Disclaimer: Characters, plot and dialogue from 'Before and After' belong to Paramount.

Rating:PG-13

Notes: An episode addition to 'Before and After' but with an a/u twist. What might have happened in the times between Kes' temporal jumps after Janeway and Torres were killed.

BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER

By Mary S.

The engineering station on the bridge exploded, tossing two figures to the deck like rag dolls. They lay still, heads bent at odd angles, blood seeping into the carpet.

From the other side of the console, Kes moved forward to kneel beside them, her quick fingers searching for any signs of life.

There were none.

She looked up at the two men who had sprung to their feet in horror, her voice very soft as she forced out the fateful words. "They're dead."

Tom dived to the deck in disbelief, crouching over B'Elanna, his hands doing their own dance across her lifeless face. "B'Elanna!!" he screamed, his voice anguished. Behind him, Chakotay moved to sink down on his knees beside Kathryn, his fingers hovering futilely, barely able to breathe as he stared aghast at the two people who meant the most to him.

Dead.

He gulped, his mind reeling with horror. It couldn't be, this couldn't happen, not both of them! No, it wasn't possible! One, maybe, he might be able to accept, but both?! No, they couldn't be dead!

Over and over, his brain repeated the words - and over and over, his eyes told him that not only was it possible, it had happened! Kathryn and B'Elanna - gone forever.

What could he do?

What should he do?

Who would help him?

Who would console him?

Who was left?

Then the pain hit. Waves of unimaginable agony pouring through him, body and mind and spirit, until he was consumed by it, drowning in it...

"We're losing life support on deck seven!" came Harry's alarmed voice from ops, jerking Chakotay back to the present and their precarious situation. Drawing on every bit of self-control and experience, he called softly. "Tom. I need you at the conn."

He didn't have to say anymore. The ship came first - before pain, despair or sorrow, before every personal consideration.

Regardless of circumstance, they had to do everything possible to save the ship - grieving could come later. With a last anguished glance at B'Elanna, Tom rose to his feet and returned to the helm.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Hours later, after finally beating off the Krenim and barely escaping with their bulkheads intact, Chakotay moved slowly between the rows of cots set up in the mess hall. Faces stared up at him, the eyes of some filled with shock and horror, while others stared vacantly, unseeing, unable to comprehend the disaster facing them.

Eleven dead, including the captain and chief engineer.

Eight of the fifteen decks without power.

Sickbay unusable and the doctor offline.

No warp power and only partial shields.

Desperately, he forced himself to focus on the here and now. One thing at a time, he told himself, deal with one thing at a time. He came across Kes helping Tom, trying to patch up yet another damaged body, and encouraged them to keep doing all they could to assist the survivors. His eyes flickered around the room as he spoke, trying to assess the state of the crew, before coming back to Tom. He noted the pilot's ashen countenance and agonized eyes, noted them and moved on to the next crisis. What else could he do?

One thing at a time. Focus on one thing at a time. Keep the pain at bay, don't let it take over, because if it does, insanity is right behind.

One thing at a time.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Time passed. Hours turned into days, and still Chakotay wouldn't - couldn't - let the crew stop to rest, to grieve. Focus, he kept telling them, concentrate on what you have to do to hold the ship together, fight off the enemy, don't think about anything else. One thing at a time.

Eventually, they worked clear of the Krenim and into a relatively empty area of space containing few planets. With the threat of attack finally behind them, the crew was free to concentrate on Voyager. At Tuvok's suggestion, they found a small, uninhabited system and set down on the fifth planet to effect major repairs on the ship.

The engineering staff had lost its other senior officer when, a week after Torres and Janeway, Joe Carey died in a brief battle. To their credit, Susan Nicoletti and Vorik stepped in to fill the gap. Neither was capable of running such a major department by themselves, but together, they found they could more or less manage. Chakotay wracked his brain trying to find a better solution to the problem of chief engineer, but in the end, he decided that there really wasn't another option. No one else was even remotely qualified to take over. Having joint department heads wasn't Starfleet norm, but he didn't have any choice. And, when he thought about it, his position - the terrorist now captaining the ship sent to capture him - wasn't exactly by the book, either.

The repairs, rearranging the crew, adapting to the changes in the bridge staff, adjusting to the responsibilities of captain, all contributed to keep Chakotay well occupied. He was able to put aside his own feelings, to push them away while he concentrated on the latest problem. When Kes started to speak to him about Kathryn and B'Elanna, he cut her off, telling her he didn't have time to discuss them. She began to remonstrate with him, saying he couldn't push his emotions aside forever, to which he replied that he had a responsibility to the ship and crew and he'd do whatever he had to in order to ensure their safety and well-being. Before she could say anymore, he strode out of the room, trying to ignore her gaze burning into his back.

