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The Horn of the Bull

“So, Commander Chakotay, how does it feel to finally be out of the Captain’s shadow?”

I remember being stunned the first time someone asked me that question, because I hadn’t been conscious of the fact that “standing in Kathryn Janeway’s shadow” was any different from serving in the shadow of any other Starfleet captain.  The captain is, by necessity, the “star of the show” on any vessel, and both the accolades and the blame land squarely on his or her shoulders.  People who think that the power and responsibility of running a ship is a great job are fooling themselves—it’s the hardest job in the galaxy, bar none.

Maybe if I had only been asked the question once, I would have dismissed the whole issue, but the press seemed dissatisfied with my answer and continued to ask it again and again until I really had to stop and think about it.  How did I feel about Kathryn Janeway now that I was no longer her first officer?

For starters, I was glad to be out of her shadow.  Seven years is a long time to play second banana to anyone, and I was anxious to move on to the next stage of my career and explore the blossoming possibilities of my personal life.  I thought I had my life in order when we arrived in the Alpha Quadrant.  I’d successfully served in Starfleet again, and I’d finally found a person I thought I could be happy with in Seven of Nine.

I thought that my friendship with Kathryn would continue as always.  That, I soon discovered, was a big miscalculation.  I was used to our lives being circumscribed by the ship, or interests being focused on the limited number of people who made up our crew, and I wasn’t prepared for the dramatic change of focus we experienced on Earth.  I wanted to believe that our relationship was deeper than just captain and first officer.  I was sure that we’d continue to turn to each other as friends even after Voyager was left behind.

While I didn’t mind leaving the Captain behind, I wasn’t prepared to lose Kathryn Janeway in the process.

Nor was I prepared for the jealousy I’d feel once we were home and Kathryn was no longer the captain 24/7.  After seven years of self-imposed celibacy, Kathryn leaped back into a full life with gusto, becoming the darling of the Federation in general and of Starfleet in particular.  Every man within fifteen years of her age imagined himself as her lover, and my special spot beside her literally evaporated into midair.

The fact was that I had expected her to be jealous of me and my relationship with Seven, and I think she might have been if we had stayed on Voyager and had rubbed her nose in our togetherness every day.  But, she was busy elsewhere, and we were pretty easy to ignore, especially when she was receiving countless offers to travel to the most exclusive resorts with the escort of her choice for a brief appearance and a holiday.

Seven was just as popular as Kathryn, although in a much different and more troublesome way.  She was a living, breathing oddity that Kathryn had captured on her Delta Quadrant adventure, and she was completely out of her element in the suddenly limitless population of the Federation.  While Kathryn thrived on the public relations aspect of her return, Seven was clingy and insecure with it, and she turned to me for the support and balance that Kathryn had given her on Voyager.

There are men who relish that kind of dependency and even look for it in the women they love.  I just don’t happen to be one of them.  In spite of her beauty, her impressive physical endowments, and her quirky (Kathryn-like) sense of humor, I soon felt constricted and unhappy.  I’m afraid I pushed her to be more independent, which only encouraged her to notice other men who were easier to please than I seemed to be.  We parted friends, and she discovered that the EMH was a much better and more patient match.  Chapter closed.

Once Seven was gone, I looked hard at my options.  There were dozens of candidates willing to fill the void by my side, from prepubescent to geriatric, but I was happy to be on my own for the first time in years, even decades.  I did some traveling, wrote some papers, made a few appearances of my own on resort planets.

It was only later that I realized that Kathryn hadn’t rushed to my side as I’d dreamed she would when she heard Seven and I were no longer a couple.  It occurred to me that perhaps she hadn’t turned me down on Voyager because protocol forbade it.  Maybe she never cared for me at all.

