Neelix gave a somewhat positive report on morale while Janeway surveyed the conference table. Irritating as her ponytail felt, she relished the freedom to move her head without getting hit in the face by her own hair. B’Elanna had employed the same tactic and had achieved quite pretty results. Neelix ought to give it a shot, Janeway reflected.
She noticed Harry slouching in his seat, fidgeting lethargically with his progress report. He placed it in the air, turned it, and watched it spin lazily. Janeway considered the comment Chakotay had made in the hallway yesterday and wondered how many crew members had noticed Harry’s lackluster behavior. None of Harry’s duties had suffered, so as his Captain she had no cause for concern. Yet it was hard to watch him struggle through the “disease,” as Seven had called it.
“So,” Neelix concluded, “with that notable exception pertaining to Naomi Wildman, the crew is hopeful.”
“Hopeful they won’t die?” asked the Doctor. “How can anyone be hopeful when that’s right outside the window?” He gestured toward the eerie image beyond the side of the ship: stars elongated as through Voyager were at warp – which, of course, it was – although none of the stars were moving.
Janeway spared a glance, then swiveled back to the group. True to her assumption, the Doctor hadn’t breathed a word about Chakotay to anyone, and she had indeed received the dreaded lecture yesterday afternoon in her ready room. The Doctor had even given her a written report on the thirty-five health benefits of relationships. He had seemed preoccupied with the view out her window, now that she thought about it. Today he appeared positively anxious. “Doctor, that’s merely a ghost image of the last visible stars before we entered the dark energy at warp,” she reassured him with a wave of her hand. “Don’t worry, we’re not spinning our wheels.”
“You sound like Tom,” said B’Elanna, catching Janeway’s idiomatic reference to old-fashioned ground transportation. The Doctor hardly looked assuaged, but Janeway smiled at B’Elanna.
“I spoke with Seven this morning,” Janeway stated. “The rate of expansion is continuing to increase, but unfortunately, our transmission was breaking up as she tried to send their data to Voyager. The sensor link is completely decayed. It sounds like they’re traveling backwards at nearly warp one just to maintain their observation position.”
“Tom checked in this afternoon,” B’Elanna added. “That comm signal was even more garbled than Seven’s. He said – I think – that they had surpassed warp one point five, but that they were picking up incredible data on the edge of the dark energy.”
That was bad news – Voyager could be at a standstill soon after all, or worse, traveling backwards. In the absence of sensors they had no way to determine Voyager’s actual velocity. Yet without knowing exactly how large the phenomenon was at the moment, Janeway felt that after spending thirty hours traveling at what she hoped was warp six, it was worth it to continue until either they emerged on the other side, or until they realized beyond a doubt that they were going backwards. Taking the time to bypass the dark energy wasn’t high on her priority list. Not to mention that the scientific information they would gather once sensors were back online would be too valuable to quit now.
“Any progress with sensors?” Chakotay asked, in tune with her unspoken thought.
B’Elanna’s eyes flickered to Harry, who had been working on that particular project with her. “No,” she admitted. “None whatsoever. We can’t read a single thing.”
“See?” the Doctor intoned dramatically. “We could fly straight into a black hole without realizing it!”
Chakotay leaned forward. “Singularities can’t exist inside dark energy, Doctor, there’s no cause for alarm. We’ll be out and on the other side before you know it. B’Elanna, have you at least been able to determine what’s wrong with the sensors?”
While Chakotay spoke, Janeway’s gaze had fixed on him. Now that he had finished addressing B’Elanna, he looked toward Janeway and gave her a warm, if slightly too intimate, smile. Her guard went up at first and she had to work at relaxing herself. Nobody at the table would notice if the Captain and First Officer exchanged a friendly smile. So she returned the favor.
“... Something to do with the magnetic irregularities in the dark energy,” B’Elanna was saying. Janeway focused on B’Elanna, though she felt Chakotay’s attention remain on her. She held her hand sideways over her mouth in thought.
“If only,” B’Elanna continued, “We could find a way to protect the sensors from magnetic interference... but so far, we can’t even protect our mag-lock boots.”
