Regaining Equilibrium

 

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners (yep). The original characters and plot are the property of the author (yep, though there's nothing terribly original here).  The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise (nope).  No copyright infringement is intended (not even a little bit intended). 

Written for the VAMB Secret Santa '08 for Kate04. She asked for smut or especially angst; I tried to give her both. It's in my usual style so there's definitely violence in here, though I did try and tone it down; this is only rated as high as it is for the consensual stuff. For all you purely happy folks, chapter one alone should do it for you...just stop there and you should be good. This was the first full-fledged smut attempt, much less a posted one, so be gentle please.

A huge thank you to Cheshire for her usual awesome beta job; she had this all dumped on her pretty much on the last day.

 

Regaining Equilibrium

 

He'd expected to find her somewhere quieter. On a side-street, perhaps, one overlooking the beautiful sea cliffs bordering the east section of the city. But having patrolled all of these at length while finding nothing, he'd had to expand his search parameters.

 

He didn't even know what had drawn him to the crowd of onlookers gathered on the side-street of the dying evening festival. It may have been the music: the lively, ethnic dancing music playing from somewhere within the inner circle of the small alien crowd. Something about the tone, the free and joyous quality of it, must have struck him as something she might have been drawn to in her current state of mind. While one of the most remote areas of the thinning, city-wide throng of revelers, it was not where he should have logically searched for her - at least not amidst a group of people - yet the flash of red amongst a backdrop of deep brown caught his eye, telling him his unlikely guess had been correct. A little surprised, he crossed the paved street, approaching his quarry, but as he drew closer, he was truly awestruck by what he found.

 

She wasn't hanging on the edge, watching with detached attention as he'd have expected of her. No, she was in the thick of the gathering of tall, graceful Hymerans, at the center of a circle of ten or fifteen dancers, all holding hands as they swirled round and round at what was now quite a fast pace at the song's peak. Hers was the only light-skinned, five-digited pair of hands in the group, her arms more slender than those of her companions, yet the contrast between chocolate and porcelain wasn't glaring. She looked like an accent piece...and she actually seemed as if she belonged there, somehow.

 

Her hair had come out of its usual order, the humidity of the nearby ocean having seen to that some time ago. It swirled around her, a cloud of tousled auburn silk. At some point in the evening, she'd lost her uniform jacket and turtleneck. On closer inspection, her boots and socks were also conspicuously absent; she was dancing barefoot. Yet she'd gained a few items along the way. There was a blue silk scarf, the kind he'd seen passed back and forth all evening amongst the celebrating Hymerans, wrapped around her waist like a silken belt. Long, delicate necklaces of the finest local crystals now adorned her throat, and there was even one of Hymera's abundant, fragrant azure flowers stuck haphazardly behind her ear - obviously an impulse or afterthought on her part. Her eyes were sparkling, clear and vivid blue, reflecting the low torchlight that burned on the wall behind the merry gathering.

 

As captivated as he was by the picture she presented, so Kathryn seemed entranced by the music. She was clearly attentive to her lively companions - and they to her, as they'd literally welcomed her into their midst with open arms.  They were obviously pleased with this newcomer who so clearly appreciated their music, their culture; it seemed to delight the rather intoxicated crowd to have a stranger intent upon learning their dance. And she seemed to be so enthralled in her actions that she hadn't a thought for anything else in the galaxy in that moment save for the music, her fellow dancers, and the simple steps of the dance. Her smile shone brightly across her face, genuine and free.

 

It was the happiest he'd seen her in months. It was the most lighthearted he'd seen her in...years, he realized with a pang. This was Kathryn...the Kathryn he'd given up hope of seeing ever again, at least while in this particular quadrant. Not that there wasn't good reason for that, on her part, he admitted sadly. Hell, in some cases, he knew he personally had given her plenty of reason to retreat further into herself, and for those moments, those inexplicably stupid, thoughtless moments, he could cheerfully have kicked himself.  Over the years, they'd both been responsible for their fair share of hurting the other, but the worst of those moments had been more recent - and more his doing than hers.

 

Teero. Would they ever get past that? She'd turned to Tuvok afterward, barely even looking at him for a time. He didn't blame her, hadn't tried to defend himself. How could he justify making her think he was ordering her oldest friend to kill her? But just when he thought he'd managed to work past that with her, at least for the sake of their dying friendship...the Bemarans.

 

He still couldn't forgive himself over the way he'd left her to board that last city ship on her own. He'd known better, damn it, had had that sixth sense in the back of his mind that the Bemar couldn't be trusted. Especially not Mallok, Prelate Nyfia's adored youngest son with the foul temper and the spoiled air of entitlement; or so his reputation foretold before they'd ever met him. Even Mallok's brother had openly hated him. If only he hadn't left her to those difficult negotiations, trusting the security team to see to her needs while she was over there...  

 

Chakotay shook his head, his teeth gritting together in regret, in sadness, and in quiet, inwardly-focused anger. Entirely his fault. She was more than his captain whose welfare he was charged with preserving. She was supposed to be his friend...his best friend, and where had he been when she'd needed him perhaps the most?

 

She laughed out loud, her peal of mirth carrying out over the strains of the reedy instruments, and it was the lightest and most carefree laugh he'd heard from her in...Gods, hadn't it been an eternity now?...and he suddenly felt like an intruder, undeserving of this glimpse into her private, innermost self. If Kathryn wanted to share this time with him, the first time she'd had off in three months that he was aware of, she would have invited him to join her - of that, he was certain. She hadn't.

 

Feeling guilty for his presence alone, Chakotay turned away from the crowd of revelers, careful to keep out of Kathryn's sight, and tapped the commbadge in his pocket, a safer place for it in such a crowded, inherently unruly venue. He had been to festivals such as this before; the first officer had no desire for it to be knocked off without his noticing or even plucked from his chest "accidentally". The festivities were relatively safe, with ample security nearby to intervene if things got out of hand, but that didn't mean the usual mischief makers and petty thieves didn't manage to thrive in the chaos, nonetheless.

 

"Chakotay to Voyager," he hailed quietly.

 

An implacable voice replied within seconds. "Tuvok here, Commander."

 

"I've found her."

 

"Acknowledged." There was the briefest of pauses. "Her condition?"

 

"She's fine, Tuvok." The first officer would have smiled if the gravity of the Vulcan's concern wasn't so evidenced by the innocuous-sounding question - and so understandable. They'd both been watching her with baited breath the past eight weeks or so, if not longer. He darted another glance over his shoulder to see her just passing out of his sight as the circle rotated, and he smiled softly. "Believe it or not, she seems to be enjoying herself. My guess is she simply lost track of the time and forgot to call in as scheduled."

 

A rarity indeed. She hadn't done that once in the six years they'd been out here that either man could recall. Neither mentioned it, however.  

 

"Will you be returning to the ship this evening?"

 

Chakotay paused, stealing another glance around the shoulder of the tall alien he stood behind and shook his head. He'd planned to, but... "No. I don't think so." The song had ended, but another was struck up just as swiftly, and Kathryn didn't seem inclined to go anywhere, despite the change of music style. As the group dispersed into couples, a fit-looking young Hymeran, obviously an admirer, had gently taken Kathryn's hand and was now attempting to lead the captain in a different kind of dance. Chakotay's breath caught in his throat for a moment, and he tensed, but the delighted smile illuminated her face again, a breeze catching at the ends of her hair, which Chakotay only now noticed had started to grow again...when had he stopped noticing?...and...

 

Tuvok's voice broke into his thoughts. "Shall I send a security team to escort-"

 

"No, that won't be necessary." The interruption of the offer was immediate. Though he understood Tuvok's concern, no way in the cosmos was Chakotay permitting whatever magic worked within this tiny circle of revelers to be disrupted by an invasion of a Starfleet security team. One look at their faces, whether they hung back politely or not, and Kathryn would snap back into captain mode faster than he could say the words "captain's mask". The thought repelled him. No. She deserved this time, had earned this respite in the past months alone with enough sweat and blood and probably tears, though she rarely showed them. Chakotay didn't want to allow anyone or anything to intrude on her private time until it was scheduled to be over: another eight hours from now, if he recalled correctly.

 

However, she obviously no longer had possession of her communicator, or they'd have been able to track her by it. The danger had passed for the most part, but still, until she returned to the ship, someone had to stay with her, whether she knew it, liked it or not. Chakotay thought quickly, the solution coming to him at once. He might not have been there for her two months ago, or even before that while Teero had taken control of him, but he was here now, and he could, and would, stand watch over her while she took the time to regain her equilibrium. To regain herself.

 

"I'll stay with her and make sure she gets back to her rooms safely."

 

The Hymeran council had graciously provided accommodations to the Voyager crew, knowing how far and hard they'd traveled to clear Bemaran space once Prelate Nyfia had declared Kathryn the most wanted criminal in the sector. The Hymerans had been instantly sympathetic to Voyager's plight, welcoming them with open arms and an easy, natural air of comradeship; Nyfia was not exactly well-loved by her neighbors. And with good reason...

 

He shook himself out of that train of thought, acknowledging Tuvok's agreement and tapping out of the comm. channel before turning to steal another glimpse at her. He'd fully intended to do just that - look - and then settle himself back against the wall, across the street somewhere, where he could be inconspicuous, hopefully unobtrusive, and yet still be able to see when and if she broke from the crowd. Yet as he turned to peek through an opening between the two onlookers he was using to shield himself from her sight, he was struck by what he saw this time, and no force in the galaxy could compel him to look away from the sight before him.

 

Something had happened with the music. This was a much quieter song, though it still had a noticeably rousing beat. It was a passionate song, filled with simple, bold sweeps, and the dancing now seemed to be concentrating on hip movement and arm locking in just such a way. In the first moment that he looked, Kathryn appeared to be having difficulty switching styles, but her escort was patient, emphatic about keeping her close and showing her the movements. The Hymeran was smoothly guiding them both through her missteps, and she in turn was giving learning this new dance her all.

 

Chakotay wasn't sure why he couldn't tear his gaze away. It couldn't have been that she looked beautiful in the fire-and-star light with her hair streaming very red behind her as she was spun ‘round the small space: after all, he knew full well what a beautiful woman Kathryn Janeway was, even if it had been awhile since he had consciously noted it.  And it wasn't just the infectious sound of her laughter carrying over the music and the noise of the crowd - that warm, husky laughter that sounded like no one else's. No, it was the expression on her face that trapped him. She was still alight with that simple enjoyment he'd first noticed, but now her brows knitted in concentration while she applied her scientific mind to learning the new steps. He couldn't resist a quiet chuckle to himself as he watched her study her partner's movements while being swept across the makeshift floor with him. It was so very her, that expression, that intent study of a dance that should have been all about relaxation...so classically her...it was Kathryn.

 

And Gods, how he had missed seeing her.

 

It wasn't exactly her style of dance, he acknowledged while watching helplessly, remembering that she'd studied ballet, not this...this free, unpretentious Hymeran style. If he had to liken this to anything from the Alpha Quadrant, it would have been...well...some odd alien mix of tango and perhaps...salsa? Was that what it was called on Earth? Chakotay wasn't sure of the name, only that the movements were simple, seemed natural to him, freer than the stuffy ballroom-style dancing he'd experienced at most Starfleet-sponsored events. The movements here were of an overtly sensual, even erotic nature. This was actually much more like the kind of dancing he'd done so often at home...before the Cardassians that was.

 

Only one person he'd ever known had been able to distract his mind from the bitterness, the anger such thoughts usually provoked within, and he was watching that woman remerge from behind the impenetrable shield she'd effected to protect herself lately. Her smile flashed freely as she was guided through movement after movement, and she did not once hesitate in any of the close contact wrought with her instructor, another miracle, from what Chakotay could tell. He hadn't seen her movements this free in many, many weeks. He almost had trouble believing what he was seeing as she didn't recoil from the strength of the sensual undertones but appeared to be embracing them.

 

He refused to acknowledge the burn of envy he felt directed at her young Hymeran partner in that moment. It was well past the time he might ever have had any right to feel like that about whomever Kathryn chose to share herself so freely with.

 

The music began to pick up in tempo, the beat very fast now, and the movements of each dancer became even surer, bolder in response. She'd gotten the steps down now. He saw it in the spark that, heaven help him, made her eyes even clearer and brighter with newfound confidence. Her grin flashed across from him as she circled ‘round the other couples with her partner, allowing him brief, flashing glimpses of her face, of her. She glowed. A familiar, almost forgotten ache began forming in the pit of his stomach. A longing that swept over him from head to toe, almost carrying him off his feet with the force of it...

 

Suddenly and quite without warning, he was grabbed and yanked out into the circle. With a start, he realized his abductor was a well-built Hymeran female, young and frighteningly agile. She grinned at him, ignoring his vehement protest, and guided him right into the thick of the dancing. She didn't seem to care that his feet dragged as he attempted to stand his ground or that he stammered as he tried, and failed, to get her to see that he wasn't interested before Kathryn caught sight of-

 

Too late. As his partner whirled him around, a firm grip on his waist while she moved quite closely against him, he was swung back at the same time that Kathryn was turned by her partner, and then she unmistakably locked gazes with him.

 

Shit.

 

She faltered in her steps, her mouth dropping open in shocked recognition, and he watched, crestfallen, as her wonderfully unguarded expression began to cloud.

 

Then he was moved again, and she was behind him, out of sight. 

 

No, was his only identifiable thought as his stomach dropped to his faltering boots. No, no, no.

 

This was not going to be ruined for her. It couldn't be. No way he'd allow the universe to be this cruel to her...no way was he going to let her disappear into herself again. He wasn't sure he'd ever see her again if she did.

 

Chakotay was hardly conscious of his next actions. He missed the surprised displeasure on his partner's face as he tore determinedly out of her grasp, spinning around to locate Kathryn. As an afterthought, as he turned away from the woman who'd yanked him out of hiding, he curled one hand around her wrist and pulled her along with him, toward Kathryn. Tapping the instructor's shoulder, Chakotay smiled and murmured a one-phrase explanation, thrust his partner toward the now-scowling man, and deftly slipped into the space cleared in front of Kathryn before she could halt her steps entirely and pull herself out of the dance...and the crowd.

 

He didn't speak a word, didn't try to; it would only come out wrong anyway, as he'd had occasion to learn lately.  Sweeping her up in a move that he prayed came off casually, he curled an arm around her waist, drawing her to him and emulating his partner of a moment before, pretending not to notice her slight resistance.

 

Kathryn's mood took an immediate down-turn, souring as he appeared out of nowhere and then, worse, actually cut in on her partner. From the reaction of the two discarded Hymerans, it wasn't exactly customary here. That, too, made her want to bristle, the intrusion being topped by the sheer rudeness she could interpret in his actions. What the hell was he doing here? She automatically wanted to slip into defensive mode at the mere sight of him. It wasn't just him she resented, though they'd not been the closest of companions lately: what she resented was more him as a reminder of everything she'd come to this festival alone in search of forgetting.  

 

The fact that he was dancing took a while to sink in, but when it did, surprise took over completely. He hadn't stopped, had kept up with the rhythm of the dancers moving around them as he swept her into his too-assuming arms, and her mind couldn't quite process this one, simple fact. Chakotay dancing? She almost laughed. Chakotay couldn't...

 

The hell he couldn't, she realized with amazement. He was, and quite competently, at that. The wonder of this revelation was their saving grace. She was so stunned at the incongruous image that her body took over, acting on autopilot. She found herself held tightly against him, his body moving in tune with hers, more so already than her instructor's had a moment ago.

 

But then...of course it did. Was that part really any surprise? Who had she ever been closer to these past six years than him?

.

Nothing had stopped or slowed down around them, despite the oddity of Chakotay's actions a moment ago, and if anything, the music was now at full swing. She stepped back from him, widening eyes locked on his seemingly neutral ones, only to have him haul her back flush against him in a move so confident she was shocked again. It was not a move she could ever have pictured him making before this moment. It didn't fit with what she thought she knew of him. It happened again, and she stared even as their combined rhythm never faltered. Where had this man come from? Six years of living and working beside him, day in and day out. Why hadn't she seen this side of him before now?

 

Oh, God, but she had. Just not for ages and ages. How could she have forgotten this side of him existed? Had it really been that long since she'd looked at him this way?

 

But it wasn't really him, though, was it? No, not really. It was a part of the dance. The boldness he was displaying now, the overt confidence in his sensual movements against her, it was all just a part of the dance. This was perfectly safe, and quite appropriate for the situation they found themselves in. Kathryn felt herself relaxing into the rhythm established between them, comforted by this knowledge. The tension began to ebb slowly from her face, and she stopped fighting his presence internally, too. This was only a dance, and there was nothing wrong with that. They could share a simple dance, damn it. They both deserved to, didn't they? And maybe it would help to smooth those awkward currents running between them lately: they didn't seem to be present now, at any rate.

 

He never stopped moving, falling easily into the alien rhythm, allowing the tempo to direct his pace and his movements. Allowing her unique reactions to determine his next actions in turn. He even seemed remarkably gifted at predicting her next move before she made it, and Kathryn discovered that they were no longer separate for more than a second at a time. Their lower bodies seemed to fuse to each other, undulating together as if they had minds of their own. Moving with such fervor and passion that the heat was swift to form in both of them from the friction and the passion of the alien music and ambiance.

 

She looked into his eyes; he was staring down into hers. That was when she began to notice the way her body responded almost eagerly to his every feathered - and not so feathered - touch. But this was a natural reaction as well, wasn't it? Between the two of them, it was. It was just that it had been a little while since she'd been close enough to him to notice it.

 

She'd stopped really thinking some moments ago, she noted vaguely, allowing the music, and him, to determine each of her next actions. Her eyes locked onto those orbs of deep ebony as the shifting background behind him began to blur and fade until his face was all that she could see clearly. And there was no expectation there, no worry or judgment as she'd become accustomed to seeing, whether it was actually there to be seen or not. He was simply...here. Dancing. Enjoying the music. With her.

 

And she felt right here, somehow. It actually felt right to have him here now. It certainly felt right to her body, as yet another masterful thrust of his powerful hips pressed his solid form against her just so...she stepped back again, as was the next move indicated by their loosely established pattern, feeling her arm slide from around his waist and then herself pulled back to him with a flick of his right hand encircling her left wrist. She all but slammed back into him, her breath leaving her in a rush as her breasts flattened against his chest, her nipples tingling with the pressure of the impact, her groin responding with answering throbs of pleasure to the obvious response it felt stirring in its counterpart as they were briefly thrust together. He'd lifted her slightly off the ground for their next sweeping rotation, the staccato thrumming of alien drums humming through her, replacing her heartbeat, the music and the man before her all that her mind would focus on now. She slid back down the length of him, never feeling her feet touch the ground at the intense, electrifying tingling of every part of her that touched him, aware of him, of every part of him in a way that she never had been before now. It wasn't frightening. When she wasn't thinking, wasn't worrying and fretting over yesterday's mistakes and tomorrow's challenges and appearances and everything else that usually weighed on her mind, this simply felt natural, and right. So very right...

 

He felt right.

 

The music continued, and so did the erotic movements of their individual bodies, which were now working together to form a single, perfect whole. Sensation overwhelmed her, tingles of electric sparking through her at every repeated brush against him...and his eyes, his body clearly told her that it was the same for him, that what she experienced he felt in equal measure... A very short while after was when the hunger took a firm hold, and when it did, it was both hot and fierce in both of them.

 

It was overpowering. It would not be denied. Not anymore. Later, neither would recall who brought whose lips to whom first. Neither was aware of when their dance ceased being about the music, the movement, and became about need. Need for touch, for stimulation, for skin to skin contact. Need for validation, for atonement, for companionship, for joining...

 

Neither remembered breaking free of the other dancers or of fumbling their way in the general direction of their planet side accommodations. They barely made it to her room, which was closest, and they stumbled several times during the journey, so intent were they upon exploring each others mouths and bodies. Her clothes barely made it past the threshold, the flower hitting the ground, unnoticed, trampled under their feet, the scarf that had barely been hanging onto her waist by that point caught on the simple latch and lost on the way in. She found herself slammed up against the door as soon as it kicked shut behind them, finally pressed there by his oh-so-welcomed bulk, his hands sliding up under her shirt to find her breasts, finally, and then covering them with a groan of agonized wonder escaping him. His mouth was locked to hers, their tongues tangling in an extension of the wild dance neither had broken from completely, though the music both still heard echoed only in their minds and through their bodies now.

 

Chakotay swallowed her answering moan with his mouth, drinking it into own lungs and filling himself with the essence that was her breath. She tasted faintly like the rich berry champagne that was served at the festival mixed with - he almost smiled - what else but coffee? It was a flavor he swore to every god he'd ever heard of that he could spend an eternity tasting and never, ever have enough of. Her hands had come up to lock behind his neck, holding him to her as though she was afraid of his pulling away from her, and the fingers of one hand ran tantalizingly through the hair at the nape of his neck, her fingernails grazing lightly over the goose bumping flesh, encouraging him onward.

 

"I want to see you, Kathryn," he whispered urgently against her throat when he pulled free of her mouth. "I want to see all of you..." Her only warning before her shirt was yanked along with her bra over her head and tossed...neither of them cared where, and then they both stilled momentarily. With some trepidation, her lust-filled gaze fell on his face, her breath coming in shallow gasps watching his eyes darken at the sight of her bare breasts revealed before him. Then the fingers of one hand began tracing the delicate circle of beads where they dipped below her neck, the necklace now the only thing adorning her upper body, his feather-light touch making her shiver while he devoured her with those dark eyes alone.  

 

"Beautiful," he managed, and then she almost wanted to die from the intense ecstasy as his mouth dipped and immediately latched onto a begging nipple, lips closing around the puckered flesh and tongue sweeping over the tip in a maddeningly insistent, gentle motion.

 

She couldn't figure out where she wanted his mouth more - where it was or back at her lips so she could taste him again, but she soon realized it was impossible to remove his jacket with him bent over her chest like this. Pulling his head up, she tore frantically at the mostly undone zipper. He groaned as he reluctantly broke from her mouth, which he'd immediately returned to at her urging, shrugging obligingly out of the sleeves, taking the opportunity to bury his face in her soft, exposed throat just over the necklace. His chin pulled at the alien beads, dragging the cooler stones across her super-heated flesh as he nuzzled the skin below her ear, muttering, in stark detail, about all the things he was going to do to her, with her. For her.

 

His voice sent shuddering ripples of desire through her as his warm breath danced over her neck. She shivered with anticipation, murmured her enthusiastic approval of his proposals, one hand still cupping the back of his neck and the other sliding between them. As he nipped greedily at the skin of her throat, her pale, delicious throat, his tongue lapped gratefully at the reddened skin, soothing at the angry marks of possession he left behind. He reveled in the purr-like noises of contentment he was wringing from her with his actions, feeling her hands sliding up under his shirt, her nails grazing his heated skin, and then the fabric of his shirt tried to pull over his head. To accommodate her, he grudgingly pulled back, and when he did, concern for her, for her recent condition, floated briefly through the back of his mind. It made him wonder if this might be too soon for her, still.

 

He knew what had not happened to her the two days she'd been separated from the ship, but Chakotay strongly suspected he had only the barest details about what had occurred before she'd managed to free herself.

 

Was she ready for this? Truly ready? Or was this some impulsive decision spurred by the heat of the moment that she'd regret later? Could he really take that if it was? Could she? Gods, it was so hard to think when she rubbed herself against him like that...

 

He pulled back to stare into her face, her beautiful, breathtaking face, now flushed with desire, and he almost choked on the words he was compelled to utter now. "Kathryn," he panted, his voice strained, "if you aren't ready for this, now's the time t- arghh!" He broke off in an incoherent moan, his eyes rolling back in his head.

 

While he'd been preparing his gentlemanly speech, she'd become impatient. One of her roaming hands had found another target, through the zipper she'd somehow managed to unfasten, and his throbbingly stiff member was encased in her warm palm. She squeezed him gently but firmly, her hand sliding back and forth, sending him into blissful incoherence. To heaven. He arched into her touch, a groan of pure lust echoing in her ears as he dropped his head to her shoulder, gasping, held helpless in her skilled grasp.

 

"Gods," he choked out as her palm pressed firmly against the tip of him, spreading the small beads of moisture she found all around the tip in a maddening, unexpected rhythm, "Kathryn! Please! Need to...are you...sure?" he managed.

 

"Chakotay?" she drawled, stopping her movements and drawing him out of his momentary stupor.

 

"What?" he gasped out, feeling his hips jerk into her grasp of their own accord, straining towards the exquisite pain she'd been subjecting him to a moment ago. Was she stopping? Oh, Spirits, she wanted him to stop... "Kathryn," the words nearly killed him, "it's all right. I'll understand if you..."

 

Her expression more than her words stopped him. She grinned lazily up at him, a wicked look in her eyes as she worked him over, her soft, knowing hand once again smoothing over the hard column of silken flesh.

 

"Shut up."

 

It snapped the first coherent sense back into him since she'd touched him more boldly than he'd have expected of her. His hands had already found her breasts again, were already kneading gently, his fingers searching out and finding her nipples once more, his thumbs flicking over the sensitive tips while he regarded her, considering the confident, amused and increasingly aroused expression on her face.

 

"That an order?" he murmured against her kiss-softened lips, pulling her lower lip into his mouth with his teeth to nip softly.

 

"Mmmhmm." She looked extremely pleased with herself to be quite literally holding him in the palm of her hand as his hips continued to jerk forward, and he made a decision in that one instant.

 

She was used to being the captain in bed, too, was she? Made sense, knowing her, knowing what little he'd gleaned about the few former lovers she'd had from how she'd spoken of them.

 

Not here. Not on her life - not this time. He'd waited too damned long for this moment, and this would not be an experience she'd soon forget, even if it killed him - and it might just kill him to do this, but it would be worth it. With a decidedly wolfish grin, he slowly shook his head at her, one of his hands leaving her breasts, trailing over her bare, quivering stomach to reach down and still her hand against him, stopping her distracting movements and drawing her eyes up in confusion.

 

"But I'm afraid you can't give orders here, Kathryn." His determination gave him back some slight measure of control. This was about her, and more specifically about her feeling, not her thinking. At least...he wanted it to be. He watched her eyes widen in surprise as she was lifted and flattened against the wall, pinned there with his warm, solid bulk, the breath knocked out of her completely, but she never once looked afraid or concerned, and he took it as a positive sign for his plans, grinning wickedly. "Not here, not now - unless you have a way to enforce them." To emphasize his assertion, his hips thrust firmly at the apex of her thighs, which had locked firmly around his waist, and he was right on target, drawing a sharp intake of breath from her with the bolt of sensation the contact sent through her electrified nerve endings. His mouth latched onto her neck, below her ear, his tongue sweeping a trail, a mark for his teeth to aim for. As he nipped and sucked at the column of her throat, she arched into him, supported by his body pressing into her and one strong hand under her left thigh. "And I'll talk," he thrust against her again, "whenever the hell," he returned to steal a quick, bruising kiss from her parted lips, "I want." He pulled away to trail more kisses down her throat to her collarbone, through a gap in the delicate lines of beads, where he nipped at her again with another calculated thrust of his hips, "Got that?" 

