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RATING:  PG-13
DIVERGENT PATHWAYS
 
 

 "Janeway to Commander Chakotay."

"Yes, Captain?" Chakotay looked to the ready room doors with slight trepidation hearing the tone of her voice. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Tom turning around, likely to see if he could detect any emotion on his superior officer's face. Chakotay refused to give him the satisfaction.

"Come to the ready room."

He winced internally. "On my way," he said, putting every ounce of sincere efficiency he possessed into his voice. Rising, ignoring the pilot's almost blatant stare, giving bridge command to Tuvok, he prepared to face the music.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kathryn pulled her shoulders back and raised her chin in readiness of Chakotay's entrance. Her fingers tapped the PADD in short, staccato movements, scrolling the communiqué rapidly. The door chimed.

"Come in," she called out sharply.

Chakotay entered, hands behind his back, head high, meeting her glare with a steady gaze. She waved at the chair. He sat. Still neither spoke, but regarded the other with a penetrating look.

He sighed. He knew he sounded perturbed, in truth he was merely trying to relieve the clench of his stomach muscles. But he'd made the first sound so he plunged ahead. "You wished to see me, Captain?" State the obvious and wait. His tactic of choice when dealing with an angry Captain, a more than perturbed Kathryn.

She narrowed her eyes. Damn the man, anyhow. "Yes, Commander," she answered, thrusting the PADD across the desk. "Would you care to explain this to me?" She watched him calmly pick it up and tap the surface.

"It appears to be a copy of my latest communiqué with Admiral Paris. Is there a problem with it?" he asked, though he already knew what she would say. He laid the PADD down between them.

"Commander, I think you know very well what the problem is. I don't need you to fight my battles. Why didn't you tell me command asked you for this?!" She picked up the PADD, waving it in front of his face.

"I wasn't aware of any request, made by you, that I tell you of each and every communication I send back to the Alpha Quadrant, Captain," he answered, becoming more than just slightly irritated. "Besides, I wasn't fighting any battle for you."

"So, by sending a report supporting each and every decision I made about the Equinox you were just giving your unbiased opinion?" She stared intently at him.

"Yes," he replied calmly this time. "I was giving them my opinion. That's what Admiral Paris asked for."

"You lied to him. To protect me," she said harshly.

He contemplated a response, realizing there wasn't much he could do to convince her. "Kathryn..."

She interrupted him. "Don't Chakotay. Don't make this personal."

"But it is personal." This time he fixed her with a stare.

"You're dismissed," she practically spat out, meeting his eyes only briefly.

"Kathryn, we need to finish this..."

"Dismissed, Commander!"

He left. It wasn't until thirty minutes later, studying the command console, that he realized he'd never asked where she got a copy of his report.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kathryn was having trouble relaxing after dinner. She stared out her viewport. She paced. She tried to read some dilithium consumption reports from B'Elanna. After looking at the PADD for ten minutes and registering nothing she threw it on the table in disgust.

She left her quarters to take a walk. Approaching Chakotay's door she slowed, thinking about hitting the chime. She knew he was right about one thing, they needed to finish their discussion from that afternoon. She knew she'd been avoiding him and everyone else, too. She just didn't want to get into the other topic. She was afraid he'd again try and change her mind. Try and convince her to restart their intimate relationship. His last attempt had been almost seven weeks prior, still, she worried. She retraced her steps, got into the lift, and absently ordered it to deck five.

An hour later, after walking ten decks and startling three crew members exiting their quarters, she returned to hers. At least she was tired now. She undressed, brushed her hair forty two times, washed her face and climbed into bed.

The sun was beating down, harsh. Intensely warm, almost hot air filled her lungs. She briefly wondered why she was wearing her uniform when it was so beastly warm outside. She was not comfortable.

She looked down at her feet, working hard to keep her moving. The pale brown, almost golden dirt was kicked up with every step. Her boots were just about covered with the stuff. There were shallow gullies in the road where she supposed at some point rain had washed the dirt away. To somewhere. She was aware of wanting a drink but didn't feel thirst. There was no sound. No birds. No animals scurrying through the brush or across her path.

The road forked ahead of her. A gradual split into two. She slowed her pace, feeling vaguely uneasy, a cool pit of anxiety making itself known in the lower depths of her gut. She stopped, looking down the now two roads in front of her. Reaching for her tricorder she only found uniform. The pit in her gut turned cold.

Figuring she could always backtrack she chose the right fork and kept walking. She had to keep moving. The dust was now coating the black fabric covering her lower legs. She counted shrubs as she walked. She'd passed nineteen of them when the road simply ended. Abruptly. Dirt became grassland. Her stomach clenched in fear.

Kathryn woke slowly, a few minutes before the computer told her to. Standing in the shower she felt more than vaguely disquieted. She didn't know precisely why.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An hour later they finally made first contact with a race whose planet held vast amounts of dilithium in its more remote lands. The Faustran. Voyager's Captain and First Officer spent the morning and part of the afternoon negotiating with Faustran officials. This new race had heard of the "Voyagers" from so far away and knew more about the ship's technology than either Kathryn or Chakotay felt comfortable with. It was not a good negotiating position. Finally, however, an agreement was reached. Dilithium for engineering schematics of Voyager's recycling technology.

The senior staff was gathered in the briefing room. The command team was in the ready room, discussing.

