Disclaimer: Paramount’s, as always 

    
This story is entered in the Awesome Author Award Kontest


Rating:  PG-13

Notes:  This story is set shortly after “Lineage”.   Based on certain rumours currently circulating, it could also be considered a prequel for “Human Error”.



                                             
FRIENDSHIPS


By Mary S.



           “Janeway to Chakotay,” came the hail.  “Please report to my ready room.”

           “On my way, Captain,” replied the commander.  “Tuvok, you have the bridge.”

           As he disappeared through the door, Tom Paris glanced around surreptitiously, then sent a quick message to Harry Kim.  ‘Think he’s in for it?’

           “Mr. Paris!” came even Vulcan tones.  “If you are bored, I can arrange a series of tactical exercises….”

           “Oh no!” replied Tom hurriedly.  “I’m fine.  Just peachy, in fact.”

           Tuvok’s eyebrow went up but he made no further comment.

           Inside the ready room, Captain Janeway was bringing her first officer up to date on the latest findings from astrometrics.

           “….so you see, the asteroid field – here, between the fourth and fifth planets – looks most promising.  I would really like to investigate it more closely.  But we’ve already started the negotiations with Tonsilas, in the other direction.  What do we do?”

           The commander sat quietly, pondering.  “Send a shuttle to check over the field, see if the scans are correct, collect samples if possible, while Voyager goes to Tonsilas.  Kill two birds with one stone.  In fact,” he brightened as another idea came to mind, “kill three.  I’m worried about B’Elanna, she’s still not herself.  Why not send her and Tom in the shuttle, give them some private time without the whole ship eavesdropping.  I think they both could use it.”

           “Sounds like a fine idea.  But let’s check with Tom first.”  He nodded.   She paged the helm. 

           “Mr. Paris, report to the ready room!”

           On the bridge, Tom rose a bit apprehensively.  She could not have seen his message to Harry – could she?  He straightened and headed to the captain’s domain, trying unsuccessfully to look nonchalant.  Harry shook his head.  No doubt Tom was going to be hauled on the carpet again.

           But in five minutes, he came out much more cheerful, and immediately sent a message to B’Elanna, telling her they were going to take a little working holiday.

           An hour later, after the commander had delivered her official orders, the chief engineer went to the shuttle bay to personally check over the shuttle and ensure it was, as Tom put it, ‘properly supplied’.  She was looking forward to some time alone with him.  They needed to get their problems, well actually her problems, out in the open and discuss them fully.  And it would be really nice to have him all to herself without interruption.  She smiled as she ran the systems diagnostics.  Suddenly, a flashing light caught her eye.  Damn!  A power relay was burned out – and just her luck!  It was located in the ceiling.

           She debated whether to call one of the other engineers, but decided she could just as easily replace it herself.  Stretching up on her toes, she popped the cover loose, then made a grab for the relay – and missed.  Off-balance, she fell heavily to the deck, landing on her stomach and left side.  Immediately, she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen.  Oh no!  The baby!

           She managed to sit up, clutching her stomach, then felt something sticky between her legs – blood!  She knew it!  Really frightened now, she slapped her commbadge and called for an emergency beamout to sickbay.

           Tom was at the helm when an urgent call came from sickbay – he was needed at once!  B’Elanna was hurt!  He leaped up, glanced at Tuvok who nodded, and ran for the turbolift.  He dashed into sickbay to find the doctor hovering over the biobed where his wife lay very still

           “Doc, what happened?!  Is she okay?  What about the baby?!”

           The doctor looked up, clearly annoyed.   “Calm down, Mr. Paris.  She’s all right.  And I think your child will be, too.”  He turned back to B’Elanna who looked utterly terrified, and kept repeating that it had been an accident.

           “Lieutenant Torres!” snapped the doctor in an effort to quiet her.  “Relax.  You’re going to be fine, your baby too – if you do as I say.”

           “Tom!” spoke B’Elanna urgently, not hearing the doctor at all.  “It was an accident!  Please!  You have to believe me!  I didn’t mean to hurt her!”  Tears began to run down her face.  “Please – you must believe me,” she whispered through her sobs.