 

"God. Yes," she panted in agreement, nodding without really knowing, or caring, what she was agreeing to anymore. Barely audible as his hand kneaded her, fingers still pinching at her nipples, torturing her with wicked pulls and agonizingly gentle twists.

 

"Good," he approved, his head dipping down to her breast so he could reward her good behavior. She moaned again, a deep, throaty sound, her head thrown back and thumping against the door behind her. She didn't care, barely noticed; her hands had come down to his head, fingers threading through his thick, soft hair and holding him to her breast while her pelvis ground steadily into his raging erection, pressing her swollen, moist center against him with rhythmic urgency, trying in vain to relieve some of the exquisite tension building there. He'd long ago begun rocking in counter-rhythm, as helpless as she to the powerful pull of the primal motion.

 

His mouth was never still as he divided his torturous attentions between her left and right breasts as equally as possible, not wanting one to feel neglected over the other; he was gently laving at and around her nipples, suckling and occasionally nipping at each in turn, grazing the aching peaks with the edges of his teeth, sending her into a near-frenzied state of need whilst she clung to him, her fingernails digging into his muscled back with one hand, the other steadily kneading the back of his head.

 

He'd waited far too long for this, and he thought he would die before he had enough of her. But, as delightfully arousing as he found her steadily offered gasps, moans and occasional whimpers of approval, Chakotay was soon far too frustrated to keep up with the position - and with his teasing. While holding her up to his mouth, he denied himself access to the fastenings of her pants, as well as the use of at least one hand, which had returned to help support her against the door. The way she ground against him only encouraged his already raging erection, and he was throbbing with an almost painful need to possess her. With a fierce growl, he suddenly spun her away from the wall, his mouth swooping down to cover her muted protest while he carried her over to the huge bed in the next room. On the way, he thumped her left leg into the doorframe, misjudging the opening, and he tried to break the connection between their busy mouths to apologize.

 

She swallowed his mumbled apology whole, greedily sucked his tongue back into her mouth, moaning low in the back of her throat, the wonderful friction of the movements his walking was creating as she was repeatedly jostled against him doing amazing things for her already tingling, throbbing center. She barely felt his hands come back to unwrap her legs from around his waist and then she dropped back on the bed, bouncing slightly before he was on her again.

 

Her pants were gone in less than a second, pulled away from her in one clean swoop, and her panties followed so swiftly she almost missed it. He took the time, somehow, to yank his remaining tee over her head, and then his hot, muscled frame fell over her, and she was surrounded by his wonderful warmth, the feel of his bare chest pressed to hers pure heaven.

 

"Kathryn," his breath was caressing the side of her face as he nipped at her throat, her earlobe, pulling the displaced beads gently back down where they belonged in a torturously erotic, slow motion. He said her name the way he'd been aching to, and because it felt so good to say it, to be allowed to say it this way, he said it again. "My Kathryn."  

 

She didn't contradict him, had waited too long to hear his voice - his voice - speak her name in precisely this fashion. She still had trouble believing he was here at all, that they were here, like this, after so long of having given up thoughts of it happening. Now that they were, the possessiveness she heard in his voice that normally would have had her bristling somehow only fueled her need to dizzying heights. "Yes," she heard someone say in a voice so very like her own but for the sheer, breathless quality of it. One hand traveled between them, edging farther and farther south, over her belly, down between her swollen folds where he explored the hot, wet flesh of her center, he groaned at the slickness he encountered there, his fingers gently teasing, spreading the moisture around in a tantalizing, exploratory rhythm.

 

 "So hot, Kathryn," he whispered in approval as her mouth found his neck and her teeth grazed hungrily across his skin. "So wet..."

 

"That would be your doing," she reminded him hotly, her voice even huskier when it was so laced with desire, letting her nails graze down the line of his back and her legs come up around his waist before he felt both of her hands tugging insistently at his waistband, trying to undress him, too.

 

He shifted to the side, allowing her access, but as soon as his slacks were disposed of, he pressed her right back down to the mattress, kneeling between her legs this time where he seemed entranced by the sight of her laid out to his gaze. If she'd been any less aroused and impatient than she was right now, she'd have squirmed with embarrassment as his hot eyes seared over the core of her. His hands wandered contemplatively over her spread thighs, smoothing over the outside of them, then back up along the soft, ultra-sensitive insides.

 

"I should have known you'd be just as beautiful here as you are everywhere else." His hot, whispered words sent shivers down her spine, and her hungry eyes, meanwhile, had locked onto the delicious erection she'd palmed moments beforehand. Unconsciously, she licked her lips, anticipating the taste of him, until she realized that he'd already beaten her to that idea. She barely caught his intention in time to grab on to a tuft of his hair and hold his head the last few inches away from her.

 

"Chakotay...God," she panted, shaking her head, "please. I'm so close. I don't need..."

 

"Maybe not - but I do." His answering growl sent fierce shivers through her, sapping her resolve and weakening her grip. And then his mouth was on her, and the only thought she had was keeping him there as he dove straight into his task with almost more enthusiasm than she could bear. She could not for the life of her recall ever having felt so worshipped before, so utterly adored and desired. She arched helplessly into his eager mouth, and as his lips fastened to the very core of her, he wrung one cry of pure ecstasy after another from her throat. 

 

She was killing him with the sounds she was making, with the impatient way she was already bucking up against him, with the eager way she was giving herself over to him now. But her eyes were closed, he noted, as her head tossed back and forth above her. He didn't want that, wanted to be able to see the effect he was having on her as he savored the taste of her and used his mouth and tongue and teeth to push her over the edge. He didn't want her mind to drift anywhere else but right here, right now. Not knowing the details about so many things, he was afraid to let her memory draw her away from him to places less pleasant; Chakotay wanted to make sure that nothing he did was going to make her think of anything but the pleasure he so desperately craved to give to her.

 

"Look at me, Kathryn." At first, it was a whisper, a gentle request, and a sound like a whimper escaped her, half at the vibrations against her sensitive flesh and half in reluctance to do as he instructed, to take her focus away from the exquisite pleasure he was giving her. He wasn't deterred, pausing long enough to repeat, "Open your eyes and look at me." Once more, the vibrations of the words against her skin hummed deliciously through her, and she could have killed him for pausing, but he said it again, and his tone was insistent this time. "Look at me."

 

So she did, and when her hazy eyes focused on his smoldering up at her, she realized his mouth hadn't really left her. As soon as she obeyed, his lips and tongue were busy working her over again, and at the molten pleasure coursing through her, she understood the benefit of obeying his unreasonable demand. Seeing how much he enjoyed what he was doing to her now was pushing her further over the edge, but as the pressure built higher and higher, her eyes began to slide shut of their own accord...

 

The pleasure stopped immediately, and her eyes snapped open, an angry, wordless growl of frustration escaping her. Her hips pushed forward, trying to follow the teasing heat of his mouth, hands clutching his head trying to push him back to her, but Chakotay held her firmly down with one hand pressed over her belly, denying her movement. "Look at me, Kathryn. I want to see your beautiful eyes on me while I taste you." He kept his gaze locked up on her, making sure she continued to obey. "That's it," he whispered as he returned his eager tongue and lips to working along her well slickened folds, his hand sliding back down to her trembling thigh. In reward for her compliance, one finger swirling tantalizingly at her entrance before finally slipping inside.

 

At the resistance he encountered to just that movement, Chakotay's eyes widened along with Kathryn's as he explored her hot depths but never stopped his mouth's busy movements, never stopped savoring the unique, intimate flavor of her. A perverse sort of pleasure filled him at what his questing, curious fingers found; he wasn't proud of it, but it did. So, he couldn't help thinking to himself, Sullivan wasn't the luckiest damned mass of photons ever programmed. Maybe he should apologize for beating the crap out of him all those times after she'd left the holodeck from a date with him...

 

Maybe.

 

Kathryn had no idea what could possibly have made him chuckle so suddenly against her, but she decided it was her unabashedly enthusiastic reaction to his teasing tongue and fingers and furthermore decided she didn't really care, so long as he didn't stop again. Chakotay's eyes were smoldering up at her with undiluted passion, raw hunger, and his tongue was just about driving her insane... And then his mouth latched firmly onto her, lips closing around her sensitive cluster of nerves, sucking hard as his tongue flicked insistently over her captive flesh. She was shocked at the scream that tore from her own throat when she exploded against him, arching into his mouth in what was possibly the most intense climax of her life as he hummed his approval around her, his smoldering gaze reflecting need and satisfaction and pure love back up at her all the while.

 

In his fantasies, he always held her there, never letting up on her until he'd wrung one orgasm from her after another, but if he waited one second longer to be inside of her, he'd lose his mind. He was so hard at this point it had crossed into the realm of being painful, and the unique taste of her, her scent and especially the throaty moans she hadn't stopped making as he'd continued to work her up past the point of fulfillment and back into the realm of need again broke him. He pulled away from her, sliding up to position himself at her entrance, further tortured by the wait as she pulled his head down to her eager mouth where her tongue thrust easily past his lips, tasting herself and murmuring her lusty encouragement.

 

Despite the lengths he'd gone to to prepare her, he encountered more resistance than he'd thought possible. Pulling back, he saw the grimace she couldn't quite hide and stopped half-way, gritting his teeth. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead from the effort of going slowly, but, need or not, he didn't have it in him to hurt her, however unintentionally.

 

"Now, Chakotay," she urged breathily, pushing her hips up at him, refusing to let his chivalry make either of them wait another second - not after six years of waiting. One of her legs came up to hook around his waist, drawing him even closer into her as she commanded, "Now." Miraculously remembering his preference not to take orders in the last second, she added a hasty, almost repentant, "Please."

 

With a growl, he rolled them over, flipping her on top of him and urged, "Take me in, then, Kathryn." He would let her control the pace, at least until he was sure there was no more discomfort for her.

 

She didn't need to be told twice. Kathryn gasped in a sharp intake of breath as she impaled herself on him in one swift move, embracing the feel of his wonderful hardness pushing against her slick walls, stretching her open, and most certainly filling her completely - and then some. The pain of sudden entry gave her only momentary pause. She was far too aroused, way too worked up for her body to be able to distinguish pain from pleasure properly anyway; it all transmuted to liquid, molten pleasure inside of her. Throwing her head back with a soundless gasp, she quickly began to move over him.

 

A pronounced groan rumbled from deep within him as Kathryn's warmth enveloped him, squeezed him more tightly than he thought possible. She began rocking against him, slowly at first, her head back as her cool hands braced against his chest, and the visual feast she presented him with had him throbbing even more hotly inside of her. Captivated, he watched the delicate, colored beads dance over her creamy skin, and unable to resist, his hands reached up to palm her breasts, squeezing gently in rhythm with her every thrust against him. Low, throaty moans from her were his reward...and very nearly his undoing. The scent of her was all around him, in his mouth, on his lips, driving him wild with need. This was better than fantasies: this was real, as the warm, soft flesh filling his hands and the slick heat embracing him tightly reminded him.

 

As she grew more comfortable with her established rhythm, Kathryn's pace increased, and very soon she was riding him hard, helped along by his hands, which had found her hips, encouraging her to faster, deeper movement, but he sure as hell wasn't going to last much longer - he deserved a damned medal for lasting this long. Needing to take her with him over the edge again, for her, for himself, one hand slid between them to find the strongest source of her pleasure and stroke her to completion with him.

 

Kathryn had thought her pleasure couldn't be any greater than the feel of him moving inside of her, but as soon as his knowledgeable fingers found that spot again, she lost her perfect rhythm, gasping and faltering under his touch. Undeterred, he simply rolled her under him, taking up the task again as soon as she wrapped her eager legs around his muscled waist. This time he set the pace, and his was much harder, wild and uncontrollable by now. He slammed into her, leaning down and grunting his pleasure into her ear, telling her in explicit terms what she was doing to him, how she made him feel. At his erotic words, her nails dug into his shoulders. She arched up under him, her entire body tensing around him, and then she exploded around him again just in time to hear his near shout of satisfaction ringing in her ear.

 

When her spasming inner muscles had milked every last drop from him, he collapsed to her side, beyond exhausted, but still held loosely in her embrace. Gasping pure contentment, Kathryn pulled him closer to rest her head in the crook of his neck and shoulder for a moment before shifting her upper body away to allow them both much-needed cooler air. He felt her fingers tracing the side of his face, noted the soft, wondrous smile playing on her lips and couldn't help returning it.

 

"I've missed you, Kathryn," he told her quietly, earnestly even as he struggled at catching his breath. "I mean you, you." Her eyes warmed at his statement, telling him she knew what he'd meant by the simple declaration, all that he meant by it, a shimmer of blue moisture reflecting in the moonlight as his hand stroked her thigh. He automatically tried to gather her closer, wanting her as near to him as he could possibly get her, but she demurred, murmuring that she wanted to fall asleep looking at him just as he looked now.

 

Their lower bodies still entwined, Chakotay took pleasure in the reassuring way she hooked her top leg more securely over his and in the way her fingers still ran light, caressing lines over the plains of his forehead and cheekbones.

 

"I've missed you, too," she whispered softly, so low he almost didn't hear her. "I don't think I realized how much..."

 

His last thought, as he closed his eyes, was that he had found home, and that it was much closer than he'd expected it to be. 

 

 

She awoke slowly, despite knowing instantly that she was not on her ship from the steady, stationary feel of the soft bed beneath her. Her thinking felt fuzzy, as though she'd been in a very deep slumber, and the details were slow in coming to her...shore leave, yes. Dancing. Chakotay.

 

Hymera was a warm planet with a sultry climate. The open window siphoned a current of hot breeze, tonight with an odd, coppery-scented tang to it, tickling over her exposed skin, caressing the flesh cooled by the evaporation of perspiration. The sensation was almost heavenly, and for long moments, Kathryn had no desire to open her eyes at all. The strong scent of sex, of him, was all around her, and her body felt wonderfully used for the first time in so long. Her head ached vaguely, and she attributed it to the strange alien drink of the evening, though she knew she hadn't been intoxicated by the beverage, but not even that ruined her languorous mood. As she gently stretched her legs out, there were murmuring protests in her muscles from positions held too long the evening before: positions to them unnatural, but that at the time had felt so very right to the rest of her. Telltale soreness in all the right places verified that her memory, this time, was no false torture, no dream conjured up from the depths of her subconscious, waiting to torment her with its falseness in the cold morning starlight of the viewport - this time the memory was real.

 

And she had no regrets, she realized with some surprise. There was none of the shame, the remorse of the morning after she'd assumed would be there...when the moment inevitably happened and the moth-like attraction finally ignited into the fiery consummation it was always meant to be between them. Whether or not this worked, whether or not they worked, she had no regrets about the moments of bliss they'd given one another last night. They'd both owed this to the other, she thought with a small, wistful smile. Owed each other this demonstration of trust, this ultimate apology and, if nothing else, then last evening would forever be a testament to the strength of their bond for as long as it took them to reach home.

 

And not only did she not regret what they'd done last night, Kathryn realized with swiftly dawning wonder, but somehow she knew already that if one of them did not make it to see that day, as was better than average chance in the Delta Quadrant, there was one regret that would now no longer be apart of the bitterness of having survived the other. What they had just shared had been wonderful, had been healing, and...

 

It was right, she decided. It had all felt, still felt right. And, as there were still a few more hours until dawn, if the lack of light to hit her closed eyelids through the open curtains meant anything, Kathryn decided that they would benefit from making sure there were absolutely no regrets left between them in this particular department when it came time to return to the ship and set course for home again. They would deal with after...after.

 

And this time, Chakotay was in for a bit of a surprise if he thought he would be taking control again. The way she saw it, it was his turn to lie back and enjoy, and if he resisted, she would show him just how much he might have underestimated her ability to enforce those orders he'd so casually disobeyed last night. With a tiny smirk, she moved to roll over onto her side, finally, lazily opening her eyes which wanted to find him and feast on the sight of him like this, satiated and presumably sleeping...hopefully as bare as she. Had they kicked the sheets off the bed in their frenzy? Probably. Her arms, which she'd only moved very slightly with the stretching out of her lower body, encountered stiff resistance as she tried to bring them down from over her head. In shock, she pulled harder, to no avail. Her lazy musings halted abruptly, and Kathryn's eyes finally snapped wide open to search out the cause of her immobility.

 

It was then she realized why she couldn't move her arms; they were tied above her, attached to the rings at the corners of the bed. A bolt of familiar panic shot through her until she realized the binding was soft, not metal...shredded bits of the missing sheet, she thought, calming, from the texture rubbing against her flesh while she pulled at them futilely. After a moment of trying every angle she could manage, Kathryn gave up on pulling and stopped to assess the rest of her surroundings more fully, her mind still fighting bravely past the haze of sleep hanging over her.

 

She was alone in the bed, alone in the room, and the only evidence that Chakotay had been with her at all last night were his all-pervasive, familiar scent and the scattered remnants of his clothing littering parts of the floor and the far chair across the room by the door.

 

Well, he wouldn't have gone very far without his pants, at least.

 

What the hell, Chakotay, she thought to herself with more than a little irritation. He hadn't even bothered to cover her with a sheet, she realized, feeling the burning in her cheeks at the thought of what she must look like right now. Not that she'd deny him anything at all, much less looking at her, but she wasn't exactly twenty anymore, and she wasn't strictly comfortable displaying her fully nude body like this as if she was.

 

It was on the tip of her tongue to call out to him, assuming this must be some wicked game he thought would amuse her, to tell him that he'd erred in that assumption indeed when her gaze caught on a dark stain in the white sheets directly beside her, illuminated by the moonlight.

 

She froze again in her pulling at the restraints, only then realizing she'd resumed the struggle with her bonds while she'd been musing. As she craned her neck over into an unnatural position to see better, in the dimness of the room her eyes caught on what looked to be a huge, not-quite-black stain spread out in the indented fabric exactly where she'd expected to find him still slumbering beside her when she'd awoken. The spot was wet, she realized, as it became clear that the side of her hip was touching the edge of the stain. Had they spilled something while they'd...no, they hadn't brought anything back with them from the festival, having been too involved with each other to think of it. The stain was sticky, she further noted as she wriggled a bit away from it. Another breeze swirled the air around her and her stomach jolted - hard - as she finally recognized the coppery scent for what it was.

 

Blood. Human blood, and no small amount. Not hers, she already knew she hadn't been hurt anywhere enough to leave that large a stain. Only one other option remained, and her heart stopped beating in her chest as she stared, ignoring the searing pain of something pulling in the muscles of her neck at the unnatural position.

 

Why was she taking so long to think? That should have been obvious from the start, damn it, no matter how little light was filtering in from the starlight outside the window.

 

Something glinted in the center of the puddle, something she'd had trouble seeing at first in the pre-dawn light filtering into the room, but she recognized the object within seconds once her eyes rested on it. It was a small, three-headed serpent fashioned artfully from what looked like precious stones, and her heart exploded in a furious thumping of panic inside of her chest.

 

She knew that serpent, had spent two days being beaten by gloved hands with rings bearing that same symbol. She stared at it for a long moment, entranced and completely unable to move as the memories slammed through her...

 

"You really would do better not to displease the magistrate, Captain."

 

The only answer she could give was a poorly stifled grunt as the man's heavy boot struck her already cracked ribs. Her mouth was filled with blood, and so was her vision.

 

"He would have been perfectly happy to return you, along with your security officers, once you'd complied with his wishes." The next kick was to her chin, and it snapped her head back with a vision-blackening force...

 

"Kathryn." A jeweled blue hand pushing the damp hair back from her face. "It pains me to see you like this. And after my *dear* mother went through all the trouble to send you to me." A deep sigh of disappointment barely heard through the roaring in her ear, bruised from having been struck by powerful fists. "But perhaps now you are ready to be reasonable?" His face barely came into focus as he leaned down over her where she lay crumpled on the grated floor. "Yes, I'm certain she will be. She's learned her lesson, haven't you?" The voice filtered down from above again, punctuated by an entirely unconcerned laugh.

 

No remorse for what he'd done, what he'd ordered done. Simple satisfaction in his voice - entitlement and expectation. "Clean her up and send her to me when she's presentable. I'll expect her in no more than two hours. And Drallos? Make sure she looks good; I've waited all day for this." 

 

The serpent glittering beside her on the bed was the adornment at the top of a long, thin blade. It was the hilt, she realized, once she fought her way free of the flashbacks. The hilt of a finely-crafted knife was stuck deep into the soft bedding below, spearing the spot of the crimson stain.   

 

The stain she'd left behind had been dark blue.  

 

And the next thing she knew was a potent rage: rage fueled by the staggering current of fear coursing through her. The serpent told her everything she needed to know about what had happened to her first officer. It was the symbol of the most powerful tribe in a sector, a sector she'd thought they'd cleared just over two weeks ago, and with it, the danger of the person responsible for Chakotay's disappearance. But she'd been wrong - she'd been oh-so-very wrong.  They'd been followed. The whole way they'd thought themselves in the clear, and they'd been followed...

 

Her blood boiled at the thought of it. And now, because of her stupidity, one of the most dangerous persons to have made the long list of Voyager's enemies had him, a person who hated her with a passion that ran deep and true and hideous.

 

Nyfia.

 

=>

 

It took Kathryn a little over an hour to work herself free from the restraints and then just thirty seconds more before she was dressed and rifling through Chakotay's discarded pants to find his communicator, knowing where he kept it on most shore leaves like this one. Finding the commbadge exactly where she'd expected to, she hailed Tuvok immediately, tersely explaining the situation, and Tuvok appeared at her side an instant later to take the necessary scans. By the time he'd finished it was apparent that, while the blood staining the bed belonged to Chakotay and was evidence of serious injury, it was not serious enough to have killed him, assuming he'd been treated.

 

As for why she had not awoken when the intruders entered the room, the tricorder confirmed what her aching head already told her; she'd been drugged in order to keep her unaware of what had been happening beside her. They could only assume she'd been tied up to the bed to keep her from hailing the ship for a while longer after the drugs wore off. To give his abductors more time to clear the area, no doubt.

 

She accepted Tuvok's pronouncement that she'd not been otherwise harmed with a perfectly expressionless nod, not even subconsciously acknowledging the slight tremor of released tension within her.

 

Her face stark white and tight-lipped, she'd collected the rest of Chakotay's discarded clothing, piece by piece, while explaining the events of the night before to Tuvok, ending simply by saying they'd returned to the room together and fallen asleep, knowing his Vulcan sense of smell alone would have told him why. When she reached Chakotay's jacket by the outer door, her breath caught in her throat at the sight of something even more hideous neither she nor Tuvok had noticed before. Across the door near the latch, more crimson stains appeared, small, neat lines arranged in a very specific pattern.

 

It was a message.

 

"Tuvok." The word was a strained summons. As she felt the Vulcan silently make his way to her side, Janeway stared at the alien characters that someone, some Bemaran bastard had deliberately scrawled in Chakotay's blood. "What does it say?" she demanded, her voice sounding unexpectedly strangled to her own ears. 

 

When he finished his scan, Tuvok's face revealed a dark concern to her, who knew him so well. He opted not to read the tricorder's translation aloud; he handed it to her to read for herself.

 

The message was quite simple: three little words that made the blood roar in her ears and any mercy that might still have lived inside of her to be snuffed out instantly.

 

He will suffer.

 

Her expression never flickered, even as the words swirled together on the screen and the drug in her system had her swaying slightly on her feet. Tuvok's hand closed on her arm to brace her, but she shrugged him off, already steadied again under a force of sheer will. She snapped the scanner shut, thrusting it back to its owner and, turning on her heel to stride in the other direction, her orders were crisp and clear. "I want everyone back on the ship immediately. Inform me the instant they're all accounted for; make sure she didn't take anyone else."

 

"Understood."

 

She froze at the foot of the bed, blinking down at the boot that was half buried under the hanging mattress cover. It was Chakotay's, and the memory of him pulling back from her just long enough to remove them (along with the rest of his clothing) played in her mind. With effort, she shook herself free of the emotion surrounding the memory, unconsciously pulling her spine even straighter as she rose with the boot in her hand. "Have Harry and Seven begin scanning for any vessel bearing a Bemaran signature. If that fails to turn up anything, I want them looking for evidence of cloaked ships."

 

Tuvok frowned. "Do you have reason to believe whoever took the commander is still in the area?"

 

"No. We both know they're long gone, but if we can pick up a trail, there's the chance we can overtake them before they get too far, so have Seven and Harry scan, anyway."

 

"Yes, Captain." The Vulcan nodded his satisfaction with her assessment. "Shall I have a security team formed to conduct a more thorough investigation of the premises?"

 

"No," she snapped, turning back to face him. Her eyes glittered with an intensity he knew well. She was already unable to remain still, pacing as she spoke. "It's a waste of time. We know who has him and why. Assemble the senior staff. In the meantime, I'll speak with Hymeran authorities to find out what they can tell us, but I'm already certain they had no knowledge of this."

 

Tuvok's first inclination was to argue that a planet-wide search for the commander was in order, was in fact protocol in such a situation, and to tell her that it would take days to complete properly, but he opted instead for silence. Knowing what he did of the history between the captain and the prelate who was undoubtedly responsible for the commander's abduction, he had little reason to believe that Chakotay was still on the planet. Nyfia would have had the commander brought to her; she would want to watch her victim suffer in person. This he knew instinctively. Until that time, the commander would be relatively safe, assuming he received proper treatment for his injury. It was the captain he was concerned for in the meantime.

 

For it was already clear to him what she intended to do, and Tuvok would have expected no less of her. She was going after him, of course.

 

 

=>

 

The Hymeran ruling council, comprised of six siblings from a single family, was devastated by the news that one of their honored guests had been abducted from their planet. They expressed their remorse for the commander's disappearance as well as embarrassment that such a thing had happened on Hymeran soil, but when all was said and done, there was little that could be done to change what had already happened.

 

"Again, Captain, please, I cannot tell you enough how sorry we are this has happened to you." Prince Nabin, one of the most sympathetic of his brothers, spent a good deal of the communications with Voyager's captain repeatedly expressing his regret.  His already dark countenance was flushed with anger, though it wasn't directed at her, as his face dominated the small viewscreen in her ready room. "We've suspected the presence of her operatives in the sector for some time now, but believe me, if we'd known they were here, on our planet, we would have warned you."

 

He could not know how truly fortunate he was that she believed him. 

 

Janeway genuinely liked the Hymeran leaders. Both sisters had welcomed her personally, with open arms, and on their planet, thanks to their welcoming attitudes, Voyager had found much-needed refuge. All four brothers were courteous and seemed politely curious about Voyager's origins and the tale of its journey, but Nabin in particular had been a breath of fresh air. He was charming and warm-hearted, and he had been the one to suggest that the crew, including its captain, take advantage of planet-side accommodations, if only for an evening or two. He was so refreshingly open and so persuasive that she'd agreed, and it would have been perhaps the best decision she had made for herself in this quadrant, she felt upon reflection. Except for one glaring little detail, of course - her moment of weakness, of pure and inexcusable self-indulgence had put Chakotay in mortal danger. If she had been able to control herself that evening, had done her thinking with her head and not with other parts of her body, he would not have been by her side and Nyfia's operatives, whoever they were, would not have had reason to take him. She knew better, damn it. She knew better...