A week later, with repairs to the ship completed, she tried again, only to meet with the same response. Chakotay had retreated behind the mantle of command, and flatly refused to discuss his personal situation. Kes backed off, not wanting to force the issue. Hopefully, at some point, he would let in her, or someone, before he fell apart.

For his part, Chakotay breathed a silent sigh of relief. He wasn't nearly ready to examine his own state of mind. As long as he could concentrate on the ship and crew, he could quite successfully repress all other thoughts and the pain that would inevitably come with them.

Since the captain wouldn't allow her to offer any assistance, Kes turned her attention to Tom. Since that terrible day, he had moved quietly but efficiently through his tasks. At first glance, he seemed to be fine, able to perform his duties as well as he always had. However, he rarely smiled and his eyes were shadowed with misery. Like Chakotay, he had tried to push down his feelings for the sake of his crewmates, but he couldn't repress his emotions as successfully.

Late one evening, Kes found him in B'Elanna's quarters, curled up in her bed. He tried to pretend that he was just packing up her things before clearing out the cabin, but Kes wasn't fooled. Without a word, she took his hand and led him to the couch, sitting him down while she stood before him. She stretched out a finger to lift his chin so she could stare deep into his eyes.

To Tom, it seemed that she was peering straight into his soul. He gazed back at her, unable to look away, until his own tears blinded him. Sobbing, he buried his face in his hands as the full force of his loss hit him.

Kes moved to stand close to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, stroking his hair, as she whispered soothingly to him. "That's it, Tom, let it out. Grieve for B'Elanna, grieve for Captain Janeway, grieve for all of us, living and dead. Hold on to me, I won't let you go."

Again and again she repeated her words, as the man in her arms shuddered and howled with grief. She wasn't sure if he understood what she was saying, but in time, his sobs lessened although he continued to grasp her tightly around the waist.

"Don't ... don't leave me, Kes, I ... Oh god! It hurts so much! ... Make it stop!"

Her hands stroked repeatedly across his back and shoulders. "I can't make it stop, Tom, I can only be with you and help you through it. It will get better in time, the pain will ease, I promise."

He lifted his tear-stained face, eyes red and swollen, hardly able to see her. "Hold me?"

She patted his face. "I'm here, Tom, I'll hold you for as long as you need me. I won't leave you."

He sighed and buried his face against her slender body, his mind soothed by her presence. Kes continued to stand between his legs, embracing as much of him as she could. If necessary, she would stand there forever.

That night marked a watershed in their relationship. Eventually, Tom released her although he kept hold of her hand. She sat beside him on the couch, content to be whatever he needed. Helping Tom, concentrating on his needs, helped her to deal with her own loss and grief.

She spoke fondly of Captain Janeway, of how much she missed her wisdom and counsel, then told Tom how worried she was about Chakotay, and how much he needed the crew's support. Finally, she related her favourite memories of B'Elanna, of how she had been so strong and independent, and yet, at the same time, oddly vulnerable.

In turn, Tom told her how he felt as though his world had ended, that ever since B'Elanna's death, he had been running on autopilot, not allowing himself to think or feel. And how suddenly, tonight, all his emotions had come crashing down on him so he could hardly breathe. If she, Kes, hadn't found him, he didn't know what would have happened. Now, however, he believed that he would get through this because she was there beside him and he knew he wasn't alone.

He gripped her hand tightly, smiling gratefully as he spoke and Kes felt her heart turn over. She gazed at him intently, realizing that in just a few minutes, her own feelings had changed from those of a concerned friend to something much different. Her eyes must have shown her confusion because Tom stared at her almost in wonder.

"Kes?" His voice was low. "Tell me what you're thinking."

"I ... I don't know exactly. I ... " Her voice trailed off even as her hands cradled his head. "I ..." She stopped again, then suddenly moved away from him and stood. "I better go. I ... don't understand ..."

As she retreated toward the door, Tom stared at her, transfixed. The motion of the door opening galvanized him into action and he leaped to his feet. "Kes! Wait! Don't go ...!"

She halted in the doorway, eyes fixed on him. With three long strides, he was at her side, reaching to grip her shoulders. "You said you wouldn't leave me," he told her almost accusingly.

Her eyes were huge, filled with apprehension, hope, confusion. Tom lifted one hand to lightly stroke her cheek. "Let's find somewhere we can talk ..." His voice was gentle, at odds with the intense gaze of his eyes.

She nodded and took his hand. "We can go to my quarters."

