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Magnetic Cohesion 2.1



Chakotay had to duck under a broken bulkhead to watch Janeway leave the briefing room.  She had a haunted look in her eyes, made slightly eerie by the way she floated slowly out the door.

“You ought to speak with her, Commander,” the Doctor gently intoned.  “She’ll hardly listen to anyone else.  I don’t want her to isolate herself in her quarters again for two months.”

The loss of not only Neelix, but also Seven, Tom, and Tuvok, had seemed to shut her down.  The only other time she’d acted so defeated was in the Void, and even then, nobody had died.  Chakotay hadn’t been able to do a damn thing to help her then, and he failed to discern how this time would be any easier.  In fact, after what he’d told her this morning in the turbo lift, he wasn’t sure she’d want to set eyes on him.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Chakotay said to the Doctor, although when he glanced around the heavily damaged room, force fields still in place and table recently returned to its upright position, he saw B’Elanna and Harry watching him as well.  Were these really all the senior officers they had left?

“What if the Delta Flyer doesn’t magically appear when we catch up with the timeline?” Harry asked.

“We can’t think like that,” B’Elanna said fiercely.  “There’s a good chance they’ll show up, and we only have to wait until 0800 tomorrow.  Or… 0800 four days ago, I suppose.”  Chakotay admired her optimism, but knew no one believed that.  Including, possibly, B’Elanna herself.

None of them, Janeway included, had been able to figure out why the ship had traveled backward through time as it emerged from the phenomenon, but most of them were content to chalk it up to the unstable temporal nature of dark energy.

“But that’s nearly fifteen more hours of heading away from our rendezvous point at warp five,” Harry replied, pushing off the floor to float toward the window, “Getting chased by an ever-accelerating starship-eating wave of dark energy.  If they do show up, they’ll be billions of kilometers inside the phenomenon where our sensors can’t penetrate.  Voyager would implode before we got halfway there.”

“It might push them out, like it did us,” B’Elanna countered with a shrug.  Chakotay observed her struggling to maintain composure.  “They’re smaller than Voyager, their structural integrity will hold them together.”

Harry breathed a cynical laugh.  “Didn’t you just tell the Captain how big the rift got in engineering before you closed it this last time?  If that happened to the Flyer it could get swallowed up.  Not to mention that if it shows up at all, another Voyager will probably come with it and get destroyed all over again.”

“You’re ignoring the fact that they could come out of normal space, too, like we did on the way over here.”  B’Elanna was technically correct – since they exited the dark energy the day before they had entered, if the other Flyer showed up it would come, like Voyager, from the direction of the Varro.

Chakotay noticed the Doctor staring sadly at the windows, no doubt considering all eleven deaths confirmed since they had re-entered normal space, as well as the three speculated of the away team.  B’Elanna had been reinitializing his program at least once every day since they’d entered the dark energy, and had just done so for the second time today after the mobile emitter had succumbed to the catastrophic magnetic interference and shut the Doctor down.

Now that he was back online, Chakotay suspected he felt exactly as despondent as he and the other officers did.  Even with the unexpected aid of time travel, most of the crew considered the Flyer irretrievable.  In their experience, temporal loops didn’t provide multiple copies when the originals still existed.

Before Harry could string together a comeback for B’Elanna, Chakotay spoke up.  “There’s no use arguing; we have a lot of work to do.  Get back to your stations and concentrate on your duties.  Dismissed.”

As Chakotay had suspected, Janeway was not occupying the captain’s chair.  He nodded to Harry, then flew to her ready room.

There was no response to his first or second chime.  He laid his arm flat on the doorframe and called, “Captain?”

During the impending silence, he made eye contact with Harry, who looked as forlorn as Chakotay felt.  Then, a faint, “Come in.”

He entered.  The darkened room, like every other, had been badly damaged.  Her desk had toppled into the air, the railing collapsed, the sofa separated from the floor and floating as though underwater.  A force field had replaced one of the windows and the lights flickered abrasively.  At last, he spotted her among the detritus – sipping from a covered mug, her legs curled up in front of her, peering out the force field at the warped stars flying past.  He bounded to one of the nearby windows and turned to her.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he tried.  Knowing it would fail didn’t make him need to say it any less.

