once more. Their shoulders barely touched, but they were both aware of the contact, and it charged the little room with barely suppressed excitement. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if we'd stayed on New Earth?

If we'd never been rescued? Chakotay pushed the tool kit aside with his boot so he could lean more easily beside her. Sometimes I think about the building projects I had planned, he admitted.

The boat! she exclaimed, this memory as pleasant to her as the childhood events she had recounted earlier. I would have liked to ride in that boat.

I had a lot more planned than the boat, he told her. I wanted to make more shelves for our rooms, maybe a few for the outer area, and I was just thinking of chairs and a swing -

I didn't know that! You never said anything.

He sighed. I didn't see the point. I was disappointed already, and it wouldn't have made anything better to talk about it. He glanced down at her. She looked relaxed finally, and content. He'd given up on furthering their relationship so long ago that he had grown unused to seeing her as anything but the captain. Tonight was the first time in a long time that he'd exclusively seen Kathryn. He found he had to smother a desire to companionably hold her hand. What do you think would have happened? he inquired.

This.

His stomach fluttered. It was his turn to be startled. But... but you never said anything either... he stuttered.

She shook her head, her hair brushing lightly across her shoulders. I wasn't ready then. She snorted deprecatorily and crossed her arms again. Maybe I'm not ready now. I just - Kathryn looked down and swallowed hard, then forced herself to continue. The other day I suddenly found myself thinking of all the years we might have left before we get home. And... Chakotay, they were empty years. Big, long, empty years. It scared me.

He knew what she meant. Others among the crew have said the same thing. And I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say I'd had similar thoughts. Almost like we're trapped by the ship... or by ourselves, he said softly, with a hint of regret. I wish it wasn't like that.

I know. Her tone was sorrowful, and she stared at the tiny room. Is this all there is for us? she asked and waved a hand at the empty space, taking in the entire ship and their situation with one sweep. To be the captain and first officer, unable to talk to anybody at a simple party, always being so careful to follow protocol that was never intended for this kind of situation? Not to mention being on a ship that will slowly fall apart, piece by piece, until there won't be anything left to hold it together? After all, here we are, this entire conversation instigated by broken relays! I don't know if I should laugh or cry! She chose to laugh, though it sounded as much like an appeal as simple joviality.

Chakotay smiled at her. He shook his head. I have to say, I'd prefer not to spend the rest of my life like that. There's nothing we can do about the ship, except try to keep it going as long as we can, but the rest -

The rest is up to us. Sober now, Kathryn eyed him meaningfully. Voyager will eventually fall apart, no matter how well we treat her.

Chakotay took a deep breath, then let it hiss out slowly between clenched teeth. And I hate to say it, but even if the ship lasts longer than expected, we won't. You and I are among the older members on board. We'll have to be replaced someday.

Then what? she relentlessly continued, her tone growing satirical. We're put out to pasture while the youngsters take over?

He laughed, hard, the tension once again building up until he had to release it somehow. He was forced to bend over and prop himself up on his knees, gasping for breath. Stop it, Kathryn! Besides thinking that's a very grim vision of the future, I feel like a cow!

She smiled indulgently and put a hand on his back, rubbing slowly, the slick uniform material sliding beneath her palm. You look a lot better than the average cow.

I hope so! He drew a last breath and straightened.

Her hand stopped on his back, and suddenly she said, I want more, Chakotay. I want more from life than Starfleet might find acceptable. Perhaps this makes me a poor captain, prone to rash decisions... though there's hardly anything rash about this. I've been thinking about it for years.

Upset at her words, Chakotay frowned and shook his head. You're not rash, Kathryn. I do think that maybe you were stuck.

Stuck? What do you mean?

Thoughts whirled in his mind, and it took him a few moments to sort them out so that he could explain. When he was ready, he turned to face her, dislodging her hand from its comforting presence on his back, and he felt momentarily lost without the simple contact. As compensation, he shyly grasped her hand before starting to speak. You love Starfleet, Kathryn, with an unquestioning purity that I've never seen in anybody else. He paused to consider his next words, and proceeded cautiously. But I don't think you know what to do if upholding those ideals means giving up yourself. I don't doubt that you would do it, he hurried to say, then predicted, but you wouldn't find it pleasant.