I didn’t want to believe that she never felt something more than friendship for me.  I was sure that at first she had flirted with me shamelessly, and yet . . . she was an irrepressible flirt, I’d discovered.  I watched her give interviews in which the reporter hung on her every word and, by the end of the session, seemed ready to ask her out on a date, and I was always upset by the sight.  In fact, I stopped watching her interviews for awhile for that reason alone.  The real Kathryn Janeway, the one who emerged from her cocoon on our return, could charm a bee away from a flower, a dog from a bone, a Ferengi away from a foreclosure sale.  Every eye turned to her when she entered a room.  She was a force of nature.

I wondered if this suddenly change in my view of her might be part of the “shadow” problem.  I knew from my years in Starfleet that you should never judge a fellow officer by their on-duty deportment alone.  “Meet the parents,” the old-timers told us; “Meet the friends and find out the hobbies.”  But that was impossible to do from 70,000 light years away, and so we’d settled into a relationship that was heavily influenced by our work.  The little glimpse I had of Kathryn the “flirt” or of her irreverent sense of humor or of her ability to charm strangers were tiny hints of the real woman beneath, the woman whom I could see clearly now that I was out of her shadow.

And, God, but I found that real woman attractive.

Suddenly, I wanted Kathryn to notice me again.  Not that she ignored me.  We saw each other now and then, usually at some unofficial Voyager celebration or get-together, and she always politely asked me about my life.  She kept up with what all of us were doing, though, not just me, and she treated me with the same warm concern as the she did the rest of the crew.  I felt invisible.  I felt like I was wearing my uniform every time we talked.

I wanted her to look at me again, anew, now that I was out of her shadow.  I wanted her to see me as a man, not as her former first officer—reliable, patient, comfortable old Commander Chakotay.  I wanted her to see me the way I saw her, as a desirable candidate for something much more than friendship.  All of the attentions of the rest of the Federation’s female population paled in comparison.

How could I turn her head?  My imagination went into overtime.

I could get into some sort of trouble that would call for her to rescue me.  I liked to believe that she would rush to help me the way she had so many times on Voyager, but I couldn’t be sure she would.  It would have to be serious trouble, and she might just send someone else to assist me.  Or she might not even notice.  Besides, the last thing I needed was trouble.

I could spiral into depression and hide myself away in the dusty hills of Idaho or Mexico like a hermit.  I envisioned myself in a rustic cabin, unshaven, dressed in rags, reduced to eating bark and bugs, wandering the hills like a lone wolf.  She might actually think I was happy that way, I realized, and leave me out there to commune with nature.  I didn’t think that would work.

Brilliant success might do the trick.  I’d been fiddling with some longer writings about the Delta Quadrant and had even been approached by a couple of publishers about my memoirs, something more personal and daring than the factual reports that were circulating like wildfire in the news media.  I could skirt dangerously close to events still highly classified or intensely personal, forcing her to out into the open.  But, I couldn’t do that to her.  She was amazingly honest and candid about herself with the public, and she trusted me to protect her privacy and live up to the security strictures on our experiences.

I realized that I couldn’t lower myself to anything so deliberate to catch her eye, and resigned myself to my bad fortune.  Part of being an adult is accepting things and moving on.  It simply wasn’t meant to be, and I might as well accept my fate and enjoy life.  After all, I was a celebrity, too—the only surviving Maquis cell leader from before the Dominion War and Voyager's first officer, to boot.  So, I settled for a teaching job in Arizona and gave up on ever really pursuing Kathryn Janeway.  I had enjoyed my own time in the sun, even if that period of celebrity was fading fast.

Life in the Alpha Quadrant was dull, I realized, and there wasn't much I could do to make it better.  Life was just too easy, and people were too complacent about how good they had it.  Try as I might to move on, I just didn't feel alive.  I needed . . . what?  Danger?  Risk?  Peril?  I thought, if nothing else, I'd like to forget that my years on Voyager and my partnership with Kathryn had ever happened.  I tried to forget.

The problem was that there was no escaping the coverage of Kathryn’s life as reported in the media.  If I was a celebrity, an assumption becoming less obvious every day, then I was probably on the “C-list” while Kathryn was “A-list” all the way.  It was as if she’d been the first person to circumnavigate the galaxy, or walk on the surface of the sun, or find the answer to the meaning of life.  And she made the most of every event and interview that came her way.