 

She did her best to part on good terms with the Hymeran rulers, but she knew she was doing a poor job of assuring them she didn't blame them for Chakotay's demise. It couldn't be helped, however; her mind and the bulk of her focus were concentrated solely on finding a way to get her first officer back unharmed.

 

"You will keep in contact and apprise us of your progress?" Nabin asked as they prepared to break orbit later that day.

 

"Of course, your Majesty," Janeway assured him from her command chair, nodding to Tuvok to cut the transmission.

 

They were unable to overtake the ship that had abducted Chakotay, a full sixteen hours behind by the time they'd finally been able to break orbit from Hymera. If they had been able to sustain maximum warp the entire time, they might have caught up with the other vessel, but the engines were still too stressed from the beating the ship had taken trying to get out of Bemaran space the first time. They pushed the ship to its absolute limits, but they still lagged frustratingly behind. Several times, Seven caught what she thought were fluctuations from a cloaked ship at the edge of sensors, but she couldn't say for certain.

 

Janeway had trouble looking anyone in the eye. Having to explain to the senior staff the circumstances surrounding Chakotay's disappearance had been nothing short of a test of her famous composure: she'd never been big on discussing her personal life with those under her command, let alone her sex life. Janeway kept the explanation simple, saying only that she'd awoken to find him gone. Knowing there was no way to keep them from coming to the very accurate conclusion of why he'd been there in the first place, she didn't even try. When Tom (naturally surprised at being informed that the two commanding officers had shared a single room) asked her to repeat her statement to be sure he'd heard correctly, he didn't do so out of any perverse desire to embarrass her. He was only expressing the dumb-founded curiosity felt by everyone else at the table except Tuvok and the doctor, who already knew, but the icy, warning blue glare he received in response (coupled with the sharp kick to his shin under the table from his pregnant wife) was enough to discourage him from asking again.

 

The situation was discussed briefly, and everyone was in automatic agreement regarding who had taken Chakotay and where his abductors would likely be heading. The only question remaining was how they would get him back.

 

Janeway would lead the mission, she announced. It was ultimately her that Nyfia wanted, and she refused repeated offers for anyone to lead the mission but her. At Tuvok's third entreaty, she'd ended the argument with the flat assertion that this was "her mess" and that she would be cleaning it up, not him. The tone of her voice and the set of her expression ensured that there was no further contention over her leaving the ship.

 

Though every member of the senior staff still tried to argue to be included in the mission, the captain had already made her determination regarding who would be permitted to accompany her. Neelix, more familiar with his own ship (which would not be associated with Voyager) would pilot his vessel for her. The doctor would go as well and would accompany her to Nyfia's massive city ship. Hopefully, his presence on the away mission would allow the commander to receive critical treatment immediately after he was retrieved instead of having to wait days until they could get him safely back to Voyager. For she had no doubt that Chakotay would be in need of medical assistance.

 

Though the entire ship was understandably tense, knowing that one of their own was in danger and possibly suffering, it was quite notably the captain who took it hardest. On the surface, she was ice, all calm, cool control, but her true state of mind wasn't too hard to ascertain as no one could recall the last time she'd retired to her quarters for a full night's sleep. If she wasn't on the bridge or down in the shuttle bay, helping to work on outfitting Neelix's ship with the necessary modifications for the mission, she could be found in her ready room reviewing the latest scans of the area or the standard crew reports that always needed to be filed and reviewed. She'd taken over Chakotay's duties as well. No one dared to approach her regarding her latest habits, however, and eventually they reached the border of Bemaran space.

 

The captain refused to take Voyager over the threshold into Bemaran space. If she was unsuccessful in her mission, Voyager would undoubtedly hear of it through Nyfia's boasting, probably on all subspace channels. Nyfia's ship, which conveniently had moved very near to the border, most likely to take possession of Chakotay more swiftly, was still two days away. There was no doubt that Nyfia had him by now, and that his time was limited, at best.

 

Neelix's ship prepared, the away team left immediately. 

 

=>

 

"Wake him up."

 

A cold feminine voice pulled him out of the depths of darkness, the pounding of his head his only warning before a sharp pain exploded through his stomach. Another followed closely after, and then the same forceful pain in his back left him winded, dizzy before he ever managed to open his eyes. When he managed the feat, four vividly blue-skinned soldiers stood over him, leering down at him where he lay on the cool grated floor. His arms bound behind him, it was a simple matter for two of them to bend down and pull him to his knees, dragging him over to the dais where his captor reclined lazily in her chair, watching the proceedings with a cold detachment he remembered well.

 

Nyfia, his mind rasped.

 

The still-attractive, aging Bemaran ruler allowed her slanted, catlike eyes to slide over him, appraising him with lips curled into a sneer. She swirled the wine around in her goblet before taking a deep draught of the heady substance. He realized then that he was parched with thirst, knew from experience that the sweet drink in that glass could parch his thirst, but Chakotay also knew he wouldn't be offered any in the near, foreseeable future.

 

Recognition dawned as she studied his face. "So. It was you all along, was it?" she sneered, the contempt making her hitherto pleasant features distort into cruel, ugly blue lines. "You're the reason Janeway murdered my son."

 

No, *you're* the reason she had to kill him to defend herself, he wanted to snap back automatically, but his brain was too hazy, too fuzzy to let his mouth form the words just yet.

 

His mind was spinning in overload as he tried to process his current situation. He knew where he was by now, had spent a day greeting Nyfia in this very room a little over eleven weeks ago; he'd beamed over with Kathryn to begin a long process of negotiations. This was the throne room of her opulent city-ship, her power center and base of operations, and the room looked almost exactly as it had then: empty of furniture, save for the dais at one end which supported the throne upon which the despot sat. He could even swear the eight mute men lining the wall just behind her were the same hulking creatures that had stood there then, but...

 

Kathryn, his mind screamed. Where was she? The last thing he could recall at the moment was collapsing into her welcoming arms, spent from their rigorous love-making. Unless it had been a dream - but he knew that it hadn't been, just as he knew from his pounding head and queasy stomach that he'd been drugged. He must have been taken right from her side, which meant that...

 

"Where is she?" he wheezed as soon as he could, a visual sweep of the room telling him that Kathryn wasn't here with him. "Where the hell is she, Nyfia?"

 

A blow to the side of his face split open his lip as a sharp edge grazed him; the Bemarans did love their jewelry, he thought bitterly.

 

When Kathryn had returned, there had been several dozen distinctive imprints left in her body. The doctor had speculated the imprints were formed by having been forcefully struck with something bearing the Bemaran symbol. A flash of the ring on his assailant's left hand glinted under the light, telling Chakotay now what that object had most likely been.

 

"You will address the prelate with the proper respect her title demands," the man next to him snarled but broke off at the sound of his leader's cold laughter.

 

"Oh, but he's afraid for her. Aren't you, Commander?" Nyfia taunted, a malicious smile stretching her thin blue lips. "How touching. How truly and utterly touching. I wonder if her feelings were as strong for you as yours so clearly are for her.  I hope so." Her drink discarded on the low table beside her, she put her hands on the armrests of her chair and leaned forward to study him as he turned his head back to glare at her. "And what if I told you my men cut her throat while you lay there next to her, completely unawares? What then?"

 

"You didn't," Chakotay rasped with certainty, ignoring the leader's nasty taunts, forcing his mind to work through the dangerous situation he now found himself in. Especially ignoring the way his stomach lurched and his blood ran even colder at the knowledge that it would have been beyond easy for the intruders to have done just that before either one of them would have known what had happened, and that he would have failed to safeguard her yet again.

 

He forced himself to focus on the prelate's taunting face. "You wouldn't have bothered with me if you had done that. You would have killed me, too, instead of going to the trouble of having me brought back here."

 

Nyfia's eyes narrowed as she leaned back, crossing one shapely muscled leg over the other. "Yes, well, you are correct in that." She shrugged. "That would have been far too easy, Commander. Though I will admit it was a tempting prospect." Her eyes narrowed further, her tone bitter. "Particularly after I was told you'd taken the time to attend a festival, of all things. Was the bitch actually celebrating the cold-blooded murder of my son?"

 

"No," he spat, barely containing himself as she continued.

 

She glowered disbelievingly. "When I was informed that you'd stopped to rest on that backwater little Hymera, I was insulted." The incredulity in her brittle voice was audible. "Did you really think you had escaped my reach so easily? After just two weeks?"  

 

"Yes," he admitted before he could stop himself, "we did."

 

After it had taken them over a month to fight past Bemaran borders and break free of Nyfia's space, hiding whenever and wherever they could as they fled from the prelate's armada, they had thought themselves in the clear when her warships had failed to pursue them across the border. Two quiet weeks of steady repairs had left them feeling safe enough to rest and try to trade for the supplies they needed to complete the remaining repairs to the damaged nacelles. Clearly, that had been a mistake - perhaps a deadly mistake.

 

But two weeks was what it had taken them to reach Hymera from the Bemaran border. Nyfia wouldn't have left Bemaran space, which meant that he now had a gaping, two week hole in his memory. What the hell had happened in the meantime? How had she managed to get to him? To them?

 

Nyfia's cold laughter echoed in the spacious chamber, sending chills of revulsion down his spine. "Obviously, you are aware of your error now. I do not give up so easily, Commander. Especially not when vicious attacks against my family are perpetrated by nothing little alien vermin like your captain."

 

"What do you want, Prelate?" He wouldn't get into this with her, refused to listen to her insult Kathryn again. He wouldn't give the treacherous, unfeeling bitch the satisfaction of that argument. Not again, at any rate.

 

The feral grin that split the prelate's sharp features was evil itself. "What I have wanted from the moment Kathryn took my son's life, Commander. Revenge. I want Kathryn to suffer as I have suffered from the irreplaceable loss of my son. And now, thanks to you, I will have it."

 

"How does my being here help you?" he asked quietly, as evenly as he could. He was extraordinarily weak, and he could see just by glancing down over himself how much weight he'd lost in the time that he'd been unconscious. The brown rags that hung over his skin were of a material he didn't recognize, either, and his arms were covered in strange, small red marks he couldn't identify.

 

Nyfia's laughter rang out again. "She will come for you Commander; we both know that."

 

And the most terrifying thing about the entire situation was that he did know. She would. And he wouldn't be able to stop her, knew Tuvok wouldn't be able to stop her. His stomach jolted again. Kathryn had been left alive, then, but for how long? And in what condition?

 

Bait. The word left a bitter impression in his mind as he considered it. He was bait. To lure Kathryn back here so Nyfia could take her revenge the way she wanted to, on her own turf...and probably so that she could make Kathryn watch him die...before Nyfia finally killed her, too.

 

He needed to hear her say it. Needed to know as much as he could about Nyfia's plans if he had a prayer in hell of thwarting them...of keeping Kathryn alive.

 

"You could have killed her then," he pointed out. "And me. Why didn't you?"

 

Nyfia, as he'd guessed, was only too happy to explain her reasoning. "It was my original plan," she admitted. She gestured to something at the edge of the curtains concealing the side exits to the large, bare room. One of the curtains rustled, and out stepped another familiar figure. "But Adalen had a much more satisfying suggestion. You do remember my eldest son, Adalen, don't you, Commander?"

 

Chakotay nodded curtly, his dark eyes flitting over the imposing figure approaching the dais where Nyfia reclined.

 

Of course. Their second stop in Bemaran space. Adalen was a bastard as well, as all Nyfia's five sons were rumored to be, but negotiations with him had probably been easiest, on the whole, despite the fact that trading with him had been reminiscent of dealing with a cantankerous Ferengi. Chakotay was surprised to see him here now; Adalen had not been shy about voicing his hatred for the younger Mallok when they'd met with him, though their dealings with Adalen had certainly still given them no warning as to what lay ahead of them for their meeting with Mallok.

 

The prelate's son reached her side, stopping to stare down on his mother's quarry with open disdain. "Yes, I remember this one. Second in command. Quiet. Makes sense. Though their behavior gave me no indication that they were mated at the time."

 

Why Adalen cared to have anything to do with these proceedings eluded him entirely. He was missing something. "I can almost understand your mother's anger," Chakotay noted. "After all, no matter what kind of scum your brother was, he was still her youngest son. But you knew what a pig he was. And you weren't particularly shy about voicing your opinion about him, as I recall."  

 

"How dare you?" Nyfia's outrage was inexplicably piqued by her captive's daring. Adalen shot him a dark look that promised revenge for his insolence, another fist struck the side of Chakotay's already-aching face, and it was more than apparent to the first officer that he'd said something he shouldn't have as the pain exploded through his throbbing tissues.

 

"He lies, mother," her son hissed quietly. Urgently, from what Chakotay could tell through faintly ringing ears. 

 

"I know he does." Nyfia seemed to have little trouble believing her offspring. She stood to full height, trembling with her rage. "My sons know and recognize the importance of family, Commander!"

 

"That may be something he can't understand," Adalen smirked, obviously relieved his mother wasn't going to listen to the human's accusation. "From what I understand, you have no family here. Do you?"

 

"No blood relatives, no," Chakotay answered, not even knowing why he bothered. What was the point of this?

 

"Most of them don't," Adalen reminded his mother.

 

"What does that matter?" Chakotay demanded to know.

 

"Blood...is everything." She seemed surprised to have to explain this to him. "It is the essential truth in a universe filled with those who hunger for power and would do anything to achieve it. In blood lies the only true loyalty. "

 

"Maybe in your world, Nyfia," Chakotay countered, "but not in mine. And I don't think that's really the case in yours, either."  His pointed gaze rested on Adalen as he spoke the last sentence.

 

For a moment, Nyfia studied her captive closely, seeming torn. Then her ire appeared to be quelled, at least momentarily. She even offered him a frosty smile. "Your pathetic attempt at driving a wedge between us won't work, Commander," she dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Your captain murdered my son - his brother. And she will pay for it, I promise you that." She took her seat, making another show of drinking her wine, and her tone turned eerily conversational. "At first, I simply wanted her dead, you know. But Adalen suggested that the best way to make Kathryn suffer would be to take something of great value to her. Naturally, I had to agree that his plan was far more interesting."

 

Naturally, Chakotay thought to himself with a mixture of both relief and disgust playing through him. He watched as she looked upon her son with fondness, reaching out a hand to proudly caress his nearby arm. Adalen practically beamed under his mother's approval, and then Chakotay finally understood another essential truth about this family, one that had just managed to elude him before: Nyfia's sons were so under her influence they'd tell her anything she wanted to hear, knowing their fortunes depended solely on her good will. She was not an easy woman to please, not by a long shot, and Chakotay imagined they secretly probably despised her...and they definitely openly despised each other. They had just been careful not to show it in front of her. As eager as Adalen appeared to appease her, it was obvious now to Chakotay that the man had only come in hopes of making a bid to replace Mallok as Nyfia's heir. It made sense now: sickening sense, but sense, nonetheless.

 

Still. At least they hadn't taken Kathryn. At least they didn't have her now.

 

"Since Kathryn has no children of her own, I was going to have the girl-child taken, or one of the younger ones." He felt his empty, sore gut clench tighter at the sickening thought of it, and Chakotay was doubly glad he had been at Kathryn's side that night as he heard the prelate continue, "As much as she was incensed by just the loss of her security team, it's clear the closeness she has to all of you," Nyfia sneered, making Chakotay seethe inside at the way she referred to the cold-blooded murder of two of Voyager's finest as "just a loss". That "loss" had nearly destroyed Kathryn because of the way it had happened...because of the way Mallok had killed them, and especially because of why he had done it.

 

Nyfia was still speaking, he realized, his burning eyes focusing on her hated form again.

 

"But my men chose wisely when they found you sleeping next to her, I will admit. I wish I had been there to see the expression on her face when she awoke to find you gone and my dagger spearing the spot where'd you'd been the evening before." 

 

Adalen's snicker was audible, seeming to increase his mother's twisted amusement. "One can only imagine how distraught she has been this entire time, knowing that we have her lover and that there is nothing she can do to save him from our wrath."

 

"Yes," Nyfia hissed in agreement, her amber eyes alighting with an unholy malice, "it must be torment, I'm sure." She leaned forward again in her chair, making sure she had her captive's full attention. "I left her alive, Commander, don't worry. Because I want Kathryn to come to me. I want her to come crawling to meet her fate, as well she should. But before she meets it, she is going to know the torment of watching her loved one suffer unimaginable pain and despair. She will know the pain of having the one she loves ripped out of her life forever. As she did to me."

 

"To us," Adalen interjected with a pointed look before looking smugly to Chakotay. "A life for a life," was his simple assertion. 

 

Nyfia's next comment was to the guards. "Take him below. Be sure to record every moment of the commander's time with us." A nasty smile decorated her sharp blue features again. "It would be a shame if Janeway missed any of it. And I prefer him to live until she comes for him, if at all possible. I would rather she watch him die in person." She turned back to Chakotay with a cold gleam in her eye. "Do enjoy your stay, Commander. I'm told my men are quite skilled at what they do - my sons, in particular, are rumored to have unparalleled skill. You will let me know, of course?"

 

When he refused to give her the satisfaction of an answer, she merely smirked at him, indicating to her men, who were lined up behind her, to move as she'd instructed.

 

He was dragged from the room without further comment.

 

=>

 

Kathryn held her breath as Bemaran officers passed right by her hiding place in the small, concealed compartment close to the ships' engines. There was hardly any oxygen in the tiny space, and she'd been waiting for hours already while the Bemar inspected Neelix's modest freighter.

 

Clearly, Nyfia was taking no chances. All vessels approaching Bemaran space from the direction of Hymera had been ordered searched - without exception. It was no passing inspection, either. This group had been tearing Neelix's proud little vessel apart. She listened as they approached her location a third time, unable to make out the words exchanged but not entirely surprised that the Bemarans hadn't given up yet. Even in the cramped, enclosed space, she could detect the nervous undertones of the Talaxian's babbling, and she grimaced to herself. He really hadn't been her choice for this particular role, but the fact was that it was his ship.

 

And she was out of the question. Bemaran scanners were advanced enough to determine her human with one pass, no matter how she disguised herself. And as for the doctor, she had been stupid enough to offer Adalen the doctor's services in treating several of his injured citizens...in exchange for some standard alloys B'Elanna had requested to rebuild one of the manifolds in engineering.

 

The doctor's holo-emitter was a dead giveaway, easily registering as uniquely advanced technology, assuming the prelate's eldest son had shared with his mother all knowledge acquired about Voyager by him or his people during their short meeting.

 

Rather than take any chances with scans designed specifically to sniff her out, Janeway was operating under the assumption that he had. She clutched the doctor's emitter in her once-clenched, now-loosened fist and tried to ignore the seizing cramp in her thigh. Her legs were jammed up against the wall in front of her, curled unnaturally, and of course they chose this moment to make their protests known. The pain seared through her, spreading swiftly, and she clamped down on the cry that wanted to escape her. Moving or readjusting her position, if even physically possible, was still out of the question. Everything she did inside the tiny metal space was amplified; she couldn't afford to make a single sound. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore the sharp pains, and waited.

 

The compartment was hot and growing warmer with each passing minute. What little oxygen had been in the small area to begin with had mostly been used, and to make matters worse, exhaust from a faulty coil was hissing somewhere nearby. She was growing increasingly light-headed. Her mind drifted alternately from present to past, occasionally taking time to stop and ponder Chakotay's current circumstances. Was he still alive? Her stomach twisted sharply. He had to be. She refused to entertain any scenario where she finally arrived on the hated city ship to find him dead. No, he was alive.

 

But he was suffering. Nyfia had already begun the broadcasts of his ordeal. It was meant to draw her out, she knew, but it wasn't necessary. She would have come anyway, no matter who Nyfia had taken.

 

She hadn't thought she would hate any Bemaran as much as she hated Mallok, but Nyfia was swiftly proving her wrong. When Kathryn had begun watching the broadcasts barely a day ago, her hatred had taken on new forms. She had personally experienced Bemaran brutality the way Chakotay was experiencing it now, and even as she burned, boiled and raged at Nyfia for causing him to suffer, Janeway couldn't get past the fact that it was because of her that he was suffering. Nyfia only wanted to make her suffer, and Chakotay had been chosen for abduction instead of her simply because he had been found lying next to her in that bed. If not for her weakness, which at the time had felt so right, he would not be suffering the agony she knew so well right now.

 

It wasn't entirely her fault. She was angry at Chakotay, too, and at Tuvok for refusing to give her up to Nyfia when the fleet had first come after Voyager nearly eleven weeks ago. Those warships had been practically right behind her when Voyager had discovered her stolen shuttle on sensors and tractored it aboard.

 

But she'd been unconscious, the unhealed internal injuries having gotten the better of her hours beforehand. By the time she'd awoken, battle had already been engaged, and Chakotay had decided on the course of fighting their way out of Bemaran space. It had taken what she thought was an odd statement from Nyfia (during the few communications the prelate had entertained while relentlessly pursuing them) and then intimate knowledge of her officers' sentiments regarding her safety for Janeway to work out that an offer had been made to spare Voyager - in return for her captain's immediate surrender. Chakotay had refused on her behalf while she slept in sickbay, unaware of the ultimatum, and the offer was withdrawn the moment he destroyed the first warship. From that moment on, Nyfia had been hell-bent on blowing the entire ship out of existence. 

 

Once Janeway had awoken and been able to retake command, the prelate had outright refused to entertain any notion that the captain's actions had been in self-defense. To the Bemaran ruler, her precious youngest could do no wrong, and anything he wanted was his for the taking. Janeway's initial refusal of his demands had been insult enough for war, as Nyfia had coldly informed her - just before giving the order to fire on Voyager again. But then by that point, Janeway had not been surprised by Nyfia's attitude. She'd known by then why the Bemaran woman had sent her to her youngest son in the first place.

 

What Nyfia had done had been unthinkable. That any woman could do that to another, let alone arrange for her own son to be the perpetrator, sickened Kathryn to the core. She'd known the Bemaran leader was hard and given to be paranoid about having her power challenged, even by her own sons, but the captain would never in a million years have guessed at the prelate's true intentions; at no time during their short meeting had it occurred to her that the woman was capable of that kind of deliberate, depraved malice. She'd even thought she'd won the prelate over by the end of their negotiations - but that had been her mistake, hadn't it?

 

In the first moments after beaming over to the Bemaran prelate's audience chamber, Janeway had endured the woman's disdain with what had felt like saintly patience and humility. Not to be intimidated by bluster, the captain had simply forged onward with her polite request to initiate negotiations for the supplies Voyager needed. The cold, intense scrutiny Nyfia had subjected her to, the faintly veiled insults she'd dealt while she'd stalked around and around Voyager's party, looking them up and down, had made Janeway fight to hide her bristling reaction to the other woman's rudeness. Nyfia had paid particular attention to the command team in her prodding and faint insults. And just as Janeway had been ready to tell the arrogant alien to forget it, that they'd find someone else to trade with, Nyfia had relaxed, given a low, quiet laugh, and assured her the away team had passed inspection. Whatever that meant.

 

She'd still been a hard woman to work with, and the captain found herself using every diplomatic tool she'd ever acquired over the next few days as she and the prelate had continued to feel each other out. As they'd gained more familiarity with each other, the prelate had been much more relaxed, especially over the last two days, even amiably accepting less than what the last materials she'd given were worth. She'd assured the captain that she would consider partial payment to be delivery of a message to her youngest son, Mallok, whom Janeway should meet to trade for the crucial dilithium the Starfleet crew needed. Nyfia had claimed her stock was of too low a quality to meet Voyager's needs, but Mallok's was of a much higher grade, she assured them. Nyfia had smiled ingenuously and added that she'd consider it a personal favor if Janeway would deliver the message in person, before further advising Voyager to first stop at her eldest son's city ship for the food stuffs they were looking for before meeting up with Mallok's ship.

 

Kathryn recalled now with a cringe of anger that she'd smiled when Chakotay had complimented her on her brilliant handling of the prickly prelate. He'd been impressed that Kathryn had managed to bring the arrogant Nyfia around so quickly. Not that he was entirely surprised, he'd assured her with one of those smiles which she'd grown so accustomed to blinding herself to lately...

 

Out of respect for what she'd assumed must have been the personal content of the letter from Nyfia to her son, Kathryn hadn't even thought to read the message she was to deliver, and that had been one of the biggest mistakes of her life. As Janeway felt herself drifting off in the cramped, hot space, she doubted she would ever forget her ill-fated meeting with the youngest magistrate, Mallok.

 

The chamber appeared around her, and Janeway blinked. As her vision cleared, she was astounded this time by the sheer youth of the official greeting her. He had Nyfia's strong features, perhaps even stronger in the jaw and hooked nose, and looked much like his brother, Adalen, whose ship they'd left a week ago. There was a group of male Bemarans clustered about the youth's raised throne, but it was clearly this young, strongly muscled Bemaran to whom Kathryn had been sent to negotiate for the dilithium. He had a crueler twist to his lips, she noted, than either of his elder family members, but despite his youth, the air of entitlement practically radiated from him. He was most assuredly Nyfia's offspring, she'd thought wryly to herself; only one of the prelate's spoiled little brats would have such an arrogance about him. However, having successfully endured two such meetings with the Kyros family already, she remained confident that she could handle his blustering greeting. 

 

Kathryn held her temper in check while he circled around her, looking her up and down as well as the two security guards flanking her, much as his mother had done, before making his way back over to the dais. His superior attitude as he smirked at the security team behind her was evident. He made no move to welcome them or to speak first; he cocked a hand on his hip, moving aside the floor-length jacket draped over his suit and expectantly waited for her to speak.

 

Ignoring the vague unease at his close inspection and especially her annoyance at his rudeness, the captain bowed her head in feigned respect once, because it was Bemaran custom. Keeping her tone less frosty than it wanted to be, she introduced herself and held out the data storage device his mother had sent him, explaining that she had been asked to present it to him in person.

 

He seemed surprised when she held her head high and didn't react to his attempt at intimidating her with almost threatening silence. She couldn't tell whether that was a positive thing or not, and she suppressed her smile at his strikingly similar style to his older family members.

 

After a moment of trying to stare her down, Mallok stepped away from the dais again.

 

Kathryn doubted she would ever forget his expression as he approached the second time, stood in front of her, and mutely scrolled through the message before looking up at her, this time with a slow-spreading grin on his face. His eyes passed over her again, from head to toe, and she had the feeling he was privy to some bit of information that had escaped her.

 

She didn't like the feeling.

 

Then he tipped his head back and laughed heartily, turning to toss the letter at one of the group of associates, who all hung about the dais snickering rudely during the entire exchange. A shorter Bemaran, who looked to be close to Mallok in age, scanned the letter before joining his leader in a long, dark chuckle. Exchanging a glance with each member of her security team as her unease began to grow, Janeway turned back and watched the Bemarans with narrowed eyes, wondering what the hell that letter had said when the strident voice of the young man before her caught her attention.

 

"Well, she isn't dead yet, which is a pity...but how can I be angry with my *dear* mother, in light of present circumstances?" the young magistrate sneered. "The woman knows me far too well, does she not?"