She had started to frown in concentration as he paused again. She squeezed his hand, wanting to hear more, and he haltingly went on, It's not that Starfleet doesn't work here, it does. It just isn't enough anymore. I think perhaps the crew, us included, want to make a community here, a place that's more than simply where we work. Unfortunately, Starfleet's principles leave little room for anything else. As a philosophy of life, it's not very fulfilling. It's hard to grow and change in a system that works best if everything stays the same, but out here it has to be flexible, it has to be more than a set of militaristic rules, for us to survive. That's what you didn't know how to face.

Briefly she wondered if he really was a telepath and had never told her. His assessment of the moral dilemma that had occupied her thoughts for years was so accurate it would have frightened her coming from anybody else. You know me better than I give you credit for.

Understanding people - it's my gift, he reminded her.

Kathryn glanced down at her hand surrounded closely by his fingers. He had many gifts, she thought absently, the least of which was translating her thoughts and emotions. She decided to finish his attempt at disemboweling her insides. I'm not completely disillusioned by Starfleet, but there have been moments of... disappointment. She curled her fingers more firmly inside his, securing their hold on each other. I couldn't talk about this to anybody, not even Tuvok. Especially not after all those speeches I've made supporting Starfleet's principles. If I hesitated, how could I expect the crew to accept my leadership? Because we both know there are also times when Starfleet's principles are the only things that keep us alive. She stopped, took a deep breath, and looked up at him. Other times I worry that a relationship might distract me so much that I'll lose sight of the goal: getting home.

Her eyes met his, and she waited. She was so afraid that by bringing this up, she had destroyed their progress, all the openness and honesty they'd shared. But she wanted to get it all out in the open rather than let it continue to fester, wounding them beyond hope of a possible relationship.

Fear is an irrational thing, and she couldn't help herself. Yet this was still Chakotay, and she should have known better. He paused for a moment, thinking about what she'd said. He had to be careful with his answer, so careful not to end it before it began, but still be true to himself and his beliefs. Slowly he responded, I think, no matter what, the goal is the same, even if the journey is different.

He'd given her what she needed. Kathryn's slow smile began erupting across her cheeks again. Thank you, Chakotay, she whispered. You've given me a... a great deal to think about.

Chakotay grinned back and had to glance down. He was such a sucker for that smile. He felt her give his hand another squeeze, and he suddenly heard himself say, Do you want to date? Even he was amazed at how blunt he could be.

Unphased by his abrupt question, Kathryn only arched an eyebrow and looked at him rather helplessly. Do you think we can? She paused to rephrase her question. Of course we can. I mean, should we? What do you think?

For the first time he actually considered what it would mean for the captain and the first officer to date each other. Flashes of spending time both on duty and off with the same person barraged him, and he had a sudden understanding of the delicate maneuvering between those two worlds that would be necessary for a successful relationship to work. We might have to work pretty hard at keeping our professional and private lives separate... though we've crossed that line before -

And it wasn't pretty, she interrupted him to point out.

He agreed. No, it wasn't, but we managed it without any harm to the crew or the ship. He regarded her, waiting for her response. She nodded. He pensively went on, It might be the best thing we've ever considered doing -

Or the worst, she dourly interrupted again.

He sighed and gave her an exasperated glance that told her she was being grim once more. I had no idea you were such a pessimist, he accused.

Not a pessimist, a realist. There's a difference.

Only in how you look at it.

She cocked her head and sported a half grin. How do you look at it, Chakotay?

To Chakotay the simple expression was amazingly alluring. He fought to keep his own emotions from spinning headlong out of control. He pressed on, I think that if we spend too much time being realistic, we limit ourselves to that one, safe reality we've always known. We only have one life, and this is it, right here, right now. We should try this.

Kathryn hesitated still, uncertain, afraid, despite her casual attitude. And if it doesn't succeed? she prompted.

And if it does? he countered.

If it does.... she said. Her smile blossomed like his words, slow, gentle, tender. She held up their hands for both of them to see.

Chakotay looked. He wondered how the captain would react if he kissed her fingers. This could be fun, he predicted.