By the following week, they had become a couple.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

While Tom found personal salvation in the strength of Kes' love, Chakotay was not so fortunate. Although he tried to put the tragedy behind him, he was only partly successful. During duty shifts, he found he could keep himself busy enough that he didn't have to think about anything else. But in his downtime, without the distraction of daily routine, his thoughts inevitably strayed to the two he had lost.

He tried to find solace in the company of others, becoming a regular at Sandrine's. For a little while, it worked, but sooner or later, Kathryn or B'Elanna's name would come up in conversation and he would feel his heart twist in agony once more.

In the first days after assuming command, he shied away from a vision quest, too shell-shocked to try to delve into his emotions; he didn't have time anyway, with all the concerns of the ship and crew resting now on his shoulders. Later, in a moment of honesty, he admitted to himself that, deep down, he was terrified of what his animal guide might tell him. Never before had he feared her advice, but right now, he simply could not withstand any more pain in addition to what he already endured on a daily basis. Each day, he told himself he would go on a quest that evening - and each night, he faltered, unable to overcome his fear.

With no emotional security, in desperation, he began working longer hours, trying to lose himself in his job, but there simply wasn't enough for him to do to fill sixteen hours every day.

The nights were the worst. He tried every technique he could think of to make himself fall asleep quickly, but inevitably he would find himself lying in bed, rigid with apprehension, fists clenching the blankets. Again and again, he would relive the moment when the console exploded, throwing Kathryn and B'Elanna to the floor. His heart would pound, and his body break out into a cold sweat as agony ripped through him from head to toe. Sometimes, it got so bad that he had to get out of bed and curl up on his couch, arms wrapped around his knees as he rocked back and forth, trying to dull the pain.

Night after night, week after week, their ghosts haunted him until he wondered if he was going mad. He couldn't get past them, couldn't move on - he was stuck in a horrible, never-ending loop of pain and misery.

More than once, he wondered if he should just end it all. His existence was becoming unbearable, he was desperately unhappy and really, what was the point of living? Only the thought of the crew kept him going. He had a duty to them, and to Kathryn. He knew she would expect him to get them home, therefore he must do so.

Toward morning, he would usually doze off for an hour or so before his alarm roused him to begin another day.

As days became weeks, Chakotay slowly became more gaunt and morose. At first, no one paid any attention - after all, everyone in the crew was suffering dreadfully. But with time, as the others recovered from the tragedy, they began to notice that their captain had not. He ate very little, not nearly enough for a man of his size, and beyond showing up in Sandrine's, hardly interacted with the crew at all. His eyes were drawn with weariness and his voice, once so soft and warm, had grown harsh and cold with repressed emotion.

Kes kept as close an eye on him as he would allow, but could do little else. He was lucid, he performed his duties adequately, and no one in the crew had filed an official complaint. She knew that if necessary, she could recommend the doctor order him relieved of duty, but that was a drastic step and not to be undertaken lightly. Several times, she attempted to corner him, but he grew adept at reading her expressions and always found a good reason to put her off.

Six weeks passed, six weeks in which the crew slowly reestablished their equilibrium and Chakotay gradually lost his.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Tom sat with Harry in the mess hall, picking at the meal before him as he observed his fellow crewmembers. For the first time in weeks, the atmosphere was - not exactly cheerful, but not heavy with sorrow either. They had all grieved and now they were moving on with their lives, filling in the gaps left by those killed in the battles with the Krenim. Tom was amazed at how quickly he himself had adjusted to their current situation. He hadn't forgotten Captain Janeway or B'Elanna or any of those who had died, but they no longer constantly occupied his thoughts. Looking about him now, it appeared that most of his crewmates had made similar adjustments. He sighed slightly and returned his gaze to the food in front of him.

Harry had been concentrating on his own meal but his attention was caught by Tom's sigh and he glanced up. "What?"

"Hmm? Oh, nothing really. I was just thinking how easily we've all adapted to the change in circumstances. Do you think it's because we're in the Delta Quadrant, where uncertainty has become a way of life?"

Harry stared at him in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Look around you, Harry. Do you notice how people are talking, laughing, interacting normally? Does that tell you something?"

Harry blinked and shook his head. "Should it?"

"Harry, Harry, Harry," sighed Tom. "We've lost over a dozen people in the last six weeks, including several we were very close to. And yet…everyone here seems to have accepted it and moved on with their lives. It just seems a bit strange, to me anyway, that we can adapt so easily, as if their deaths don't mean that much."