“It was.  Would you like me to count the ways?”  Her slightly mocking tone recalled the conversation they had had during dinner last night.  He wished she would meet his eyes.  Her easy smile and pink cheeks over wine seemed so far away now. 

He sighed.  “I accept full responsibility and whatever punishment you see fit.”

“I’m afraid assigning blame isn’t that easy.”  She lowered her head slightly.  “You distracted me from my responsibility to the ship and crew.  Yet it was I, the senior officer, who allowed myself to become distracted.  You were very enticing, Chakotay.”

He noted her use of past tense, but he had expected no better.  “To my way of thinking, it doesn’t have to be… distracting.  It could be compartmentalized, or it could even enhance your ability to command, if you let it make you happy.”

The moment her lips pursed he knew he had said the wrong thing.  “That’s where I take issue.  First of all, clearly, our attempt – your attempt – whatever!  It undoubtedly was a distraction, and I fail to see how it could ever be anything but.  To try it would mean gambling with the lives of my crew.  Secondly,” her voice swelled with pain, “You only wanted to build a relationship because you pity me for being alone.  So –”

“That’s not true –” he tried to throw in.

“So I have a new set of protocols for you, Chakotay!”  She uncurled her legs, let her mug float at her side, and placed her hands on her hips imposingly.

His stomach bottomed out and twisted into a knot.  When he’d said he would accept any punishment…  “Please, listen, Kathryn –”

“You,” she sternly called, cutting over his words, “Will address me only as ‘Captain’.  Our only contact will be to speak about issues related to the functioning of the ship and crew.”  She paused for a deep breath and blinked fervently against the shine he was certain had snuck into her eyes.  “Any lack of adherence to these rules will result in a formal reprimand.  Repeated offenses, I’ll throw you in the brig.  Is that clear?”

He steamed quietly, afraid of what would come out of his mouth if he opened it, deciding just how much he would care about a formal reprimand right this second.

“Commander!”

“Permission to speak freely.”

“Denied.”  The word held every indication of finality.

“Fine!” he bellowed.  “Then get ready to issue that reprimand, because I’m going to say it anyway.”

“Commander –!”

This time he cut over her protest.  “I never pitied you!  What I told you in the turbo lift was my rationalization for why it was finally okay to be with you.  I have been waiting for years.”  He made sure she was looking at him before he continued, could see the emotion on his face.  “Years.  Do you know what it feels like to be this close,” he held up his hand, thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart, “To the person you’re absolutely head over heels for, and know you can’t have her?  I was at the point where I couldn’t wait any longer, so I looked for any excuse, and in my desperation I shot myself in the god damned foot.  Does that mean I don’t deserve you?”

She grew red with emotion.  “Your objections will be noted, but you must stop now.”

Escalated wildly by her unyielding ignorance, he shouted, “You won’t give yourself up to your feelings because you can’t stand the thought of losing one centimeter of control!  You don’t even want to fall in love because it would make you happy, and damned if you would ever consent to letting something so unpredictable into your life!”

She frowned, looking wounded, her mouth constantly resetting as though fighting off tears.  Her voice was low, breaking with hurt.  “There is no happy.  Fourteen people are dead because we were flirting with each other.”

He froze as the icy comprehension dawned on him.  She would never want to be with him – from now until the end of time, she would associate him with the loss of Neelix, Tuvok, Tom, and Seven.  Even if their feelings for each other remained, he knew she would suppress them beneath light years of guilt until they crystallized and shattered.

Numbly, he listened as she recited his formal censure.

+

For the first time, Chakotay spent an entire shift on the bridge with her and didn’t get a single sideways glance.  Even as a freshly re-instated Starfleet officer reeking of Maquis loyalty, she had peeked at him frequently, presumably out of distrust.  Today he’d felt discomfort roiling in the air around Janeway, her jaw permanently clenched as though it would stop her eyes from straying toward him.