“What do you mean?” Janeway demanded.
Harry cleared his throat and spoke up for the first time. “My mag-locks depolarized this morning. Several crew members have reported the same malfunction. I’m back in my Starfleet issue boots; at least these are comfortable.”
“This is swell. I’m sure sickbay will soon be inundated with crew members complaining of minor bumps and bruises, not to mention an increased incidence of inter-dimensional body parts. As if I didn’t have enough cases of space sickness to treat already. Do you know how many times I’ve been vomited on?”
“If you don’t stop complaining,” responded B’Elanna, “I’ll bang my head against the table and treat you to a Klingon with a concussion.”
“I doubt it,” countered the Doctor calmly, “With that skull you’d probably break the table.”
“There’s no need to get upset,” Neelix said soothingly. “Like the Commander said, it won’t be long before we’re back in normal space, Doctor.”
The Doctor had started pacing around the table. “Upset? If the magnetic anomalies destabilize my program I’ll be much more than upset, Mr. Neelix.” Janeway realized the dark energy was probably already affecting the Doctor – he usually mastered his fears, but today he seemed to pander to them.
B’Elanna, apparently smoldering about his skull comment, darted her hand out as the Doctor passed behind her chair. His program flickered briefly and returned to normal. Janeway saw B’Elanna trying to hide a grin.
“Lieutenant Torres!” cried the Doctor. “Tampering with my mobile emitter is a –”
“Enough,” Janeway commanded, giving both B’Elanna and the Doctor warning looks. “Lieutenant, run a diagnostic on the Doctor’s program and correct any malfunctions caused by the dark energy, including behavioral ones.” Once B’Elanna nodded reticently, Janeway turned back to Chakotay. “Commander, join Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Torres on the sensor problem. The more brains, the better. You might want to try modifying the main deflector to encompass Voyager with a reverse polaron field. If it won’t protect the entire ship, we can at least reroute all sensors through the deflector.”
“Aye, Captain,” Chakotay replied. “Could we try some kind of illuminating charge like a low energy ionic beam?”
“I’m reluctant to fire even a low energy pulse,” she answered, “As we’d risk igniting the phenomenon. If the theories are correct, we wouldn’t stand a chance against that kind of explosion, and neither would the Delta Flyer. Astrophysicists have wondered if such force could manipulate the timeline. Far be it from me to willingly stick my hand into that kind of snake pit. Now, how many inter-dimensional rifts have opened on Voyager?”
“Ah, that’s hard to say, Captain,” said Neelix, who had volunteered to monitor the phenomenon in the absence of the three other senior officers. “As you know, they’ve been opening and closing randomly around sources of energy, like replicators, power conduits, and all over engineering. I’ve been trying to work a gamma ray scanner into the ship’s computer that uses light in the visual range to illuminate the portals as they appear. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to predict their emergence without flooding the ship with lethal levels of radiation. The best guard we usually have is to stay away from the crackling flash of light.”
Chakotay looked from Janeway’s hand to Neelix. “Any further cases of crew members becoming trapped in the rifts?”
Neelix shook his head and pushed his lower lip upward. “Just the four crew members in engineering and the Captain.”
“‘Just,’ Mr. Neelix?” cried the Doctor. “You make it sound like treating them was easy! I nearly had to amputate several limbs!”
Janeway had heard about them this morning. Ensign Vorik’s entire leg had vanished for almost a minute. “Continue working, Neelix. Feel free to ask any crew members for help. Dismissed.”
As everyone exited, Chakotay took a few magnetic steps toward her and together they approached the windows. “B’Elanna must miss Tom more than I thought,” he said, quietly, once the door had shut.
“Not to mention that The Doctor appears to be suffering from acute paranoia.”
“Contrary to what Neelix says, I believe it’s affecting all of us,” he said, glancing into space. “Can’t say I like the view either. Makes me feel like we are spinning our wheels.” He turned to her and some of his disquiet seemed to melt away. His eyes softened.
“You know, we truly might be,” she ventured, fairly worried that Chakotay might resume his tempting flirtations now that they were alone for the first time since yesterday morning. If she could control the subject of their conversation, perhaps things wouldn’t become so nebulous.