His companion sighed almost in exasperation. "Tom, if you're trying to say that no one was deeply affected by all those deaths, you couldn't be more wrong! Just because people don't go around crying anymore doesn't mean they don't feel the loss and pain! Of course they do! But ... life goes on, doesn't it? I mean, look at you and Kes. You're building a new life, a new relationship with her, one that probably wouldn't have happened if we'd never met the Krenim."

For a second, Tom's face twisted and he looked down at the table, before returning his gaze to Harry, and nodding. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I suppose it's so long since we've acted normally, I forgot what ‘normal' is like."

The mess hall door opened to admit the captain. Harry's eyes fell on him and his mouth tightened as he gestured in his direction. "There's one person who most definitely has not adjusted. I wish there was something we could do ...."

Tom had turned in his chair to see where Harry was pointing, and his eyes saddened as he saw who he was referring to. "Tell me about it. Kes is at her wits' end. She's tried everything with him, but he won't talk to her, he won't talk to anybody. He just wraps himself up in command and refuses to say anything. She's getting really worried, says it's only a matter of time ...." Tom stopped, suddenly aware he shouldn't be discussing his commanding officer's emotional condition so casually.

He glanced at Harry. "Forget what you just heard, would you?"

"Sure, but you're not telling me anything I don't know. Me and everyone else on the crew! We all want to help Chakotay, but unless he'll allow us to, there isn't much anyone can do. I think we all hoped that Kes would be able to work her magic on him, but I guess he's beyond even her capabilities. I wish there was someone ...."

Tom sat, lost in thought, his face wearing a very concentrated expression. Harry nudged his elbow but got no response.

"Tom?" he called softly.

Still nothing.

"Tom?" A little louder.

The mess hall doors opened again, allowing Chakotay to leave with a mug in his hand. The movement seemed to bring Tom out of his reverie. "Harry!" he exclaimed, his eyes alight. "I've got an idea!"

Harry stared at him. "Now what?"

"What you said, about finding someone who could get through to Chakotay. Before the Krenim, who did he always go to when he had a problem?"

"I have no idea, except it wasn't me and I don't imagine it was you. Maybe B'Elanna ..."

"Sometimes, yes, but mostly, he went to the captain."

"Your point?"

"The holodeck! We could create a hologram of Captain Janeway, use her medical and personnel files to make it as accurate as possible."

Harry was appalled. "Tom! That's sick! The woman is dead! Let her rest in peace, for god's sake!"

"I don't think she'd mind, in fact, I think she'd say it's a wonderful idea. Harry, he needs her! It's obvious there's no one on the crew now who can help him, so let's do the next best thing! Give him the person he needs to see the most, the person he can talk to."

Before Harry could reply, they were interrupted by Neelix. "I couldn't help overhearing some of what you're discussing. And I think it's an idea worth exploring. Captain Chakotay is so unhappy - if a hologram of Captain Janeway would help him through this time of mourning, I think we should do it."

Tom gave a satisfied snort. "See? At least one person understands what I'm talking about."

Harry shook his head, very unsure. "I think, before this gets out of hand, you better speak to the doctor and Tuvok. Tom, you need to be very careful, you're bordering on invasion of privacy here."

Paris threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, I'll talk to them both. But if they agree, and I think they will, then will you help me?"

Harry nodded. "It's a deal."

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Much to Harry's surprise, the doctor endorsed Tom's proposal with enthusiasm. He had been pouring through the ship's medical database in an effort to find some method that would allow him to treat Chakotay for mental and emotional imbalance. So far, he had been singularly unsuccessful. He and Kes had gone over several alternatives, but every one hinged on Chakotay agreeing to undergo treatment, and right now, he wouldn't even concede there was a problem. The doctor was hoping that the shock value of Tom's suggestion might be enough to breach the barriers of command.

Likewise, Commander Tuvok also professed himself, albeit reluctantly, to be in favour of the idea. He hesitated to become involved in the captain's personal affairs - the man had a right to his privacy, after all - but their circumstances dictated that the commanding officer must be in complete control of his faculties and emotionally stable. Chakotay was performing his duties adequately, but not to the full extent of his abilities by any means, and even he would have to admit that his emotional balance was out of kilter. If he could find his center with the assistance of a hologram of Captain Janeway, then by all means, the idea must be explored.

The next day, as soon as they had finished their shifts, Tom and Harry got to work.

After considerable discussion, Kes volunteered to try once more to reach Chakotay, to coax him into admitting he had a problem, and then get him to agree to a radical solution. They had debated whether he should be lured to the holodeck without knowing why, but she had vetoed that idea on the very real possibility that it could well make matters worse. It was her opinion that Chakotay would be so angry he would leave immediately and refuse to even consider the option they were giving him. She would have to explain it to him ahead of time and somehow, make him see that this was the best solution. She was not looking forward to her task.