At least treating him this way appeared to be a struggle for her.  It certainly was for him.

He rushed for the damaged turbo lift when the shift ended, hot on her tail, determined to have a moment with her on his own terms.  She glared at him as he entered – after eight hours, she finally deigned to look at him – and she growled the command, “Deck three.”  From then on, the door became her focal point.

Both rose to the ceiling and put their arms up to prevent their heads from bumping against the dimmed lights.  “You can’t act this way forever,” he said.  The air felt close.

“I can start with fifty years.”  Her face was unreadable in the semi-darkness and her words betrayed no emotion.

“In order to run the ship, we need to have a working relationship.  Trust each other.”

“I trust you to do your job.”

“That’s not what I mean.  You need to trust me to speak with you, to be alone with you.  Like right now, for example.”

She sighed and picked at a fingernail.  “You’re the one of us I do trust.”

They sank rapidly to the floor as the lift stopped.  The door opened and she shot out immediately.  He followed, confused, and asked, “What?”

“Goodnight.”

Before he could catch up, she vanished into her quarters.  He came to float at her door, toying with the idea of chiming in.

Crewman Henley propelled herself through the hallway and Chakotay made for his own quarters, nodding to her with purpose.  He had no wish to be seen loitering outside the Captain’s space, or worse, getting reprimanded by Janeway for chiming.

As he’d expected, his quarters were a mess.  “Computer, increase lighting by 50%.”

“Unable to comply.”

“Can you increase lighting at all?”

“Negative.”

It would take hours to sort everything in the dark, and he wasn’t in the mood.  He pushed off for his bed, shoving furniture and artifacts out of his way as he began to strip.  Just after he’d shimmied out of his shell, his hand closed around an object with a familiar feel: rectangular, firm canvas backing, snapping shut as he grabbed it.

Jane Eyre.  Would he ever give it to her now?

He brought the book to his nose and inhaled – he had used three days’ worth of replicator rations on the smell alone.  The only other place on Voyager he’d found that scent was in her small collection, so he had borrowed her copy of Inferno again and added the aroma to his replicator’s database.

There would be no harm in keeping the gift.  Perhaps he would read it before passing it on – he’d only perused it once in grade school.  Janeway always said she adored a well-worn book.  “Loved,” she called them.  She might be able to accept a gift from him by May.  And she would certainly still want this; even if she wouldn’t speak to Chakotay, her devotion to Jane Eyre would never waver.

She had mentioned the book to him a few times over the years, but the most recent occasion stood out in his memory.  It was the day some months before when they had reached the gas giant hiding their Borg-enhanced probe, defending it from the Malon while Tom and his team built the Delta Flyer.

He had watched Janeway end a transmission with Vrelk, the captain of the Malon vessel, and immediately storm to her ready room.  The floor had practically shaken with the force of her anger.  He tried to remember exactly what Vrelk had said… something like, “There’s a reason women don’t have power in this area of space.  You think with your hormones, not with your heads.  Malon women are perfectly content to be uneducated housewives.  You’d be happier serving your men, too, Captain.”

When he’d stepped into her ready room to find her pacing furiously, Chakotay had tried, “He was only posturing – attempting to intimidate you.  He’s afraid of us.”

“Men,” she’d steamed.  He wasn’t sure she’d heard him.  “Alien men.”  Each of her footfalls raised another biting word and her hands flew through the air to express her frustration.  “Why can’t they be more like human men?  Like – you?”  She poked him briskly in the chest as she passed him.  “You’re so enlightened and they’re so primitive!  You see me as an equal – which is terribly gratifying, by the way, I hope you know that by now – and they see me as some dysfunctional, weak-minded, inferior piece of dirt on their shoe.  Even worse – think of how they treat their own women.  What must life be like for those poor creatures?  Forced into submission by those who are physically stronger than they, an entire history and culture poised against the achievement of women’s rights!”