 

In retrospect, Janeway could have kicked herself for not picking it up faster, but his words seemed cryptic at best in that moment. She did notice that she was now the center of the group's attention, being eyed thoroughly by each of them as they all began to join in the merriment at her expense. Her eyes narrowed further as Mallok continued, turning back to her with a decided leer on his blue-skinned face, "Who could ask for a better Coming of Age gift than *this*?"

 

He was looking straight at her.

 

The security guards had picked it up first. Natalie, in particular, had sensed the magistrate's intent, somehow. By the time he reached out an insolent hand to touch Janeway, the young woman had insinuated herself into the small space between the magistrate and her captain.

 

But she'd had no weapon. Of all the decisions Kathryn lamented about that day, ordering the away team not to arm themselves (feeling secure enough after dealing with two members of the family already) was the decision that she regretted the most. If Jenkins had been carrying her phaser, there might have been time to do so many things, but as it was, the three of them were almost immediately overwhelmed by Mallok's entourage, and while Gonzales had managed to open a channel to Voyager with his commbadge, he'd hardly gotten more than a few words out before they were all three on the ground, their communicators snatched from them, and then she'd been held down on the floor, her arms restrained behind her, forced to watch as...

 

Kathryn caught herself before slamming her palm hard against the solid paneling she curled against now. She should have anticipated his actions, plain and simple. That was her job, damn it: to keep her people safe. She heard Tuvok's words ring in her mind, the way that he had meant her to, she knew: you could not have predicted the unpredictable actions of an unstable individual.

 

It was cold comfort, at best.

 

Her thigh was seizing painfully, making her bite down hard on her lip against the pain. But even that could barely keep her conscious with the nonexistent status of her oxygen supply.

 

The sound of flesh connecting solidly with flesh outside her tiny crawlspace caught her ears, and Kathryn distinctly recognized a muted grunt of pain from Neelix. Her eyes practically rolling back in her head, she forced herself to stay awake and to tighten her grip on the phaser in her right hand. Pressing her ear against the door, she listened with baited breath for the sounds of another blow. If they were assaulting Neelix, she could not sit idly by and allow it. She would have to come to his defense, could not allow him to be significantly harmed in the process of attempting to rescue someone else.

 

She heard gruff voices that were obviously displeased but no more sounds of violence. Letting out a silent, weak breath, she continued waiting. Eventually, no more sounds came at all. Janeway barely recognized the sound of the latch depressurizing or the feeling of an influx of cool air hitting her overheated flesh. The next thing she was truly aware of was Neelix leaning over her and the doctor frowning beside him, running a scanning wand over her. She smiled up at both of them, relieved to see them alive and free.

 

"We're clear?" she managed through a raw throat.

 

"Barely," the doctor retorted. "A moment more and I'd be treating you for inhalation damage to your lungs instead of just plain oxygen deprivation." He frowned sharply at Neelix while she closed her eyes, allowing herself a brief moment of rest through the exhaustion. She didn't hear the doctor order Neelix to help him move her to the bunks that comprised the sleeping quarters of the small Talaxian freighter.

 

Adalen refused to tell him that she hadn't been harmed. He knew she hadn't been killed, and he thanked every spirit in the book for that mercy, considering how easy it would have been for them. But Chakotay had a hard time getting over what she must have felt waking up under those circumstances to find him missing, Nyfia's blade marking the spot where he'd been.

 

Even so, his concern was primarily for one thing, now. He only wanted, needed to know that she had been left unhurt this time.

 

His own memory taunted him relentlessly.

 

He opened his eyes to an out of place sound, but when nothing happened save for the fluttering curtains framing the open window, he drowsily turned over on his side to look at her. To make sure he hadn't been dreaming again.

 

She was there, sleeping, undisturbed by his movement, and he had a long, unhindered moment to simply drink in the sight of her. He thought her painfully beautiful in that moment. She'd fallen asleep on her side, facing him, her head not on the pillow but across her arm, the hand outstretched toward him, which he remembered stroking the side of his face until he'd been unable to keep his eyes open any longer. He'd tried to haul her into his arms, wanting to fall asleep with her pressed against him, but she hadn't let him, claiming she just wanted to be able to look at him like this for a while.

 

Now, sleeping, the expression on her face was one he wanted to frame in his memory for a long, long time. She was the picture of contentment, of grace. She didn't sleep with the furrowed lines of worry creasing her features but with a slight smile on her face. A smile he had put there, for once. The sheet draped over the bottom half of her, just covering her waist, and his eyes caught on the rhythmic rising and falling of her chest, her pale skin reflecting faint blue moonlight.

 

Everything he'd ever wanted was right beside him, in her. He couldn't stop staring, couldn't believe that she was really here. He could smell her, could feel her warmth radiating in the bed so close to his. He could still taste her, wanted to taste her again, to hear the soft, wanton whimpers he'd coaxed out of her warm throat only hours before... But he was mesmerized by the sight of her, the soft roundness of her, wasn't able to resist reaching over the small space between them to trace the top curve of her, gently relearning the lines of the body he'd so avidly worshipped the night before. He cupped the weight of one ivory globe, gratified by the softness, the responsiveness of the nipple puckering into his touch. She shifted restlessly, smiling faintly, pushing unconsciously into his hand in her sleep, and he leaned over to kiss the enticing picture her curved lips presented...to remind himself with feel, with taste that this was real. That she had actually come to him, with him, and that he wouldn't awaken to find she'd never really been here at all...

 

The searing pain of something sharp slicing right into his side hit without warning. A strong hand over his mouth stifled his cry, a hypospray jabbing into his neck, and then the world had coalesced into darkness.

 

The last thing he had seen before passing out had been a gloved hand with another hypospray pulling away from Kathryn's neck and a grinning blue face leaning over her.

 

All he wanted to know now was that she hadn't been harmed, and he had asked his tormentors repeatedly, as innocuously as he could, before he'd had to save his breath simply for breathing. Now, he still agonized over the question. Was she all right? Or had Nyfia had her harmed in some way before taking him? It would have been just like her to have had some demented, depraved kind of torture inflicted on Kathryn before leaving her there to wake up and find him missing.

 

Had Tuvok found her when she hadn't reported in, or had she awoken before morning, alone, to find him missing?

 

Whoever had taken him must have healed the wound to his side in the interim. They clearly hadn't bothered much with feeding him, and his throat felt as if it was made of scratchy wood instead of soft tissue, it was so dry. The small sips of water they gave him in between sessions weren't even enough to moisten his throat before they started in again...

 

The heavy metal baton slammed into his side, and his body tried to recoil but couldn't. It was forced instead to take the strike full-on, and Chakotay could feel the searing pain as something important ripped inside of him, but he did not cry out. He would hold his reaction in if it killed him, he decided, refusing to give his captors the satisfaction of knowing how much pain they were causing him. At least as long as he could, anyway.

 

He knew instinctively that Kathryn had done the same.

 

He waited for the breath to return to him, for the awful pain to recede again, and mostly, he waited for that crucial moment before they decided he'd felt the full effect of that blow and dealt the next so that he could ask them again about what had been done to her. Eventually, they would have to answer him.

 

He only needed to know that she was all right.

 

=>

 

His repeated questions had given Nyfia a whole slew of ideas for how to make the strong man suffer further. In the beginning, he'd tried to pose them in a way so as to not betray his concerns to his tormentors, veiling the questions in taunts, but the seasoned prelate had little trouble seeing through him after his first concerned inquiry in her audience chamber. She wondered how it was possible that she had missed the connection between the two when they'd first appeared before her in her audience chamber. At the time, they'd exchanged brief glances in which Nyfia had seen none of the heat she assumed must pass between the two in private. There was the working familiarity Nyfia easily recognized in her own relationships with her subordinates and there had been the natural respect the commander had obviously had for his captain, but when they had demonstrated any emotion towards each other at all, it was uncertainty.

 

Janeway was not a woman to give herself lightly. If she was, she would never have had the gall to refuse Mallok. Nyfia would still have sent her, of course; Janeway was precisely the kind of exotic older woman her son's strange tastes ran toward. And she was ever on the lookout for ways to make her youngest happy. She had not been wrong about her son's tastes. He did like older women, Nyfia knew, and Mallok's friends had told her how taken he was with the captain. How touched he was by his mother's gift...

 

Her blood boiled inside of her, the anguish resurfacing and being swamped out by the rage. Janeway should have been his. Anything her sons wanted was theirs: they were her sons. But especially her Mallok, the last of the children Nyfia had been able to bear; he had been her most precious child. She'd had him so late in life, and then, he had been so very like herself. He'd had the fire, the special pride needed to carry on her line; she'd known it ever since he'd been a little boy. With Mallok born, she had felt the first true sense of security that her line would continue as strong as it was now, while she was alive.

 

Janeway had taken all of that from her, too. Now, Nyfia would be forced to choose an heir from among her slightly less magnificent sons. 

 

She wanted Kathryn Janeway to know the true meaning of suffering. Nyfia wanted the alien witch to feel the agony she had felt when she'd received the news that had nearly destroyed her. She wanted the woman crawling, humiliated, grief-stricken and helpless. As she watched the strung-up human male take blow after blow while posing only questions about the welfare of the woman Nyfia hated, she began to hate the man as well.

 

Why should Janeway know the love of this man, of any man, when she had taken such a bright treasure as her Mallok from the world? From the Bemaran people? It burned her, ate at her insides. The bitch deserved to suffer. Janeway deserved to lose everything she held dear, including her man's love and admiration, and she would, if the prelate could help it.

 

Nyfia leaned forward in her comfortable chair, pressing the button to open communications with her son. She watched him pause in his tender ministrations, pulling back with the heavy rod he'd been smashing into the commander's tethered body to respond to her.

 

Adalen stepped off screen, flicking off the switch that sent the image of the commander broadcasting through space as he did so: there was no point in transmitting an image of the man simply resting in his restraints.

 

The prelate instructed Adalen to taunt the human captive and under all circumstances to withhold any knowledge of having left the captain in perfectly fit condition back on Hymera, and then, from nowhere, it seemed, a sinister thought flitted across her brain. A feral grin her son couldn't see spread across her face. "On second thought, Adalen...come to me when you've finished this session. There's something I want to discuss with you, my son."

 

She thought she had just had what might be the best idea yet for how to make Kathryn Janeway suffer the way she deserved.

 

=>

 

Nyfia's ship was the largest of the three they'd seen. Due to its massive size, it was relatively slow-moving. Ten thousand Bemarans and other local aliens called this vessel home which was both an advantage and a disadvantage to the captain's plans. Thanks to the number of vessels constantly docking, Neelix's freighter had little trouble being cleared to approach the mobile city. He was easily granted a permissory pass to come aboard and make his requests to Nyfia's trade baron; his vessel was too insignificant to warrant the notice of the prelate herself.

 

Janeway cursed at this slight, not so much because of the insult to Neelix; she didn't want him to go aboard at all. If he could have met with the prelate in person, as she'd been hoping, it would have been another matter. Then, Nyfia might have been distracted long enough for the captain to sneak aboard and locate Chakotay without the doctor's assistance.

 

From what she recalled of Nyfia's ship in comparison with Adalen's and Mallok's, Janeway knew where he was being held. Discreet scans of the ship's underbelly revealed fortified chambers in the exact layout she remembered from her stay on Mallok's ship. That was where Chakotay was, she knew. It was getting to him that would be the difficult part...

 

The doctor stepped onto the flight deck, looking more than slightly disgruntled. She surveyed him with a critical eye, ignoring his discomfort, throwing her right foot over the passenger seat beside her and soundly tucking a blade into the sheath on the inside of her boot. It slid into place with a firm snap, and she caught herself thinking absently of all that she'd learned recently about death and killing and the implement used in the taking of a life as she watched the blade disappear until only the simple hilt was left, her hand remembering another sensation, the resistance given by warm, pulsing flesh. A shiver of cold air only she felt shot through her, raising goose bumps all along her skin. It really was nothing like a phaser, not even remotely the same thing. Hopefully the blade wouldn't be needed in this case.

 

Hopefully, she could still find it in her to be sorry if the first hope was dashed.

 

She righted herself as Neelix docked the ship with a considerable jarring that nearly threw her off balance. Tossing the sheepish Talaxian a look, she repeated her orders, running through the simple plan once more. She had Neelix repeat his part back to her just to be certain he was clear on it. When it came to risking his own life, Neelix had no problems, she knew; it was when other lives hung in the balance that he worried her - as evidenced by his altercation with the Bemaran search team earlier. His nerves were always more apparent when other people were in danger, and she knew it demonstrated his good nature, though it was a liability.

 

However, he proved himself able to recite the plan back to her perfectly, and despite the mask of fury that had kept her expression fixed for just over two weeks, she managed a full smile for her morale officer before slipping her phaser into its new, more concealed holster well over her left hip. When she put it on in a moment, her jacket should now conceal the phaser from view.

 

"Talaxian vessel," a monotone voice translated loudly in the docking bay, easily audible in the cockpit where they stood, "greetings, on behalf of Prelate Nyfia." Both men watched the captain tense at the sound of the name alone, but only the doctor noted the slight increase in her respiration and the quickening of her pulse: a sure sign of her silent rage. "You're clear to enter. Proceed along the highlighted route to make your case for a trade license. A pass will appear in the bin by the door. Affix this to your outer garments and be sure to display it at all times. Failure to do so will result in immediate revocation of your pass, incarceration, and the impoundment of your vessel. If time permits, Prelate Nyfia also invites you to visit our extensive promenade, located along the blue highlighted path."

 

The disembodied voice seemed satisfied with this announcement, and the comm. channel was closed with an audible crackling. Janeway passed by the doctor into the crew quarters of the small ship, checking her appearance in the dusty, cracked mirror before deciding she was satisfied. She activated the dingy old monitor, which was monochromatic in display capability, to check Chakotay's condition. The channel broadcasting his torment clicked on just in time for a fist to strike his swollen face, and Kathryn felt the blow as if she'd taken it herself. The surveillance angle changed, revealing her first officer's assailant to be Adalen, Nyfia's obedient, eldest son.

 

She seethed, boiling inside. Adalen had hated Mallok, had openly resented their mother's preference for him over her elder sons. He could only be here now, subjecting Chakotay to this level of abuse, at his mother's instruction. To gain her favor, and probably to gain the now-open title of heir to her empire. Adalen, like the rest of his pathological family, sickened her.

 

She snatched her jacket from the bunk she'd pretended to sleep on the past two days, her face white with fury. The fury, she welcomed. It would help her to do what she needed to do now without the fear of stepping back out onto one of the city ships with the Bemaran soldiers who looked so like those that had beaten her so brutally -twice. Considering all that had transpired on the last Bemaran ship she'd been on, she should have had good reason for fear now at the thought of being returned to their tender care, but then Chakotay took yet another blow with a pained grunt that turned her stomach, and any notion of fear fled her entirely. 

 

What she was about to undertake was one of the most risky things she'd done to date, and it would depend a great deal upon simple luck. There was a good chance she'd be caught, but if that happened, she hoped Neelix would be able to carry out his part of the plan and get Chakotay to safety anyway.

 

Regardless of whether she made it back or not, she was determined that every blow her first officer took at Bemaran hands would be avenged. Every last blow.

 

Adalen launched into an officious speech as she donned her jacket, and her nostrils flared in absolute disgust at his pretentious words. It was difficult to make out his exact words over the roaring of blood in her ears. Something about the line of Kyros, and honor - oh yes, she knew the speech he was giving now. Nausea seized control of her insides. It was a speech she recalled with jarring clarity having listened to Mallok give her several times. Once briefly when he'd murdered her security team in front of her, and again in greater detail each of the two times he'd sent her to be "instructed" on the merits of obedience. 

 

"You didn't have to kill them!"

 

"No, but I'll get away with it, won't I?" he laughed. "I'll simply tell my mother they threatened me with their weapons. Believe me, she won't care."

 

"Why?" she demanded, still scrambling back from him as he continually approached her.

 

"They challenged me," her tormentor shrugged with an unconcerned smirk, ever advancing on her position. "And so did you. This was supposed to be so easy, Captain." He shook his bald head at her. "I don't understand why you feel the need to make things difficult. If you would only calm down and be still, then everything will be just fine."

 

"Go to hell," she spat with venom, never taking her eyes off him as she moved determinedly away from him. He was too close...

 

He reached for her, too quickly for her to dodge completely, and caught the tattered edge of her shirt, tearing it further than he already had. It ripped away from her, and she felt cool air on yet more of her skin, but she didn't stop moving until she'd cleared his reach again.

 

She felt his eyes  hotly follow the new line of skin he'd exposed and moved faster than she had been already, ignoring the scraping of bare elbows on the harsh grating of the floor. Her back hit the wall, and she froze. Yellow teeth appeared between dark blue lips as he stood over her, having followed her into the corner he had systematically backed her into. It had been too easy for him to do while she'd scrambled away from him, unable to get to her feet with her arms restrained behind her.

 

He hadn't even called his friends over to help him, knowing he didn't need to; they still stood, snickering around the spot where her fallen officers had lain until he'd beamed them back to Voyager scant moments ago. Voyager had already retreated under his warships' heavy fire, and she was glad that at least the ship was safe...

 

She wasn't.

 

"You do realize I don't plan on keeping you forever? This will only be temporary. A few days, at most. You'll get your dilithium and I'll be...from what I can already see," he licked his lips appreciatively, "quite satisfied with what I get in trade." He stopped moving, and she could see he was preparing to lunge again. "Come on, Captain," he taunted. "Is it so hard to see the logic in simple obedience?"

 

She knew that if he didn't kill her, she would see his leer and his muscled arms in the red-stained, sleeveless shirt reaching for her in her nightmares for years. She knew there was no sense in fighting him, knew that there was no way to keep him from catching her eventually, but that didn't even make her think twice before she snapped her foot up to where she prayed it would hurt him most and was rewarded with his howl of outrage.

 

What had immediately followed was mostly hard to recall as the blow to her head had stunned her for a long while, but he had been enraged that she had had the gall to lash out at him physically. To injure his mother's favorite, the heir to the Kyros empire. Mallok had stood giving her the speech Adalen was now giving her first officer, smiling as he'd watched the first few minutes of his guards dealing out the punishment for her transgression. Smiling insidiously as he'd done more than just watch.

 

"No one opposes a member of the line of Kyros, Commander. Those that do quickly learn it brings more pain than they ever thought possible."  It could have been Mallok's voice speaking the familiar words now, and Kathryn knew upon hearing them from Adalen where that thought process must have gotten into both men's minds.

 

It had probably been taught to them from birth.

 

Then Adalen's foot connected with Chakotay's bare back, already deep purple, blue and black with bruises, and a growl erupted from deep within her throat. She never felt her hand connect with the screen, but the subsequent sparks shooting out of the cracked viewscreen charred the sleeve of her uniform. Hardly bothering to glance down and ensure that the sleeve had not caught flame, Janeway absently rubbed her bloodied fist, wiping the blood on her knuckles off against the side of her leg, rechecked her phaser's secure position, and stalked from the room.

 

She would not be returning to it without him.

 

=>

 

Every part of his body was in agony. He knew the next fist with the brutal titanium-enforced gloves wasn't likely to strike anywhere he could protect, and as he tensed for the blow, Chakotay wondered, not for the first time, if this was what she had gone through the entire time she'd been aboard Mallok's ship. If this was what he'd sentenced her to when he'd had to give the order to retreat under Bemaran fire, knowing that Kathryn was still over there. He'd had Voyager to protect, and Mallok's warships hadn't been messing around. Their first dozen shots had taken the shields down to next to nothing. The next shot had ripped right through what remained and caused a gaping hull breach on decks eight and nine. Voyager's weapons weren't making a dent in the enemy's shields. He'd had no choice.

 

No choice. The words reverberated around and around in his mind. He'd heard them so many times over the past two months, had used the empty phrase himself in defense of his ship, of his captain and of her actions. He'd used them to offer comfort and weak absolution - to her, to himself, to the crew.

 

The punch landed right on top of his kidney. His body jerked forward from the force, the blood smear from his sharp exhale spraying the silver grated wall in front of him. He couldn't defend himself, tied and strung up as he was. He had no choice but to take the blows full-on and to hope that they didn't do any significant damage to his internal organs even as he knew that they probably were.

 

"This is what happens to those who would challenge the line of Kyros," a proud baritone voice announced. Probably for the surveillance feed. Had her torment been broadcast like his was being now? Had she been fed the same pathetic justifications while she'd lain on the grated floor smeared with her own blood as well?

 

He was glad that it was him and no one else, but he prayed to the spirits of his ancestors, to his father that she wasn't watching this, that B'Elanna and Tom, Ayala and Harry weren't watching him being beaten to a pulp on screen right now. He wasn't sure his dignity could take it. Some prized fighter, he thought fuzzily. Making Voyager proud right now, aren't you? Kathryn would probably never let him leave the ship again after seeing this.

 

He was glad it wasn't her this time, would have given anything to have been there when it had been; he might have been able to provoke Mallok into beating him, instead. He knew he would have gladly died trying, as Gonzales and Jenkins had. As he should have, and would have, had she not surprised him at the last minute with an order to take some much-needed time to rest...

 

Not looking up from her last-minute debriefing of the security team Tuvok had hand-selected to accompany them, it took a moment for her to notice him. She received the officers' solemn nods, smiled, and patted Gonzales easily on the shoulder before she caught sight of him standing there at the doors, not having wanted to interrupt her while she was speaking. Her face cleared into deceptive neutrality. She eyed his uniform, complete with phaser secured at his hip, with a raised brow. "And just where do you think you're going, Commander?"

 

He stared at her, at a loss for words. She could still do that to him after all this time: pull the rug out from under him at the most unexpected times. "With you," he supplied hesitantly. "Aren't I?"

 

"Not this time. I've just seen your duty schedule for the past ninety days - not one single day off. Really, Chakotay. You're picking up some of my worst habits, you know." She shook her finger at him in mock disappointment.  At his still uncertain face, she sighed, and her hand found her hip, her chin tilting up a notch and letting him know what he was up against right away. "I think it's safe to say we know what to expect from the Bemarans by now. I don't need you, and Tuvok will cover the bridge."

 

He was automatically reluctant to accept her decision to go without any other member of the senior staff, despite knowing she was preparing to dig in her heels. "Captain, I don't think-"

 

"It's not a suggestion, Commander. Go. And if I come back and find you've been anywhere other than the mess hall, your quarters, or the holodeck, it'll be another two days on top of these two. Have I made myself clear enough for you?"

 

The order had been given with a tired smile, but it had been, without a doubt, an order.

 

He'd smiled at her. He'd actually smiled at her, wished her a successful trade and thanked her. In all honesty, he'd been grateful to be let off the hook. The Bemar were difficult, prickly creatures, and he'd always ended up with a headache after dealing with them. There'd been a new boxing program he'd been itching to try, and he'd been happy to have been practically ordered to explore it.  With shame, Chakotay recalled how little thought he'd given to the fact that negotiations would fall entirely on her shoulders or to the fact that he was giving up time spent at her side. He didn't love her any less, knew by now he could never love her any less, but it was just that it had been so awkward between them recently that he'd been relieved, more than anything.

 

And gratified that she'd cared enough to notice anything about his activities, lately... 

 

A sharp yank of his awkwardly bound arm nearly pulled the bone out of the socket, the shooting pain pulling him back to the present, back to his already accrued injuries and the pain of those, as well.

 

At least it wasn't anyone else. At least it wasn't her again, this time. He was surprised to find he almost welcomed the blows his body couldn't help tensing against. In some twisted way, he almost felt this was his due for not having been there to do his duty - not only as the first officer but as her friend. As the man who could not deny being helplessly in love with her, though he'd tried his damnedest to deny it over the years, and to himself most of all.

 

He heard his own grunt turned cry of anguish as the boot made sure to land where the fist had moments before. What must he look like right now? He could only guess that it couldn't be good. He hoped like hell she wasn't watching, wasn't close enough to be watching...

 

Wasn't it time for a rest now? They'd beaten Kathryn for hours without one, he recalled. Her report hadn't stated that specifically. It hadn't had to. The doctor's report had been thorough enough. Hardly any of the bruising from the beatings she'd taken each of the two days they'd held her captive had been healed worth a damn - just what showed on the surface. Just what would distract from her looks. Or rather...what would distract from Mallok's enjoyment of her looks...

 

It was that more that than anything that caused Chakotay to void the meager contents of his stomach all over the deck in front of him, not the hard kick to his swollen gut: the idea, the notion. The mind-boggling notion of what she had stepped into, completely unawares. What Nyfia had knowingly and willfully sent Kathryn to endure at her son's hands. It had defied belief when he'd discovered the hideous truth about why they'd been sent to Mallok in the first place and it still did now.

 

He was lifted from the hook where he'd hung by his wrist restraints, and it was the only warning before he crumpled to the grated floor. His mind drifted, an automatic defense against the pain of impacting with the floor.

 

He remembered wondering how in the hell it was possible: how had she taken so much and then still managed to liberate herself from Mallok's ship in her condition? She'd only had a few bruises on her face and arms when they'd recovered her from the shuttle. Fool that he was, he'd been relieved to see her alive and relatively unharmed after two days of not knowing what was happening to her. Of having the worst playing through his mind. He'd been relieved...

 

A quiet, desperate huff of laughter escaped his cracked lips before one of the boots he now knew so well connected with his jaw. Stars exploded around him, the pain sending his conscious mind into retreat, and he recognized no more of the haze in front of him for some time.

 

He remembered questioning the doctor's grim estimation of needing three days to heal her injuries properly. He remembered the doctor's set face before he'd turned and dimmed the lights, the simple demonstration of an ultraviolet wand revealing to him and to Tuvok the hideous extent of the punishment Mallok had meted out to her. He remembered watching the light play over her still form, revealing mottled, battered tissues covering almost every visible part of her.  

 

He vividly remembered the finger marks rising just over the line of the blanket tucked under her arms, remembered seeing the same marks on her throat, her shoulders - and especially the clear and vicious imprint of a jagged bite mark punctuating the cloudy bruise pattern over her collarbone. Another one further up, along her neck.

 

He remembered Tuvok's hand on his arm preventing the world from disintegrating into nothingness under his feet.

 

He would always remember the day he'd spent on the bridge pondering those marks, the full day of waiting until there was enough of a break in the fighting to be able to hear the doctor's estimate of what had happened while she'd been separated from Voyager. The fury and the self-hatred that had fueled him through the intensive fight with Mallok's warships was the only thing that sustained him through that torture. It had felt too much like another time when he'd been the underdog in battle - it was that caliber of hatred feeding his resistance that day. The way those marks on her skin, coupled with images of the wide, permanently-staring eyes of Gonzales and Jenkins had caused him to shut down into himself and to fight like hell to keep the ship.

 

In retrospect, he'd almost pitied those Bemaran soldiers in those warships. They hadn't known what they were asking for when they came after her with him in that mindset, hadn't been prepared for the ruthlessness with which he could defend his ship and crew, his captain, against aggressors who had caused those images to taunt him all the while he fought.