At the end of the third day, Tom and Harry called Tuvok, the doctor and Kes to the holodeck.

"I think we've done about as much as we can. You should know that I've made the hologram self-aware but kept it - her - ignorant of the current status of the ship." He glanced around at the others before adding, "We can keep fine-tuning indefinitely, but it seems to me this is as close to Captain Janeway as we're going to get."

He nodded to Harry, who was standing by the control panel next to the door. "Let's see how it works."

The latter input several commands and a moment later, they found themselves standing in Kathryn Janeway's quarters. She was seated on the couch, arm propped on the back as she stared out the viewport, her body half-turned away from them. It was a very familiar pose, one they had all seen countless times. Despite herself, Kes couldn't help giving a little gasp.

The sound caught the hologram's attention and she turned to face them, her face breaking into her trademark crooked smile. "Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?" she asked.

Tom stepped ahead of the others. ""Good evening, Captain. We wanted to talk to you about Chakotay."

Her face creased with concern. ""Why? What's the matter with him? What's happened?"

The doctor moved beside Tom. "He has had a severe emotional shock, one which it would seem he is unable to deal with. He is suffering both mentally and physically. We're hoping you will be able to help him find himself again, to find his center so he can function properly."

Janeway had risen to her feet as the doctor explained; now she began to pace. "What kind of shock? It must be pretty bad. Chakotay is one of the most stable individuals I've ever met. What kind of shock would upset him as much as you're saying?"

They all glanced at each other before Tuvok spoke bluntly. "Your death, Captain."

She stared at him, momentarily stunned into silence, then swallowed. "I see. Yes, I guess that would cause…the kind of reaction you described." She paced across the room, then turned to face them. "Just what is it you expect me to do?"

Tuvok continued. "In the weeks since you were killed, Captain Chakotay has completely refused to discuss your death, or the deaths of other crewmembers who died at the same time or later, one of whom was Lieutenant Torres. It appears that he is unable to come to grips with these events, to mourn if you will, and then move on with his life. All attempts to talk to him about anything other than ship's business have been forcefully rebuffed. He barely eats, he has lost considerable weight and, judging by his constant exhaustion, I must assume he is sleeping very little. He cannot continue in this way, Captain. It is our hope that, since he won't talk to any of us, perhaps he will talk to you."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I can understand where you're coming from, but under the circumstances, do you really think I'll be able to help?"

Kes spoke up. "Captain, at this point, we're out of options. If you can't help him, no one can. Please, will you try?"

Janeway smiled warmly, extending her hand to Kes. "Of course I will. I didn't mean to imply that I wouldn't. I just hope that I won't make a bad situation worse."

"I don't think it can get much worse for him."

"Very well. I'll do my best."

Kes gripped her fingers tightly. "Thank you, Captain, that's all we can ask." She glanced back at Tom. "Have we seen enough?"

He nodded. "Computer, end program and save under Paris Alpha One."

"Program saved," declared the computer as the holodeck grid reappeared.

Tom looked around. "Well, what do you think? Does she seem convincing enough?"

Tuvok responded for the others. "She seemed very real to me, Mr. Paris. I must congratulate both you and Mr. Kim on your programming skills. I hope the captain will be as impressed." He moved to the door as he spoke, activating it. "Goodnight, gentlemen, Kes."

"From Tuvok, that's a ringing endorsement," declared Tom. "Kes, I think it's time for your part. Don't worry, I'm sure this time you'll be able to convince him."

She nodded a trifle apprehensively. "Like the captain, I'll do my best."

"I know you will." Tom turned to the EMH. "Doc, you and I will need to monitor Chakotay at all times, in case we run into problems. Harry, I'll need you to watch the program for any possible glitches. We don't need Captain Janeway suddenly metamorphosing into a blonde, for example."

The others nodded. Time to get started.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Kes expended considerable thought that evening on how to best approach the captain. Based on recent experience, a casual encounter wouldn't work - he'd already seen through several such attempts and neatly sidestepped them. Calling him into sickbay for a medical exam had also proved unsuccessful - the last time he had threatened to reprogram the doctor, eliminating all non-essential subroutines.

In the end, she decided that a formal message would be the most likely to succeed. He couldn't refuse a request for a conference on the health of the crew, or in this case, a particular member of the crew. She would just have to pick her words very carefully so he couldn't avoid the topic under discussion, once he realized what it was.