“Earth used to be the same way,” he calmly added, careful to mask his swell of affection.  Her passion made him happy, but as a member of the offending gender he kept that to himself.

“Exactly!  When I think about how women were abused even as late as the twentieth century, my blood boils.”  She halted in front of him where he had come to rest at the windows.  One hand on her hip, the other pointing and gesturing, she continued, “In 1996, Chakotay, while we were running around after Starling, soldiers in the Middle East and Africa were demonstrating their ultimate power over the land they’d conquered by raping countless women and children.  In much of the world, women had barely any control over their own lives.  Even in the United States, they were seen as sex objects, and when they took measures to improve their situation, they were laughed at for imagining that blatant sexism!  It’s awful that such a derogatory philosophy still exists in so many alien cultures.”

“No argument there,” he said.  “But how did the women of Earth achieve true equality?  Did a more enlightened alien species step in and force the men to reconsider?”

She blinked rapidly under her knitted brow, the face she always employed when she wanted to make haste.  Her hand circled as she plowed through her rebuttal.  “No, of course not, they fought for it themselves, but it took them hundreds of years and even now women have barely gained a toehold on positions of power.”

“Wouldn’t the fight of alien women be cheapened if you were to step in and express your thoughts on the matter?”

She relaxed slightly.  “Of course, Chakotay.  Not to mention the Prime Directive.”  A large sigh brought her down to the sofa; he sat next to her.  “It’s just –”

“Infuriating, I know.”  He smiled in sympathy.  “I’m angry myself.”

She grinned crookedly back at him and rested her cheek on her fist.  “Too bad I can’t order you to conduct an away mission with the express purpose of enlightening the Malon.”

“I’d be happy to.  Think of all the praise I could offer womankind, with you as my prime example.”

Her eyebrows went up.  “I’d need to keep an open comm link with you, in that case.”

“To check on the accuracy of my stories?”

Her smile deepened.  “Something like that.  I’d also have to brief you on the great feminist figures in Earth’s history.  Mary Wollstonecraft, Betty Friedan, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Meredith Ady…”  She sighed reverently.  “Jane Eyre…”

Jane Eyre?”

“She may have been fictional, yet she fought alongside the rest of them.  I admit I don’t know much about Charlotte Brontë, but Jane I’ve known since I was ten years old.  Sometimes I hear her voice over my shoulder, telling me never to abandon my principles.”

He tipped his head to the side and adored her quietly.  “Sounds like you’ve been reading up.  I didn’t know you had a copy.”

“I don’t,” she admitted, her lips flattening in playful dismay.  “Mine is sitting on my mother’s sunny bookshelf in Indiana collecting dust.  Whatever possessed me to leave it there, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Why not replicate it?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, collecting her thoughts as the corner of her lip quirked up.  “You know the feel and the smell of an old book?”

“You mean crumbly and moldy?” he teased.

She swatted him on the arm.  “Hardly.  I mean pages that aren’t quite cut evenly, bound in good canvas, and when you open it the scent brings you right back to the first time you read it, sitting in a tree with nothing else to do but immerse yourself completely in a good story.  The replicator, I’m sure, can’t do it justice.”

Chakotay stroked the book, his attention back in the present, acutely aware of the yawning gulf that separated him from her now.  He peered toward the dark wall they shared, imagining her in that satin nightgown as she bundled into bed.

The possibility of getting over her skittered across his mind.  Yet he knew from experience that as long as he lived, his infatuation would persist whether he wanted it to or not, and thoughts of her would occupy his mind in every waking moment.

He would wait, like he had since New Earth.  And when he couldn’t wait anymore, he would give her the book.

He barely slept for thinking of her.

+

The sound of whispering spread through the Great Forest like wind rustling the leaves.  The service had been scheduled for 1200 hours, but Janeway was five minutes late and counting.  Most of the crew’s furtive glances were shot in Chakotay’s direction.

As though he had the power to do anything about it.  He hadn’t seen her since the cryptic dismissal last night outside her quarters.