"Captain, it's just a feeling. I don't trust them. They capitulated over the replicator technology too quickly, after bringing it up so late in the game." Chakotay was talking to her back, as Kathryn stood facing the viewports.

"We need this dilithium. Our supply runs out in less than three months."

"Yes, and the next planet has some as well."

"I don't think they are untrustworthy. A little strident, perhaps, but we dealt with them." She turned to face him. "Look, I need you to support me on this. We're not going to walk into that briefing on opposite sides of this decision. It's been made. We're going to mine this afternoon. You will lead the mission. Pick your team." She crossed her arms on her chest, daring him to disagree. She watched the muscle in his jaw clench and unclench rhythmically.

He wanted to shake her. "Fine, Captain." He swept his hand toward the ready room doors. "After you."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The away team having been assembled and the Delta Flyer prepared, Chakotay transmitted his final preflight check-in. Kathryn, as per usual, wished the mission success before signing off.

She contemplated the open console on her desk, reading, yet one more time, the message from Starfleet Command. She not only had the beginnings of a headache but her stomach was now feeling decidedly queasy.

"...and while we understand that your situation occasionally requires nonconforming actions, please elaborate on your decision to give the Hirogen race holodeck technology. The Prime Directive clearly..."

She rubbed her temples absently and took another sip of coffee. She read her partially composed report, then with a snort deleted it all.

"I sound like a child looking for approval..." she muttered. She began to type, still talking under her breath, "To Admiral Nechayev, Starfleet Command, etcetera, from Captain Kathryn Janeway, stuck in the hell hole Delta Quadrant, etcetera..."

"Captain to the bridge." Harry's voice had an edge to it that made the hairs on Kathryn's neck stand up. She rose quickly and almost trotted onto the bridge, calling for information the nanosecond the ready room door opened.

"The away team contacted us but we received only a partial communication. There's now a force field surrounding them. I've been unsuccessful at breaking through," Harry said, continuing to work his console rapidly.

"Replay the communication," she ordered.

"Chakotay to Voyager, we're under..." Kathryn's stomach lurched. There was no mistaking the urgency heard.

"Keep trying Harry, and get them out of there as soon as you can. Beam them directly to sickbay. Then attempt to retrieve the Flyer." She knew he'd been doing that even before she arrived. Sitting heavily in her command chair she stared at nothing, her heart hammering in her chest, her hands turning cold. She unsuccessfully tried to reign in her emotions. Chakotay'd been right. She was wrong. Those damned Faustrans wanted the Flyer's replicator and they'd likely kill for it. She closed her eyes and thought of him. He wasn't dead, he couldn't be, she'd know, wouldn't she?

Fifteen agonizing minutes later they disabled the force field and immediately received a transmission from a stressed but ever energetic Tom. Three crew members needed emergency beam outs. He and Chakotay were bringing the Flyer home.

It wasn't until the shuttle docked that Kathryn found out Chakotay had been injured as well. He'd ordered Tom to leave him in the tactical seat in case they came under attack, even though only one of his arms was functional. She immediately left for sick bay.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Chakotay watched from the biobed as his Captain entered. Her eyes met his for only a moment, but it was a charged one. His heart skipped. She was relieved he was sitting. She then spoke with the Doctor, then Tom, then walked to each of the three more seriously injured crew members, touching each on the shoulder, passing out words of reassurance and gratitude. No one but he would have been able to tell that she was struggling. Struggling with her guilt, and her remorse. He could see it around her eyes and in the stiffness of her posture. His heart went out to her but he put his shields up as she approached.

"Commander, how are you feeling? How is your arm?" Her manner was still stiff but her voice was softened. Her eyes were now locked on his.

"It's fine. A little sore, the Doctor says I have 24 more hours to endure it. No velocity for a week at least." He waited, their eyes still locked, her emotions plainly written on her face. He gave in, again. "Captain, perhaps we could have dinner, and discuss the situation?" He deliberately left the topic undefined.

"How did you manage to not only break your arm, but dislocate your shoulder?"

He sighed. "Tom and I were dragging Vorik in, the Faustran who was shooting at us, his weapon stopped working. He ran to the shuttle door, managed to grab me, being the last one in. They're alot stronger than they look. I side kicked him, he broke my arm and, um, removed it from it's socket," he said, trying to suppress the shudder the body memory evoked. "Tom phaser'd him." He was a bit startled to see Kathryn's eyes filling. "I'm fine, really." He reached between them and touched her hand. He was unprepared for the jolt as his skin made contact with hers and seeing her eyes widen it appeared as though she was, too. Still she made no sudden move, rather let her fingers gradually brush in between his. Her eyes closed briefly. When they opened, she pulled her hand away.

"Dinner?" he asked again, more softly this time.

"I don't think so, I have work to do. Prepare your mission report whenever you're released and get it to me as soon as you can." Without another word or touch or even glance, she left.

Though he tried to stop it, his heart sank watching her go. Thinking about their hands touching, he was surprised at himself for being so unprepared. It hadn't been that long, no matter how many barriers and walls she erected between them. He sighed again, much more deeply this time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kathryn was laying in bed, for the second night in a row she was trying to relax enough to fall asleep. She'd taken another walk. She'd stopped by Chakotay's quarters to pick up his report, wanting to retain control over how long a time she spent with him. She left soon after. They'd very very briefly discussed the plan to contact the second planet the following day. She'd even agreed to have breakfast with him. Unwanted images of his arm being yanked by the alien kept creeping into her mind whenever unconsciousness began to take her away. She pulled out her book and read until the pictures in her mind were now of a governess in ancient England and sleep claimed her.