When Chakotay entered the bridge at the start of shift the next day, he found a note from Kes asking for a meeting to discuss the welfare of the crew. He examined the words carefully, alert to the possibility of subterfuge, but could find nothing beyond the obvious. He sighed heavily, wondering if he dared take her request at face value; it was possible, although he had a gut feeling that she had a hidden agenda. He wished again that she, and indeed all his crew, would just leave him alone. He was doing his job, a job that, after all, he'd never wanted, but still, he was doing the best he could.

A little voice inside whispered that he was fooling himself, that he was in denial, and until he could fully accept what had happened, he wasn't doing his best at all. He slammed the door shut on the voice and pulled up the latest engineering report on his console, determined to ignore everything else. One thing at a time - he could keep going as long as he remembered that and stuck to it.

An hour later, when she'd had no reply, Kes contacted the captain. She was very cautious, keeping her sentences short and to the point, and her tone of voice completely indifferent. She didn't want to give him any reason to refuse her.

There were several seconds of ominous silence after she reiterated her request before he answered, his tone resigned. "Very well. Come to the ready room after lunch."

"Thank you, Captain. Kes out."

At the helm, although he appeared relaxed, Tom's fingers were stiff with tension. For one horrible moment, he had thought Chakotay would refuse outright. He tried to swallow his heartfelt sigh of relief - they'd overcome the first hurdle.

Several hours later, early in the afternoon, Kes appeared on the bridge. Tuvok nodded to her as she moved to sound the chime for the ready room. The door opened as she gave him a hopeful smile, then turned to enter. There was slight movement all over the bridge as the crew tried to relax - the tension was palpable. Now they would just have to wait.

Inside the ready room, Kes found Chakotay seated at the desk, studying a PADD. He gestured for her to sit down but kept his eyes focused on what he was reading. After a few seconds, he laid down the PADD and sat back in the chair, his eyes coming up to stare intently at her face.

"What is it you wish to discuss, Kes?"

She straightened and folded her hands in her lap. He had given her the opening she needed. "Over the last several weeks, I have been observing the crew, trying to determine how well they are adjusting to our…changed circumstances. I believe that it is time to make you aware of what I've learned."

He nodded for her to continue.

"From what I have seen, while initially every person was emotionally distraught to a greater or lesser degree, nearly all of them have recovered or are in the process of recovering, their emotional balance. They have accepted their losses, mourned them, and are now moving forward once more." She paused and took a deep breath before adding, "With one notable exception."

His face closed down as his gaze dropped to his hands, clenched together on top of the desk. "I know what you're going to say, Kes, and I don't want to hear it!" His voice was tight and edged with anger.

Kes kept her tone completely level. "With all due respect, Captain, you have no idea what I'm going to say."

She waited until he relaxed fractionally and lifted his head to stare at her. His expression was completely neutral but at least he had controlled his anger and was willing to listen.

She kept her eyes on his face as she continued. "You are correct in assuming I'm talking about you. However, I hope you will do me the courtesy of hearing me out before making any judgment. Will you do that?"

Chakotay sighed, then got to his feet, moving around the desk and up to the replicator to request a cup of tea. He glanced at her, raising an eyebrow, but she shook her head - she didn't want any distractions.

He returned to his chair, cup in hand, and sat down again, nodding to her, then sipped his tea.

"I have come to understand that you find it difficult, indeed impossible, to discuss your feelings, your emotional state, with any member of the crew, including me. At first, I couldn't understand why - we all care very much about you - but then I realized that your position has its own unique constraints. As commanding officer, you must remain aloof, and as objective as possible. You can't afford to let down your guard.

"I remember Captain Janeway explaining once why she had to stay apart from everyone. I had wondered why she didn't interact more with the crew, until she told me how the captain must keep a certain distance, the ‘impartiality of command' I think was how she phrased it. She'd had some concern about how she could do that, given our circumstances."

Kes paused, smiling wistfully. "She seemed to like talking to me, maybe because my place in the crew was a little different. I suspect as well that perhaps she didn't have many people she could talk to - I guess you were the only other one."

Chakotay winced and bit his lip. "I would imagine so." His voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat. Kes' casual mention of Janeway had brought a lump to his throat that threatened to overpower him.

She pretended not to notice as she went on. "In these last weeks, since she and the others died, it has seemed to me that you have been unable to resolve your emotional problems as everyone else has. And I realized that, with no one to talk to, you have been placed in an impossible situation. Therefore, several of us have devised a solution to the problem."

She paused, watching for his reaction, but his expression didn't change. She mentally crossed her fingers and got to the heart of the matter. "We have created a hologram of Captain Janeway on the holodeck in order that you may talk to the one person who I believe can best help you."

Chakotay sat stunned, his mouth falling open in shock. seconds before he could find his voice. "You what?!!"