I was beginning to understand how Marco Polo’s traveling companions must have felt.  They’d seen and experienced the same intoxicating events and sights that he had, but they were never as celebrated or as admired as Marco Polo was.  His name had gone down in history, while all the others were long forgotten, and Kathryn Janeway was getting the same kind of credit.  You’d think that the rest of Voyager’s crew had just stood around watching while Kathryn carried us home on her back.  I know I’m whining.  I don’t mean to whine, but, after all, it was a team effort.

But I digress.

If Kathryn had gone through a series of men one after the other, I probably would have just smiled and told myself that she was searching for someone who is as well suited to her as I am.  I know what you’re thinking—what an ego.  But the fact was that I had gone through a series of women looking for someone to replace her to no avail; is it so wrong to want her to experience the same aggravation and disappointment I had?

She did date around a little at first.  She was often shown on the newsvids attending various functions, and I saw her with a number of well-known men.  But Kathryn isn’t a casual person when it comes to relationships.  She likes stability and familiarity, someone who knows and understands the pressures she's under in her busy career.  Soon enough, she settled on one particular fellow who must have met her requirements.  And what a choice.

Kevin Reardon was, perhaps, the most successful and revered Federation ambassador since the Vulcan Sarek.  He was a diplomat and a statesman of the first water who was routinely consulted on political and cultural issues because of his vast experience, incredible wisdom, and entertaining wit.  He was equally adept at handling potential fire kegs as he was routine problems, and his opinion on issues was always sought by politicians and military leaders throughout the Federation.  His books were considered to be the final word on whatever topic he addressed, and when the press wanted a good “sound bite” on some topic in the news, Reardon was more than able to deliver.

If that wasn’t enough, Reardon was what the Delaney twins called a “hunk.”  He was the total package.  Although he was about ten years older than Kathryn, he was in excellent physical condition thanks to a life-long addiction to swimming, tennis, weight-lifting, and a healthy diet.  He had a deep tan, silver hair, and bright blue eyes that seemed to smile from every news video’s opening screen.  He and Kathryn made a stunning and extremely photogenic couple.  They always looked to be very happy together.

I told myself that the best revenge is to live a happy life.

I immersed myself in my teaching and began to look in earnest for a full-time companion of my own.  My students, while youthful and alluring like Seven of Nine, were just too inexperienced and naïve to keep my attention for long.  Most of my female colleagues were married, in long-term affairs, or burdened with failed relationships and troubled children.  In other words, I wasn't very lucky in love.  While I was enthralled with my work, I drifted in my personal life and spent much of my free time alone.

I had imagined that the Voyager crew would somehow stick together, that there would be frequent informal reunions and an annual celebration attended by one and all.  Not so.  While it’s remarkable that Voyager covered 70,000 light years in such a short period of time, it isn’t all that strange for a crew to be gone seven years, even if it isn’t the norm in modern times.  Many of the crew decided to put their long exile behind them and tried to erase the memories like a bad dream.  Many simply didn't look back.

The result was that the crew scattered.  Only the senior staff stayed in relatively close contact, and even then it was largely through subspace communication, not face-to-face meetings.  I was closest to B’Elanna Torres, Miguel Ayala, Chell, and most of the Maquis, but the Starfleet crew was immediately reabsorbed into their careers.  It was only through B’Elanna’s connection to the Paris family that I got any real “inside” news about Kathryn, and that was infrequent, at best.

One day, a year or so after our return, I was asked to write a paper on the blending of diverse crews as a part of a research project for an upper-level Academy course being developed for students in the command track.  I was flattered by the invitation and accepted without a moment’s hesitation.  The course director was interested in my insight as a Maquis captain as much as in my experience as Voyager’s first officer, and I was gratified to think that this was a field I was more than qualified to discuss.  I threw myself into the assignment with enthusiasm.  I knew I had  a great deal to offer, and I had a unique perspective on blending crews.