The tenderness dissolved into laughter. Chakotay! I know that glint in your eye. You're wondering how we go about dating on a starship.

I am? he teased to mask his surprise at how close she'd actually come to voicing his thoughts.

You are, she insisted. You may know a great deal about other people, but I'm not sure how much you know about yourself.

He was forced to agree with her assessment. It often seemed that the minute he thought he knew his role in the universe, something changed, and he was again trying to adjust and catch up. That is supposed to be the greatest journey, he admitted. And this is one improvement that I had.... His voice trailed off as he glanced somberly at their clasped hands.

You'd given up on it, she finished for him. When his eyes darted to hers, she shrugged in understanding. I don't blame you. And I've spent the last years watching you wait, trying to figure out what I was so afraid of, wondering why it mattered that there isn't exactly precedent for this... for us, she corrected determinedly. I'm sorry, she said, then after a pause impishly continued, Though I did like the watching part.

So did I. He grinned at her, not caring about the past. He was very much a man of the present; he always had been and always would be. This was an opportunity he might get only once, and he had every intention of encouraging it to happen. There was no use in sacrificing himself for his past mistakes - he'd made too many of them, and so had she.

Kathryn watched him now, a contemplative expression on her face. She, of course, had always known that he'd watched her just as she'd watched him. But she had never admitted to her knowledge. Years of covert behavior had honed her abilities in pretending. Suddenly, all at once, she was very tired of pretending, and she impulsively said, Yes, I would like to date. I think.... Her voice grew quiet and she looked at his hand wrapped around hers. Still pensive, hardly breathing, she gently brushed his fingers across her cheek. An enraptured smile creased her face, and the sigh that escaped her lips then was full of wonder. She hadn't realized how much she'd wanted to do that until now. She glanced up at him, the sense of wonder increasing. I think I would like that very much, she told him.

Chakotay's smile was as soft as hers. What she had just done, spontaneous though it might have been, only made him want to do it again. Actually, if he was honest with himself, it made him want to kiss her. He acknowledged the fact that neither of them had particularly stellar histories concerning first kisses, and the entire notion scared him enough to make him shake, but he was willing to give history a second chance.

He released her hand to reach up and cradle her cheeks, lightly touching, holding her smile with his palms and brushing her hair back with the tips of his fingers. Giddy, shaking, his face alight with affection, he leaned down as she lifted her face to him.

Chakotay pressed his lips to hers, and in doing so, committed both of them; their destinies were linked forever. He was hers, she was his, as had been inexorably foretold by a certain ancient legend.

Their first kiss, slow and light like a summer rain, was also short. Chakotay pulled back and blinked, breathing deep, though his hands remained curved around her cheeks.

What's wrong? she asked, alarmed.

He took another deep breath, then looked at her. I lost my balance. He blinked twice more, then nodded. I'm alright now.

His honesty was so blunt and childlike that she burst out laughing. A second later, he joined her. Perhaps I should run away, she suggested. But contrary to her words, she wrapped her arms firmly around his waist and hugged him close.

He could feel her smiling against his chest. He held her tight, marveling at how tiny she was. This small woman was Captain Janeway, his Kathryn, and she fit into him like the lost half of his soul. The final piece of his life clicked into place with her in his arms, and for the first time he felt like he'd found... home. If you run away, I'm running right after you, Chakotay declared, his throat so thick with emotion he had trouble speaking.

Kathryn brushed her cheek against his uniform, listening to the calm thud of his heart. I know, she said softly. She felt as if years worth of something very unpleasant - a fear, an irrational sense of utter aloneness - was slipping from her, disappearing with the help of his secure hold. Realizing that she was not alone was not the same as becoming complete. Now she understood. In a whisper she added, I would never run from you.

I know, he whispered back, and sighed into her hair, and smiled. He knew that she had just told him that she loved him.

 

* * *

 

EPILOGUE

Harry Kim shook his head. There he goes. I told him this wasn't a good idea, but you know Neelix. He never listens to anybody.