She didn't answer, just gazed at him evenly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn't take long.

"What the hell were you thinking?!!" he raged. "How could you, Kes?!! She's…oh god, don't do this to me, please!!" He covered his face, fighting to hold back sudden tears. He couldn't break down in front of her, he simply couldn't.

Kes remained perfectly still, although she itched to go to him. However, she knew that subconsciously he would expect that and be ready to push her away. Right now, she had to keep him as off-balance as possible, otherwise he would never agree to do what she wanted.

He took a ragged breath, then dropped his hands to the desk. "No! I can't accept this!"

Her voice was implacable. "You have to. The only alternative is to be relieved of duty. I don't think Captain Janeway would want that, do you?"

His eyes flew to hers, his voice agonized. "There must be another way! I can't face her…please!"

"There is no other way, Captain. You are refusing to accept Kathryn Janeway's death and as a result, you are tearing yourself apart. You can't continue like this. Sooner or later, your mind and body will overload and shut down completely. This ship and its crew need you, but not like this. We need you whole and healthy and of sound mind. Right now, you're out of balance. You can't talk to anyone living, so we are giving you the next best alternative.

"Look at it this way - you will be able to say anything you want without fear of losing control in front of your crew, and you will have the benefit of advice from someone you can trust completely. We have made her as real as possible." Kes rose to her feet and held out her hand. "Why don't you come and see for yourself?"

Chakotay stared up at her, almost mesmerized, then took her hand and let her pull him up. She tapped her combadge. "Computer, I need a site-to-site transport for two from the ready room to holodeck one, medical authorization Kes omega three."

A moment later, they vanished from the ready room. On the bridge at the ops station, Harry saw a warning light come on. He looked at Tuvok. "There has been an internal transport from the ready room to holodeck one," he reported, attempting to keep the triumph out of his voice.

Tom was less restrained. "Thank god!"

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Kes and Chakotay rematerialized in the simulation of Janeway's quarters. As he took in his surroundings, Chakotay stiffened and tried to pull his hand away from Kes'. However, she had anticipated his reaction and clutched his fingers tightly, refusing to let go.

His efforts to free himself ceased as he spotted the quiet figure seated on the couch, staring out the viewport. Kes heard his sudden indrawn breath and felt his body tense. Now he gripped her hand so hard she feared he would crush it. She clenched her teeth in an effort to remain silent, not wanting to distract him from the scene before him.

Slowly the hologram of Kathryn Janeway turned to face them, her face creasing into a warm smile as she beheld two of her favourite people. "Well, what a pleasant surprise!" she remarked in her low, husky voice. "I've been hoping you'd come to see me."

She got to her feet and moved to stand in front of them, then lifted her hand to lightly pat Chakotay's arm. "It's all right, Chakotay, they told me what happened. I know what you've been going through and I want to help in whatever way I can."

He stared down at her, eyes wide, incapable of speech, barely able to breathe, his fingers suddenly relaxed in shock. Kes looked up at him, trying to calculate her next step. He was stunned, certainly, and off-balance, but not incapacitated. She lifted his hand, then reached for Janeway's and carefully placed his loosened fingers in it. He shuddered slightly but didn't drop his hand.

She stepped back several paces, leaving the two facing each other, then, as quietly as possible, called for beam out. In a few seconds, Chakotay was alone with the holographic version of Kathryn Janeway.

Still gripping his hand, Janeway turned and led him to sit beside her on the couch. "I think you need to sit down, this has been quite a shock for you, hasn't it?"

He nodded in reply but didn't speak, his eyes examining her carefully, drinking in every nuance. She smiled gently and continued.

"When Tuvok and Kes and the others told me what had happened, I was pretty shocked, too. But I wasn't surprised at all when they told me how you were reacting to my death. It was very sudden, wasn't it?"

Again he nodded.

"Yes, I thought it must have been. I know what that's like, Chakotay, I know how overpowering, how mind-numbing it can be, to lose in an instant someone you care for deeply. Remember, it happened to me once."

For a moment, he couldn't think what she was talking about, before remembering the harrowing tale of her father's and fiance's deaths in a shuttle crash nearly fifteen years before. Yes, she would indeed know what it was like.

The hologram's eyes, Kathryn's eyes, were warm with empathy. "Talk to me. Tell me how you're feeling now," she urged.

Chakotay drew a deep breath. "Right at this moment? Disoriented, off-balance, unsure of what's real and what isn't. You're here, you are so like her, yet I know out there, outside the holodeck, she's dead." He dropped his head, biting his lip in an effort to keep some semblance of control. "I miss her so much. It's as much as I can do to get through one more day, even one more minute! If it weren't for the crew, and my responsibility to them, I…I wouldn't try to keep going."