Of course, she could have tromped back onto the bridge if she had really wanted to avoid him. But she didn’t. She only wanted to avoid having to reprimand him.
“How so?” In complete disobedience to her thoughts, he feigned desire for a better view out the window and took another casual step, pressing his side flush against hers. The points where her shoulder, arm and hip touched him felt warm and electric.
“I’ve been studying my astrophysics in conjunction with the sensor logs from yesterday morning right before we entered the dark energy,” she said, waving a hand as she spoke. “It’s possible this phenomenon is expanding at a rate that’s faster than our own speed right now, although without the data from the Delta Flyer there’s no way to tell.”
“So we could be stuck on the edge. Will it ever stop growing?” he inquired, tipping his head to the side and narrowing his eyes at her in curiosity.
“No, and that’s where it gets interesting.” She gestured with her finger. “Once the dark energy reaches a certain size – nobody’s sure exactly what size, but we’re talking several orders of magnitude bigger than ours is right now – it becomes little more than a shock wave. Something as small as a ship or planet would merely rock in its wake. Larger objects, such as distant galaxies, are carried much farther by the wave. That’s why the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Dark energy patches are like anti-gravitational reverse singularities.”
“Too bad ours isn’t that big. It would be nice to be able to see what’s in front of us, at least.”
She raised her eyebrow and crossed her arms. To look at his face from so near required her cheek to almost brush his shoulder. “One thing I don’t understand, Chakotay, is why I was only informed of the increasing rate of expansion after the Flyer parted ways with us. We could have prevented this confusion if we’d remained in normal space long enough to take the complete readings on Voyager.”
His innocent expression returned, along with a shrug and a twinkle in his eye. He peered out the window as he spoke. “Is it a crime to find an excuse to spend a few minutes alone with you in your ready room? Granted, it started going downhill when your arm nearly got severed by a parallel universe.”
She stepped away and planted her fists on her hips. “You know better, Chakotay. What if that information becomes the key to a life or death situation while we’re in here?”
For a moment he only blinked at the warped stars, his hands clasped behind his back. When he set his eyes on hers his tone grew serious. “I apologize, Captain, it won’t happen again. I made an error in judgment and in the future I’ll inform you of everything right away.” He dipped his head slightly and raised his eyebrows. “… To make up for it, how about I replicate dinner tomorrow night?”
If anyone but Chakotay had told her they had compromised the ship’s possible safety just to spend time with her, she would likely have felt offended as a woman; yet his sincerity was unavoidably disarming. She tisked in mock outrage, softly punching his arm. “You would’ve made it anyway. What else have you got?”
“I was saving it for your birthday, but I suppose I could give it to you early.”
She smiled. “Will I be short a birthday present, then? Why do I feel like you’re trying to give me the raw end of the deal?”
“Do you really think I would leave you hanging on your birthday?” He crossed his arms as though his very soul had been insulted. “The way I see it, I have three whole months to get something else for you.”
With half a nod, she schooled her features into determination. “Alright, let’s have it then.”
“I’ll give it to you tomorrow night.”
“Oh, so now I have to wait.”
“You have the capacity to be patient, Kathryn. I saw it once.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Have you replicated it yet?”
“I can’t tell you that.” He smirked playfully.
She placed her hand on her hip. “Fine. I don’t care what it is.”
“Reverse psychology won’t work on me, Kathryn.”
“I could order you to tell me.”
“But you won’t because you wouldn’t want to abuse your position.”
“I thought there were no secrets between us.”
“You can’t guilt trip me, either.”
Finally, she had to laugh at his rapid-fire defenses. “Alright, you win, Chakotay.” Her free hand swung up to rest on his shoulder and she raised her eyebrows. “But there’s one thing you’re wrong about.”
“What’s that?” He joined his hands behind his back.
“I’ve never been patient. Not even once.”
He grinned and blinked at the floor without answering.
She crossed her arms. “You disagree, do you?” she said, sensing he was about to change the mood. Again, she considered making for the bridge. She didn’t.