I was even more thrilled when I my paper resulted in a short-term contract to assist the instructors with the finalization of the course’s structure and content.  I arrived at Starfleet Academy with a PADD full of ideas and was ushered to a small but comfortable office with a narrow window that overlooked the back of the building and provided a spectacular view of the loading dock and the parking garage next door.  A civilian contractor shouldn’t expect a corner office, I told myself, and besides, I could see the sun and sky—if I got down on my knees and pressed myself against the wall to the right of the window.

By noon, I met the department chair, Admiral Hronsby, downloaded all my preliminary work into the computer, and got to know the rest of the team—a Vulcan, a Bolian, a Bajoran, and a Klingon.  I realized, then, that I was the token human on the team, but I didn’t mind.

In the next month, we outlined the semester long course, suggested a series of readings from relevant sources, designed a research paper assignment, wrote four exams, and programmed a series of holographic experiences designed to expose the cadets to a variety of challenging situations.  I was feeling pretty cocky about the quality of the course and envisioned myself joining the faculty full time with an office that had a real view.  I thought such a dramatic rise in my Starfleet fortunes would be sure to get Kathryn’s attention at last.

I left for a weekend camping trip to Montana feeling pretty sure of myself.  We were more than ready for the preliminary review of the course that was scheduled for Monday afternoon, and I needed a break from the long hours we’d put in during the last few weeks.   I felt sure that some time outdoors hiking and fishing would be the perfect way to prepare for the questions the department chair would have for our planned course.

Much to my chagrin, a glitch in the transporter net stranded me in Montana until late Monday morning.  I wasn't even able to call in and let them know what had happened.  Although I was late for work, I wasn’t too worried about it.  I would be there in time for the meeting at 1300, and I knew we were more than ready to make a good impression on Admiral Hronsby.

I arrived at the department about noon to find the entire suite of offices empty.  It took me nearly thirty minutes to track down the team’s administrative assistant in the cafeteria.

“Where is everybody?” I asked him.  “Don’t we have that big briefing at 1300?”

“It was moved to 0830, sir.”

“It was?  Damn.”

“And it ended at 0900.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  The briefing was designed to last at least three hours and include a trip to the Academy’s holodeck, yet it had ended in only thirty minutes?  After a moment of adjustment, I asked him what had happened to make the briefing end so prematurely.

The yeoman shrugged.  “The other admiral, the one that moved up the time of the briefing, didn’t like it.”

“What’s not to like?”

“They had several pages of notes, sir.  They all went back to holodeck programming to work on it.”

I thanked him for the information and headed back to the office.  I wanted to see if they’d left the notes for my review before I joined them, and I wanted to pick up a few things on the way—like maybe a resignation form.  I imagined some cocky young admiral interrupting the briefing with a series of idealistic, naïve, impossible-to-answer questions, and the rest of the team, all dutiful Starfleet officers, being too shocked and tongue-tied to mount a decent defense.  Well, I wasn’t about to be intimidated by anybody.

I found a note on my computer from Res Notan, the team’s Bajoran member, with a few choice comments about being back at square one on the holodeck exercises.  She attached a list of comments from the admiral, most of which were aimed directly at portions I had personally designed, and the news infuriated me so much that I seriously considered quitting right then and there and going back to Arizona.

Instead, I threw my few belongings into a bag and was on my way to the holodeck facility when I noticed some activity in the department chair’s office.  I decided to stop by and talk to Admiral Hronsby and give him a piece of my mind about this outsider who dared to criticize our hard work.  I also wanted to know what had been so important to keep him from reviewing our course himself, as we had planned.  When I saw that his aide was gone, probably at lunch, too, I brazenly entered his office unannounced.

“Admiral Hronsby,” I said, hearing him moving about in the private portion of his office, “who the hell is this know-it-all admiral you let come in and tear our course apart?”

The aide, who must have been coming down the hallway as I walked into the admiral’s office, came rushing up behind me.  “Sir, you should know that . . . “

“That’ll be all, Yeoman,” I interrupted him in no uncertain terms.