No, Tom agreed as he turned in the direction that Harry indicated. He looked just in time to see the Talaxian leaving the mess hall, a tray with two delectable looking desserts balanced in his spotted hands. Not when there's the morale of a crewmember on the line. And he takes the morale of some crewmembers a bit more seriously than others. Paris smirked, knowing where the cook was headed. Portions that large could be meant for only two people: the captain and the commander. I hope he survives the trip.

No kidding, Harry agreed, and sent a glance first to B'Elanna, then at Seven. The borg was seated in a chair several feet back from the table. Sitting still made her uncomfortable, and she usually left enough room for a quick escape if she suddenly needed one. But she only stared at him, uncomprehending. He obviously needed to do more explaining before she fully understood the situation she had escaped from earlier.

Before Harry could say anything of an explanatory nature, Joe Carry suddenly appeared behind B'Elanna's chair, a wicked grin on his face and a data padd in his hands. I wouldn't worry about Neelix so much if I were you. I'd worry about the commander, he said mysteriously and pulled up a chair. He looked at them like a man who had just eaten the best of the desserts without being caught. His grin grew.

B'Elanna eyed her second. He was definitely up to something. What have you got, Carey? she asked, pointing at the data padd.

Oh this? Carey asked nonchalantly. Nothing important. Just the next issue of the newsletter.

The reaction his words garnered was exactly what he'd hoped for. Harry sat up like he'd been shot, Tom's expression became as wicked as Carey's, and B'Elanna's suspicious gaze grew appreciative. You must have been hacking in the computer for hours, she said. Or is your clearance more acceptable than mine?

No, Carey informed, still casual, but obviously enjoying himself. It took hours. But it was worth it. Here, I called up the best part. Take a look. He departed just as quietly as he'd come, his wicked grin once more in place.

Tom, Harry, and B'Elanna crowded around the data padd. Seven remained in her position, scrutinizing her fellow crewmembers with abject curiosity.

What's it say? Tom asked. He knew by the way B'Elanna was reading avidly that it was of extreme interest, and the only thing on Voyager that made the chief engineer look that intrigued besides himself and the warp core was something about the commanding officers. Her smile indicated that this tidbit was particularly good.

B'Elanna tried to contain her grin and failed. You won't believe this. Okay, I'll read it out loud. She cleared her throat and started reading.

    Got that project you've been dying to begin, only
you don't know how to approach the captain about
it? Here's some words of advice from your roving
reporter with the roving eye and a certain attention
to details. Listen and learn, fellow Deltans:
How, When, and When Not to approach the Captain:
Amazingly enough, it all has to do with the fingernails.
Yep, the mood is in the color, the color is in the mood.
I'm talking about nail polish, that wonderful, glossy
finish that so many of us apply on our nails for... well,
for many reasons, only a few of which I plan to delve in to,
most notably, the captain's personal use. Here's the
theory: if she's wearing that nice, light cream that so
pleasantly accentuates the command uniforms, you can assume
that this is a good time for the approach. Brown, as far
as I can tell, indicates she's laid back, relaxed, and open
to something new. (If you've all noticed, we've seen an
extreme lack of brown nail polish lately - har har!); clear
polish indicates that she's ready to get down to business,
do all those nifty captainly things, and duty bound to
accomplish more in one day than most admirals get done in
a year, so stay clear of the Bridge on these days - you
don't want to become the next corridor casualty; last but
not least... you say that I've hit all the colors you
know about? Maybe, maybe not. According to recent new
developments, the final tone and mood belongs to the color
red. When this happens, it can mean only one thing -
Chakotay, aim for the nearest closet and RUN!

B'Elanna finished reading on a peal of laughter. Tom grabbed the padd from her hand and read it again, just to make sure she hadn't missed anything. Oh, this is good! he exclaimed, still laughing. This is so perfect. You know what we should do? he asked rhetorically and glanced at Harry and Torres. We should mail this to the captain.

What? Harry blurted, snorting his laughter now. Are you crazy? She's not supposed to read something like that!

Tom's grin was turning wicked again. Precisely, my friend. That's the whole point. And she won't read it if somebody doesn't take it upon themselves to keep her informed of this latest issue. Her clearance is too high - she'll never find this on her own. So it's up to us!