“By my reckoning, there’s only one thing you’ve been able to wait for without taking the initiative yourself.”
“And what’s that?”
His brows went up. “Love.” He said it so matter-of-factly, as though he’d been talking to the Doctor.
She regarded him for a moment before she decided how to respond. Of course, he was right. But the issue was so complex. Technically, they were both on duty, so it would be inappropriate to have a lengthy discussion on a subject unrelated to the ship and crew.
So, she settled on saying, “You’re right, Chakotay,” then artfully shrugging in a manner that suggested the subject was closed. “But that’s a topic for another time.” She began to plod toward the door.
“See what I mean?”
She stopped to listen, but didn’t turn around.
“Patience,” he continued. “Have you ever wondered whether maybe it’s not a virtue in this case? It’s been almost a year since you found out Mark has moved on, so you can’t use him as a safety net any longer. And you’ve said you’re too busy for a relationship as well – but do Tom and B’Elanna have any more free time than you do?”
Not really seeing the door in front of her, she inhaled deeply and firmly grabbed the chair nearest her just to feel like she was anchored to something. Once in a while zero-g became unsettling.
“I know you, Kathryn. If you continue to ignore the most basic human desire – the need to be close to someone – you’ll come to regret it.”
Continuing the conversation from here was out of the question. Both were due back on the bridge five minutes ago. She knew she was only proving Chakotay right, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that they were on duty. “Maybe so.” Then, before she took her leave, she twisted around to get a look at him.
She had meant peer into the familiar, quietly understanding eyes of her First Officer, to give him a reassuring smile, to signal that perhaps the topic could be revisited later on. Yet the expression he gave her from across the room melted her composure. He appeared ready to bound to her side and kiss her if she’d asked him.
She thought about it for a wild microsecond, but… She didn’t.
This infatuation was infuriating.
Janeway took another sip of coffee from her covered mug and pressed her warm hand to her furrowed brow. Out of the six PADDs floating in front of her, she had read all and absorbed nothing. Even in his absence Chakotay assumed the power to distract her. Whenever he had the gall to pop into her head, she extinguished the thought. Sometimes it took a little longer than others.
Yet she hadn’t gotten enough sleep this week, anyway. That was probably the solitary cause of her ailment, combined with the amount of coffee she had imbibed throughout the day. It wouldn’t be the first time that such a dose of caffeine did a number on her attention span. Her mind was going a light year per minute. She tried not to notice how easy rationalizing had gotten.
“Last call!” Neelix announced from behind her as he dimmed the lights. It soothed her aching eyes. “Another refill, Captain?”
She stood, stretched, and shook out her jitters. If only she could sleep and run ten kilometers at the same time. “No, thank you, I’ve had plenty.” Stepping around to face him, she added, “A little too much, to be honest.”
Neelix approached and joined his hands over his belly. “Is something bothering you, Captain? You seem more troubled than usual.”
Not the image she’d wanted to project. “Some days, being Captain is harder than others, Neelix.” She shook her head and lowered the hand holding her current PADD, trembling ever so slightly. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“I bet you could use a distraction.” Before he could continue, she must have made a face – the last thing she needed right now was another distraction. Neelix closed his mouth and blinked, then, “I mean a diversion that you enjoy! An evening on the holodeck, or the pleasure of reading a good book.”
“Believe me,” she squinted cynically, “That won’t help.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could stuff them back in. She must have been more high-strung than she’d thought. “I appreciate your concern, but –”
“Chakotay to Janeway. I see you’re in the mess hall. Mind if I join you?”
She inspected her boots, hands on her hips. “Be my guest,” she replied, “I wasn’t getting much work done. Perhaps you could lend me a hand.”
“I was hoping to make this a social call.” Her combadge remained silent just long enough for her to roll her gaze to the ceiling. Neelix’s grin was palpable and it was the last thing she wanted to see. “But you are the Captain,” Chakotay finished.
“Come on down first, Chakotay. I think you’ll observe that I have plenty of energy to burn on these reports. If I weren’t wearing these boots, I’d be on the ceiling.”
“Sounds like the perfect opportunity to get our blood pumping on the holodeck.”