“But, sir,” she started again.

“Dismissed,” I said, pointing at the door and watching her wilt in resignation.  “This is between the admiral and me.”

Once the aide retreated, I turned back to the desk and the invisible Admiral Hronsby, who was, I assumed, getting something to eat from his replicator, since I could smell the unmistakable aroma of coffee drifting from his “personal office.”  “Does this admiral know how many hours we’ve spent on this course in the last month?  Way too many to simply through it out the airlock, sir!  Those scenarios are detailed illustrations of exactly the points we’ve covered in the readings.  And, besides, has this admiral had any experience at all with blended crews?  Has he ever been faced with the complexity of such a challenge?”  I paused, still angry, and collapsed into an overstuffed chair.  “Sir, I’d appreciate the chance to hear directly from the admiral exactly what it was he found wrong with those scenarios.”

“She found them too simplistic.”

When I heard Kathryn’s voice coming from the back of the office, I realized that the aide had been trying to warn me that I wasn’t talking to Hronsby, at all.  I looked up to find Kathryn gazing at me over the edge of a large mug of coffee, her eyes narrowed.  I’m afraid I stared at her with my mouth hanging open in surprise.

“Y . . . y . . . you?” I finally stuttered, knowing I sounded like an idiot.  I started to get to my feet.  “You were the admiral who took Hronsby’s place?”

She smiled slightly and waved me back into the chair.  “Ray Hronsby stepped down as department chair over the weekend because his wife has been diagnosed with Rigellin fever and is going to need a lot of attention if she hopes to recover completely.  He asked me to look into the finalization of this course until a new department chair could be named.”

I sat in the chair and stared at her.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  I hope she gets better soon.”

“We all do.”  She sat down and put aside the coffee mug, clasping her hands in front of her as she returned to the matter at hand.  “I never said the scenarios were bad, Chakotay.  I just said they needed greater complexity and less of a black and white solution.  You can do better, I think.”

“Complexity?” I echoed, struggling to process her comments.  “Less of a black and white solution?”

She leaned forward, studying me carefully.  “Chakotay, are you all right?”

As if on cue, my stomach growled, and I realized that I hadn’t had anything to eat since early morning.  “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling a blush crawl up my neck.  "I've been fighting transporter control all morning trying to get here from Montana.  I haven't had lunch."

“I haven’t eaten lunch, either. ”  She laughed, pushing her chair back.  “Why don’t we go get something to eat and talk?”

“Okay.”  I followed her from the office and endured a death glare from the yeoman.

“We’ll be at the officer’s mess,” Kathryn said as she led me from the room.  We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then she said, “Chakotay, you aren’t acting like yourself.”

“I’m just surprised to see you, that’s all.  I thought you were all caught up in the Romulan situation.”

“I am.  Ray needed someone to review this course, and he thought of me.  That’s all.”

Just my luck, I thought to myself.  Well, at least I have her undivided attention, for once.  We walked through the cafeteria line picking up our food and found a secluded table where we could talk.  I wondered whether to continue our conversation on an official level or resort to something more personal.

As usual, Kathryn took charge.  “You disagree with my assessment of your scenarios, I’m assuming.”

“Really, Kathryn, there is no way you could have reviewed them in any detail in less than thirty minutes.”

“You’re right.  I went through all four of them yesterday afternoon.”

I sat back, stunned, realizing that I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that she’d continued her workaholic ways.  “I don’t believe it, Kathryn.  Don’t you have something better to do on your weekends?”

She laughed heartily and then gave me a wicked look.  “Don’t be impertinent, mister,” she warned, pointing at me with her salad fork.  “I assure you that I have a personal life, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Oh, don’t I know,” I answered, embarrassed that I’d made such a sarcastic and potentially hurtful comment, but then even more shocked when I plunged on and made the matter worse.  “You and your boyfriend, Kevin Reardon, are the dynamic duo of the airwaves.  I’d have to be deaf and blind not to know about your illustrious love life.”