           Tom pushed the doctor aside and bent over his wife, taking her hands in his and kissing her cheeks.  “Ssh, B’Ella, I know.  It’s all right, I believe you.”

           She gulped, trying to swallow her tears.  “I’m sorry.”

           “It’s okay, sweetheart.  Doc here says you’ll be all right, you and the baby both.”

           The doctor harrumphed at that and moved up to the head of the biobed.  “Now, I want you both to listen to me!  Lieutenant Torres, we all know what happened was accidental.  You mustn’t blame yourself.”  He had their attention.  “The baby seems to be all right but I can’t be sure for at least forty-eight hours.  Therefore, you are confined to sickbay until I say otherwise, and you will do everything I tell you to.  Understood?”  She nodded.

           “Good.  The bleeding has almost stopped, but you must keep very still for the next while.  We don’t want to take any chances, do we?”  He patted her arm.

           “No,” she whispered, clearly too frightened to argue.

           Tom turned away to page the ready room.  “Paris to Janeway.”

           “Janeway here.  Problem, Tom?”

           “Yes, Captain.  B’Elanna’s in sickbay – she nearly lost the baby just now.  Doc says she can’t move.  We – she – won’t be able to go….”   The captain interrupted.

           “Tom!  Stay there!  I’ll be right down!  Janeway out.”

           A few minutes later, she trotted into sickbay and hurried over to them.  “Report, Doctor!”

           “Lieutenant Torres suffered a fall in the shuttle and subsequently experienced sharp pain in her abdomen as well as bleeding from her womb.  I believe the baby will survive unharmed but I can’t be sure for at least two days.  The bleeding has stopped but I want to keep her still for several hours, and I recommend she remain here for the foreseeable future until we’re certain the fetus is stable.”

           “Tom!  B’Elanna!  You heard him.  You’re both relieved of duty until the doctor says you can go.”  She took their hands.  “Try not to worry.  You must think positive thoughts, believe that the baby will be fine.”  She stroked B’Elanna’s hair back from her face.  “I’ll come to see you whenever I can.”

           “Thank you, Captain.”

           “Tom.”  Janeway motioned him to a corner.  “Let me know if you need anything and I want to be kept informed of her progress.”

           “Yes, Captain, I will.”  He paused.  “What about the mission?”

           “Chakotay’s going.  He’s taking Seven.  I’m sorry you couldn’t have gone, but….we’ll find some time for you once B’Elanna’s feeling better.”

           “Thanks, Captain.”  He turned back to the biobed as Janeway headed out the door.

         __________________________________________________________________


           A day later, the shuttle neared the solar system containing the asteroid field.  Seven began scanning for life forms, but to her surprise and Chakotay’s, she could find nothing more complex than basic, one-celled organisms.  They were still puzzling over that when she discovered vast areas of ruined structures on the second planet.

           “You mean cities?” queried the commander.

           “Yes.”  She paused, retargeting the scanners.  “There are similar ruins, on a smaller scale, on the fourth planet.”

           “This is very peculiar,” he muttered.  “A Borg attack?”

           But she shook her head decisively.  “No.  I don’t know who or what caused such mass destruction, but it was not the Borg.  I would estimate the ruins are very old.”

           He sat, thinking, before shrugging his shoulders.  “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about asking permission to take what we need.”

           “Commander,” said Seven in a reproving tone.  “That is a –‘twisted’ – way of looking at it.  You have a different sense of humour, do you not.”

           “I have been told so, yes,” he grinned at her.  He steered the shuttle towards the field, now directly ahead.  “Begin geophysical scan.”

           She recalibrated the scanners and activated them.  Almost instantly, the shuttle was jolted hard and thrown almost on its side.  As a rear panel sparked, then shorted out, Chakotay yelled, “Report!”

           “I can find nothing.”

           They searched frantically for a hostile ship, a natural phenomenon – anything that could toss them around like a beach ball.  Nothing.