She was walking on the dirt road, aware she'd been there before. It was hot. Hotter this time. The dust she kicked up got into her eyes and nose, making them sting, and tear. Her cheeks suddenly felt wet and she wiped them dry. She was confused.

Ahead of her, she again saw the fork in the road. Again, she reached for her tricorder and again found nothing but fabric at her waist. She remembered taking the right fork the last time so she chose the left one now. Her anxiety returned though her need to continue walking was overpowering. Traveling down the left fork she still heard no birds, saw no animals. There was a buzzing sound, like the hum of mosquitoes around her home in Indiana. She counted shrubs again as she walked. This time she made it to twenty six before the road ended. Abruptly. Dirt became grassland. The buzzing sound was louder, her eyes roamed, trying to locate the source. She saw the cloud of bees approaching. She tried to turn and run but couldn't move. She felt a scream begin in the back of her throat.

She woke suddenly, fully aware within seconds that her heart was pounding and her body was bathed in sweat. She felt an unaccustomed sense of panic. She remembered most of the dream this time, and opened her eyes so as not to see too many images too clearly. She rolled over without thinking, now staring at the wall that separated her bedroom from his. Her throat closed as she choked down a sob. However, she let the tears flow, soaking her pillow.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kathryn entered the mess hall, going straight to Neelix for some coffee before turning around to find Chakotay's table. He was in the corner, as usual, and nodded to her in greeting after meeting her eyes.

"Captain, I have two delicious entrees this morning for your dining pleasure," Neelix said, causing her to turn again and consider breakfast. "First, I have what I call the Voyager scramble. Finely grated leola root, mixed with some gluten, hair pasta and as usual, Talaxian spices. It comes highly recommended."

She looked at it and instantly shook her head.

"The other choice is a bit experimental, still, but I think it's tasty enough to try. Lieutenant Ayala has been asking me to find a substitute for oatmeal. I've found that by using the grain of the Turval plant, grinding it by hand, adding a little gluten and cooking it for an hour, it bears a remarkable resemblance to your Earth's oatmeal. Add a little replicated butter and some sugar, and voila! Breakfast. So how about I just dish some of this up for you, Captain? There's more sugar and milk on the tables."

It looked fairly similar and didn't have any Talaxian spices. Still, she wasn't sure. What if it was horrible? Maybe the other dish would be better. She knew Neelix was waiting for her answer, so she reluctantly agreed to try it. He put a bowl on her tray with a flourish and a smile. She poured herself some juice and went to sit down.

Chakotay took one look at her tray and chuckled softly. "Ah, the oatmeal. I think the general consensus from the ranks is that the Voyager scramble is better. Still, leola root first thing in the morning is always daunting," he teased.

She stared at him then down at her tray, and felt her heart being squeezed harshly. Her throat was closing again so she picked up her juice and tried to sip it, to swallow the lump. It didn't work. She got up and left the mess hall, walking rapidly down the corridor toward her quarters. Once inside she went immediately to her replicator, ordering some coffee, scrambled eggs and toast. Her chime rang before anything even materialized.

Once the food appeared, she placed it on the table, took out some eating utensils and a napkin. The door chimed again. He was persistent, she'd always given him that. She sat, willing her heart to stop hammering. Again the chime pierced the silence.

"Come in," she called before taking a sip of coffee. Chakotay walked in while she was eating her first bite of eggs. He came right up to the table, pulled out a chair and sat. She continued to eat her breakfast. "Can I get you some tea?" she asked him.

"I'll get it, thank you. You can talk to me, Kathryn. What's wrong?"

This time it was she that sighed. Deeply. "I can't talk about it. I just had some dreams, that's all. Stupid dreams. Nothing real. Merely some deja vu in the mess hall. I'm sorry I left so suddenly." She went back to eating her breakfast.

He got up for tea, studying her from behind as the replicator worked. He didn't believe her. At least about it being nothing. But he was painfully cognizant of what would happen should he push.

"Just so that you know if you do decide to talk to me, I'll always be here to listen," he said as he sat down again in front of her.

The lump returned in full force and she threw her fork down, startling them both.

"Kathryn, please..."

"I'm fine. I'm tired, that's all."

"Is this about what happened yesterday? Because everyone survived, everyone is healing, granted we didn't get the dilithium, but we will today, or tomorrow, or even the next day. We'll be okay."

She looked at him, wondering if there was a double meaning behind his words. "Will you have dinner with me tonight? If you're not doing anything that is?" She didn't know why she asked him, but wasn't sorry she did. She watched with some amusement as his eyes changed, the veil of worry lifted just enough for her to see how pleased he was at her invitation.

"I've got no plans. Dinner sounds nice. Who's buying?"

"I'll buy this time. Say, 1900 hours? Here?"

"1900 hours it is." He swallowed the rest of his tea and rose. "I'll see you on the bridge in thirty minutes. I need to stop by my office and take care of a few things."

"Thank you, Chakotay," she said, giving him a small smile.