He exhaled deeply and tapped his combadge.  “Chakotay to Captain Janeway.”

“Janeway here.”

The whispering quieted immediately.  They didn’t bother to hide their interest now.

“We’re waiting for your arrival to begin the service, Captain.”  Chakotay stared up at the canopy, hands on his hips.

There was a long pause.  Chakotay started to wonder if he would have to lead the service.  He hadn’t prepared anything.

“I’m on my way,” she finally replied.

Chakotay heard several exclamations from the crowd, including, “I thought she was going to bail!” and, “Do you think she’s mad at him?”  He wasn’t sure how that particular tidbit had circulated through the ship already; he certainly hadn’t told anyone.  Slightly resentful that they would be so gossipy at a time like this, he pushed off the nearest tree and headed for B’Elanna, Harry, and the Doctor, who were floating – and, in the Doctor’s case, standing – apart from the rest of the crew.

Three pairs of wide eyes turned toward Chakotay as he grabbed a branch and anchored himself.  Harry asked, “Do you think she intended to skip it?”

He supposed morale was his job now.  “Not at all, Harry.  I’m sure she got wrapped up in something and lost track of the time.  She would never miss this; it’s too important to her.”

“She’s not doing well,” the Doctor replied.  “I can’t get near her with a tricorder.”

“I thought she was planning on ignoring us because she’s the only one on this ship who’s allowed to feel guilty,” B’Elanna said, perhaps more bitingly than she had intended.  She hastily added, “I mean… we need her.  And anyway, it’s not her fault.”

“It never is,” Harry agreed.

Chakotay tried not to let the guilt get to him, but it had been seeping through the cracks anyway.  Janeway wore her heart on her sleeve, whether she wanted to or not; Chakotay, however, kept his remorse tucked inside, so that no matter how miserable he was, he could present a collected front.  When others spoke to Janeway’s blame, he couldn’t help taking more on himself.  He pictured Neelix getting sucked out of the mess hall into the crackling mass of dark energy, ripped into multiple universes at once.  “You’re right,” he said, as much to reassure them as to stifle his own imagination.  “Don’t worry, she’s still the same stoic captain she always has been.”

“This,” Harry said, waving his hand at their surroundings, “Was a great idea, Commander.  I’m sure Neelix would be happy to know we were sending him and the others off like this.”

Chakotay shrugged.  “Well, we couldn’t very well have done it in the mess hall, what with half of it hanging out into open space.  The Great Forest seemed like an appropriate substitute.”

B’Elanna blinked solemnly at the tree trunk nearest her.  “It’s possible the Delta Flyer is out there, right?  I mean, this isn’t a funeral for Tom.  Or Tuvok or Seven.”  As expected, the Flyer hadn’t shown up that morning when Voyager caught up with the beginning of the temporal loop.  Voyager had been making long-range scans since the second everyone had returned from their escape pods yesterday, but they weren’t producing any information about the away team.

Chakotay didn’t have the heart to negate her comment, but he witnessed the Doctor frown and begin to open his mouth.  “Doctor,” he quickly said, “Maybe afterward, you could sing a lament?”

The placated Doctor latched onto the idea.  “As a matter of fact, I’ve prepared several.”

The arch appeared and opened with a louder tugging noise than usual; that door was one of at least a thousand repairs that needed to be made.  Janeway sped through in her dress uniform and deftly seized a branch in the center of the hushed crowd.  “Thank you for your patience,” she called in a clear voice.

Before she began the service, Chakotay cautiously floated closer to her.  His place as First Officer was at her side.  When he got there, she peered up at him.  Her face betrayed no emotion, but in the dappled sunlight he thought her eyes seemed slightly pink around the edges.  She was absolutely lovely.  “Commander,” she nodded in greeting.

“Captain.”

The entire crew watched the exchange.

For another couple of heartbeats, she looked at him in that familiar way, her eyes darting between the two of his as though she wanted to see them both at the same time.  He could almost believe she regretted the wedge she had driven between them yesterday.  And while his hopes were buoyed by that improbable idea, he desperately blurted, “I’m glad you came,” quietly enough so that nobody else could hear.