 

They'd learned.

 

They'd learned swiftly. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if some of the punishment he was taking now wasn't a direct retaliation for the casualties he'd caused in that initial conflict...

 

Another fist and then the crack of his finger bones snapping like twigs beneath Adalen's foot had him crying out, his voice a hoarse mockery of itself. He thought he might be blind by now; it had been a while since he'd been able to see anything. Of course, that could always be because the blood that had trickled steadily over his one good eye had dried and sealed it shut some time ago.

 

For a time, there were no more blows, and he was left to his agony, to the wanderings of his mind.

 

He thought he heard Nyfia's voice morphing into Kathryn's, and his heart skipped beats it probably needed a great deal. No! They'd hurt her, were looking forward to hurting her, and he would be forced to watch, couldn't even help her, as bad as he was now...

 

But she could not be here, not already. It was too soon. His mind had begun to play tricks on him. He tried to move, tried to speak, but neither seemed possible. His limbs were too heavy, his throat too dry, his lips too swollen. Was this what she had gone through the entire time she'd been gone, too? Had her mind played tricks on her, made her think he was there when he hadn't been? That thought made him hurt much, much worse. He should have been there...

 

He was glad it was him this time.

 

=>

 

The door opened with a distinctive clang, the sound of arguing feminine voices spilling into the room.

 

"I have a gift for you, my son," a throaty voice called to him from the corridor outside as the arguing halted, and Adalen turned from giving his loyal men their instructions in time for a blur of red and black to be shoved past him. The blur stumbled, lost its footing, and then fell to the floor at his feet with a quiet grunt of pain. The Bemaran magistrate cocked his head in bemusement, glancing down at the red hair obscuring the face of his new guest, and he smiled, curling the tip of his boot under her shoulder and flipping the figure over onto her back. She landed on her bound arms with another stifled groan before the blue eyes he vividly remembered blazed up at him.

 

Adalen laughed nastily at her low growl. "Well, well. Janeway. We've been expecting you." He spread his arms wide to indicate the sparse and grisly surroundings. "Welcome to our little gathering."

 

He took a moment to study her face which sported a purpled eye and split lip, and he nodded curtly in satisfaction. It was a start. She would look far worse by the time he was finished with her, he vowed. He considered flicking on the switch to resume broadcasting again but then decided against it. When the punishment truly resumed, he would turn it back on.

 

Her eyes, meanwhile, had darted across the small room to assess her companion's condition, pausing long enough to note the caked blood and ugly bruises covering his entire visible body before settling on the rising and falling motion of his chest. As soon as she realized he was still breathing, her glare slid back to her captors, intensified by the close-up look at her severely beaten officer. "What the hell have you done to him?"

 

"Kathryn?" The word was barely audible from the corner, sluggish and slurred. "No. Can't..."

 

"I'm here, Chakotay," she responded automatically but kept her eyes on her captor as they exchanged a look loaded with equal venom. "It's going to be all right."

 

Chakotay didn't respond.

 

Adalen laughed again, breaking the silent standoff between himself and Janeway with obvious relish, for he had the upper hand, of course. "No, it isn't," he sneered. "Not for the two of you, it's not. You really shouldn't give the man false hope, Captain. And please do forgive the lack of progress with Commander Chakotay, but we didn't really want to get too far with him before you came. After all, you are the guest of honor here."

 

She ignored him, ignored the four guards lining the wall on the other side of the room and turned to take better stock of her officer's injuries. He didn't make so much as another noise, and her growl sounded once again as she got an even better look at his prone form. He looked worse off than she had been, and she knew the kind of intense pain he must be feeling in every single part of his body. He looked so much worse even than he had when Seska and her minions had been through with him all those years ago, and the sight of him made her heart hurt and her blood roar in her ears, but she kept her expression controlled as she swallowed the bile rising in the back of her throat.

 

Nyfia's son, meanwhile, was surveying his male prisoner, as well. With a frown, Adalen realized that he wasn't being very responsive to the new arrival - not nearly as responsive as the magistrate had hoped. In fact, aside from the few muttered words, he hadn't seen the man react much at all. Noting that Chakotay had hardly moved or made a sound otherwise in the twenty minutes or so since he'd declared it was time for a small break in the proceedings, he strode over to his quarry, pausing to smile faintly in his mother's direction as she hung back in the doorway, watching the proceedings with a slight smile on her twisted face. Adalen stopped in front of the commander, leaned over him and grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking his prisoner's head up to the light. Peering down into the face of the human male and ignoring Janeway's terse command to leave him be, Adalen now saw why he wasn't being more responsive; the human was unconscious, having exerted himself beyond his limits with the attempt at speech.

 

"Well this is no fun," Adalen whispered to himself, releasing the human's head to smash back to the silver grating below just as his triumphant mother finally stepped into the room.

 

"What isn't any fun?" she demanded as she coolly surveyed both of her captives.

 

Adalen left the fallen man on the floor, arms outstretched to embrace her. "Mother. You're amazing, as always," he drawled, drawing her into a huge bear-hug of an embrace. She smiled at him after a moment, eventually patting his shoulder in a reluctant gesture of affection. He didn't seem to notice. "But you know you shouldn't be traveling without your guard," he frowned, looking to the still-open doorway behind her before darting a glance at the new captive on the floor. "Especially not with barbarians like her. She could have injured you, or worse!"

 

Nyfia waved a regal, bejeweled hand in the air, dismissing his concern. "They're just outside, Adalen...Son." She stepped back from him with a tiny frown. "You worry too much."

 

Adalen relaxed, gazing down at his mother proudly. "Where did you find her?" He meant Janeway.

 

Nyfia smirked. "She was found in the docking rings, attempting to sneak in aboard a passenger vessel. She actually thought," the woman's voice picked up scorn and volume as she continued, "she could just waltz onto my ship, undisguised, and not be stopped."

 

Janeway paused in her not-so-subtle attempt to work her way across the room to Chakotay in order to glower up at her captor but said nothing. Adalen noted that even though her plan had failed, Janeway's sole concern seemed to be for the man lying crumpled on the floor next to her. He watched over his mother's shoulder while the captain resumed her attempt to reach her first officer, presumably to check his wounds.

 

His mother pulled completely away from him, brushing him aside to approach the hapless duo on the floor. As an afterthought, she paused long enough to daintily lift her long, slitted skirt as she stepped around the blood smears the commander had left on the grimy floor.

 

"Yes," the prelate drawled as she stalked over to the pair to gloat down at them. "She thought she was going to rescue him." Unconcerned, Nyfia pushed the captain back from her first officer just as Janeway had managed to sit back up and lean over him. "You had your holographic doctor posing as a soldier, didn't you?"  Shaking her head, Nyfia leaned over the half-dressed Chakotay, running her hands casually over his neck and along one bound arm to his wrist. It was a possessive gesture, an overtly confident one which caused the captain to bristle delightfully, to Adalen's way of thinking. He snickered as he watched his mother do what she did best: make her enemy regret ever having crossed her. "Really, Captain, did you think I wouldn't have expected such a mundane tactic? A child could have come up with a cleverer ruse. You've insulted my intelligence."

 

Janeway gave her an excellent example of the glare her crew lived to avoid just as a shadow fell over the crouching Bemaran, and then Adalen's hands were on Nyfia's shoulders.

 

"Don't worry, Mother," he soothed, accustomed to his mother's rages and fearing she was on her way to one this very moment. If she allowed her temper to peak, the two humans would be dead all too soon. "She'll pay for her treachery now.  She'll pay for all of it, won't she?"

 

He watched his mother change her mind and move toward her female captive, shrugging him off again as she bent down over the smaller human woman. Janeway jerked back from her, but undeterred, Nyfia simply leaned the extra few centimeters, smoothing the tangled red hair away from her captive's face in a startlingly tender gesture before running her hands over the captain's tensely bound arms and then straightening the woman's half-unfastened jacket for her. And then Adalen smiled, noting the wary look in the woman's eyes as her enemy groomed her solicitously.

 

"There we are," Nyfia purred dangerously, patting her enemy's cheek with a cold gleam in her amber eyes. "That's much better, isn't it? Wouldn't want you to look undignified in front of the entire sector, now would we?"

 

Janeway still said nothing, and Adalen smirked indulgently. "You know you shouldn't tease your prey, mother. She'll certainly look undignified and worse by the time I've finished with her," he threatened, strolling to the human woman on the floor and pulling her easily to her feet by the hair his mother had just taken such care to smooth. "You will pay every single debt owed to this family before you die," he promised darkly.

 

Janeway didn't cower but stared up at him with equal disdain. "I owe you nothing," she spat, her eyes flashing with pure hatred. "What you and your mother have already done is beyond contempt. What I did to your brother was done only in self-defense-"

 

His roar of rage predicated the sound of his hand cracking across her cheekbone. "You do not have the right to defend yourself against a Kyros!" he thundered. "No one has that right, Captain. That is something you would have done well to learn months ago!"

 

"You hated Mallok," Janeway hissed back at him through her bruised mouth. "What in the hell do you care if I killed him?"

 

"Adalen, dear, you're working yourself up over nothing," his mother purred, her hand on his shoulder trying to pull him away from their victim, presumably before he killed her preemptively.  Before they'd had their fun with her.

 

Adalen didn't hear his mother. He stared down at the proud woman he held up by the hair, incensed by her words, which could have him losing everything if his mother was inclined to listen to them. And as Janeway's contempt only solidified in the face of his full wrath, he hit her again. But again, she made no outward sign of being cowed, showed no fear and took his violence head on with clenched teeth and a defiant expression on her marked face.

 

It incensed him further.

 

"You are nothing, Janeway, but the latest alien novelty to cross our borders. You amused my mother, which is why you were permitted to trade with us at all. She knew you would amuse my younger brother, which is why you were sent to him. And if he wanted to lower himself by having your pathetic, scrawny body in his bedchamber for a time, you should have been honored to serve him. But you damn sure never had the right to refuse him," he hissed. "Your life was forfeit for that alone."

 

"As I told your brother, many times, Adalen, I serve no one - in any capacity."

 

He was sorely tempted to spit on her or, more appealing, to break her slim neck now and be done with it. Before she caused any more trouble than she already had. He settled for shoving her to the ground and watching her take the hard fall on one unprotected side, unable to catch herself at all with hands bound behind her. He sneered down at her, relishing in the pained hiss his actions had drawn, waiting for her attention to be drawn back to him before promising, "But you will, Captain."

 

"Don't...hold your breath," she advised with a breathless glare of defiance, again looking to her fallen crewman. Her face was almost completely white with anger every time she so much as glanced at him.

 

Adalen was not to be deterred. He had his mother to impress, after all. "I told you, woman, you will repay all of your debts to this family. Before the entire sector this time, you will serve at least one member of this family the way you were intended to for my brother."

 

Janeway froze at that, her head slowly turning back to him. Her defiant, disbelieving eyes sparkled grey this time as they locked the angry Bemaran male in her sights. "Again, as I told your brother, Adalen...that will never happen."  

 

Nyfia seemed taken aback by her son's announcement, also. She took a hesitant step in his direction. "Really. Adalen," she purred in placation, "are we certain that's necessary? I'm sure seeing her first officer suffer and die right before her eyes will be sufficient punishment for her."

 

Adalen's bald brow creased in confusion as he turned to his mother. "I don't understand. Have you changed your mind?"

 

Nyfia's face was unreadable. "Changed my mind?" She glanced from Janeway to her son and back again, her lip finally curling up in distaste. "Perhaps. It simply sickens me to think of one of my sons lowering himself to...that." 

 

"It was your idea in the first place," Adalen reminded her. "You talked me into it. I wasn't interested, remember?" Nyfia nodded, but he wasn't finished. "Yet the more I've thought about it, Mother," he turned on his heel, giving the woman sitting up on the floor a vicious kick to her outstretched thigh and smirking at her sharp intake of breath, "the more I'm convinced of the perfection of your idea. As she killed my dearest brother to keep herself for this pathetic oaf," he turned and kicked Chakotay's battered form solidly in the ribs...

 

"Don't touch him!"

 

"...It's only right that she give now what she refused to surrender then before we kill her," Adalen finished in a toothy snarl.

 

"It. Won't. Happen."

 

"Oh, I think it will. If you want to spare him a good deal of unneeded suffering, it will," Adalen sneered, speaking over her. "Only this time, he can watch." He cocked his head to the side, mocking her, pretending to give great consideration to something as he postured, largely for the benefit of his mother. "Do you think he'll still want you after I'm through with you, Captain?" He didn't wait for her answer. "Someone get something to wake up the commander," Adalen growled louder to his stationary men. "He won't want to miss this, I'm sure." Two of the four smirking guards lining the wall nodded reverently and left to fetch the required substance. "We'll see how much he still loves her...after I'm finished with her."

 

Nyfia's eyes fell to Kathryn's. Janeway shot her an intense, dark look, her gaze darting over to the two remaining soldiers. Adalen's focus was still on Chakotay.

 

"Pathetic. Hardly two full sessions, and already he passes out. What he sees in you has me confused enough - though I'll struggle through my task for the sake of vengeance, Janeway, so don't worry about that - but it's what you see in him that has me confounded."

 

Adalen's boot came back to strike the unconscious man again, but he never got the chance. His foot was inexplicably caught in a strong grip, and one swift tug brought him down. He felt the elbow slamming into his face quite clearly, felt the sickening crunch of bones in his nose and howled with the pained surprise.

 

"I told you not to touch him," he heard hissed in his ear just as he saw the flash of red rising over him, leaping across the space between him and the remaining guards, who'd both brought weapons to train on the now miraculously unbound Kathryn Janeway.

 

 

The doctor had watched the captain fall to the floor with a grimace. Fortunately, no one saw it before he'd stepped into the room. He knew her hands were only bound for show, that she could break the restraints at any time; therefore, he was surprised and more than a little concerned when she took Adalen's abuse without doing so. Fearing the restraints were malfunctioning, he almost intervened on her behalf twice; watching her being struck and doing nothing to stop the mistreatment had not been an easy task. Her pointed glares warned him against acting, and he caught her silent messages just in time. She was waiting for the right moment to make her move.

 

A passing inspection of the commander had revealed his pulse to be thready but there. His injuries were severe, and the doctor highly doubted he would be able to walk without assistance. One thing he could not allow to happen was the administration of alien chemicals; he had no idea how the commander's damaged organs would react in such weakened condition. If the Bemaran soldiers tried to give him a stimulant, the EMH knew he would be forced to intervene. At least he'd managed to adjust the captain's jacket to conceal her weapon, which had been in danger of being spotted when the jacket shifted because of her position on the floor.

 

Adalen touching him had been the other hard thing to take in stride. When the alien magistrate had embraced him the first time, the EMH had been tempted to shove the man away from him with a vengeance. The obnoxious Bemaran pawing at him, pulling him away from his captain had been another revolting touch to endure, but again, the captain's expression had warned him not to give himself away.

 

And of course, hearing the vicious plan for the captain's treatment by Adalen had made him decide to purge his matrix of the Bemaran appearance he was forced to assume for this mission. For the first time in his photonic life, the doctor felt unclean; simply wearing the disgusting prelate's features made him burn to experience the sonic shower in a most disconcerting fashion.

 

The doctor knew the plan, and when the captain finally brought down Adalen, he was prepared for her next move, which was to spring for him. He'd made sure to position himself between them and her, so as she leapt to her feet and reached for "Nyfia", the EMH did his best to act too surprised to resist.

 

Her arm came around him, drawing him in front of her to use as a shield against the guards' weapons, and he attempted a cry of outrage for show when the tip of her phaser pressed into his altered temple, which was much closer to Janeway's height with the modifications he'd made to his matrix.

 

He imagined the look on her face as she addressed the disbelieving soldiers in front of him with a terse order of "drop them", and the shiver of apprehension he feigned was easy.

 

Adalen was just recovering from his unexpected fall, his hand on his profusely bleeding nose when he sat up to the sight of his worst nightmares. Janeway had his mother -his mother - at weapon's point. She would expect him to rescue her, of course, but at the moment, he couldn't fathom how to do it. The guards were his; they would not neglect their primary duties to protect him in order to safeguard Nyfia. He stood, holding a hand to his bleeding nose, noting that Janeway had seen him rising and had backed up against the wall to be able to see his actions, also.

 

"Do as she says," he growled to his men, eyeing the wide look of fear in the prelate's eyes. His own yellow eyes hardened. "There's no way you're getting out of here alive, Janeway."

 

"Probably not." The captain shrugged, unconcerned. "But if I were you, I'd concentrate on keeping me happy right now. Who knows what I might decide to do," she nudged her weapon into Nyfia's temple, and the doctor cried out in false pain, "if you keep testing me?"

 

Before Adalen could react, Janeway swung her arm to take aim at both defenseless soldiers. They saw her intent, but there was no cover to be had in the sparse chamber; the only equipment in the room was various sets of restraints built into the walls and ceiling. Her weapon dropped both men before they could take more then a step, and then it returned to her captive's temple just as Adalen had one hand slipped inside of his long, furred jacket. He froze upon seeing the look in her eyes and hearing his mother's gasp as the weapon dug into her temple once again.  As the guards collapsed atop one another and were still, neither the captain nor the magistrate paid any attention; their gazes were locked on each other.

 

Janeway's eyes were cold. Merciless. They kept Adalen motionless, warning him against completing the action he'd been considering.

 

"Take off the jacket," she snapped.

 

He was enraged yet trying to keep his cool for his mother's sake. After all, this was the same unbalanced woman that had murdered his younger brother rather than submitting to a few nights of entertaining him, and if that wasn't insane, Adalen didn't know what was. Slowly, gauging the resolve in Janeway's steely tone and determined affect, he complied with her demand, shrugging off the long jacket and throwing it in a heap at her feet. The action revealed more than one weapon at his sides, as they'd both known it would.

 

"Slowly, take them off, one at a time, and drop them on the floor. You can kick them over to me with your foot...gently," she instructed.

 

With a sneer, Adalen complied, careful not to make any sudden movements that might startle her. When all three weapons were discarded and settled near her feet, he spat, "Now let her go, and I might be merciful when I end your miserable life."

 

Janeway glanced down, indicating her fallen man with a short jerk of her head. "Pick him up."

 

Adalen balked. "You can't seriously think I'm going to..."

 

"Oh, I know you are," she assured him.

 

He folded his arms across his muscular chest. "Go to hell, Janeway."

 

"After you, Magistrate."

 

"Nyfia" made a strangled gurgling sound as Janeway's arm around her neck tightened in a choking death grip, until Adalen roared, "All right!"

 

Janeway's arm loosened only slightly. "If I were you, I'd treat him like precious cargo. Any accidental bumps or scrapes he accrues while you're carrying him, your mother will account for. Do we have an understanding, Adalen?"

 

He'd hefted the commander into his arms with some effort. Perspiration already coated his blue skin, and the smell of it mixed with the sight of the dark blue blood from his nose turned Janeway's stomach, threatening her with the last images she had of Mallok...

 

She could not afford that. Not now. When Adalen made a mock bow of his head to indicate his compliance, she gestured him out of the door ahead of her, forcing herself to refocus on the present. "Good. Now move."

 

So the awkward journey from the bleak cell out into the sleek Bemaran corridors began. For a time they actually met no one, which seemed a miracle in itself. As they emerged from the inner catacombs into the brighter, well lit corridors of the massive ship, the doctor thought that, considering the less-than-ideal circumstances, the plan to liberate the commander from the prelate's custody was going rather well. He was proud of his own performance, on the whole. Having watched Voyager's logs of the few transmissions the captain had shared with Nyfia, he thought he had an accurate character study down. In fact, he would fully have been expecting some sort of award upon their return to the ship if he hadn't already known of the crew's propensity for under-appreciating his genius.

 

The captain's performance was of more interest to him, however. It was clear she was taking full advantage of the knowledge that she could cause him no pain. Whenever Adalen paused or seemed to stall, either the tip of the captain's weapon dug into his holographic flesh or the hold around his neck was tightened. It was a bit of a strain for the captain's slightly shorter stature, but he played along what he hoped was convincingly.

 

Kathryn ignored Adalen's continuous barbs and threats, knowing he was mostly bluster. However, she also knew that their time was going to be up at any moment. The two guards Adalen had sent to retrieve the stimulant for Chakotay were going to return to that room any moment now and find it empty, if they hadn't already. She just had to hope that they had traveled far enough away from the heavily shielded cells by then that Neelix would be able to recognize their patterns on sensors. She took note of the next bend in the hall. By her calculations, they should be within range to transport at any moment...

 

"We're clear, Captain," the doctor whispered, audible only to her. She nodded gratefully, never once taking her eyes from Adalen as he spoke up again from in front of them. 

 

"Even if you manage to get off this ship, you can't think you'll be safe from my warships, Janeway. You won't make it far before they blow whatever ship you came here in to pieces," Adalen growled as he approached the next corner reluctantly.

 

"Stop right there," Kathryn ordered, ignoring his threat yet again. Adalen froze in mid-step, turning with the commander in his arms and facing her.

 

"What now?" he snarled.

 

"Now," she gestured with the phaser, "you put him down."

 

"Here?" Adalen's brow rose, and then he shrugged, apparently deciding it was no concern of his. "Whatever." He made to drop the heavy burden that was beginning to make him breathless with exertion until his mother's face tightened in pain and she cried out. With a glower, he slowed his movements, ending in a controlled bend and placing Chakotay's unconscious form face down on the floor. As he rose, he was noticeably winded, which was most likely the reason he settled for throwing his hands up and drawling simply, "Satisfied?"

 

"Not quite." To the doctor, she whispered, "See what you can do for him."

 

Then she shoved "Nyfia" forward towards Adalen. He moved automatically to catch his mother, but the doctor ignored him completely, making instead for the commander. The EMH wasted no time as he removed the tricorder from the deep pocket of his ornate dress...the way he'd been itching to from the moment he'd first laid eyes on his critical patient. Nyfia's mouth drew into a tight straight line that didn't suit her face at all when the readings began to scroll by.

 

"Mother, what are you doing?" Adalen's brows knitted together as he tried to make sense of what was happening. "What is that? What is she making you do?" His confusion distracted him, and it took him a long moment to realize that Janeway had stepped forward while his attention was diverted and that her weapon was now trained on him. Noting this important new fact, he tensed somewhat differently.

 

The captain enjoyed the wariness on the Bemaran man's face. It was an expression very unlike the arrogance or maliciousness Adalen (and most members of his family) usually exhibited. But then she noted the red smears across the large humanoid's front, shoulders and arms. Her teeth ground together as Adalen, too, looked down at the crimson stains on his gaudy yellow shirt and he made a grimace of disgusted annoyance. Kathryn couldn't help recalling the same annoyance on the youngest Kyros sibling's face when he'd dropped Jenkins to the ground and noted the security guard's blood all over his perfect, green silk vest. For daring to ruin one of his favorite shirts, Mallok had spit on the woman's lifeless body before delivering a derisive kick she couldn't feel for good measure.

 

The look in Adalen's similar eyes now told Janeway he would have done the same to Chakotay if her weapon wasn't holding him stationary, and the blood in her veins, at a consistent simmering of anger for most of the journey, returned to a raging boil. She could hear it roaring in her ears, but her weapon remained steadily on him.

 

He didn't seem to comprehend the situation yet, still believing he had the upper hand with the superior numbers of guards present on the ship. He was simply biding his time, waiting for them to appear. The captain assumed he wasn't overly concerned about possibly losing her or Chakotay, in the long run. He probably thought her plan had only been thought out to a limited degree. She watched the doctor work over Chakotay, withdrawing a hypospray from another pocket in the purple dress and administering it to the unconscious man while Adalen frowned even more deeply.

 

Janeway wasn't entirely surprised when the real Nyfia, flanked by her usual entourage of guards, swept around the corner...she was just revolted by the sight of her. The prelate's fierce frown of concentration as she strode directly up to the standoff told Janeway the two absent guards had finally returned with the stimulant to find their fallen comrades and had triggered a silent alarm. Despite the situation, however, Nyfia was nothing if not confident. She still walked first, ahead of her guards, heedless of the danger to her personal well-being, and Kathryn took a bitter split-second to acknowledge that there were similarities between the two of them, after all.

 

It was worth something to see the unguarded, almost comical look of astonishment passing between mother and son. Stopping in mid-stride and causing the small procession behind her to nearly plow straight into her, Nyfia's amber eyes darted from Janeway to her son, to the carbon copy of herself, and then back again. Before she, Adalen, or her guards could do much more than gape stupidly, Chakotay's still form shimmered and disappeared.

 

The relief that poured through Kathryn was almost palpable. A slight bit of the tension released from her shoulders, and just as Nyfia's famed smirk was settling on her face, the captain's resolve was settling on hers. Her steely eyes took in the handheld weapon Nyfia clutched and the four weapons the prelate's guards now trained fully on her, the only human left in the room. Shaking her head, Janeway gestured slightly with her phaser, drawing every Bemaran's attention to the fact that her weapon was still trained on Adalen, who stood next to the doctor, about halfway between her and his mother's entourage.

 

"I should have known," Adalen muttered, though no one present paid him any attention.

 

"Drop your weapons," Janeway commanded flatly.

 

Nyfia cocked her head, considering her options. "And if I don't?" she drawled snidely. "If you shoot him, you have nothing left to bargain with, do you?"

 

The captain offered her adversary a deceptively soft smile while tightening her aim on Adalen. "You've already lost one son to underestimating me, Nyfia. Do you really want to make that mistake a second time?" 

 

"You alien bitch -!" the prelate snarled before choking on her own murderous rage.

 

Janeway couldn't help that she relished in the twist of bitterness the blue-skinned woman exhibited at her calculated taunt, and she clucked her tongue condescendingly. "Of course this one doesn't mean quite as much to you as the first one did. In fact, I'd wager more than a few credits that even Adalen is well aware of the fact that he was never your favorite. No, that was Mallok, wasn't it?"

 

"Shut up, Janeway," Adalen hissed dangerously. "You don't have any idea what you're talking about."

 

"Touchy subject, Adalen?" Janeway scoffed knowingly.

 

"You think you'll get out of the sector?" Nyfia demanded, taking a step toward her adversary, obviously keen on changing the subject. "I will never rest until you're dead. There's nowhere you can go that my men won't find you, and I promise you, I will hunt you down, and when I do find you, you and your officers will drown in pools of your own blood!"

 

"And I see now where her son gets his charming personality," the doctor interjected dryly.

 

Janeway ignored the comment and was similarly unimpressed with Nyfia's speech. "You have until the count of three to drop your weapon and to have your guards do the same before you find yourself burying your second son this year. And if you think losing him as a bargaining chip means anything to me, by all means, call my bluff. One."

 

Nyfia's blue face had flushed entirely purple by now. She took only a second to size her enemy up, and even though her hand shook fiercely, she threw down her weapon by the count of "two", making an unintelligible grunt to her wary guards and indicating for them to do likewise. She was saved from having to compose herself to respond further by Adalen, who had been craning his neck around to look from his mother to the identical woman now standing next to Janeway. "Who in the hell is that?" he finally growled, eyeing the doctor with disdain. "One of your crew?"