"Any time, Kathryn," he replied softly. He turned and left.

She looked at the door, then down to her plate. Her list of tasks for the day began to play out in her mind, making her feel very very tired and more than a little anxious.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The negotiations with the Faustran's neighbors were fairly smooth. This race of peoples, the Rengessazi, were actually quite apologetic about what had happened to Voyager's away team on the Faustran planet. Claiming their history together was that of occasional enemies, having cycles of both war and peace, the Rengessazi considered themselves the more willing of the two to trade honestly with travelers to their sector. They appeared proud of this self-appointed description.

After three hours of talks, Kathryn and Chakotay once again retreated to the ready room, this time to decide whether to proceed with the deal or try their luck somewhere else.

"What did you think of them, Chakotay?"

He was surprised she would ask that after the day before. His opinion hadn't meant very much then. "I think they're trustworthy. More so than the Faustran. From what we've seen, they do need the recycling technology. The dilithium isn't quite as pure, but we can work with that."

She was studying her hand, holding a PADD. She shifted it to her other hand to see how that felt. Uncomfortable. She shifted it back.

"Kathryn?"

"Yes, they could be trustworthy, couldn't they. It's too bad they wouldn't consent to having one of those lie proving machines, the ones we see in those old movies of Tom's..."

"A lie detector."

"Yes, a lie detector. We could certainly use one of those, couldn't we, out here?"

"I suppose we could. In the absence of that, we just have to trust our instincts."

"And your instinct says we should trust them."

"Yes, it does. But what does yours say?"

Kathryn chuckled ruefully. "Why don't we adjourn to the briefing room now." She stood up, tapping her chest, called B'Elanna up from engineering and Seven from astrometrics, then proceeded out the door.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Captain," Tuvok added, "it would be prudent to keep our shields at maximum while we orbit. And continue long range scans for Faustran ships."

"I agree we need to be careful of the Faustrans, are you saying the shields need to be up against the Rengessazi, too?" she answered.

"I believe that will be one side effect, but whether it's necessary I cannot say. I was not a party to the negotiations and hold no opinion on this race. Given the situation, to err on the side of caution is necessary."

"Captain," B'Elanna spoke up, "no matter which shuttle is taken down there, I think we should either remove the replicator or severely disable it somehow."

"That's a little risky," Tom added, "if we run into trouble, we won't be able to make any spare parts, not to mention a lack of food and drink. I haven't had to eat Starfleet rations in a very long time..."

"I'm sure you will survive, Tom." Kathryn gave him a little glare.

"I will, Captain, I will. It just won't be pretty," he said, grinning.

"Maybe it won't at that," she answered. "However, we should consider the possibility of not having spare parts while on the planet. If the away team comes under attack, and the ship needed repairs to get out of there, a replicator would have to be fully functional."

"We can always beam down replacement parts, Captain," Chakotay said calmly. He was beginning to feel a bit concerned about Kathryn's point of view, or lack of a clear point of view. "The replicators should not be available, even though this race seems trustworthy."

"Yes, that's true," she admitted.

Harry, wanting to reassure his Captain, spoke. "Captain, we might be able to assume that since these two races have been at war with each other in the past, their technologies are similar. We have the calibration of the force field that was used yesterday. And it will be easy to adjust it now that we know the pattern. And our scans will be constant and far reaching on the planet surface."

Kathryn nodded to Harry in agreement with his thoughts. She looked around the table, at her senior staff waiting for her decision. Her heart started hammering again. "We need the dilithium..." she ventured, then faltered.

Chakotay took one good look at her and made an instant decision. "So, Captain, would you like me to notify the Rengessazi authorities that we'll begin mining or would you like to do it?" He watched her eyes travel to his and lock on, tight. He saw some emotions he couldn't identify cross her face. Then her mouth set firmly.

"You take care of that, Chakotay. Tell them B'Elanna will meet with their urban engineers this afternoon to go over the recycling schematics. On Voyager."

"Very good, Captain," he replied. "I'll assemble the away team. As soon as the final repairs and modifications are done on the Flyer, we'll prepare for the mining operation to begin."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But Chakotay was ordered to stay on board by the Captain, due to his injury. The last thing the mission needed was for him to be unable to do something in an emergency. He wasn't happy about the decision, but at least, he thought, she was making one. So he manned Tacital while Tuvok took over for him, directing the mining operation.

The urban engineers met with B'Elanna while the Delta Flyer made it's way to the planet's surface. Kathryn paced the bridge, trying to sit, only lasting a few minutes at a time. Chakotay tried not to watch her constantly, but couldn't help keeping one eye on her. She frequently called to Harry for an update of scans of the planet and long range of Faustran space.

Their efforts paid off, however. The meeting in engineering was still in progress when two Faustran war ships were detected, approaching Voyager rapidly. The Federation ship had a slight edge in overall power, a definite edge in shield strength and maneuverability, but with the away team needing protection their hands were a bit tied.

"They'll be here in approximately twenty-five minutes, Captain," Harry called.

"Shields still at maximum," Chakotay added. "Phasers ready."

Kathryn slapped her chest, her adrenaline pumping. "Janeway to Tuvok!"

"Yes, Captain."

"Retreat to the Flyer. Power up, shields at maximum. We've got company in twenty-five."

"Aye. Tuvok out." His stoic voice was even more comforting over the comm.