Neelix wisely said nothing, but she caught the barest hint of an aborted smirk on his face before he busied himself in removing his apron and setting it in the kitchen.
Janeway sucked on her teeth. She knew Neelix, like the Doctor, only wanted her to be happy. She reset her jaw before answering Chakotay. “What did you have in mind?”
The door opened – Janeway and Neelix turned toward it. “Velocity,” Chakotay responded, floating in with a smile and tossing a small duffel bag at her. He wore brown athletic shorts and his gray Starfleet-issue tee-shirt, boots forgone in favor of tennis shoes.
Snatching the sack out of the air and clamping it under her arm, she asked, “In zero-g?” She raised her chin and waved the PADD at Chakotay. “Antimatter containment is beginning to fluxuate, I’d like you to take a look at this.”
With a knowing nod, Neelix excused himself. “I’ll let you two get to work. Or, I hope, socializing.” He tapped his nose at Janeway and tromped out the door. “I happen to know that holodeck one is free!” he called.
Observing the PADDs floating over her table, Chakotay raised his brows. He took the proffered one from her hand. “Been making any progress?” he asked.
Her heart raced. That would be the caffeine, of course. She blinked, and the situation became comical – here she was, trying to work for hours and getting nowhere, hoping that her First Officer would assist her when in fact he was the very source of her inattention. Not only that, but he had apparently snuck into her quarters to grab her velocity outfit and stuffed it into this bag before she had agreed to play, and she couldn’t think of anything more distracting than the eager, boyish charm which he now employed to persuade her into the holodeck. He made her feel young. So her defenses crumbled and she broke into an ironic smile.
His tone shared in her good humor. “I’ll take that as a no.”
“You’d be correct. Zero progress.” She meant to lay a hand on his shoulder, but he floated too far above her. She placed it on his chest, instead, and inadvertently felt his own heartbeat through the fine cloth.
He wrapped his fingers around her arm and tugged gently until his feet tapped the floor. She let him retain the grip as he studied her hand. “But you do seem to have done a fair amount of work on the caffeine front.” Her fingers quivered, regardless of her efforts to still them. “It would be a shame to let all this energy of yours go to waste.”
She peered over her shoulder at her table, acutely aware of his hold on her arm, the pad of his thumb softly stroking the inside of her wrist. The PADDs paled in comparison to the endorphins this sensation generated within her. Turning her head back to Chakotay, her lips slightly parted, she met his steady gaze. “Who am I to fight the inevitable?” It came out more breathily than she had intended, so she added body to her voice. “Now. Are you ready to lose?”
Their banter carried them to the holodeck. Chakotay insinuated several times that mere caffeine couldn’t give her an edge, but Janeway exacted several rejoinders, her favorite of which was, “Mere cockiness won’t give you an edge, either, Chakotay.”
They reached the entrance, Janeway stuck to the floor and Chakotay having pushed himself along bulkhead by bulkhead. “Did I ever tell you that I let you win last time we played?” He accessed the console and tapped in a few commands.
She crossed her arms. “Is that so? Did you also let me win the last ten times we played?”
He shot her a playful glance over his shoulder. “Computer, run program Chakotay sigma alpha.” The computer beeped in compliance. “Go ahead, Kathryn. I’ll wait out here while you change.”
She opened her mouth to tell him not to peek, but regained some modicum of control at the last second. Instead, she said, “Don’t run away scared,” and trudged through the portal.
… Into a stunning recreation of the athletic fields at Starfleet Academy. The heavy doors slid shut behind her and she simply basked in the sunshine for a minute, absorbing every perfect detail.
Her eyes alighted on the outdoor velocity court, a large cube of fine wire mesh. On a ship where shore leave was brief and infrequent, why play velocity indoors when the holodeck was so versatile? She was surprised it had taken this long for someone on board to create such a program.
Since no holo-characters occupied the greens, Janeway stripped right there in the grass. Digging into the bag, she rejoiced upon finding her sports bra – yet she hadn’t given Chakotay clearance to enter her quarters so he could rummage through her underwear. She blanched, wondering what else he’d seen. Perhaps this was the moment she had been waiting for: he certainly deserved a reprimand for this infraction.