Her lips tightened in the second it took him to say it, and once he had finished she instantly turned back to the crew to begin the service.

+

Janeway gripped the freshly re-installed console in astrometrics to address Harry, B’Elanna and Chakotay.  “How long before Voyager is ready to go back in?”

Chakotay, who had arrived a moment ago, peered around Janeway to the flickering image she had transferred to the screen.  It showed a flight path in which Voyager re-entered the dark energy.  The Delta Flyer was positioned inside, optimistically near the leading edge.  It was speculative, of course.  Sensors couldn’t penetrate the phenomenon any more now than they could six days ago.

He saw B’Elanna and Harry exchange a look of doubt.  “Captain?” Harry asked timidly.

“You heard me, Ensign,” she replied with a tip of her chin.  If her idea weren’t so off, Chakotay wouldn’t have known her mind must still be in turmoil.  She wore the same good-natured but impatient expression he had seen a thousand times before, her eyebrows drawn together and lashes fluttering in alacrity.

“We won’t even be able to graze the perimeter for weeks!” B’Elanna answered hotly, visibly frustrated with her own helplessness.  “Our hull is in a million pieces.”

“Not good enough,” Janeway threw back.

“Captain,” Chakotay tried, “We’re doing all we can to hold Voyager together just so we can maintain warp seven in normal space.  A stray piece of dust could destroy us right now.”

She fixed her steely gaze on Chakotay.  “I realize that, Commander.  However, I’ve been manipulating some algorithms.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but,” she tapped the console, “Within eighteen hours, the dark energy will be expanding so quickly that our maximum warp speed won’t be able to keep us ahead.  We have no choice but to re-enter.”

The three of them watched the dark cloud shoot out like a black supernova, encompassing Voyager and pushing it along.  The wavering screen neglected to show the ship imploding.

“Too bad we never made it to the other side,” Janeway continued.  “We might have been able to ride that shock wave for a few thousand light years.”

“There must be a star system we could find refuge in,” B’Elanna said.  “Maybe we could hide behind a planet?”

“It won’t work,” Chakotay responded, gleaning the finality of their situation from the set of Janeway’s jaw.  “Dark energy takes everything, including planets and stars.”

“So,” Janeway said, “We need a plan.  Suggestions?”

Silence.

“Escape pods,” Chakotay answered in a low voice.

“Last resort,” Janeway said.  “I don’t want to break up the family any more than it already has been.  What else?”

Again, nothing.

“Well,” Janeway said after a minute, “We’re going in sooner or later, so we’d best redouble our efforts on the hull.  Commander, I want everyone pulling double shifts, triple if we have to.  Lieutenant, start looking at what power you can divert toward structural integrity.  The instant we drop out of warp, regardless of the circumstances, I want the available power routed to where we need it most.”

Chakotay and B’Elanna nodded in grave acknowledgement.  “What about the Delta Flyer, Captain?” B’Elanna inquired.

“We’ll find them.  Dismissed.”

Chakotay saw Harry and B’Elanna appear almost taken aback by her clipped assurance.  It wasn’t that it hadn’t been sincere, it just sounded like an order.  He watched the two of them leave.

Once the door had shut he turned to Janeway.  It was the first time she had allowed him to linger alone with her for two days.  He dipped his head.  “Captain…”

She crossed her arms and floated above the platform.  “Yes?”  Her flat tone didn’t lend him much comfort.

“How are you feeling?”

“Commander,” she said in warning.

“The way I see it, your feelings are part of the functioning of the ship and crew.”  He tried not to sound bitter, but he feared some of his pain slipped into his voice anyway.  He wasn’t sure why he was asking her how she was – he had a pretty good idea already.

“I disagree.”

It was a risky move, but he kicked off the floor toward her and caught the console with his foot right before he would have bumped into her.  He didn’t touch her, but rather used the opportunity to look at her.

She remained exactly where she was, staring ahead, feathers unruffled.  Even when he knew she would be able to feel his breath on her ear.