Kathryn moved closer to him, putting her hand on his knee. "Oh Chakotay, I'm sorry, so very, very sorry. Tell me how I can help, there must be something I can do."

His eyes came up to rest on her face, then he lifted a hand to gently brush her cheek. "I wanted to touch you like this so many times, and I couldn't. I knew you wouldn't allow it, but oh Kathryn! I have longed for you, longed to feel your fingers caress my face…like this, longed to see your eyes shine with love for me. It's my greatest regret - even more than your death - that I never told you how I felt about you, how much I love you. And now it's too late."

Despite himself, his eyes filled with tears and he covered his face, trying to choke down the sobs. He felt Kathryn's gentle hands grasp his head and pull him close to her body. He wrapped his arms tight around her, and buried his face in her neck as she stroked his shoulders and back.

"Hold on to me, Chakotay," she whispered. "I won't let you go. Hold on to me. I love you, too, I always did, even if I could never tell you."

For several minutes, they remained still as Chakotay poured out his grief and sorrow for all he had lost. When he lifted his head to look at her, she saw that, while his eyes were still wet, they held a certain measure of peace. Finally, he was finding his own absolution in her arms. She reached up to kiss him gently, then moved back on the couch and coaxed him to lie down against her, with his head resting on her shoulder. They weren't very comfortable, but neither was about to move.

Kathryn continued to caress his face, soothing him, until his eyes grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep. For once, his dreams remained free of exploding consoles.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Some hours later, Chakotay awoke with a very stiff neck. At first, he couldn't think where he was until he opened his eyes and remembered how he came to be in Kathryn's quarters. He was still sprawled over the hologram, who was lying quietly beneath him. As he stirred and moved to stand, she shifted and sat up.

"How are you feeling?" were her first words.

He paused to think. "Actually, aside from some stiff muscles, not too bad." His voice sounded surprised, as if he'd forgotten what it was like to feel at peace.

Kathryn smiled in relief. "I'm glad to hear it. Now why don't I rub the kinks out of your neck and then you can go for dinner?"

Chakotay looked startled. "Is it that late already? Did I sleep through my entire shift?!"

Her fingers began to massage his neck and shoulders, as she replied. "A lot of it, yes. But believe me, no one begrudges you. You needed that sleep very badly. And if the only way you can rest properly is here, then here is where you will spend your nights."

He smiled slightly. "Is that an order?"

"Damn straight it is, Mister, so you better obey."

"Yes, ma'am. But I think I'd sleep better in a bed."

"Hmm. Let's take it one step at a time, shall we?"

He got to his feet. "Thank you, that feels much better. I…I'll come back later."

She smiled up at him. "I'll be here."

He moved towards the door, calling out instructions. "Computer, end program. Save and encrypt under file Chakotay Alpha Alpha. Authorization Chakotay Omega Nine."

"Program saved and encrypted as instructed."

The holodeck grid reappeared as Chakotay walked out into the corridor. Despite his stiff neck and sore back, he felt better than he had since Kathryn's death.

He stopped briefly at his quarters to tidy up, then headed for the mess hall. The room was crowded and noisy with the dinner hour in full swing, and for a moment, Chakotay hesitated in the entrance, suddenly feeling a little out of place. However, Kes spotted him and moved quickly to take his arm, leading him to a table where Tom and Harry were already sitting. They greeted him with relieved smiles, informing him at once that Tuvok presently had command and everything was under control. A moment later, Neelix arrived with a bowl of mushroom soup, fresh bread and a large mug of tea. Several others stopped to say hello as they passed by on their way in or out of the mess hall, and when he turned around, he was greeted with more warm smiles.

Chakotay found himself smiling at the cosseting he was receiving from his crew. In their own way, they were letting him know how much they'd missed him. He sighed a little ruefully, reminding himself of what he should have known all along - as long as they stuck together and supported each other, they would make it. Bound by ties of love and sorrow and shared experience, these people were more than a crew, they were a family. He relaxed in his chair, listening with half an ear to the latest Paris-Kim debate on Neelix' cooking, as he contemplated his own feelings. He had found his balance again, he realized, and was starting to heal. In time, he might even be happy.

He felt a presence at his elbow and glanced up to see Kes standing next to him, her expression hopeful. He smiled up at her, then stood and gathered her into his arms for a quick hug, whispering his thanks in her ear, before striding out of the mess hall to return to the bridge. Her eyes stayed on him until the door slid closed, before she turned and began to clear the table, her mind at ease once more.

end