Harry stuttered, But... but, Tom, you can't... this is nothing but -

Gossip, Seven stated, her tone devoid of any interest yet still sounding superior. I do not understand the use of such pointless ramblings. It will surely only get this 'roving reporter' in trouble, she scorned, dismissing the subject.

Tom shrugged. Fine. But I plan to help the captain by sending this her way. From a false account, of course, he assured and grinned. And through practically every console in the ship so she can't trace it. Hey, he argued when he caught B'Elanna's look, this could be a lot of fun.

Only if you send it to Chakotay too, she informed politely.

Tom's eyes widened. Good idea!

Seven sighed, looking irritatingly Human. I do not understand the need for any of this, party or gossip. It is distracting. Captain Janeway will not take something like this seriously. Nor will the commander.

Maybe not, Tom conceded with a half shrug. Then again, maybe they will.

Torres smiled conspiratorially. I plan to station myself on the Bridge tomorrow morning. Just in case, she added hastily. Count me in.

Tom glanced at Harry. Harry glared at Tom. Tom tried to appear more harmless than he'd ever looked before. It worked. Harry sighed. Alright, I'm in.

Tom smiled. Good. I need your help. I'm not as proficient with the computer system as you are.

And to think, the captain trusts you to fly the ship, Harry retorted sarcastically. Tom was always nagging him to go along with his next outlandish scheme, and it seemed that Harry was inevitably the one to get into trouble. If I go down on this, I'm taking you with me. I'm already on the hit list. Just remember, it was me she kicked out of the access room.

Tom snorted. We're all on the hit list.

B'Elanna said in friendly exasperation, Come on, you two. The captain's not like that!

Tom played with his fork, sliding it across the empty plate that had held a slice of delgato spice cake only moments before. He appreciated the heavy feel of the non-replicated cake in his stomach. It was good to be full of nothing but solid sugar! Satisfied and looking forward to his forthcoming project, he smiled languidly at B'Elanna. I don't know, B'Elanna. Harry might be right. They were downright weird when I talked to them tonight.

It's been over an hour since I was down there. What could be taking so long? Harry paused, thinking. Maybe they really wanted to be alone, he suggested next, sounding as if that was a purely amazing concept.

Seven spoke, and they all swung their attention to her position. They said nothing about being alone to me, only that they planned to fix the relays together.

I bet! Tom blurted loudly. If they actually fix those relays, I'm a dead targ.

I do not understand, Seven stated. The captain refused my offer of assistance. If her goal was not to repair the broken relays, then what was the point of denying my request to help?

So she can be alone with Chakotay, Tom explained, gesturing across the table in Seven's direction. He did say this is supposed to be a date they're on tonight....

You don't do repairs on a date, Harry argued.

B'Elanna chimed in, He told me that he'd made a mistake calling it a date. Though she seemed to be pretty accepting of that idea when she came to Engineering to find him, she added, a puzzled expression settling across her face. She looked at Harry, Tom, and Seven in turn. I don't know. What do you think?

It's a date, Tom stated.

It is a repair... party, Seven said, using the newest word that Harry had spent much of the evening explaining to her. It was an imprecise word, but one that the ensign insisted was acceptable to describe the type of situation currently thrust on the commanding officers.

Harry shrugged helplessly. You got me. All I know is that I was mighty glad to escape with my life, and that's all I'm saying. He took his glass of Talaxian punch in hand and drank deeply of the sweet liquid, ending the issue.

I do not understand, Seven persisted. Harry rolled his eyes and sighed.

The door to the mess hall swished aside, ending any more conjecture. Neelix entered, returning with an empty tray and a smile lighting his face. Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay followed, each holding a plate of dessert and talking cheerfully to Neelix.

They don't look any different, Tom commented speculatively after watching the trio for a moment.

B'Elanna turned back to regard him. What's that supposed to mean?

Tom arched his eyebrows. I don't know, he drawled insinuatingly. An hour's plenty of time to have a little fun and -

She groaned. Tom Paris, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say!

What? he protested. The famous Paris expression of innocence was plastered on his face.

She looked at him, amazed that he could even consider such a thing. This is the captain and Chakotay we're talking about! she said at last.