She hastily pulled on the bra, black leggings, and red tunic, running through the possible conversation in her head. Within seconds, she decided that asking Chakotay about her lingerie would be more inappropriate than his easy care in bringing the bra in the first place. As much as she disliked the idea, she’d have to let this incident swing under the radar.
The thrill of imagining his hands in that drawer was, as Seven would say, irrelevant.
She tapped her badge after transferring it to her top. “Chakotay – let the eleventh straight win commence.”
When he entered she had the distinct impression that he was watching for her reaction to having discovered the sports bra, and she definitely noticed his eyes pass over her chest briefly. “I’m planning on a surprise comeback,” he said without missing a beat, the words framed by dimples. “How do you feel without the boots?”
She felt several things, very few of which were related to the boots. “Are you trying to distract me from the game?” They floated into the velocity court and she made sure to stay at least a meter ahead of him, pushing off for the far side of the cage as soon as she could. “Here’s an idea – I win, you give me that present tonight.”
From across the court, about seven meters away, he responded, “Sounds good to me. If I win, we have two dinners each week instead of one.”
“Deal.” Her heart felt like it needed antimatter containment. No matter; she would win, and therefore wouldn’t have to worry about Chakotay’s demand.
He tossed her a phaser, which she made ready while he prepared his own. Chakotay gave the computer a few verbal commands, and the game began.
As expected, Janeway had the edge. Not only did she practice more regularly, but she used her size to her advantage. Her tactic proved especially useful in zero-g because it took far less energy for her to move herself around than Chakotay required. Sometimes with artificial gravity he used his mass to accumulate momentum, but here the bulk made him slow to a fault. Janeway won four rounds in under ten minutes.
“How many rounds?” she asked, gripping one of the handholds Chakotay had programmed into the interior of the court, about two meters from him. Placing the phaser in mid-air, she reached back with the free hand to make sure her ponytail remained intact, then snatched the phaser up again.
“Ten sound okay?” Chakotay panted, wiping the sweat from his forehead with an arm.
“I think not,” she grinned, riding the tide of sunshine and exercise. The caffeine helped, too. “If we do ten, I’ll have won in two more rounds. I say twenty.”
“Sure, fifteen. You’re going to have to come up with a different strategy, Chakotay,” she teased, pretending to yawn. “I’m getting bored watching you throw your weight around.”
He smiled crookedly. “Aye, Captain.”
The fifth round began; as usual, she kept her sights pinned on the disk, but peripherally she did indeed observe Chakotay using a new approach. Strictly speaking, the rules of velocity didn’t prohibit players from crowding. Yet because it made the disk too difficult to control, crowding was considered a highly unorthodox tactic. Still, Chakotay inched into her side of the court, handhold by handhold, his body and phaser arm facing outward. She clung to the middle of the back wall, where she had the widest vantage point.
She tried to send the disk at the side of him nearest her, but he quickly adapted once the move became predictable. Instead, she shot the disk toward him from all angles. He fought it off a couple of times, but she was sure she had him when it bounced off the floor just under his feet.
Rather than shooting it off, he resumed his ineffective dodging technique. However, when he kicked against the wall this time, he propelled himself squarely in Janeway’s direction, simultaneously shooting the disk in an impressive display of agility.
She found herself stuck between the urge to save herself from letting Chakotay crush her and staying in place so that by the time he reached her, the disk would catch him in the back instead of her. Uncertain, she fired at the disk anyway and attempted to shimmy upward along the wall.
He reached her former position just as she made it to safety. She smiled triumphantly as the disk hit him at her feet a microsecond later.
The computer announced her win. “Full impact. Round five to Janeway.”
His neck craned up and she saw the happiness on his face. He tapped her ankle and said, “Tag. Round one to Chakotay.”
“Tag?” she asked, but he’d already flown across the court.
“You’re it. Now you have to tag me.”
That sounded about as easy as velocity. She tucked the phaser into her belt and zoomed toward him.