"Janeway to Engineering. B'Elanna?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Tell our guests to brace themselves. Two Faustran war ships are heading our way, ETA twenty-five minutes."

There was no response, and Kathryn found herself meeting Chakotay's eyes. He shrugged his shoulders incrementally.

"Engineering to the Bridge. Captain, Clo-din would like to contact the planet, he believes they can give us a hand with the Faustran."

The last thing Kathryn wanted was to start another war between these two races. She walked swiftly up to Chakotay's side.

"If they do that, there'll be another war, we can't let them do it..."

"Captain, the Rengessazi can make that choice for themselves, they need this recycling technology, we need their help. We can't hold off a fleet, if it comes to that." He watched her go back and forth between her options. "I don't think this is a Prime Directive issue," he said in a softer tone, hopefully for her ears only. She again locked eyes with him, and nodded.

"Bridge to Engineering. B'Elanna, we'll set up a link, hold on.." She waved to Harry, who nodded and quickly worked on his console. In less than thirty seconds, he tapped his chest and told B'Elanna it was ready. Silence descended over the bridge. The wait was on, and they all knew it would be a short one.

Within twenty minutes the Faustran ships arrived, firing, no effort was wasted with an attempt at diplomacy. Voyager returned fire as her shield strength diminished slowly. Chakotay made some dents in their systems but with two ships firing on them at once, evasive maneuvers only went so far. Suddenly, Voyager was joined by two Rengessazi war ships, firing on the Faustran with efficiency. They knew exactly what to target and how to make use of Faustran weaknesses. In another five minutes, the Faustran were retreating, still intact. To Kathryn's diplomatic relief. After making contact with the Rengessazi captains, she was told they would stay in orbit along side Voyager, until both the engineering meeting and the mining operation were completed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They were sitting, drinking cider, she on the couch, he on the chair. Dinner was over. Plans for the next day's continued mining operation had been discussed, along with reviewing the energy being expended keeping the shields at maximum, the crew's morale, Rengessazi / Faustran history and the latest holoprogram Harry and Tom were planning. Chakotay felt it was now time to prod Kathryn, just a little.

"I've been wondering since the other day, where did you get a copy of my report about the Equinox?"

Kathryn's eyes widened. "I wasn't aware I needed to explain myself to you."

"Fine. I was merely wondering."

"However, I do concede that we should probably finish that conversation. Now is as good a time as any," she said, taking another swallow of cider.

"So where did we leave off? Oh yes, you were telling me that the situation wasn't personal, as in personal between you and me. I claim that it is." He also took a swig of cider.

"Perhaps, then, you can tell me why you think that, and why you did what you did."

"Not that this is going to be a surprise to you, Kathryn. I don't really care whether Starfleet Command gets a completely unbiased version of the events. I do care about what they might do to your career over it. My loyalties are to you, not Starfleet. They asked me for my opinion, as the person relieved of duty. I told them I had some responsibility as well. Simple."

"Except it's not true."

"Truth is sometimes elusive, don't you think? Out here?"

The truth of this particular matter, or other truths between them? "Unfortunately, yes, I think it is," she answered, watching him stare at his glass. He raised his eyes to hers, but even so she wasn't quite sure what he was thinking, or feeling, or what he really meant by that comment.

"So, you aren't going to do something, like try and rebut my report to Command, are you?" He backed them off the too personal, aware that the momentary, raw honesty had touched them both. Neither of them, he knew, would admit it.

"No, I'll let it stand. I don't know if I should thank you or not, though. I think I need to take responsibility for what happened, for every decision I made..."

"You take enough responsibility for all of us as it is, Kathryn. Let that one go."

"Have you? Let it go, I mean? Have you forgiven me?"

"For that? I think so," he replied sincerely, meeting her eyes again, locking their gaze together. He watched hers begin to fill, but this time didn't jump in and try to make her feel better.

"Chakotay, they're asking me to justify other things, too..."

"Like what?! Don't tell me, the Array," he said with contempt.

"Almost as bad. The Hirogen, the holodeck technology. The alliance with the Borg against 8472. The void. Etcetera etcetera." She took a big swallow of cider, refusing to meet his eyes. Her hands began to feel shaky.

"I'm so sorry," he said softly. "What can I do? You know if they ask me I'll back you up one hundred percent."

"Yes, I know that," she answered with equal softness. "But you really do need to think about giving a more balanced point of view. If they ask you."

"I'll think about it." His tone of voice betrayed him, however. He watched her struggling to maintain some composure. "There's more, isn't there? What else?"

She stood up and went to the table to refill her glass. Bringing the bottle back she did the same for him, spilling some in the process. Annoyed at herself, she quickly wiped up the liquid and threw down the napkin. Chakotay waited semi-patiently for her to speak, drinking a little more, keeping a partial eye on her as she settled back into the couch.

"I've been having a recurring dream, well, maybe not really quite recurring yet. Two nights in a row. It's unsettling, last night it was frightening. It appears to be about making choices. I think. In it, I don't seem to be able to make the right ones." She fiddled with her glass. "I'm only given two possibilities. Each one has been wrong. I'm afraid to see what tonight's will bring, to be honest," she added with a small smile in his direction.

"Is this why you had trouble making decisions about the Rengessazi," he asked, with a little uneasiness, afraid he'd touched a subject she wanted to ignore.