 

"Yes." Janeway nodded curtly, her aim never wavering. "Forgive my rudeness. Adalen, allow me to formally introduce to you my chief medical officer, the Emergency Medical Hologram. I don't believe you actually met him the first time."

 

He seemed incredulous. "The mobile program that treated my soldiers? That's him?"

 

"One and the same, Mister Adalen," the doctor informed him cordially, using his normal voice this time. He bowed formally, in what seemed an odd gesture coming from Nyfia's body.

 

"Don't speak to me as if we were equals!"

 

The doctor's brow rose delicately. "Don't worry, Magistrate. I'd never make that mistake."

 

Adalen's lip curled up in distaste. "I can't believe I touched it!"  

 

"Believe me, there were no tingles on my end, either."   

 

"You didn't notice it was wearing a different dress?" Nyfia hissed to her eldest, shooting him a dark look of annoyance.

 

For the first time, Adalen showed his mother a distinct lack of reverence. His yellow eyes flashed annoyance over his shoulder and he spat, "How in the hell am I supposed to notice what you're wearing? You change clothes six times a day!" He turned back to face the lookalike and shook his bald head. "It looks exactly like you. It talks like you. And it's even wearing one of your dresses - you've worn that one before!"

 

"And when have you ever known me to wear the same dress twice, you idiot?" Nyfia sniped.

 

"Nothing like a touching mother/son reunion," the EMH observed dryly.

 

Janeway had little patience for the dialogue taking place between the two family members. "How is he, Doctor?" she interrupted, knowing the hologram would know who she meant.

 

The EMH immediately tuned out the party of Bemarans across the hall, giving his captain his full attention. "The damage is extensive, Captain, and I'd say similar to the injuries you arrived with from..." He trailed off, swallowing at the darkening expression on her face. "He's not in immediate danger of dying, and I was able to administer an analgesic for the pain. But there are broken bones and he has internal bleeding, most notably in the cranium and stomach. I'll need to perform several minor surgeries for the internal injuries alone." He cast another dark look across the hall at Adalen. "The Bemar do seem skilled at causing the maximum amount of pain while avoiding lethal injury, if nothing else."

 

"We are skilled," Adalen snapped proudly.

 

"It was hardly a compliment," the doctor retorted, but Adalen was still speaking.

 

"And I look forward to further demonstrating our superior technique for you on your captain when I get my hands on her. She will know the true meaning of pain before she dies."

 

"Your brother did a fair enough job of that on his own," the EMH retorted with disgust, just before he coalesced into a beam of swirling energy and disappeared.

 

Kathryn breathed an inward sigh of relief, again adjusting her grip on the phaser while keeping it trained at Adalen's midsection. She'd been beginning to worry that Neelix had run into trouble and had wondered if she'd have to resort to plan B - which would not have been her particular preference, as there was no plan B for this particular phase of the mission.  

 

"Where are you beaming your people to, Captain?" Nyfia demanded. "Your ship isn't here. I'd have known if it tried to cross my borders."

 

"You sound awfully sure of that, Prelate."

 

"She couldn't have gotten them through the barrier of the ship's outer hull," Adalen interjected. "Not without raising an alarm."

 

Nyfia's catlike eyes had narrowed considerably. "She must have come on a ship equipped with a transporter. It won't be difficult to narrow down which one it is..."

 

An explosion rocked the massive ship beneath their feet. The prelate's eyes widened considerably, and Adalen's shout carried over the guards'. The captain only smiled, careful to keep her aim on Adalen as she managed to keep her balance despite the bucking ship.

 

"Prelate!" someone crackled over a comm link that Janeway couldn't locate visually. "There's been an explosion in the main docking bay! We don't know what happened, but it looks like someone managed to set charges to the control center. The doors are fused shut and some of the ships have been severely damaged. No one was negligent in his duties, I swear it! Whoever it was must have -"

 

"I know who it was," Nyfia snapped into the comm. "It's Janeway, Gaelon. She's here, and she's had her officer transported somewhere on a ship that's docked. I want you to-"

 

A bolt of energy struck the ceiling over her head, and Nyfia shrieked in surprise as Adalen threw himself to the side away from his mother, dodging the falling bits of ceiling that had been carved loose from the blast. Nyfia managed to dodge most of the falling debris in time but stumbled as one of the medium-sized pieces struck her shoulder. She barely caught herself before falling to the deck, and when she glanced up, it was to Janeway's determined face. Her phaser was already pointed back at Adalen, who gaped at her in shock.

 

"No more orders through that comm., Prelate," the captain warned unconcernedly. "The next shot will be to your son's head. And I won't miss."

 

The prelate only continued to massage her injured shoulder with one hand and shot her adversary a dark, venomous look that she soon turned on her offspring. "You don't care enough about your own mother to try and shield her from a collapsing roof?" she hissed. "I could have been killed!"

 

"So could I!" Adalen shouted back, clearly at his limits with his mother's waspishness by now. "What did you want me to do? Throw myself over you and get myself killed?"

 

"If you loved me, as you so often claim, Son, you would have!" she growled, having reached the end of her rope as well and finding a convenient target in Adalen. "And you let her escape, you idiot! Can you do nothing right?? I cannot believe I have to accept you in his place as my heir. Mallok would never have let this happen. He was ten times the man at twenty you'll ever be at ninety!"

 

"Mallok got himself killed by his own blind lust and stupidity! He was an embarrassment to the entire family! How can you not realize that by now??"

 

At her son's unchecked roar, Nyfia' eyes turned to slits, her slim nostrils flaring and her elegant fingers curled into her palms as she took a menacing step toward him. "How dare you speak about him like that? He was your brother!"

 

"He dares, Nyfia, because it's true," Janeway interjected coldly. "He knows it is, and deep down, you know it, too."

 

"She's right," Adalen muttered, ever aware that he was still being held at weapon's point. "You refuse to admit it, but it's Mallok's fault I'm even standing here now, and it was your fault she ever had the chance to kill him in the first place!"

 

Janeway couldn't help but smirk at her enemy's shock at hearing her son's true thoughts for the first time, and she happily seized the opportunity to bring the point home. "How does it feel to hear the truth for once, Prelate, out of the mouth of one who is supposed to be your most loyal supporter? Your sons don't love you," Janeway continued, unaffected by the venom in Nyfia's eyes. "They never have. They fear your power, and they want your empire, so they pretend to respect you, but they don't; you make it impossible for them to respect you. You heaped every bit of affection you may have had onto your youngest son, practically ignoring the rest of them. You certainly don't give a damn about Adalen, or your other three sons - you didn't even call them here to participate in avenging their brother, and you would have let Adalen kill himself just now in protecting you. That's nothing a mother would ever allow a child she loved to do."

 

"Right again," Adalen muttered disgustedly.

 

"Mallok would never have spoken to me like that!" Nyfia hissed back. "As for your claims," she swung her head back to Janeway, "they're ridiculous. I can't believe I ever thought you worthy of Mallok's attention."

 

The captain ignored her words, had to ignore them, for she knew her finger was quite capable of depressing on the trigger of her phaser right now if she listened to the venom spewing out of the woman who had caused her and her crew so much unnecessary suffering.

 

She pondered the woman in front of her, her contempt for Nyfia as well as the rage Kathryn felt at what Chakotay had been put through taking center stage now that her crewmen weren't in the immediate line of fire. Everything they had gone through - everything Janeway herself had gone through - was boiling through her now, feeding her dark sense of triumph as she determined Nyfia would have to face the truth about her sons, and herself, once and for all.

 

"I think you might have genuinely loved Mallok," she decided aloud. "That's why you spoiled him rotten. You raised him on false ideals of Kyros nobility and superiority. And he grew up believing them, believing that he could do whatever he wanted to anyone who was unfortunate enough to cross his path. He knew he was your favorite and that he could get away with anything he pleased. He knew he'd still take your throne when you died, because no matter what he did, you wouldn't have disowned him."

 

There was no chance of a reprieve. Not this time. They'd not only restrained her to the bed for him but gagged her as well; Mallok *really* hadn't liked it when she'd spat in his face the first time they'd brought her here, to his chambers. That had cost her, but not nearly as much as biting him had, when he'd gotten too close. Daring to injure him...again...had earned her the second hours-long beating of her stay.

 

His current exploration of her body was painful, but she redirected her grimace into a glower, refusing to let him see the pain he caused, continually trying to block out the sight of his face and the smell and feel of his body pressed over hers. Refusing to give him the satisfaction of pulling at the restraints that she already knew would not give. Knowing he didn't care one way or the other... Whether she fought against them or endured in stony silence, Mallok was bent on having his way.

 

"Not into this, Captain?" he taunted snidely, breaking into the wall she kept trying to create around her mind. "You don't seem to be." She tuned him out. Everything hurt, yes, but that was good, really: it made it easier to tune out his disgusting words and actions if she focused on the pain...

 

"Your son killed purely for sport and for entertainment, Nyfia. My officers were unarmed, and yet he killed them simply because he could."

 

"Maybe I should have let your sweet little crewman live."

 

At her lack of response to his predatory pawing, Mallok had released her from the restraints, feeling quite secure in the knowledge that, after two full sessions, she was too weak to fight him anymore. His fingers pressed, crushed, explored what they wanted without protest from her now. Janeway didn't think she had any strength left to fight him with...not physically. All she could do now was to protect her mind, her spirit. Those, he could not touch, no matter what he did, she reminded herself...again.

 

"She might have been able to work you up for me, don't you think, Captain? She *was* pretty, if not exactly my type. It might have been fun, the three of us, together." Another spark of hatred flared, pouring a tiny bit of strength back into her as Mallok sat up from her and grinned. "But I confess, I really only wanted to see the look on your face when I cut her open in front of you."

 

Nyfia's eyes burned with pure hatred, with intense venom, but Janeway continued without hesitation, "He was a monster, but you refused to see it."

 

Mallok flipped Janeway's limp body onto her stomach, stuffing a pillow under her as he harshly positioned her on her knees. "Since you *do* insist on acting like a bitch, Kathryn, perhaps I should treat you like one." It was almost comical to her that the double meaning of the word was similar enough in Bemaran language to enable him to make his crude joke in the first place, and she realized then how desperately her mind was grasping at anything to focus on besides what he was doing to her physically. His weight pressed over her. Sharp teeth sank deep into her neck, drawing a surprised cry of pain through the dry cloth muffling the sound. "See? I can bite, too, *bitch*," he growled at her shocked response.

 

Laughter filtered through the haze of pain his fingers were creating, exploring places that weren't used to being touched. The hatred joined by another spark...and then another.

 

"Wait a minute..." The weight lifted from her back. "Hold that thought. I think I like that. What do you say I go look through my toys and see if we can't find you a leash? Or perhaps a choke collar? I really think you might enjoy that, Kathryn. Maybe that will help me to tame you properly, hmm?" More laughter at his own crude jokes as he patted her backside almost affectionately. "Stay right here, now, Captain - because I do so enjoy this view of you. Don't move a muscle," he knew she could hardly move without agony, "and I'll be *right* back."

 

She felt him leave the bed. *Move*. She had to move. Refused to let him...not while there was still breath in her. It was the only chance left, the last she would get. If she could just make it to the table next to the bed, she could look for a weapon among the eating utensils the servants brought in with his dinner...   

 

"And he only became the monster he was because you made him that way." Hard blue eyes locked fiercely on the woman who had created and unleashed the monster who now lived only in memories.

 

And nightmares.

 

One step. Another. Her legs *would* hold, she told them silently, would *not* fail, and they *would* continue carrying her all the way over to that table, damn it. They obeyed, albeit drunkenly, at first. They certainly screamed their protests at the agonizing movement, but they obeyed her. The table was right there now, just in front of her...

 

Sound startled her from behind, and she could taste the adrenaline exploding through her, thick and dry as dust. He was back, already. Nearly there, she stumbled but caught herself on the edge of the table with one hand, the other reaching over it, knocking aside the dishes and food items in her way until her fingertips closed on the handle of something that felt like what she wanted...

 

"I thought I told you not to move, *Captain*." His hands clamped cruelly over her arms, easily spinning her away from the table and propelling her back onto the bed. She landed hard, face down, with him right on top her. He flipped her over, snarling, "Or did you need another lesson this evening?"

 

He never paid attention to her desperate expression. He didn't notice what was clutched in her hand, curled within her fingers or where her arms were moving, focused only on her body as he was. His sharp teeth sank into her chest...

 

"It was the arrogance and the cruelty you instilled in your son that ultimately killed him, Nyfia," Kathryn finished, eyes sparkling with contempt, recalling the hatred that had burned in her, fueling her movements, giving her the strength she'd needed as she'd driven that sharp fruit knife deep into Mallok's neck without remorse.

 

"How dare you?" the incensed prelate finally gasped out, having paled and begun quivering with rage as her adversary spoke. "You insolent, lying bitch. You have no idea what kind of man my son-"

 

"It's the truth," Adalen agreed, cutting over her. "Everyone knows it but you. She will still die for daring to take his life, but Janeway speaks the truth, Mother."

 

Kathryn would have looked to him in shock at that admission, but Nyfia drew her attention.

 

"You will die for this, you alien bitch," the Bemaran promised in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. She shook quietly in rage, seeming hard-pressed not to choke on her words.

 

"Maybe. But the truly sad part about all of it will be," the captain shook her head, "that Mallok hated you." A harsh, humorless laugh escaped her. "The one son you did care for felt nothing for you. He couldn't wait for you to die so that he could take his place as ruler of the empire you've spent your life creating."

 

"You're lying!" Nyfia practically screeched.

 

"No, Mother. She isn't. He told anyone who would listen. He didn't have an ounce of feeling for you, and it's time you knew it."

 

Kathryn's eyes shifted to Adalen in surprise as he drove the final nail into the coffin for her. A scream of crazed outrage, of the deepest sorrow echoed in the wide corridor. To Janeway, who had thought she would enjoy watching the realization cross her adversary's face in that moment, the victory was only bittersweet. With her phaser trained on Adalen and the familiar tingling of transport in her chest just beginning, Kathryn didn't have time to readjust her aim or to move when she saw a blaster appear in Nyfia's hand. She could only hope Neelix had finally locked onto her in time to keep the beam of pure energy from hitting her full in the chest, but the bolt of pain exploding through her ribcage told her he hadn't quite made it.

 

It was the last thing she felt or knew before darkness claimed her.

 

=>

 

"Doc, I think he's coming around..."

 

The first hint of consciousness was filled with recently conditioned apprehension. He couldn't remember why that was, yet despite the familiar scents and sensations surrounding him, he didn't awaken slowly but with a sense of urgency; his eyes snapped wide open, and he tried to take in his surroundings.

 

"Ah, Commander. You're back among the waking, I see." The doctor's face appeared just above him, blocking out some of the bright light overhead - if not a good deal of the unexplained anxiety. "How are you feeling?"

 

"I'm..." Chakotay swallowed to moisten his dry throat and frowned, realizing he felt...nothing. There was no pain. Why had he been expecting pain? "I'm fine." He blinked in confusion, struggling through the haze unconsciousness had left in his brain. "What am I doing here?"

 

The doctor shared a look with Paris.

 

"You don't remember?" Tom asked gently. He looked concerned, which only added to Chakotay's vague sense of anxiety.

 

He shook his head. "No."

 

"What's the last thing you recall, Commander?"

 

Chakotay frowned. "I...we stopped at Hymera for shore leave. I was looking for the captain. She was late checking in..."

 

Another look was exchanged between the two men standing on either side of him. "Well, I can't say that's entirely surprising, given that you were drugged for two weeks running. There was enough residual alien sedative in your bloodstream to have sedated a small army. Your initial captors must have injected you often to keep you unconscious before handing you over."

 

"Captors?" The word jolted his memory somewhat. He remembered being in pain for a long while; he'd been beaten. That was why he'd been expecting pain when he'd awoken. He didn't remember being rescued, though... "How long have I been here?"

 

Tom appeared again, this time beside the hologram, a scanner in hand, and he smiled faintly while he read the results flashing on the tricorder screen. "It's been about five days now."

 

"Five days?!" The commander tried to sit up, but the doctor was ready for it and easily held him down with one strong hand on his shoulder.

 

"Please try and stay calm, Commander. You haven't had solid food in your system for a good deal of time. Your body has been severely weakened."

 

Chakotay had to give up after a moment of struggle, admittedly dizzy, and reluctantly relented to being pressed back down on the biobed, but his mind was working furiously to remember how he'd come to be in Sickbay in the first place. A flash of Adalen's sneering face jolted his recollections, and with that image, he began to remember some of it. "The Bemar..." he rasped, not particularly coherently. "Nyfia..." The memories flooded through him swiftly while the cobwebs cleared from his mind, and his eyes travelled uneasily between the two men leaning over him. "She had to have come after us..."

 

The doctor's unconcerned expression, however, told him that the danger had already passed as Tom handed the tricorder to the EMH to review.

 

"Take it easy, Chakotay," Paris urged. "It's over. Nyfia's fleet was turned back by the Hymerans just after we recovered you."

 

He relaxed slightly. "We're in Hymeran space? Safely?" Tom and the doctor both nodded.

 

"Yes. Tuvok has been meeting with Prince Nabin from Hymera and a few representatives from the Azian and Nemaran governments over the past three days. They've formed a sort of honor guard escort around us; we have safe passage through all three regions of space now." Paris paused to exchange an exasperated look with the doctor at Chakotay's refusal to relax completely. "Look, we'll fill you in on everything, I promise, but you have to relax, all right?

 

Chakotay barely paid any attention to the doctor moving around him and tried to take in everything Tom was saying to him, but one detail in particular stood out to him, screaming for his attention. "You said Tuvok has been meeting with them?" Tom nodded. "Why? Why him? Why not the..." It hit him then, everything else about the past few weeks that hadn't returned to him before that moment. Kathryn. Hymera. Shore leave. They'd been dancing, and she had been so uninhibited, so alive, and so beautiful. They'd gone back to her room, and they'd finally...Gods, it had been one hell of an incredible experience, just as he'd always known it would be between them...but then he'd awoken on Nyfia's ship instead of next to her, and the prelate had informed him that he'd been taken from her side while they'd slept. That he'd been taken as the bait to lure Kathryn back to Bemaran space...because Nyfia had wanted Kathryn to come to her. To suffer the knowledge that he was being held, and beaten, as punishment for her actions.

 

His right hand lanced out, fisting on the sleeve of Tom's shirt and preventing him from turning away. "The captain. Where is she?"

 

"Easy, Chakotay." Tom's face reflected an understanding that would have confused the larger man if he'd been thinking clearly. "Please. The captain is fine. We released her yesterday."

 

His grip didn't relax in the slightest, even as Paris's hand closed over his. "Released?" He did sit up this time, ignoring the doctor's muted protests and the not-so-muted protests of his own queasy stomach. "What do you mean she was released?" And then he remembered he'd seen her face leaning over him in that cell, had heard her voice arguing with Adalen and his stomach tightened further. "She was really there, wasn't she?" He'd hoped it had been a hallucination, hearing her voice those last moments in that cell...he prayed it had been... "She came after me?" he rasped. "Alone?"  

 

Tom's face said it all.

 

Damn it. Of course she had; he'd known she would come, hadn't he? It was just like her. She would have felt she was solely responsible for his having been taken, wouldn't she? Because they'd slept together, had been found sleeping together... His eyes closed, and the pain came then, worse than anything physical he'd felt by far, and it was an effort to keep his voice steady and detached. "How badly did they hurt her this time?"

 

How badly had he let them hurt her this time?

 

Tom used the lull in Chakotay's concentration to loosen the grip on his arm and return Chakotay's hand to his side. "I told you, Chief; she's fine. And she didn't go in there alone. You know we'd never have let her do that, no matter how hard she tried to glare us down. She and Neelix took his ship, and the doctor went with them. They got in and out within an hour or so..."

 

"But?" Chakotay prompted, reading the hesitation in the helmsman's face and voice. His own voice had only picked up strength and steel as he came back to himself and the cobwebs continued to clear.

 

"Well, there was a...small hitch at the last minute..."

 

"A hitch?" The first officer echoed blankly. "But she's okay?" Receiving another only slightly reassuring nod from Tom, he closed his eyes to clear his blurring vision. "What happened, exactly, Tom? You may as well start from the beginning." To give me time to build the strength to hear the part about the "hitch", he added silently.

 

Tom again exchanged a look with the doctor, who only shrugged. "Well...from what we can tell, after you went down to find the captain when she didn't check in on Hymera, some of Nyfia's operatives were able to locate the guest accommodations we'd been given during shore leave. They must have found the captain's quarters, which would have been easy enough if they'd assumed she'd been given the biggest rooms. We think their original intent was to take the captain..." His face reddened, and he hesitated noticeably. "But...well..."

 

The look on Paris's face and the fact that the doctor was studiously avoiding looking at him altogether told Chakotay both men knew the circumstances under which he'd been found. Another very important bit of information for when it came time to face Kathryn, but he was less interested in that right now than he was in how she'd come to be injured - again. "But they found me with her, and Nyfia changed her mind."

 

Tom nodded solemnly. "Yeah. They took you, drugged the captain, presumably to keep her from interfering. She wasn't hurt," he hastened to assure Chakotay, seeing the paling expression on the first officer's face. "The drug only sedated her for a little while. When she woke up to find you missing, she called Tuvok. It didn't take long to guess who had taken you and why. Not to mention that the Bemaran operatives who took you left us a nice little message behind..."

 

He barely stifled a groan. Great. Not only had she awoken to find him gone, but then she'd had to call Tuvok to the site of what must have been quite an interesting little scene, considering the circumstances under which they'd fallen asleep. She wouldn't have risked precious time covering up the evidence of her indiscretion.

 

His face was an expressionless mask that he prayed betrayed none of these thoughts, however. "A message?" he prompted simply. He could only imagine...

 

"In your blood, yes. It said something like ‘he'll suffer'."

 

He would have been touched at the anger on Paris's face if his mind wasn't already focused on how she must have taken that. And the more he heard, the less he was looking forward to the conversation he knew they had to have regarding what had happened between them. Was there any way in hell she hadn't taken it the way he instinctively knew that she had? He highly doubted it. His heart sunk further and further into his stomach. Chakotay had felt this particular feeling of dying hope once before, and he remembered now, as he had not that night, how he had vowed to himself he would never feel it again - would never let himself be put in a position to feel it again. It had very nearly killed him the first time, and he did not believe he would survive it a second time.

 

He was not a coward, though, and his voice did not fail him when he ordered, "Go on."

 

Tom swallowed. "Initial scans showed you'd been removed from the planet's surface. We scanned for the ship that abducted you, but it was cloaked. And they already had a good twelve hours on us by the time we left orbit. The damage to the engines kept us from closing the gap when we followed. We downloaded Nyfia's template into the doc's holo emitter, and he and Neelix accompanied the captain to Nyfia's ship."

 

"The doctor?" Chakotay interjected, giving the hologram a more appraising look. "You went with them? Dressed as Nyfia?" He shook his head, realizing the simple brilliance of the idea to be the work of one individual mind in particular.

 

"I did indeed, Commander." He looked pleased with himself. "We were able to fool Adalen into thinking I was Nyfia long enough to get you away from the shielded section of the ship. The captain took me...that is to say ‘Nyfia'...hostage, ordered Adalen to carry you to an unshielded section, and then Mister Neelix was able to beam you and then me to his ship. However, in the few moments that she faced off with them alone, there was a bit of a firefight, and I'm afraid the captain took a disruptor blast to the chest just as Neelix was able to lock onto her."

 

"She took a disruptor blast to the..." Chakotay repeated flatly, trailing off to take a deep breath that did nothing for the sudden lack of oxygen to his brain.

 

"She's fine, Chakotay," Tom reminded him swiftly.  "The doctor was able to induce a coma to keep her alive until Voyager and the Hymeran fleet could intercept Nyfia's warships and we got you all aboard."

 

"The doctor was able to induce a..." He trailed off again because he could hardly breathe. The room was too warm, the walls too close. He'd almost killed her. Again. His negligence had almost killed her again.

 

Paris and the doctor exchanged a semi-panicked, chagrined look between them as they realized how bad their explanation was turning out to sound upon retelling.

 

"She was only in it for a day or so," the doctor hastened to clarify. Generally, he felt the Voyager crew (the captain in particular) entirely too cavalier about taking risks with their lives, but this was not one of those instances. This time, the captain had done what was necessary to retrieve a member of her crew, and though he would personally make her life a living hell until she was completely physically recovered, he decided it would be unnecessarily cruel to sick her first officer on her as well. "Commander Tuvok picked up the distress call from Mister Neelix, and Voyager crossed the border to intercept our ship immediately."

 

Fantastic, Chakotay thought weakly to himself. The story got better and better. Now he was being told the entire ship had been put at risk in the effort to recover him. That was something she'd take particularly well, he was sure. He steeled his expression. "And Nyfia's ships followed us...followed Voyager." It wasn't a question.

 

The doctor nodded. "She did follow us, yes. The charges the captain and I had set to detonate near the warships' docking bay did some damage, but only enough to delay their departure by a few hours. Nyfia's fleet caught up to us just before Voyager did, and for a few moments we were taking heavy fire." The EMH deliberately left out the part about the stasis field housing both commanding officers being knocked out for three full minutes...and the part about the captain going into cardiac arrest in the last thirty seconds before they were beamed to sickbay; there was no sense in worrying the commander unnecessarily...at least not any further.

 

Tom took up the thread again. "Fortunately, the Hymeran fleet followed us right into Bemaran Space. It didn't stop Nyfia from trying to take us all on anyway, but we managed to withdraw from Bemaran space relatively intact. The Azis and the Nemar had both sent contingents in support of the Hymerans, and they were just arriving at the border as we crossed back over it into Hymeran space. At that point, Nyfia was significantly outmatched, and even she knew it. She withdrew when Nabin flat out promised her he would declare open war over the way she set her operatives to abduct you from Hymera. They weren't supposed to be there, according to several regional treaties, but everyone in the area knows it doesn't stop her from having them on every neighboring planet, anyway. This is the first time she's been caught openly flaunting her treaty violation, though, and the other governments in the sector aren't very happy with her."

 

Chakotay nodded, taking in everything Tom was telling him. The Hymerans and other relatively peaceful populations in the area disliked the Bemarans, but generally opted not to challenge them, so long as they could trade together peacefully. But the local governments like the Hymerans, the Azi, and the Nemar would unite against her if, as in this case, Nyfia was openly interfering with one of their governments. "So the Hymerans knew she'd try to cross the border if we made it that far. They convinced the Azi and the Nemar to stand with them against her before setting out after us."

 

Tom nodded. "Prince Nabin apparently expected something like this from Nyfia, given how she felt about the captain. He spoke with the leaders of the Azi and Nemar, showed them the proof her operatives had left behind on Hymera, and convinced them to stand with him against her. And it was a good thing, too. Once we recovered you, it didn't take long for her to focus on destroying all of us, instead of just settling for the four of you. I'm not sure she would have been turned back by just the Hymerans and Voyager alone, but the Azi and the Nemar arriving did the trick. She was too outnumbered to keep pursuing."