Tom was not convinced that his theory was so unbelievable. Yeah? So? They're Human, aren't they? Just because they're the commanding officers doesn't mean they can't have -

Tom! Uh... look, it's Commander Chakotay! Harry managed to squeak, overriding his friend just in time.

Tom gulped on his last words to keep from saying something he might regret. Chakotay! Hi! How's it going? he said enthusiastically. He turned his grin on the commander then.

The lieutenant's response was too enthusiastic. Chakotay paused, eyeing the group suspiciously. Just fine, Paris. I need to talk to B'Elanna for a minute, but if you're busy, it can wait.

B'Elanna jumped up, making the table shake when she pushed hurriedly against it. Sure. What's wrong?

She was too energetic too. His suspicions grew. Nothing, he said slowly, and cast another glance at all of them. They did their collective best to look innocent. Even Seven of Nine only raised an inquiring eyebrow when his gaze encountered her. Enjoying yourself, Seven?

Given the conversation, the question would have been taken as a loaded one by anybody else, but Seven took it the only way she knew how - literally. Perhaps 'enjoying' myself is a rather strong description, Commander. She looked at her companions and gathered her thoughts. I am... learning a great deal, she finished at last.

Harry grinned. Coming from Seven, that was a genuine compliment.

Chakotay grinned with the ensign. At least she was sitting down for a change. That could only be seen as progress. Good. I'm glad you took our advice.

How's the date? Paris questioned slyly, unable to help stirring up a little excitement.

Chakotay managed to retain his pleasant expression, and even found the inquiry amusing, in a way. Paris was far more transparent than he thought. He felt he should warn him not to try anything more with the captain for awhile, but then decided against it. If Paris wanted a quick and painful death, he wouldn't deny the man. It's fine, he repeated, maddeningly noncommittal. Neelix made sure we got some dessert before you ate it all, he said, and glanced pointedly at Tom's empty plate.

Neelix made some good things tonight, Tom agreed benignly, not willing to aggravate his superior too much. That was the trick, he'd always thought. He liked to push just up to the point where he was moving into dangerous territory, then fall back. It kept everybody guessing how much he knew.

B'Elanna didn't think she could keep her mouth, or Tom's, shut much longer. What did you want to see me about? she asked.

Chakotay turned to the engineer. We didn't quite get the relays fixed. I wanted you to know before you tried reinitilizing them tomorrow.

What's wrong with them? she asked, immediately worried about her engines. Is there some kind of problem? What happened to...?

He held up his hands to stop her hail of questions. Nothing's wrong. We just... didn't finish, he ended mysteriously.

Seven promptly shot out of her chair. I will complete the repairs. You must excuse me. She departed before anybody had the chance to deny her request.

Harry said, She lasted over two hours. That's pretty good for her. Think I'll celebrate by having some more dessert! He sauntered in the direction of the food table, aware of the relief he felt at not having to explain his actions to the ever inquisitive ex-Borg.

Well, Chakotay said, bluntly completing the exchange, then just as quickly moved away before either lieutenant could speak. At first he headed directly for Captain Janeway, who was in what looked like an exasperating discussion with the doctor and Tuvok. But he changed his mind and instead waited for her to finish. The three looked far too serious for him to want to get involved with them at the moment. He stopped at a vacant table and sat down. Then, he simply watched her.

The captain continued to speak to both men, then put one hand on each man's shoulder. It looked like she gave the doctor a verbal shove in one direction, and perhaps gently encouraged him along with her hand. He moved on, looking cheerful and pleased. Then she turned to Tuvok, smiled appreciatively, patted his shoulder, shook her head, denied whatever he said next, smiled enigmatically, then sent him on his way as well. When she was alone, she shook her head in amazement and propped her hands on her hips. She caught Chakotay's eye from across the room and smiled at him with a tired sigh.

Chakotay acknowledged the expression with a nod, thinking. She had said that he knew more about other people than he knew about himself. Maybe so. But one thing he did know was how he felt looking at her right at that moment. It was a darn good feeling!

Before he could restrict his emotional response to one more suitable to public, he smiled at her, a big slow smile meant just for her.