Her eyes flashed briefly. "I don't know," she said sharply, then her tone softened. "Maybe. Tuvok would call that a logical deduction."

"Well, would you like to talk about the dream in detail? Maybe it would help..."

"What would help would be to forego sleep for awhile, then I could escape it altogether."

Chakotay chuckled. "I don't think I'll stick around to see that, thank you. You without any sleep, I don't know..."

She looked at him askance. "What, then I'd be a total witch?"

"No, Kathryn, you'd never be a witch. Now, if we combined no sleep and no coffee, then we might create a witch," he teased.

She smiled back. Her heart started hammering, nervous as hell to ask him, realizing how much she needed to. "Well, I know something you could do to help me out..."

"You name it," he offered, still smiling.

She swallowed, hard. "You could spend the night with me, as a friend. I always, I mean, I'd sleep better, I think..." She watched his reaction, which could only be described as pure shock.

He took a drink, unable to look at her for a moment. "Is this something friends do for each other? Sleep together to keep bad dreams at bay? I don't know, Kathryn..."

"It's okay, you don't have to," she said rapidly, feeling her throat close.

"Don't you think it might be a bit, well, problematic?"

She took a deep breath. "Only if we're not clear."

He looked at her intently for the first time. "And you're sure you want this, you need this, from me?"

"Chakotay, of course from you. No one else has been in my bed, there's no one else I would ever need this from. Just you. If you can be comfortable with it."

He sighed deeply. Any number of emotions were coursing through him at once. The ache of a still healing heart. The desire to do whatever he could to help her. The overwhelming need to protect himself. Comfortable. She rarely asked the easy things of him. "Well, I can't honestly say that I'll likely get the best sleep of my life, but I guess I'd be willing. I have a condition, however."

"What?"

"I get into bed first, the lights go out, and I don't see you get ready, get undressed, anything, okay? I don't think I could handle that. And none of your silky nightgowns, either."

"Okay. Thank you, Chakotay," she said quietly.

"Don't thank me yet. Wait until tomorrow." He stood up. "I'm going next door to get some things for the morning and some sleepwear."

She watched him leave and allowed herself a warm glow of anticipation. She missed sleeping with him and prayed this would help her, knowing, in the past, she always slept best when he was with her. She needed to feel safe tonight.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

She was sitting at her vanity, brushing her hair by the time he returned. She couldn't help but notice that he'd put in an override code to open her door, but for some reason it didn't bother her. Again, as so many times in the past, she was struck by how much she trusted him. She swiveled, still brushing.

"How many are you up to?" he asked with a smile.

"I lost count, around fifty, probably. I thought I'd try and finish before you returned, given the conditions you set."

"I don't mind seeing you brush your hair, never did." He went straight to the bathroom and keyed the door shut.

She listened to the water running, vaguely hearing the sound of a zipper and the rustle of fabric, feeling her heart get a little heavy. It skipped when he came out, carrying his uniform, heading to her closet to hang it up as though that were the most natural thing in the world. He wore no top, just his sleepwear bottoms and she realized it was because he'd be in bed with her. He always said they didn't need blankets due to their combined body heat, and he'd always been right.

She should have insisted on the reverse conditions, too. She was having difficulty keeping her eyes focused on her reflection in the mirror and not watching him as he moved around her bedroom with such familiarity. Another lump formed in her throat. He got into bed, rolled onto his stomach and bunched the pillow under his head. Then and only then did he meet her eyes, turning his head toward her.

"Have you reached a hundred yet?"

She smiled. "Likely. Computer, reduce lighting eighty percent." She took a lightweight, knit cotton gown from her closet and retreated to the bathroom to change. "I'm doing this to sleep better," she whispered to herself, over and over. Climbing into bed, taking in his scent, feeling the warmth radiating off him, her belief wavered a bit.

"Computer, night lights."

He turned in her direction. "I'll do my best to stay on this side of the bed, Kathryn," he said with a smile.

"How did I come to deserve you, Chakotay," she asked in a tight whisper, her throat closing around the words.

"You deserve every wonderful thing your ancestors send your way..."

I'm afraid you were one of them, she thought, taking a very deep breath. "You calling yourself wonderful?"

"Not in the least. You just deserve wonderful treatment, let's put it that way .... And, well, someday the right person will come along for you. Sweet dreams, Kathryn," he said softly.

"Good night, Chakotay," she managed to say. She rolled on her side facing the wall, able to let her tears fall without making a sound. She listened to him fall asleep and let his deep breathing comfort her, the bulk of his form reassure her, and the smell of him evoke memories she hadn't buried effectively enough. She moved backwards gently, just to feel him closer and eventually fell asleep.

The road was still dusty, the air still heavy with heat and dirt particles. She heard footsteps coming up from behind and turned. He smiled to see her. She waited for him.

"We need to go, Chakotay," she said.

"The choice is yours, Kathryn," he answered, still smiling.

"What choice? To go or stay?"

"Which road we'll follow..."

"Let's do it," she responded.

They walked for awhile until once again she was standing at the fork. Once again, both roads ahead looked nearly identical. Once again, there were no bird sounds, or small animal sounds. Kathryn was grateful that this time there was no buzzing either.

"Well?" he asked.

"Both ways have led nowhere. We have to keep moving."

"So what is your choice?" he persisted.