 

Chakotay shook his head slowly, realizing the extent of the aid Prince Nabin and the Hymeran government had offered Voyager. "I guess we owe the Hymerans another debt of thanks." Tom nodded again in silent agreement, and then Chakotay's eyes found the doctor. He could ask now without it seeming overtly solicitous, he decided. "The captain's condition?"

 

"It was a close call, but we were able to stabilize and treat her once we got her into Sickbay. Her wounds have healed satisfactorily, and I released her yesterday evening to her quarters."

 

Yesterday. That meant it had been four days to treat her this time. Almost as long as him. The doctor had downplayed the wound she'd received for his benefit. As much as you could downplay a disruptor blast to the chest, anyway, he thought weakly. He swallowed thickly. "Where is she now?"

 

"Let's see," the doctor pretended to think about the question while he put away his scanning equipment, "I released her on strict orders to stay in her quarters and rest for forty eight hours. Furthermore, I removed her from the duty roster for the next three days. I informed Commander Tuvok of the changes so he'd be aware of my orders for the captain to rest, in the hope that he would be able to help enforce my orders. All of which means, of course, that right now, assuming she isn't having any difficulty walking, the captain is most likely..."

 

"On the bridge," Chakotay finished to the doctor's resigned nod and rolling eyes. 

 

"When she finds out the replicator in her ready room won't produce any coffee this week, I expect she'll give up soon enough and head back." The doctor sighed at the dubious expressions of the men before him, muttering, "A hologram can dream, can't he?"

 

"He can dream, yeah. But can he run fast enough when she figures out what he did?" Tom snorted ominously, turning to address Chakotay who'd merely winced at the doctor's words. "And it looks like you'll be out of here soon, too, now that you're finally awake." He glanced back to the doctor for confirmation as Chakotay fell silent. "Your scans are all right where they should be, considering what you've been through. Everything looks normal...but you've lost a lot of weight."

 

"Which, in itself, isn't a concern - if you will recall, I have been urging you to develop a more health-conscious diet." The doctor ignored the first officer's dark look. "But I certainly never meant anything this drastic."

 

"There was evidence that whoever took you to Nyfia tried feeding you intravenously, but they did a poor job of it."  

 

The doctor made an inarticulate sound of disgust in the back of his photonic throat. "That, Mister Paris, is an understatement. His abductors made a mess of his inner arms in the attempt, and I'd be surprised if they got half of whatever they were trying to supplement him with into him at all." He turned back to Chakotay, a hypospray in hand, and waited for the commander to turn his head obligingly so he could administer it. "And they also did a poor job of repairing your intestinal wall from the initial injury to your abdomen when you were first abducted."

 

Chakotay started in surprise. He'd forgotten all about that first wound, the pain he'd felt, the slicing into his side just before he'd seen that dark face leaning over Kathryn's sleeping form. He shuddered at that memory, particularly the part where he'd realized he'd been stabbed and that there was nothing he could do to help her...

 

She was fine, he had to remind himself. His hand went unconsciously to his side, and he was surprised to feel the unexpected lack of girth there under the sterile sickbay gown they'd put him in. Of course there was no longer any injury to his side, hadn't been one since he'd awoken on Nyfia's ship, but the memory of that sharp, stabbing pain meant the wound had been deep. Deep enough to draw a substantial amount of blood...which would have been the point of giving him the injury. Spirits of his ancestors, what the hell kind of picture had she awoken to that morning? It sickened him to think of it...and then it sickened him further to realize exactly what would have gone through her mind at the sight of it. She'd blamed herself for the entire situation, he knew. It wasn't even a question in his mind; he knew how she thought, how her mind worked. She probably blamed herself for the entire sordid thing that had been his fault, if anyone's...

 

Another hypospray hissed into his neck without warning, and he jerked free of his depressing reflections. "What are you giving me?"

 

"Just a few vitamin supplements. When I'm ready to release you, I'll give you several to take back to your quarters that must be taken daily for the next two weeks."

 

Chakotay nodded curtly, absently noting Tom returning from filing the latest scans in the doctor's office. "Any idea when that will be? When do I get out of here?"

 

"In a few hours." The doctor's tone warned against argument, but it didn't stop him from trying.

 

"A few hours? You both just told me I'm fine..."

 

"I said your scans were exactly as we expected, not that they were perfect, Chakotay," Tom warned. "Your stomach and intestines haven't really been used for anything but a punching bag over the past three weeks. We need to see you try to eat something solid first, and if you can keep that down and process it normally, we can release you then. But you'll still be on medical leave for a few days until we're satisfied in your progress."

 

He wanted to argue more vehemently then. He opened his mouth to do so when, oddly, he thought of Kathryn, of the way she'd shaken her head at him in the transporter room and admonished him on picking up her less desirable habits. The thought of her, of facing her in the frame of mind he now suspected, no, knew he'd find her in was enough to change his mind. He was too dizzy to stand, if he was honest, and he had a crushing need to speak with his spirit guide, too. There were so many things he needed to seek advice on before he would be in the right frame of mind to see her, and to take the crushing rejection he already feared was coming. That alone would crush a crucial part of him he'd only just been rebuilding. But worst of all by far would be having to see that guarded, empty expression on her face again.

 

He'd need time to be able to face it all. To be, once more, the man she needed him to be, which was her first officer first, her friend second, and anything else last. He needed to decide in which category his own intuition most effectively placed them, and whether the good of the ship would even be served by trying to change her mind...

 

"Chakotay," Tom said quietly, pulling him from his thoughts yet again.

 

Chakotay hadn't even realized he'd lain back down on the biobed, nor had he noticed when the doctor had retreated to his office. He did notice that Tom held yet another hypospray in his hand.

 

"This is a sedative. You'll sleep for a few more hours, and then when you wake up the doctor will replicate something for you to try and eat." He pressed the release valve, and Chakotay felt the effects almost instantly. "Before I go, I wanted to say something, though." He hesitated, and Chakotay knew then what was coming. "I know it's none of my business, and I'm not sure I'd have the balls to say this to the captain, but if it means anything...the rest of us think you two deserve every bit of happiness you can get for yourselves in this quadrant. So if there's something there worth saving, don't let her put you off because of what happened, or just because some of us know what happened between the two of you. You both deserve better than that."

 

"Paris?" Chakotay's voice was slightly slurred, and his eyes were obviously becoming too heavy to keep open, but his annoyance was still clearly audible, "You're right. it's none of your damned business."

 

The helmsman straightened dejectedly as the commander drifted off into sleep on the biobed below. He turned to discard the used hypospray before exiting out into the hall and just barely caught the last slurred words murmured behind him.

 

"But thanks."   

 

Tom left Sickbay with slightly more spring in his step than when he'd entered. There might be a silver lining in this cloudy sector after all, he thought to himself. There was hope that the battered command team might actually benefit from all the pain the Bemarans had subjected them to.

 

 

It was hopeless, he realized with crushing finality, watching them from across the crowded mess hall. The commander had just entered for his usual breakfast before heading to the bridge. Though he'd arrived with a light enough expression on his face, the instant he caught sight of her standing before Neelix as the Talaxian fussed over her, pouring her coffee, Chakotay stiffened almost visibly and appeared to have second thoughts about breakfast. With an inward sigh, Tom watched Chakotay pause, scan the room, note the eyes on him and the collective breath being held and then come to a decision. Plastering a mild, fake smile on his face, the first officer headed directly for the food line. Tom sighed again. Any moment now, the captain would notice him, Tom knew - and then there would be a repeat performance of the exact internal debate Chakotay had just had with himself before they both forced themselves to make small talk for the sake of the crew.

 

He waited for the awkward moment to arrive and tried not to cringe.

 

"Here we go again," B'Elanna's voice sounded just above his head. He stood automatically to take her tray for her while she sat down, ignoring his wife's amused expression at his solicitousness. She took the seat just beside him, murmuring her wry thanks and settling down in her chair. "It's been two weeks now, and the temperature still drops about twenty degrees in any room where they accidentally meet off duty," she muttered irritably. "They should just check the other's location before going anywhere, if it's that bad, and save the rest of us the awkwardness."

 

Tom shook his head. "I know. Unfortunately, they have the same duty schedule, which means they can't really help meeting up sometimes..." He paused and dropped his eyes to his plate. "Uh oh. I think she's spotted him."

 

B'Elanna watched the captain's shoulders stiffen and then forcibly relax. The redhead's chin tilted up a notch, and then she turned to greet Chakotay as he passed by her on his way to the table where Ayala and a few of the other security officers sat. The command team exchanged a fake, smiling greeting, passed a few stinted words, and then finally, mercifully, went their separate ways. Tom dared to risk a glance at his wife's face as the doors closed on the captain's retreating back with a hiss, and he winced at B'Elanna's disgusted expression.

 

"Kahless, they're ridiculous. You'd think they were in the middle of some high-profile divorce and they both wanted custody of the kids, but they're trying to smile and act polite for the cameras."

 

He couldn't help but chuckle at her analogy. "Well, if you think about it, you're not too far off the mark with that one. I know no one else notices, but to those of us who know them better..."

 

Tuvok neared their table, entering hearing range.

 

"Commander," Tom smiled politely, acknowledging Tuvok's arrival before swallowing a mouthful of orange egg...what he hoped was some kind of orange egg...

 

As an afterthought, he turned back to his wife. "And we're sure the doc said it's safe for you to risk Neelix's cooking in your condition?"

 

"Stop it, he'll hear you! Morning Tuvok," B'Elanna added more loudly, stealing the last of Tom's juice while he was distracted and downing it without remorse.

 

The Vulcan nodded to the two of them, greeting them both before taking his usual place by the viewport at the table behind them, and the married couple turned back to their own conversation.

 

B'Elanna watched Chakotay out of the corner of her expert and knowledgeable eye with a shake of her head. "He's not well, Tom. But he won't talk to any of us. And the captain...is even worse, if you can believe it. For the most part, they both walk around like robots, and that's when they're not together. When they are..." she trailed off with a shudder.

 

"I know," Tom agreed miserably. "But it's their life. And as long as it doesn't affect bridge operations...we really don't even have the right to bring it up to them."

 

"But we should do something," she mumbled through a mouthful of burnt toast.

 

"We've tried, remember? Despite the inherent futility in trying to talk sense into either one of them, both of us have tried with both of them...numerous times. And Neelix, and half a dozen others. The last time I was in the captain's ready room, I practically got frostbite from the coldness in her voice when she advised me to ‘focus my efforts on flying the ship and not on speculating about her personal life'."

 

"Yeah, well...that's nothing to the scorch marks I swear I felt from the glare in my back after she dismissed me ‘back to engineering, where the ship's engineer was assigned' the last time she checked," the half-Klingon muttered. "And he's just as bad about it. Flat out told me it was none of my business, and that if I brought it up again it had better be in the boxing ring - with you ready to stand in my place, because he refused to hit a pregnant woman."   

 

"Thoughtful of him."

 

Immune to his constant supply of sardonic remarks, his wife ignored him. She gave a deep, disgusted sigh as she watched Chakotay finish his breakfast in record time and head for what she assumed was his office as there were still about forty-five minutes left until alpha shift.

 

"So I guess you're right. If neither one of them is even willing to discuss it, we'll just have to let it go." She frowned darkly into what remained of her toast, and both passed the remainder of the meal in silence, each lost in his or her own thoughts.

 

Neither noticed the Vulcan silently rising behind them or saw him discreetly dispose of his unfinished tray and leave the mess hall. 

 

=>

 

"Come in."

 

Damn, that had been much more snappish than she'd intended, but she was still reeling from that last hellish encounter with Chakotay, and so help whoever had decided to follow her up here from the mess hall this time...

 

Tuvok appeared before her, surprising her and prompting the first free smile she'd conjured in two weeks. "Tuvok," she acknowledged in relief, "what can I do for you this morning?"

 

He hesitated, and she did a bit of a double take at that alone. Her stomach fluttered unpleasantly as she watched him gather his resolve.

 

"Captain. I would first like to preface my response by pointing out that, for many years, I have considered you to be one of my closest friends. It is in this capacity in which I stand before you now."

 

No, was her first thought as she sized up the tall Vulcan standing in front of her desk. Not Tuvok, too. She couldn't take it. Not on her first cup of coffee, for the love of quantum physics; she'd kill him. If he was actually going to bring this up to her now, she'd have to kill him. And that would be a shame, for many reasons, not the least of which was she'd have to find a replacement for him before she could even stand trial for it.  

 

But maybe he deserved a chance first, she mused, as she eyed him up and down. He could just be checking up on her, personally. She had been almost fatally shot in the chest not that long ago, and Tuvok had been instrumental in helping her recover herself after the first incident with the Bemarans.

 

A chance, she decided. She'd give him a chance. Throughout her entire thought process, her smile didn't so much as waver in indication of her thoughts.

 

"Go on," she prompted.

 

"I feel I must bring to your attention a potentially urgent matter."

 

Not good. Not a good sign for his survival. Her eyes narrowed the slightest warning degree.

 

"Regarding?"

 

"Ship's morale."

 

Shit. That was it, then; she'd be needing a new chief of security.

 

"While I am aware that this is a delicate and personal matter for the individuals involved, I do not feel I can remain silent any longer. It would be detrimental to-"

 

The captain held up her hand, stopping him in mid-sentence. Finishing the last half of her first cup of coffee in two large, fortifying swallows, she set the cup down very precisely, folded her hands, leaned back in her chair, and then nodded for him to continue.

 

It was that or leap over the desk and kill him - not very captain-like behavior, for one thing, and an unacceptable risk to the furniture, for another - for she now knew, without a doubt, what was coming next.

 

She wasn't disappointed. In what was perhaps the most awkward, over-rehearsed speech she'd ever heard him give, Tuvok proceeded to lay out, point for point, every reason that the strain between she and Chakotay must be addressed. Half in annoyance at his presumption and half in sheer mortification that Tuvok...Tuvok...knew what had happened between Chakotay and her that night and was now openly discussing...of all things...her sex life, she tuned him out.

 

For her part, she still wasn't sure what had gone so wrong so quickly. She knew only that she hadn't been able to deny the absolute rightness of what they had shared that night on Hymera. For some time after they'd returned, she'd had to work through the usual self-recrimination and doubt; she'd blamed herself for his abduction and cursed her own weakness ‘til she'd been blue in the face. And then, after the usual cycle, she'd come back to herself, her real self again, and had decided that she and Chakotay deserved a chance. Yes, it went against every regulation in the book, every personal regulation she had (with good reason) always adhered to in her career, but, damn it, she'd already broken all the rest of them, hadn't she? She had thought she might be able to let herself live a little, have a little. She'd thought she had paid her dues, had earned a little rightness in her life, and she had taken six solid years to decide that she could handle it, that they could handle this and that the ship wouldn't suffer for it, and now... Well, it had gone to hell in a hand-basket, hadn't it?

 

She'd honestly thought it would be for the best...that when she'd made up her mind to let him come to her, to tell her how he felt, she was doing the right thing by placing the ball in his court. He'd given her the shock of her life with his cold response, and, frankly, it had hurt like hell. It had taken every fiber of her being, every ounce of her composure to appear calm and agree to proceed under the notion that their "indiscretion", as he had so scathingly termed it, had never happened. That was his right, his choice, of course - but she sure as hell hadn't expected it. After what she'd seen, had thought she'd seen in his actions, in his eyes and in his words that night, Kathryn hadn't doubted the depth of his feelings for her. He still loved her; she'd been as sure of that simple fact as she'd been of her own name.

 

She'd been wrong. He didn't want her. He'd made that perfectly, sparklingly clear while standing in her ready room that day.

 

So why in the hell did it seem like he wanted something more from her, now? Every time they ran into each other, she did her damnedest to act as if nothing was wrong, as if she hadn't held her heart out in front of him and watched him stomp it to a bloody pulp at his feet. But the coldness in his eyes, the dim, detached aura with which he met her each and every greeting had begun to wear on her nerves. It wasn't something those who knew him less than extremely well could pick up on, but to those closest to him, like her, it practically shouted self protection.

 

She couldn't understand it, but Kathryn was also coming close to the point of not caring about solving the mystery of his behavior, either. Working through her own agonizing heartbreak was one thing. She could do it, had done it before - twice, while in this quadrant - but with the addition of Chakotay's bizarre, even hostile avoidance of her lately, the day was swiftly approaching when she knew she was going to break down and really let him have it. He was making salvaging their friendship impossible, and she hadn't done a damned thing to deserve his scorn or his coldness. And, to make matters even worse, the few members of the crew who knew what the score was between them were evidently convinced that this was her doing! They seemed to assume that it was her fault Chakotay walked around like a kicked puppy and barely had two words to say to her, to anyone, or worse, left any room save the bridge the minute he spotted her in it.

 

The bridge was the one place where they kept the awkwardness nearly entirely in check. There, both were far too professional to allow the strain to be visibly apparent, but elsewhere...oh, anywhere else, it was horrendous, and she knew they were both doing far too poor a job to conceal it from those who knew them best - as evidenced by the mortifying, galling speech she was being subjected to just now. Her attention returned to her security chief just in time to hear:

 

"That for these reasons, I must suggest that if a romantic relationship between the two of you is to continue, you will have to learn to handle your disagreements more amicably."

 

She stared at him. One cup of coffee really wasn't enough for this. All the coffee in the galaxy wasn't enough for this...

 

She gritted her teeth together, forcing herself to meet his penetrating gaze head on with a single, dangerously-raised brow.

 

"So what you're telling me...is that you think Chakotay and I are having difficulties." She swallowed with effort. "More specifically, that we're having difficulties...in the bedroom. Have I got that right?"

 

Tuvok nodded. "That is correct, Captain. And I believe we are on the verge of a breakdown in crew morale because of your disagreement. Should matters escalate further, the danger to ships' morale is considerable." He debated continuing along these lines, particularly given the expression on his superior officer's face but felt what he had to say needed to be heard. "I must confess I am surprised at the level of your disagreement. If you will recall, I had not objected to the development of a more intimate relationship between you and the commander."

 

She tried hard not to gape at him, deciding he meant the half a sentence he'd uttered in the ready room when he'd tried to give her his blessing for the relationship while they'd been pursuing Chakotay's abductors. She'd shut him down immediately, far too focused on recovering the man at the time than she had been in seeking anyone's blessing for screwing him.

 

That had to be what Tuvok meant now...

 

"I believed you both mature enough to work through any disagreements naturally occurring in such a progression of your friendship. I did not expect difficulties of this degree to arise from-"

 

"Tuvok." Unbelievable. She worked her tongue over her back teeth, her jaw moving back and forth while she tried to contain her anger and held up a hand. "I think I can save us both some considerable time and awkwardness if I stop you right there. Let me assure you that there has been no disagreement in the bedroom - there has been no disagreement of any kind. In fact, there hasn't been much of anything at all. Not that any of this is any of your business," her eyes flashed emphasis on that notion, "and it had been my hope that we could give it a try, but the commander has no wish to pursue a romantic relationship between the two of us. He made that perfectly clear. And I immediately accepted his decision, because I am his commanding officer, and because it is, ultimately, his choice. And so, believe me, I'm just as baffled by the commander's recent behavior as you are."

 

Tuvok froze, readjusting his posture. She took that to mean she'd succeeded in rendering the Vulcan speechless. Good, she decided. That's what he gets for making assumptions.

 

Janeway took the opportunity to press her point home. "You said first that you came here as a friend - and that's the only reason I haven't thrown you out, just so there isn't any confusion about that. But as my friend, I can tell you that there's nothing going on. Nothing whatsoever. I can't tell you what the commander's problem is, because he won't speak to me. Whenever I enter a room, he tries to sneak out of it. When he does acknowledge my presence, he keeps looking at me as if there's something I've done to him, and I cannot, for the life of me, tell you why that is. It's not as if we weren't both equal participants in the...indiscretion...that occurred between us, and I gave him no argument whatsoever when he told me he thought we should forget the entire incident ever happened. I really don't know what his problem is, but if you're that concerned it's affecting ship's morale, then you can take it up with him. Now," she stood, intending to refill her coffee and effectively signaling the end of her willingness to pursue the conversation, "was there anything else I can do for you this morning?"

 

Friend or not, he knew when he'd been dismissed. Shaking his head, he found his voice with some effort. "No, Captain. I believe that will be all."

 

He took his leave, scrambling to make sense of what he'd just been told while she stood at the replicator, musing to herself as she blinked back tears she refused to let fall...again...that the cups her ship's replicators produced weren't nearly large enough to handle the amount of coffee she needed to get through the day anymore.

 

=>

 

The door chime sounded, and he almost snapped this time, even though he'd half expected it. Truthfully, he'd expected it a few minutes earlier than this. Whoever it was this time was running later than usual in arriving. He'd just come from a public run-in with Kathryn, after all, which meant that someone who'd witnessed the interaction in the mess hall had come to show him the light. Again.

 

He knew full well that only a few were able to see it. But it seemed that, to those few concerned, he was an open book, and he hated it.

 

His teeth ground together and he barely managed to spit the words out, "Come in."

 

It was either Tom or Neelix, he figured. Then again, the way they'd both glowered at him, it could always be Ayala or B'Elanna standing at the door, and he'd be damned if he was going to take it in stride this time...

 

Tuvok stood at the door.

 

"Oh. It's you." The words were out before he could stop them. He was so surprised, he'd said the first thing that had come to mind. He grimaced, but Tuvok seemed unperturbed - obviously. 

 

"Sorry, I wasn't expecting you."

 

"Am I disturbing you, Commander?"

 

Yes!

 

"No. Of course not." Chakotay smiled stiffly. "Come in." He turned away, deciding to use the replicator against the far wall as an excuse to compose himself. He'd just been on the verge of letting loose on whoever stood at that door, and he needed a minute to get his temper back in check. As an afterthought, he asked, "Would you like anything?"

 

"No, thank you."

 

Of course not. I might have poisoned it, right?

 

Damn. Where had that come from? It had been years since Tuvok had shown any outward indication that he still distrusted him; this wasn't going well already. Chakotay took a subtle deep breath and turned, tea in hand, approaching his desk as if that had been his destination all along. "What can I do for you, Tuvok?" He hoped his voice came off mild and not strained, the way it sounded to his own ear.

 

"I had thought my visit might be a matter of what I could do for you."

 

He stared at the still-standing Vulcan for a moment, at a loss. "I'm sorry. I don't know what you mean. What did you think you could do for me?"

 

Now the Vulcan actually looked...uncomfortable. It was Chakotay's first indication that he wouldn't like what was coming next, but then Tuvok spoke. "I thought perhaps you might be in need of...personal counsel."

 

"Personal counsel?"

 

Tuvok simply nodded impassively.

 

Frustration set in, but Chakotay battled it back. "Look, Tuvok...whatever it is you're trying to say, please spit it out. I'm due on the bridge in," he punched up the chronometer on his interface terminal, "less than half an hour, and I'd like a few moments to myself beforehand, if you don't mind."

 

There was a moment's silence in which Tuvok did not respond. Finally, he ventured, "If I may ask, Commander...do you intend to meditate before your duty shift?"

 

"Do I intend to...?" For a long minute, Chakotay simply stared at the man standing in front of his desk, asking himself what in hell he could have done to piss off whatever god was punishing him now, because the Vulcan was actually trying to make small talk with him. At this hour of the morning. "Tuvok," he managed more evenly than he'd expected to, "What. Do you want?"

 

"Forgive me, Commander. The matter I must now bring to your attention is of a somewhat delicate nature." He paused and was now looking decidedly uncomfortable. "In general, I have never felt it was my place to interfere with non-duty related matters between you and the captain. Nevertheless, the current strain on your relationship has been noted throughout the ship, to varying degrees, and I no longer felt I had any alternative but to seek out one or both parties in the hopes that the matter could be resolved before the situation escalates any further."

 

"You came here to discuss my relationship...with the captain...with me," Chakotay echoed. He couldn't feel his face anymore, he realized absently. 

 

"That is correct, Commander." The Vulcan nodded. "Though I am aware that we have not been the closest of companions," he ignored Chakotay's less-than-polite snort, "I thought perhaps I might be able to offer you an invaluable insight into whatever difficulties the two of you are experiencing in your...relationship...at this time."

 

And that was it. After the kind of day this one was already shaping up to be, this bizarre visit from the ship's security chief was really too much for Chakotay's raw nerves to handle. "Tuvok?"

 

"Yes, Commander?"

 

"Get the hell out. Now - before I do something I may or may not regret."

 

Tuvok stood firm. "I'm sorry, Commander, but I do not believe it would be wise for me to leave until this matter has been resolved. It was the captain who suggested that I bring my concerns to you this morning."

 

"What? She did what?" He was so floored by that last little addition, he stopped in mid-stride. He forgot his intention to escort the man who'd just refused to leave his office - after stopping by to stick his nose into something that was not, in any universe, any of his Vulcan business - to the door. Chakotay simply gaped instead.

 

Had she really? Had Kathryn really been so cold-hearted as to send Tuvok to rub his nose in the fact that she didn't want a relationship with him? That she'd been content to have him for one night, to - whatever, to relieve her pent-up sexual frustration - and then was perfectly happy to pull back into the old status quo and expected him to just snap right back into the old, comfortable cadence of being only her friend? After having seen and experienced all that they were both missing out on by remaining apart?

 

So. It was never enough for her, was it? She wasn't content with his having saved her the time and the trouble of the argument. She wasn't happy with him trying to put himself back together privately...with whatever remained of his dignity intact. No. Apparently, she wanted him to be humiliated in front of Tuvok now because he hadn't been able to come to terms with it as fast as she felt he should.

 

Damn her! Damn her, and damn him. This hurt, almost more than the rejection had. This was like having the knife that had sliced open his heart cruelly twisted well after it had already inflicted its fatal wound.

 

The Vulcan, of course, was unaware of the commander's thoughts. "Captain Janeway suggested that I attempt to speak with you regarding your odd behavior of late. It is no secret among the senior staff and several others that the two of you had a...personal encounter...while on Hymera. I, like many of them, assumed the two of you had formed a more permanent romantic bond and that it was this bond that has been causing the strain between the two of you. However, after speaking with the captain, it would seem that the trouble lies with you more so than with her."

 

Chakotay had to scoff at that, albeit bitterly. "Yes, I'm sure that's exactly what she told you. I'm sure it's true, too. Why should she have any problem doing what she's done so well for the past six years, anyway? It's me who has the trouble dissociating from his emotions. And so you came to offer me ‘personal counsel' on her rejection, did you?"  He laughed out loud then, and it was not a pleasant sound. If anything, the security chief detected a distinct aura of menace around the first officer as he took a deceptively casual step forward. "She sent you to offer me your ‘valuable insights'?"

 

"The captain sent me to speak with you regarding your obvious state of unease around her-"

 

"I'm sure she did. Why risk the awkwardness, when she could pawn it off on her trusted servant to handle for her?" He laughed again, a dark, foreboding chuckle. "Well you can tell her I'm sorry, then. Sorry if I haven't been able to put my feelings back into a neat little box and pretend I don't care about her at all so quickly this time. I really have been doing my best, you know, but you might remind her that some of us are human, after all. I thought it would be enough for her that I haven't let it interfere with our duties or affect ship's business...but I guess that was just hoping for too much, wasn't it?"