Her responding smile was equally as large, and she found herself involuntarily thinking about the kiss they had so recently shared. To her horror, Kathryn felt herself blush a deep scarlet. At the same time, she was aware how much she was thoroughly enjoying him and his attentions. Dating had more advantages than she had ever anticipated. Her color deepened another shade. She was forced to turn away to regain her composure.

Chakotay looked down at the table and chuckled. When he glanced up again, she had pulled out a chair and sat down to regard him with an appropriately severe expression. Scarlet still stained her cheeks. You're not making this any easier, she stated.

He negated, Yes I am.

She knew he was talking about himself and the new opportunities that dating him opened in her life. She agreed with a small smile. And while we're on that subject, she continued, trying to ignore the mental ramblings that thinking about him and dating brought about, did you talk to B'Elanna?

I did. And Tom. And Harry. And even Seven, who was actually sitting down, by the way.

It's a miracle, she commented dryly.

Seven volunteered to finish the relays.

Good. That makes me feel less... traitorous that we left them the way we did.

Even the captain is allowed a little down time, Kathryn, he remonstrated.

Her brow rose at the use of her name. He'd never called her anything but captain in public. She discovered she liked the sound of it and hoped he would keep doing it despite the fact that she felt she needed to discourage him. She sighed inwardly. Duty and desire were already beginning to wage their war inside her. At the moment, she was too happy to surmise or care which might win.

Kathryn nodded, then went on with her own report. I checked in with the doctor, who proceeded to exclaim over my suddenly relaxed state, which he attributed entirely to himself, though he did admit that you helped with your ingenuity. Then he went into a lecture on sex and hormones in Humans over forty and in stressful career situations. After that, I had a much harder time convincing Tuvok that we didn't need a chaperon for the rest of the evening.

Chakotay laughed so hard he didn't make any sound at all until he tried to catch his breath, when he gasped and choked for several more minutes. Kathryn sat patiently, waiting for the storm to subside, her hands clasped casually in her lap. He continued, and she primly crossed her legs, then looked at him in mildly amused irritation. When he was calm enough, she went on, I told them both as politely as I could that I'm not ready to think about sex just yet. Then she grinned and quirked her eyebrows flirtatiously. In spite of her words, and even after only one kiss, sex was quickly gaining prominence in her mind. She reluctantly squelched those thoughts, knowing that those complications were better off left for later... much later!

Chakotay was still having trouble breathing, and her latest remark hadn't made it any easier. Wait till I tell you what I heard Tom Paris say! he warned teasingly.

Tell me on our walk. You do still want to take a walk, don't you? she asked.

He nodded. Around the entire ship.

Her eyes went wide. The entire ship? He wasn't suggesting a walk - he was suggesting a month long hike! Are you sure you're ready for that?

If it means more uninterrupted time with you, then you bet I'm ready for it! he said in a low voice, leaning forward so only she was certain to hear.

Is that an invitation?

Definitely.

She rose and he followed. But before they stepped away from the table, she leaned in closer to him and in an equally low voice asked, Can I make an invitation of my own?

If she asked him to join her in a jump through the airlock, he would have happily complied. Absolutely, he invited.

Kathryn shyly looked up at him and quietly requested, Will you hold my hand?

Chakotay drew a deep breath, surprised, pleased, and in love. Are you sure you're ready for that? he asked at last.

She hesitated. Now that she had broken her self-imposed isolation from any intimate contact with a subordinate, she found she craved being touched. Captain Janeway had always been known for her soft touches and reassuring hands, but she received the same gestures rarely, and even less often since landing in the Delta Quadrant. She longed for the warmth of his touch, for the feel of another being's skin against hers. Before she had the chance to think better of her request, she quickly said, I am if you are.

Chakotay held out his hand, and with a soft smile Kathryn took it in her own. Without another word to anybody, they unobtrusively slipped from the mess hall.

Tom watched them leave with a soft smile of his own. He turned to B'Elanna, and in a voice decidedly lacking in his usual teasing banter, said, Yep, it is definitely a date!

 

 

AFTERWARD

The next morning Captain Janeway appeared for duty with brightly painted, very red fingernails. Like everybody, Chakotay noticed immediately, but he didn't run. And she was glad he didn't.

 


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