"I don't know," she answered, feeling panic begin to set in.

"Yes, Kathryn, you do. What would Tuvok say?"

"Pick the logical one. But there is no logical solution."

"Then what would I say?" he said with a grin.

"Trust my instincts," she replied. "I think we should start over from the beginning. We'll go down the right fork. There are only nineteen shrubs in that direction."

"After you," he said, sweeping his arm ahead of them.

She started to walk, looking over her shoulder at Chakotay, walking five feet behind her. She wished he would walk beside her and not behind her, but each time she tried to bring it up, something would distract them. She counted shrubs, yet when she got to nineteen, the road was still going. Seven more shrubs, however, and the road began to peter out, changing, gradually this time, to grassland. They continued to try and follow what was left of the road. Eventually the dirt turned fully into wildflowers and grasses. Kathryn turned around and saw no road at all behind them, no expanses of dirt, no ruts, no gullies. Looking at Chakotay, she saw only sadness and disappointment in his eyes.

"I think we're lost," she said to him, panic once more settling in her chest.

He nodded but didn't say a word.

She woke up slowly this time, with her heart pounding loudly in her ears. So many emotions were moving through her, led by panic, as she tried to focus on the room. She suddenly realized she was no longer entirely on a mattress. Familiar skin was under her cheek and arm and hand. He was still on his stomach, she was now laying half on his back, half on the bed. Her arm was around his waist, her leg draped over his. A very familiar place to be sleeping. A comforting place to be sleeping. The rhythm of his breathing began to lull her back under. She tried to think about the dream. She wondered why she still hadn't picked the right road and why he was there with her. She was disappointed she'd still had the dream, grateful that his presence had eased her panic so quickly. She fell back asleep.

Chakotay woke up and felt her laying on him, receiving an unwanted jolt to his heart. He knew she was awake, he could hear it in her breathing, and when her hand started to move across his back he froze. She's trying to torture me, he thought. He waited until he felt her go back to sleep, then gently pulled himself out from under her and got up. He went to the replicator and ordered chamomile tea, then stood and stared out the viewports sipping it. The ache in his chest was now, once more, a sharp pain. He wondered if he would ever get over her. And why he had agreed to do this.

"Chakotay?" Her voice and hand startled him. "Did I wake you?"

He tried to get the hammering of his heart under control. He turned to her slowly. "Not really, just couldn't sleep. Did you have another dream?"

"Yes, but it was different." She studied him intently. The lines around his eyes were more deeply etched than at dinner. "I'm sorry. This.... I'm sorry. You don't have to stay with me..."

He took her hand and led her to the couch. "Why don't you tell me about it?"

Sitting with him, she had to admit that talking was the very last thing she wanted at that moment. She was surprised at herself, she thought she was so certain, so sure about them. A few hours sleeping next to him and everything just flew out of her head. It was as though the past two months hadn't even happened, weren't what was real. The six months before that was. And tonight. She pulled herself together and told him everything she could remember about the dream.

"So I was with you this time, you got further down the road, but then we got lost?"

"Yes, that's about it. And I remember being uncomfortable that you were walking so far behind me. I didn't like that."

"Didn't want me ten steps behind like a good boy, huh?" he teased.

Her heart clenched. "What do you mean by that?"

"I'm sorry, I was only teasing. It's an old saying, referring to who is submissive in a relationship. Women used to be told to walk ten paces behind men. You know, in the ancient times..."

"Yes, I know," she said quietly. She felt like something in her mind was waiting to be understood. "I wanted... I wanted you next to me..." she said, almost to herself. "You were disappointed we were lost..."

"Well, I doubt I was blaming you, or I should say that if it was my dream, I wouldn't be blaming you..."

"No, Chakotay, I don't think it was about blame. You were so sad..." She suddenly felt tears fill her eyes, the memory of how he looked at her, standing in that field, overpowering her senses. She swallowed her tears, with limited success. His response was to again take her by the hand and lead her back to bed, with him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He woke up a few hours later with her curled up behind him, holding him tightly around the waist. He pried her hands off and pushed her onto her back, then moved onto his back, too. He stared at the ceiling, debating with himself. This was all getting to be too much for him. He decided he had to do something and rolled, then shook her gently.

"Kathryn, wake up, you need to move," he whispered in her ear.

She gradually made some noises and rolled toward him, getting a hand on his chest, moving it around to his back before he could pry it off.

"No, Kathryn, move over to your side of the bed, come on..."

"This is my side," she mumbled.

"No it's not. This is my side."

The next thing he knew she'd pushed him onto his back and was on top of him with her face buried in his neck. "My side," she said.

"Kathryn..." he groaned.

"No. I'm staying right here, Chakotay."

"So what are you trying to do, kill me," he hissed. "Because if you are, you're succeeding."

"Kill you? Not at all, I just..... I just figured out what my dreams meant, that's all." She ran her fingers through his hair, something she'd been wanting to do all night.

"When did you do that, in your sleep?" His hands moved of their own accord, onto the small of her back. They started to travel and he consciously stopped them. To feel her on top of him was something he'd assumed he would never experience again, and ached for her anew. He took a deep breath

"No, when we were on the couch, I think. Or when we came back to bed, right before I fell asleep. Are you curious what I learned? What my subconscious has been trying to tell me for the past few days?" She was now looking down at him, lowering her head incrementally, making as if to kiss him.