It only took a few jumps for her to catch up with him; she latched onto his shoe and both dissolved into the laughter that had built up during the new game. “Tag,” she chuckled. “What do I say now, you’re it?” She pulled herself up to eye level and reached for a handhold behind her, flattening herself against the wall.
“You say no backs,” he quipped, whipping himself at her by jerking on her arm. His limbs spread out to various handholds and he nearly pressed his entire body against her. He froze when a bare centimeter separated them.
Stunned, she cast about in her mind for the censure she knew she should give him, but in her frantic search the words deserted her. She felt magnetically drawn outward, toward him, and her grip on the holds was slick with sweat. When she pushed her head against the wall to avoid bumping noses, she was betrayed by Newton’s third law, and her body involuntarily arched into him.
Panicked, she recoiled. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath, and his face was all she could see. Unnerved and speechless, she watched the sun hit the beads of perspiration over his tattoo. She refused to meet his eyes.
He raised what she supposed was his tagging finger and trailed it slowly from her cheekbone to her jaw.
A stray neuron fired. “No backs,” she offered.
“Too late. You’re it – no backs.” He rested his forearm against the wall.
She closed her eyes to draw breath for the reprimand, but the air filled her lungs shallowly and smelled of Chakotay’s very essence.
Then, the sun shone through her eyelids, and when she looked, he’d bounded off again.
Her jangled nerves got little respite – he was headed straight for a bright, crackling inter-dimensional rift. “Chakotay!” she cried.
She urgently dove toward the side wall and pushed off it instantly, using all the force she could muster. As she’d hoped, she was able to intercept Chakotay and alter his trajectory just before he’d have grazed the rift. Her face mashed into the bare skin of his upper arm; she wrapped around him in an instinctively protective manner. As they sailed to the opposite wall, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. The fissure exerted an electric pull on them, and thank goodness she’d thrown all her strength into the leap; otherwise, they wouldn’t have had the momentum to change direction. Knocking Chakotay from his path with a mass like hers was like a shuttle tractoring a starship off course at warp speed.
They hit the wall like a ton of bricks, and it took a moment for her to reorient and untangle herself from the rather compromising position she’d weaved into.
“Thanks,” he panted while she reluctantly removed a thigh from between his, biting her tongue to keep her stirrings hidden. She could hear the rift sparking in the background. His heavy exhalations warmed her clammy forehead.
When she felt righted she floated freely half a meter from Chakotay’s tempting body, bringing a hand to her mouth as she assessed the situation. Her fingers danced over her lips to prevent her from using them in a way she’d regret.
He dipped toward her and looped an arm around her waist just as she began to feel the crackling mass reel her in. “Careful,” he said, pressing her firmly against him, her back to his front. The words, “Maybe we should’ve stuck to your reports,” ghosted over her ear, warm and tickling.
She swallowed over the dryness in her throat. Chakotay’s nose barely skimmed her temple; she jumped, went rigid, and barked, “Computer, end program.”
The reluctance in Chakotay’s release of her was clear. His hand dragged slowly across her waist, then rested on her shoulder, a disappointed sigh deflating him.
Once the scene around them had dissolved, the rift only lasted another few seconds. Janeway realized she ought to have switched the program off right away – it figured that once the power of the holo-emitters had lessened, the portal would no longer be attracted to the holodeck.
As soon as the last spark fizzled out, Janeway hauled herself to the wall next to Chakotay and sprung for the door on the far side. Both were silent as she flew.
She caught the arch before the door opened and turned around, brows drawn upward in concern. Her uniform floated within reach. He remained where she’d left him, watching her almost anxiously. Would he ever go back to the Chakotay he’d been just a few days ago, content to be her closest friend and nothing more?
Now or never. “Chakotay –”
“Kathryn,” he interrupted. “Please don’t close yourself off. Just… consider it.” A heavy subtext coated his subsequent words: “I’ll wait.”
Her resolve, weak to begin with, once again fell apart. He hadn’t crossed any lines, only flirted. It was harmless. And no one had seen.
She collected her uniform and tried to smile amid the surge of guilty relief she felt at failing to put him in his place. “Goodnight, Chakotay.”
“Sleep well, Kathryn.”