Her fork stopped halfway to her mouth and then slowly returned to the plate.  I didn’t have the courage to look her in the eye.  “Chakotay,” she said softly, “have I done something to upset you?  Do these holodeck programs mean so much to you that constructive criticism is a personal affront?”

I was blushing worse than ever.  “Of course not,” I said, finally looking at her and seeing the concern in her eyes.  “What if we start at the beginning?  Forget the last five minutes ever happened and return to square one?”

“All right.”  The ball was obviously in my court, but I didn’t have a clue what to say.  She waited a full minute, and when she realized that I was floundering, she smiled and put her hand on mine.  “You know, I’m glad to see you, Chakotay.  I’ve missed you.”

“You have?”  I was surprised at the obvious emotion in my voice.  “Really?”

“Really.  I jumped at the chance to work with you on this class.  I was so excited about it that I came in yesterday to get caught up on what I’d missed so far.”

“I . . . I’ve missed you, too,” I admitted.

"I never hear from you.  I have to rely on Tom and B'Elanna to find out what you're doing."

"You never contact me either.  They tell me what you're doing, too."  I couldn't help but grin.  "So does the Federation news."

She laughed.  "I'm so tired of all that.  The notoriety is a burden I'd gladly give away, not to mention the scrutiny of my private life."  She took a bite of salad and chewed thoughtfully.  "I don't know what is worse, Chakotay.  I had no real personal life on Voyager, but I did have a modicum of privacy.  Now . . . ."

"Now you have a personal life and no privacy."

"I guess that would seem to be the opposite, but the truth is that you can't have a personal life unless you have privacy."   She shook her head sadly.  "The truth is that now I have neither one."

"What about Reardon?"

She gave me a long look and rolled her eyes.  "Have you ever met Kevin?"

I shook my head in reply.  "I don't travel in the same circles you do, Kathryn."

"Well, that isn't such a bad thing, really.  If I never go to another diplomatic reception it will be too soon."  She leaned forward and lowered her voice.  "Kevin is, of course, the perfect man from the outside.  But he's a very successful man, and you know the true price of great success in one's career, don't you?"

I wondered what she meant for a minute, and then my eyes widened in surprise.  We'd discussed this very thing on Voyager many times.  She was talking about herself in a roundabout way.  "Great sacrifices," I breathed.

"Great personal sacrifices," she repeated, leaning her head on her hand.  "He has no family, you know, nor does he want one.  To Kevin, I'm a useful celebrity who provides a good, safe topic of conversation during receptions, the best possible companion for a diplomat.  Oh, he cares for me, I'm sure, as much as he's ever cared for anything other than his work.  And he's remarkably undemanding of my time.  It's 'convenient' for both of us."

I was so surprised by her comments that I simply stared at her.  Finally, I said, "And you, Kathryn?  Your willing to settle for a relationship like this?"

"I thought that I would be ready to connect with someone once we got home.  I wasn't prepared for the way I was surrounded by people all the time."  She smiled and looked away.  "Especially the men.  Chakotay, there were times that I thought I might be torn to bits by my 'adoring fans.'  Even as public as our 'relationship' is, Kevin shields me from most of that."

I was stunned.  "So, what are you saying, Kathryn?  That your relationship with him isn't real?"

"Pitiful, isn't it?"  She smirked and pushed her dishes away in favor of a large mug of coffee.  "Home again, and instead of getting on with my life, I find a new safety net."

My mind took me back five years to our first contact with the Alpha Quadrant.  The memory reminded me of so much painful loss--almost all of the Maquis, the cause that had given my life meaning, murdered and gone forever.  And Kathryn's quiet, private hopes of returning to Mark, just as ruined.  We'd been caught off-balance, and the easy rhythm of our flirtation was never the same again, because now, more than ever before, "we" could be together.

"I had no idea it was like that," I told her.  "I thought you were happy."

She ignored my comment in favor of something much more relevant.  "My life is a lot like those scenarios you wrote.  Superficial.  Simplistic.  They lack the 'horn of the bull.'"