 

"Commander," the security chief tried, growing more concerned by what he heard by the second, "I believe there may have been a gross misunderstanding between-"

 

"And so you want to counsel me now?" Chakotay wasn't listening. He was too angry to pay attention to Tuvok's confused mutterings. "On her rejection? The rejection I was stupid enough to set myself up for...the second time? Fine," he spat, again stepping forward and rapidly closing the space between the two of them.

 

If Kathryn wanted Tuvok to get all the gory details on how he felt about the situation, then gory details were exactly what Tuvok was going to get.

 

"Then tell me this, Vulcan. How the hell do I stand there and look at her, knowing what she looks like under that uniform, knowing what she looks like under that damned impenetrable mask of hers and remembering the way she looked up at me while we were making love...as if she really loved me, too? As if I was the only man in the universe who could make her that happy, that free, tell me, Tuvok," he didn't realize his hands had fisted in the Vulcan's shirt, or that he'd pulled him closer to speak into his face, "how the hell do I go on pretending that she isn't the woman I love and would die for if it would make her one tiny bit happier? How do I reconcile that woman to the woman who can just turn it all off at will like a damned robot... Tell me what the hell the two of you expect from me, damn it! Tell me!" He finished in a near shout.

 

Tuvok's hands had come up to the commander's fists. Despite his anger, the Vulcan had only slight difficulty in prying his jacket loose from Chakotay's grip. He stepped back a pace, restoring the distance between them and watching as the man seemed to realize the extent of the outburst he'd just had. "Commander," he ventured quietly, to the first officer's slightly mortified look, "I must ask you something I believe to be of paramount importance. I would like you to think, hard, before you respond."

 

He waited for Chakotay to pull his expression back into a semblance of neutrality.

 

"Did you ask the captain whether or not she desired to pursue a romantic relationship with you?"

 

"What?" Chakotay spat bitterly, his expression twisting again. "I know how she feels, and I saw it in her face." I just couldn't stand to hear her say it out loud.

 

"But did you ask her, Commander?" the Vulcan persisted. Something in his tone had Chakotay taking note of it as he continued, "Or, did you simply assume you knew what her response would be and proceed accordingly?"

 

His vision swam in front of him.

 

"Chakotay." She glanced up as he entered, on the heels of swallowing the last of what looked to be her first cup of coffee for the day, and a smile broke out on her face. She looked beautiful. "It's good to see you back on your feet." She rose, coming out from behind her desk to head for the replicator. He stood a few feet in front of her desk, watching her with baited breath. "The doctor tells me you're doing much better. How are you feeling?"

 

"I'm fine, thank you." It was all he could manage, knowing what was coming. "I hear you had another brush with death, yourself, Captain."

 

"The doctor?" She waved him off when he nodded, throwing a disgusted look over her shoulder while waiting for her second cup to appear. "You know he exaggerates."

 

"I read the report. It wasn't an exaggeration, Kathryn."

 

"Don't you start, too! I'm perfectly fine, as you can now see for yourself." She reclined in her seat, coffee in hand, and gave him a wicked grin. "He's really very lucky I know how to get around his little medical alterations to my replicators. I don't think he realizes how often his continued existence depends solely on my continued access to coffee."

 

He offered a weak, barely there smile and declined the seat she offered in front of her desk, instead opting for bracing his hands along the top of the chair back. There was a moment of awkward silence, in which he watched her pull her expression back into an unexpressive mask.

 

His gut tightened. This was it. This was the moment he'd been dreading ever since he'd awoken in Sickbay.

 

"Chakotay. About what happened on Hymera... I think we should discuss..."

 

And he couldn't listen. He knew it would destroy him to hear the words come out of her mouth, would break him into irretrievable pieces. He interrupted her before she could land the fatal blow, "Actually, Captain, I think it's best if we don't discuss it."

 

"I'm sorry?" She looked shocked to be interrupted, if anything, but it didn't deter him.

 

He'd save her the trouble of turning him down gently, and maybe, just maybe manage to save a tiny part of himself in the process. As long as he didn't have to hear her say it.

 

And, damn it, he had his pride; he would not beg to be a part of something that both participants weren't in together, ever. That kind of relationship wasn't worth having for anyone - no, not even with her.

 

"What's to talk about?" He laughed, and it saved him from crying with how much the words hurt to form on his lips. "Our little...indiscretion...was a one-time thing. A natural physical reaction between two people in very close proximity. We both got carried away in the heat of the moment. I think it's best if we don't discuss it, for the sake of any awkwardness it might bring up between us." The smile felt frozen on his face. "I'd hate for things to be uncomfortable for either of us. Your friendship means too much to me to risk that."

 

He'd watched as she swallowed thickly, her expression tight and controlled, as always. She surveyed him with a searing scrutiny for a moment. He was careful to show only neutrality, grateful for the chair back helping to support his shaking legs and waiting for the moment under which he could retreat and try to stop the blood flow from his wrenched open heart. 

 

"I see." He assumed she was relieved, and it was further confirmed when she took a deep breath and dropped her eyes to the table. "Very well, Commander. If that's how you feel..."

 

"It is." He had to get out of there before he couldn't walk at all. He needed air. "I'll see you on the bridge, then?"

 

She nodded briskly, "Dismissed." But he was already heading towards the door. The last thing he'd seen was her turning toward the replicator...

 

Son of a bitch. He hadn't noticed it then, had been too consumed with turning from her before she'd caught his crumbling resolve and expression, but she'd stood and turned to the replicator. Yet she hadn't taken a sip of the coffee she'd just replicated for herself less than a minute beforehand. And it wasn't like she ever voluntarily ate anything...

 

She'd turned away from him because she hadn't wanted him to see her expression. That had to have been the reason. But why wouldn't she have wanted him to see her expression? Why would she have cared, considering what a great performance he'd nearly killed himself giving her, reassuring her that he wouldn't be badgering her to pursue a relationship with him?

 

Unless he'd upset her. Unless his words had not been, as he'd assumed, what she had wanted to hear?

 

Son of a bitch. Had he asked her if she wanted to pursue a relationship with him, Tuvok had asked. No. The truth of the matter was that he hadn't. He'd simply assumed that she would revert to type and that her fixed expression at the time was an indication that she was preparing to let him down gently...but that was her default expression, really. She used it to cover many things: fear, apprehension, nervousness...

 

"Tuvok." His voice was hoarse as the realization descended over him with all the force of a tidal wave. "Are you telling me...that she wanted to pursue a relationship with me...and that I turned her down? Before she could even tell me...?"  

 

The Vulcan's face, for once, said it all. Chakotay turned back to his desk, wondering what the hell he'd done. And if it was even reversible now, given the way he'd been acting the past two weeks. He fell numbly back into his chair, not realizing he'd circled back around the desk again at all.

 

"If you'll excuse me, Commander."

 

Chakotay didn't hear him leave the room.

 

 

Kathryn hadn't been on the bridge all day; she'd opted instead for a tour of the Azian ship. It was fortunate, really, because it was the one time he didn't think he would have been able to hold off for a full eight hours of sitting beside her and not addressing their personal relationship. He didn't know if he could have handled that today. But now, the unfortunate fact remained that they really did need to have a conversation, and he didn't know how it was going to go. She'd been back for two hours, and his own time had been partially taken up with giving Prince Nabin another tour of Voyager. The tour had only just ended, a full fourteen hours into his shift, and he was now, finally, free to track her down. When the computer told him she was in the holodeck, he was more than a little surprised.

 

He entered the holodeck to the last scene he'd ever have expected to find. It was Hymera, the way it had looked on the day of the festival, the first time they'd stopped there, and incidentally, the last time he'd felt the need to track her down. It proved no easier to spot her this time; she wasn't anywhere immediately within sight. But he had an idea, this time, of where to start.

 

The same music he'd heard before greeted him, the same lively, free dancing tune, and he parted the circle of observers almost eagerly in search of her at the center of the dancers within...

 

His face fell as he scanned the interior of the circle. She wasn't there. Most of the dancers were there, though, and most of the scene was right. It was an accurate depiction of what he'd remembered of the evening. In wonder, he realized she must have used scans of the area as well as memory in order to recreate this. The only question he had was why. Why would she create the scene where their entire misadventure had first started?

 

"It was the first time in a long time that I felt free."

 

He turned, and she was there, just behind him. He drank in the sight of her, still dressed in full uniform, though her jacket was open, her one concession to the relaxed atmosphere. She looked...beautiful. But then, she always did, to him.

 

Her gaze wasn't on him at all but on the circle of dancers, a wistful expression on her face. "It was the first time in what seemed like forever that I felt like me...just me. Kathryn."

 

She was breaking his heart...again...with that wistful expression as she crossed her arms over her chest as though to ward off a chill that only could have existed in her mind.

 

"I wanted to remember those few moments. Those moments were relief I desperately needed. Though at the time, I hadn't realized it."

 

He had. It saddened him that she didn't sound anything like she had that night, however; her tone could only be considered rueful. He said nothing, wanting to give her time to say what she felt she needed to. At last, she finally turned and faced him, giving him a long, assessing look. She looked...wary, he decided, upon studying her face. Guarded. He'd done that, this time. He was the cause of that controlled expression on her face now.

 

"Why did you come here, Chakotay?"

 

His mouth opened, but nothing came out. And, well, hell. Now that she asked, he wasn't sure what to say. He'd been trying so hard to focus on his duties all day, had gone through all the motions all the while thinking only about her, about finding her and making this right, if it could be made right, and he'd never actually thought about what to say when he finally found her. Now he had, and she was asking him point blank why he had come, and he wasn't even sure where to start. His mouth opened again, but again, no sound came out. She wasn't helping him, either. Kathryn simply stood there, arms crossed, waiting for him to speak.

 

He'd never been very good at this. It was probably horribly ironic that he was the one who had taken on the role of ship's counselor, especially when he himself had only ever been comfortable verbally expressing one emotion - anger. It was why he'd invented that god-awful "legend" for her four years ago, and it was why he suddenly found himself speechless in front of her now. He could listen, yes, and offer advice, but throughout his life, he had lived by expressing his emotions through deed. It had worked the first time on Hymera, but, through his own fault, it wouldn't work now.

 

She was so beautiful, and so guarded. Present, but untouchable. The story of their lives out here, with one notable exception...

 

The silence stretched out painfully between them. The awkwardness was growing. He needed to say something.

 

"What would you have said to me in your ready room two weeks ago if I hadn't interrupted you?" he blurted out.

 

She raised an eyebrow at him, clearly unimpressed, and he cursed to himself silently. Damn it.

 

"That's it?" she asked incredulously. "You spend two weeks making life a living hell for both of us over your own foolish assumptions and your groundless fears - and all you have to say for yourself is to ask me what I would have said if you hadn't so stupidly tried to save yourself the rejection?" 

 

She knew...wait a minute, she knew? His jaw dropped. Tuvok. It had to be. "He told you?" Chakotay spluttered.

 

"Of course he did!" She looked indignant. "He may be Vulcan, but he isn't stupid. He knew I needed to know what had happened, and obviously, communication isn't your strong suit; if there's anything we've established here, Commander, I think it's that."

 

"You... You just let me stand here, all this time, wondering how to tell you..."

 

"You really thought I would pass up an opportunity to watch you squirm like this? After everything you've put me through these past few weeks? Not likely." A breeze tickled the hair back from her face as she shook her head, distracting his attention as he re-realized that her hair had been growing longer again. It fell back to her shoulders as the breeze died down, and he forced his gaze back to her face...the smile was finally breaking out across her lips.  A real smile. Damn it, there were tears forming in his eyes at the sight of it.

 

"I'm stupid," he just barely managed in his own defense, closing the distance between them.

 

 "Yes," she agreed, leaning in to him and resting her forehead against his chest. "You are."

 

"I didn't think..."

 

"No," she agreed, lifting her head and resting her chin against him so that she could look into his eyes, "you didn't." The smile faded slightly, to be replaced with a grimace as she stepped back from him. "You're going to have to pay for this one, Commander; you really are. Do you have any idea what it was like to have to listen to Tuvok -Tuvok! - offer me sex advice?"

 

He shuddered. "Advice? No. But I know what it was like to have him vaguely refer to it. And I'm sad to say, for the first time in my life, I think I can actually picture it." Another shudder. "I'm sorry, Kathryn."

 

"You certainly should be!" she agreed. "And I thought the doctor was bad..." 

 

"But you sent him to me in the first place."

 

"Tuvok? No, I didn't." A rueful chuckle escaped her. "I told him I had no idea what your problem was and offhandedly suggested he take the issue up with you just to get him out of there. I never expected he'd actually do it, much less that you'd answer him if he did." She cocked a curious eyebrow. "Why did you answer him, anyway?"

 

"I was angry," was all Chakotay could manage in his own defense, once more closing the small space between them.

 

"It was your own fault." And then, as she stared up at him, her face became more serious. "But I can't entirely blame you for all of this." His arms came around her, and she relaxed immediately into them. "I've known how you felt for some time. You haven't exactly made a secret of it. And I may not have known for the past few months that you still felt that way, but I saw it again that night in your eyes. And I know you better than to think you'd have shared what we shared without the feeling behind it. That isn't you."

 

"No," he agreed, once more finding it difficult to form words when she felt this good, this real in his arms, "it isn't."

 

"I knew then that you still had feelings for me, and that was when I knew for certain that I still had them for you. That was when I knew that despite everything, we both still... And I couldn't let that go - let you go - again. Once was hard enough."

 

"Yes. It was."

 

"You may have agreed with me four years ago to keep our relationship professional. But I always knew that you did that for me. That if I ever felt strong enough one day, you would be happy to give us a chance to work. At least...I'd hoped I knew it."

 

"You were right," he agreed. "I would have, if you'd come to that point on your own and were sure of what you wanted. But I'd given up hope of that ever happening."

 

"I'm the one who has kept us apart, but Chakotay," she pulled back even more, ignoring the frown on his face as she left his arms, "I want you to know that I had to do things that way. At least until I'd come to terms with everything that has happened out here: with everything that I've had to do and become as a result. It wasn't deliberate cruelty on my part-"

 

He stopped her, reaching out with one hand to tilt her chin back up to him, placing a gentle finger over her lips. "I know that, Kathryn. I've always known that. Don't think for a moment that I haven't always known it was a matter of keeping yourself strong enough to captain the ship. I've always respected that, and tried to give you the distance you needed." He paused to take a breath. "But it hasn't always been easy. The way you were here, on Hymera, after I'd given up hope of seeing the real you again, at least until we were home...seeing you there-here, like this... It felt like a miracle. A gift. And...after..." he dropped his hand and his gaze, "well, it was harder for me this time. I didn't realize it would be that hard, but I'd let myself have hope that you knew what you were doing when we went back to your room. I trusted that you hadn't come to the decision lightly, and that you were finally ready to give us a chance."

 

"I was."

 

"I know. But then I woke up on Nyfia's ship. And I knew you'd blame yourself. I was so afraid that you'd revert to old habits of protecting yourself because of it...I guess I expected it."

 

She nodded, taking his face in both of her hands. "I know, and I'm truly sorry for making you doubt my commitment to you." She frowned. "Chakotay, this can't happen again. If this is going to work, we can't have a repeat of the past two weeks...you're going to have to ask me before making assumptions about what I'm feeling, or thinking. Can you promise me you'll try to do that from now on?"

 

He took a moment to let her words sink in, giving them honest thought. Then he broke into a chagrined smile. "Don't worry. I'm not likely to put myself through what I just did these past two weeks over something that doesn't come directly from your own lips again. But now I have to ask you...if you can promise me that you'll give this a shot - a real shot - and not hold back just because you're used to keeping yourself walled off from everyone. I can't do this with you if you can't promise to give me all of you, Kathryn. Can you promise me that?"

 

He waited for her answer, the tension showing in his expression.

 

She swallowed, careful to show him the same consideration he'd just given her by taking a moment to think about what he was asking of her. "I can try," she offered. "I can promise to really try."

 

His smile flashed at her response. "That's good enough to start with."

 

She nodded, relieved, melting into him, but not willing to mislead him on even the smallest point. "It hasn't been an easy few months, but Tuvok has helped me address a lot of the things that I've needed to work through for years in these past few months. I feel like I finally have a handle on me again. But, Chakotay...I can't lie to you. I'm not sure how long it'll last, or how much I can give you with regard to time in any given day, or whether or not I'll revert back to habit occasionally. I'm not even sure that this will work, if I'm completely honest, but I do know one thing." She stepped into his embrace again, allowing him to pull her to him. Allowing him to bend down and draw her lips into a slow, dizzying kiss that told her with action what he wished he could tell her with words until he finally broke the connection and touched his forehead to hers.

 

"What's that?"

 

She grinned at him. "A very wise man once told me that he couldn't sacrifice the present waiting for a future that might never happen."

 

 "A wise man, huh? I thought I was stupid."

 

"You are," she assured him, poking him in the chest. "Stupid about some things - but you can still be wise about others."

 

"I'll try and remember that the next time the woman who defeated the Borg can't keep track of a simple concept like regular meals."

 

"Not much of a problem lately...or haven't you seen these hips?" She pushed his hands down to the part of her anatomy in question.

 

"Oh, I've seen them, all right." He pulled her soundly against him with a grin and a decided leer. "And I've also seen what they're capable of."

 

"Stop it," she laughed, giving him a halfhearted slap to the chest and wriggling out of his teasing grasp. "I can't think when you do that."

 

"You think too much anyway," he muttered, undeterred as he pressed forward.

 

"Sometimes," she allowed. She frowned at him as he pulled her back anyway, feeling the bones in his hips, but knowing he was already on his way to putting the weight he'd back on that he'd lost. "When I opened my eyes in sickbay this time, the first thing I saw was you lying there next to me. And I decided the very stupid wise man was right, and that I was tired of sacrificing the present for a future that might never come. I am tired of doing it," she amended. "I'd like to live a little...if I even remember how."

 

His hands came up to slide back into her hair, tilting her head back so he could brush his lips against hers. "The woman I saw on Hymera could have taught me a thing or two about living," he murmured against her mouth. "And as I recall, she did."

 

The tingles of sensation started where his fingertips met her scalp, exploded out from the gentle touch of lips and raced through the rest of her, and she sighed contentedly into him, neither one of them aware of the music continuing behind them or of the crowd that was completely ignoring them. She never wanted this moment to end, she thought, as his thumbs stroked the side of her face and the heat from the front of his body radiated into her.

 

But again he broke the contact, almost stiffly pulling her head down to his chest and holding her tightly against him, and she instinctively sensed the change in mood from him before he spoke. "I was worried, at first. I was almost afraid to... After everything with Mallok, I was worried you might have trouble, so soon. But you didn't once hesitate, in anything. You gave yourself to me, much more freely than I could ever have expected. And I was so flattered that you trusted me enough..."

 

"Nothing you did ever once reminded me of him," she assured him after a moment and a shrug, as if the thought had only just occurred to her. "The only thought I might have remotely had about it the entire night was that that - what we did - was how it should be. I was too involved in what we were doing to think of anything or anyone else. It felt right, Chakotay. All of it, every moment of it felt right to me."

 

"To me, too. But I'd never doubted that it would. At least for me." He stiffened further, however, despite his reassuring words, warning her before he spoke of where he was directing their conversation now. "Do you have any idea what it was like to go down to that transporter room and find your security team dead on the platform and you missing? Having to give the order to pull back under fire and leave you over there with him? Knowing what he'd kept you for? Or to wait a whole day on the bridge when we finally got you back just to hear the doctor tell me you hadn't been..."  Kathryn was surprised to hear the hitch in his voice as he broke off, but his grip, if possible, tightened.

 

"You knew why Mallok had held me?" She found that surprising, and not pleasantly so. "You knew from the beginning, from before I escaped?"

 

Chakotay didn't let her pull back from him this time, even to look up at him. He didn't trust himself enough to keep control and look into her eyes at the same time, but he did need her to know what that had been like for him. "I tried to tell myself I was assuming the worst, but a part of me couldn't help knowing."

 

"How?"

 

"Jenkins came back with the front of her uniform sliced open. Gonzales didn't."

 

She froze, having somehow forgotten about that in the heat of all that had been happening at the time. Of course Chakotay would have had to have seen that; Mallok hadn't bothered to cover her security officer before beaming her back.

 

Kathryn found she was also glad not to have to look at Chakotay as she quietly explained, "He did that to her in front of me; he did it to both of us." A full-blown shudder ripped through her at the memory. "As soon as we realized what Mallok's intentions were, the two of them tried to step in front of me. But there were too many of them." Her voice was dim and sounded far away to her own ears as she spoke against his chest, for the first time, about those first few moments aboard Mallok's ship. "We were on the ground in seconds, and they'd taken our communicators. Mallok barely waited for us to be put in restraints. He ordered them to kill Gonzales immediately...and then he set about ‘unwrapping' the ‘gift' his mother had sent him. Jenkins protested on my behalf. That's when he turned his attention to her, the bastard..." He heard the anger in her voice. "He asked if she was offering to take my place. And...damn her, Chakotay...she said yes. She never hesitated..."

 

Chakotay could barely speak. "You'd have done the same for her," he managed, trying his damnedest not to let himself think about how true that was, or how close it had really come to that.

 

 

"I tried." Her voice was barely a whisper now, and he felt the tears she was attempting to choke back seeping through the front of his shirt. "That was when he brought up the idea of having us both together." She didn't notice Chakotay bristling against her at the mention of Mallok's sheer depravity, too lost in her own memory. "He cut her uniform open. And when I told him to get away from her..."

 

She stopped, and at the bitterness in her voice, Chakotay tried to pull her more tightly against him; impossible, but he felt better for trying. The rage at what she'd gone through, he was already accustomed to feeling, and he closed his eyes against the horror rippling through them both.

 

"When you told him to get away from her, he killed her, too," Chakotay supplied, remembering from her reports, and he felt her nod wordlessly against him. He waited a moment before continuing. "When Mallok beamed their bodies back, it wasn't too difficult to figure out why he'd kept you. Especially when his message said that we'd get you back...along with the dilithium we wanted...as soon as he'd had his fun."

 

She almost did look up at him this time, going rigid in his grasp. "That wasn't in your report."

 

"A lot of things weren't in yours, either," he reminded her, still holding her head tucked under his chin as if afraid she'd disappear if he let her pull back from him.

 

Her reports certainly hadn't mentioned Mallok coming close enough to his goal to have left bite marks on her skin, or bruises in the shape of finger marks where they never, ever should have been.

 

"Without the doctor's thoroughness, I probably wouldn't have a clue how close he came to succeeding before you managed to kill him and get off the ship."

 

She pretended not to hear the rebuke in his tone, but her voice lightened considerably, a sad attempt to reassure him. "Getting out was easy. When I left his rooms the second night, none of his men bothered to stop me, or even to check on him. I only had to keep my head down and pretend to be humiliated. I let them talk, knowing they all assumed I'd given in to him, and told them he was letting me roam the promenade for the time being until he wanted me again." 

 

He could only shake his head at how easily that could have backfired or how simple it would have been for someone to discover what she'd done before she'd gotten into the docking bays and figured out the controls to one of the small inspections cruisers.

 

"You've put me through some tough days, Kathryn, most notably with the Borg, but that one might have taken the cake. I was so sure you couldn't possibly have been able to fight him off for that long...two days, Kathryn! Two days I had to keep the ship away from where you were. Knowing what you were probably going through..."

 

The music changed, and the alien song that he remembered changing the course of his life a little over a month ago played, but his focus was entirely on her, on the reassuring feel of her tucked soundly against him.

 

"It's never easy when one of your own is in danger," she allowed. "We both know that. And it's always worse when it's someone you care for...when it's someone you care very deeply for. But you did your duty, Chakotay. You did what I needed you to do for the ship. It's what I would have done in your place, and if I couldn't trust you to do that then this," she leaned away from him despite his predilection against it and pressed her lips up to his before murmuring, "well, this wouldn't even be a possibility."

 

He wasn't ready to let her distract him quite so easily yet. "I know my duty, Kathryn. And I know the ship will always come first." He brushed his lips to her forehead and then over her mouth before continuing, "But that doesn't mean I can't have the hell scared out of me by you - or that I haven't already had it done to me on a regular basis. It was almost as bad waking up on Nyfia's ship, knowing you were coming for me. Having to listen to the two of them tell me everything they were looking forward to doing before they killed you-"

 

"You think it was easy for me to wake up...to what I woke up to?" she countered incredulously. "She may as well have stabbed that knife straight through my heart, instead. All I knew was that she had you, and that there was a bloodstain almost as big as you are next to me in that bed. I was so sure you had to be dead..." 

 

"No," he assured her softly, touching his forehead to hers again. "I know it wasn't easy, and I'm sorry. I also knew you'd come for me. And it was almost worse knowing you wouldn't risk Voyager when you did. If you'd at least had the ship, I might not have been that terrified..."

 

Kathryn took a deep breath and sagged against him. "We made it," she reminded him, silencing him with another soft kiss as the music grew louder in the background. Just the sound of that music did a great deal to soothe her, and him, too, she realized absently, feeling his body relax into hers. "We both made it. And you'll have to forgive me, but this is really the last thing I want to talk about right now. We have another chance, and we have the time right now to explore it, if you're willing..."

 

He answered her with his mouth, letting his lips, tongue, and breath show her just how willing he was to follow her anywhere, in anything. Only when they needed air again did he break the kiss and ask, "What did you want to talk about right now, then, Kathryn?"

 

"Talk?" The corner of her mouth turned up mischievously, her face flushed with desire and wonder as she shook her head. "No more talk. Not right now." Slowly, Kathryn backed out of his embrace into the center of the crowd, where other couples had already begun to move together in the movements both of their bodies remembered with fond tingles. She dropped her jacket onto the dirty street, uncaring, and held out her hand to him to join her. "Dance with me?"

 

He was right behind her, drawn like the moth to her flame that he was, but Chakotay held out just before taking her hand. "On one very important condition." At her questioning glance, he broke into a grin that weakened her knees with the flash of those dimples of his and the laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes, but his next statement wasn't to her. "Computer...does the database have a sample of Hymeran festive jewelry?"

 

"Affirmative."

 

“Produce one Hymeran-style necklace. While you're at it, delete the rest of the characters. Continue the music."

 

The dancers disappeared as the necklace materialized suspended in the air just in front of him, frozen in place until his hand closed over it. Kathryn watched him, shaking her head, not quite getting it about the necklace, but not about to argue with anything he wanted to do when his body came that close to hers, sending thrills of pure anticipation humming through her.

 

She smiled faintly as he gently turned her so that her back was to him, tilting her head to give him better access while he fastened the necklace behind her.

 

"You wear these..." His body pressed forward until it was flush with the back of hers, and she felt his excitement stirring against the small of her back. She smirked as his warm hands trailed down to her waist, taking hold of her hips and pulling her even closer into him. Then she felt his hands on the hem of her shirts, sliding them up over her sides, and his mouth latched onto the spot below her ear, nipping playfully. "And nothing under them."