"Kathryn," he said softly, "don't play with me. I can't take it." His heart was pounding and he was certain she could hear it.

She pulled back, looking deeply into his eyes. "I'm sorry, Chakotay, I'm not playing with you, not deliberately."

"Then, well then, just tell me. What do you think your dreams meant?"

She locked her gaze with his and stroked his tattoo with acute tenderness. "Okay, well, obviously they're about choices. I never make the right one. My decisions are coming under scrutiny right now. Except, then I had the dream tonight, with you in it, and I got further down the road than I had before. I think it's all because of a decision I made that was wrong, deeply wrong, for me personally. That was the decision to break it off with you. I should never have done that, Chakotay. That was without a doubt the single worst choice I've made since we got stranded out here."

"So what are you saying, exactly," he pressed, his heart pounding again.

"I'm saying that I'd like to pick up where we left us two months ago." She trailed her hand down the side of his face. "I want to spend every night with you and every morning. I'll tell everyone, I'll make love to you whenever we can, I'll hold your hand in the mess hall, I'll kiss you in the turbolift, in the ready room, hell, even on the bridge. I'm saying that I love you. I've missed you. I've gotten lost without you by my side." Her heart racing, she kept looking deeply into his eyes, waiting to see what he'd do. The dark brown got misty, for just a moment.

Chakotay heard all of this with just half a brain. He only knew that he was hearing things he'd longed to hear, seemingly forever. He quickly rolled her onto her back, and as she was laughing he gently brushed the hair away from her face. His hand held her waist, firmly, then traveled around to her back, nudging her gently to arch. He lowered his head slowly, feeling the anticipation as a tingle in his groin and a skip in his pounding heartbeat. "Even on the bridge," he asked, his lips an inch from hers.

"Yes, Chakotay," she said softly, aching for him to kiss her, "even on the bridge."

He closed the final distance, their lips meeting, parting with small gasps, kissing each other insistently, two months of forced separation fueling the fire. Two months of denial. Two months of trying to forget how they felt, how they touched each other, how they tasted, how they moved in each other's arms. They gave in to it all, with joy and delight. Healing their pain.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was a quiet day on Voyager. The mining operation had ended the day before and thus their dilithium supply was completely restocked. For the time being. The Rengessazi had held a reception and the command team worked hard to see that any and all crew members could attend. A fleet of six Rengessazi war ships stood guard around Voyager, so that skeleton crews would be sufficient to protect her.

And so this day, with some people a bit hung over, but everyone in good spirits, chat on the bridge was constant. Even Seven of Nine, working on calibrating one of the consoles, participated in some of it. Stories of Tom's little problem at the reception were being shared by not only Harry, but by B'Elanna and Samantha as well.

Kathryn listened to it all, her mind on other things. She watched the man sitting on her left, laughing along with everyone else, his eyes sparkling. He'd turn to her and wink before pretending to work on the console between them. They'd had their own celebration the night before which ended in early morning love making an hour before their shift started.

She turned completely in her seat, drawing one leg up under her and leaning toward him, beckoning with her finger. Assuming she wanted to tell him something private, he dropped his right ear to her mouth. She surprised him, cupping his face with her right hand and, indeed, whispering in his ear.

"Even on the bridge, Chakotay," she said, ending it with a kiss on his ear, then his cheek, moving steadily to his mouth, her hand traveling to the back of his head, the conversation around them continuing, the laughter light. His heart was racing. Their lips met, giving each other soft, languid, partially open mouthed kisses, sighing quietly. The kisses continued, slow, gentle kisses, intensely erotic kisses. Everything they were holding back as their lips moved together so softly was magnified. His left hand moved up and grasped her arm lightly, next to his face, rubbing his thumb against her. All thoughts of where they were vanished. Neither noticed the sudden lull in conversation around them.

"I love you," she barely whispered into his mouth, in between movements.

"Will you marry me, Kathryn," he breathed against her lips. She stopped kissing him but didn't move away.

"What?" she whispered.

He said, a bit louder, still well under normal volume. "Will you marry me, Kathryn?"

There was a collective gasp that circled the bridge, which dimly registered in their minds. Kathryn felt her heart leap, once it began beating again. "Marry you?" she asked.

Chakotay watched her eyes rapidly filling and sure enough, tears were now spilling down her cheeks. He pulled away from her hand and got up, coming to squat down in front of her on his knees. He reached up and wiped her face, then took her hands.

"The choice is yours, Kathryn. Which fork will you take," he asked gently.

She looked at him, so loving, so trusting of all that they were together. "I'll take the right one, Chakotay. Yes, I'll marry you," she answered, never more sure of any decision in her life.

The cheer that erupted around them startled them out of their reverie. Chakotay quickly pulled her to her feet and they embraced tightly, laughing along with everyone else, though they were the only two with tears streaking their cheeks.

The day was still warm, but a comfortable warm. The road stretched ahead as far as she could see, golden dirt, dusty when trampled on, lined with shrubs. The sounds of birds floated to her. She heard footsteps and turned to greet him. She held out her hand, he clasped it lovingly.

"We need to go, Chakotay," she said with a smile.

"Well, come on then," he answered, tugging on her hand as they walked.
 

 
 

 
  Some flowers used to make the contest graphics from