"As in bull fighting."  I nodded.  "You mean there is no sense of real peril in the situations?"

She rubbed her forehead with her hand.  "Exactly.  But, I'm not sure it's possible to simulate the real danger of deep space on the holodeck.  I know that nothing I experienced before I met the Caretaker really prepared me for the Delta Quadrant."

"I do understand," I told her.  "But the cadets will always know the scenario isn't real.  I think you're asking the impossible."

"Yes, I am, Chakotay," she answered, her eyes miserable, "because that's what space will demand from them--the impossible.  Their very breath.  Their life's blood.  Their soul."

I felt a sudden rush of compassion for her, and for all of us, as we struggled to come to terms with the dull routine of Federation life.  I was tired and exhausted at the memory of all we had endured.  And yet, strangely, I also missed it.  I missed the "horn of the bull" that had been the very fabric of our lives in the Delta Quadrant.  She was struggling with the same feelings I was, I realized, and she was silently asking for help.

"Kathryn, tell me what's wrong."

"Not here."  She stood up, and I saw tears glistening in her eyes.  "Let's walk."

We left the officer's mess and found a bench in a quiet area of the gardens that surround the Academy.  She sat down and stared into the distance for a long time and I sat beside her, listening to the muted sounds of the life around us.  Suddenly I head a muffled sob.

"I'm numb, Chakotay.  I feel flat and bored and restless."  She turned toward me and brushed a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.  "Am I the only one still trying to get my balance?"

I shook my head.  "I feel the same way.  I'm sure many of us do."

She slid closer to me, put her elbow on the back of the bench, and absently rubbed her temple as I'd seen her do a thousand times in the ready room.  "What can we do about it?"

I was thrilled to be talking to her this way, overjoyed to experience the old familiar intimate friendship we'd shared for so many years.  For the first time in months, I felt alive.  "The counselors haven't helped you?"

"Did they help you?" she demanded, smiling when I rolled my eyes.

"They don't really understand."

"No, they don't.  No one can, Chakotay.  What we lived through . . . what we shared was both unique and profoundly personal.  There are times when they just brush it aside as a deep-space interlude, and when I explain that it was life and death . . . ," she drew a shuddering breath, " . . . life and death, Chakotay, every single day!  They just nod and agree.  But they don't know.  They don't get it."

"There were times when the only thing that kept me sane was the sound of your voice."

"For me, it was your eyes."

She looked up at me and, I swear, I felt the earth shift beneath us.  Our eyes locked, and I held my hand out to her, a silent plea, an unspoken cry for help.  She took my hand and then was sitting in my lap with her arms around me as she sobbed into my neck and I buried my face in her hair.

For the first time in all the years we'd been together, I said the things I'd always hidden in my heart--how beautiful she was, how noble and brave, how her simple presence in a room brought me peace, how deeply, how completely I loved her, how I couldn't live another day without her.

And she begged me to forgive her for hiding her feelings behind her rank and promised that she would make it up to me for the rest of her life.  She said, again and again, that she loved me and needed me beside her, until she laughed about being caught in a feedback loop.  But I'll never tire of hearing her say she loves me.  Never.

I don't remember many details from the rest of that fateful Monday afternoon.  Kathryn sent a modified list of corrections to the team, and we worked hard that week to finish the course to her satisfaction.  Once my work obligation ended, she took two weeks' leave and returned to Montana with me for a much-needed vacation.  Neither of us had the strength or the inclination to fight the unavoidable bond between us any longer.  We discovered that the road to peace and happiness was in each other's arms, and the only counselor we needed to help us find the missing balance in our lives was each other.

I didn't choose who would be my partner in life.  I don't deny that there was a lightning flash of recognition when I first met Kathryn Janeway on Voyager's bridge or a continuing ache for her over the next few years, but that feeling was muted, ignored, and repressed to the point that I no longer recognized it as love.

But it was love, all right, the best kind of love.

It was a miracle.

The End


Some flowers used to make the contest graphics from