“What’s your plan?” he asked, innocently enough.

Her eyes shot over to his.  He could see her debating whether or not she wanted to order him to back off; proximity was something she had forgotten to prohibit.  “I’ll keep Voyager in normal space as long as I can,” she said, her tone a micron softer.

Heartened, he pressed on.  “And when the dark energy catches up with us?”

This time she faced him.  Their noses were less than ten centimeters apart.  “I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”  She absently fiddled with her combadge.

Alarms went off in his head.  When she had said that in the past, it had usually meant she intended to go on a suicide mission.  “You’re not going to take a shuttle out there by yourself, are you?”

Her brows notched up.  “No.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Why had he asked?  She’d never admit to it – she had to know that if Chakotay was privy to her plan, she wouldn’t make it into the shuttle bay.

In response to his suspicion, the corner of her lip turned up.  He sensed her defenses crumbling.  “I’d have no sensors, Cha- Commander.”  She looked to the ceiling.  “Why would I take a shuttle in if I had no sensors?”

“You’ve never been big on explaining your reasons for endangering your own life.  Please, promise me you won’t.”  His emotion was sincere, although he wondered scathingly if she would give him another reprimand for that.

She let out an aggrieved breath, so near him he felt it puff against his chest.  “Chakotay…”  Her eyes traveled up to his.

The air around them felt charged.  If he kissed her, he might – no, would – get slapped.  But he could smell her shampoo and feel her body heat, and not for the first time his mind made a wild leap and wondered what it would be like to make love to her in zero-g.  He didn’t trust himself to speak just yet.  After two days devoid of this kind of interaction with her, he felt slightly overwhelmed.

“I don’t have to promise you anything,” she finally said, her voice warm and liquid.

He drew a shuddering breath, hoping it sounded louder in his head than it would to her.  “And what are you going to do about the Flyer?”

She nodded confidently.  “I have a good feeling about them.  Seven would tell me I’m being irrational, Tuvok would call me illogical… but when they show up they might be able to forgive me.  I’m quite certain we’ll also get Neelix back, experimental bananas Foster and all.”

This was going far better than he had expected.  If she felt this optimistic about the casualties, she might be able to detach her grief from her attraction to him.  Presuming it still existed, of course.  “You didn’t have such a good feeling about them a couple of days ago.  What changed your mind?”

She grinned at him, and his heart soared.  “Part of those tricks,” she said, lifting her arm and showing him the inside of her sleeve.

He couldn’t fight the titanic strength of his affection for her, especially not when she did something so quintessentially Janeway as that.  He took her raised hand within his own and almost winced at his daring, for if she were going to slap him, she would surely do it now.

The smile dropped from her face.  She tipped her chin down as she continued to peer into his eyes, and although her fingers twitched in his grip, they didn’t wrap around his hand.  “Please let go.”

He complied immediately, but didn’t apologize.

She nearly laid her hand on his shoulder, but at the last moment seemed to think better of it and placed it on the side of her face, instead.  “Try to understand, Chakotay.”  Her arms crossed and she tilted her head sadly, continuing in a low, but kind, voice.  “I can’t be tempted by you any longer.  The feelings I have for you are too powerful.  That’s why I need to distance myself from you – it’s the only way they might dissipate.  It’s not meant to be a punishment.”

He swallowed.  “You know how I feel about that.”

“Yes.  But you’ve always respected my wishes, and I expect nothing less from you now.”

“I wish…”  He rubbed the back of his neck, then let his arm float to his side.  “I wish I could just…” and met her eyes.  “Kiss you.  Once.”

Her eyes, darting between the two of his, told him she wished – desperately – for the same thing.  She closed them and shook her head.  When she looked back up at him, brows drawn together, she whispered, “Stop,” like the word had taken every gram of strength she possessed.

Before he could take another tender breath, she had hooked her foot under the console, pulled herself down, and breezed out the door.

He pressed his hands to his face.

+


1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 2.2 | epilogue