           “Seven, there has to be something there!”  Chakotay was becoming annoyed.

           “I repeat, Commander, scans indicate nothing except the field.  No ships, no weapons, no ….”   Wham!  The shuttle tilted hard to starboard.

           “Seven, that’s weapons fire!  Find the source!”

           “The shields on the port side are weakened,” she replied instead.  “I still cannot locate….”

           He interrupted her.  “I’m getting out of here.  Full impulse.”

           This time, the shuttle actually rolled right over with the force of the blast.  Two consoles blew out on the port side and smoke roiled around the interior, causing them both to cough.

           “Shields down!” yelled Seven.

           “Engines, both warp and impulse, are off line,” added Chakotay.  Shit!

           The little vessel rocked gently as he pondered, trying to out-think an enemy he couldn’t find.

           “Launch a distress beacon.  Let’s cross our fingers it will escape.”

           She did so.  They sat, watching it float away, untouched.

           “It would appear that if we keep our speed below a certain threshold, and refrain from using scanners, we will not attract fire.  That would indicate an automated weapons system.  Perhaps one built by the former inhabitants of those planets.”

           “Makes as much sense as anything else.  I’m going to activate thrusters.  They’re partly damaged but should be able to give us enough momentum to escape.”

           Very slowly, the shuttle began to ease away from the asteroids.  Not daring to use the scanners, they could only peer out the viewports, wondering if each moment would be their last.

           Five minutes passed, ten, then fifteen.  Chakotay took a deep breath.  “Going to full thrusters – well, as full as we have.”  The shuttle picked up a bit of speed.

           “I believe we are clear of any detection grid,” stated Seven.

           “Guess so.  We’re still here.”  He sighed.  “It’s going to be a long trip.”

           She made no reply.  Instead she busied herself making an inventory of the damage.  Half an hour later, she placed a padd in front of the commander.

           “This is a complete list of all the damage, and the repairs which are required.  I have discovered an additional and potentially critical problem.  There is a minor power drain; it is not serious yet, but – I am unable to determine the location of the leak.  With our only propulsion being damaged thrusters, even a small leak could mean that our power will decline below crucial levels before Voyager finds us.”

           He stared at her.  “You mean – yes, I understand what you mean.”  He turned away to stare out the viewport, but she heard him mutter, “Somehow, this isn’t the death I envisioned.”

           “Don’t be so pessimistic, Commander,” she chided.  “We are not dead yet.”

           “Now you sound like the captain.”

           She almost smiled, before returning to the consoles to check the readings again.

           “Any change?” he asked.

           “No.  They are still dropping.  It might be wise to shut down all non-essential systems, to try to conserve what we have.”

           “Agreed.”

        ________________________________________________________________



           Sometime later, the commander roused himself from a light doze to check on his companion.  Seven stood against the rear hatch, eyes open but unseeing, motionless.  He could almost see the little Borg implants whirring away inside her brain – calculating, analyzing, processing, and possibly - remembering.  He stood, stretching, trying to ease the stiff muscles.  His motion drew her attention and her eyes blinked to refocus on him. 

           “Commander,” she acknowledged.

           “Seven,” he replied, “doing okay?”

           “I am functioning adequately, yes.”

           “Come, sit,” he gestured to the copilot’s seat.  “Talk to me – I’m tired of listening only to my own thoughts.”

           “Very well.”  She sat.  “What shall we talk about?”

           “Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you about Icheb.  How is he doing?  Is he adapting to the crew all right, fitting in?”

           She considered her answer.  “Adapting – yes; fitting in – uncertain.  He has problems at times understanding the complexities and nuances of humanoid interaction.”

           Chakotay chuckled.  “I’ll bet he has.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

           “If you are referring to my own attempts at ‘social skills’, as the doctor calls them, then yes, you are correct.  However, he will learn, just as I did.”

           A thought sprang into his mind.  “What about you?  Do you still find it difficult to grasp?  You seem to have a much better understanding now of social behaviour.”

           “That is true in part.  I can appreciate the nature of friendship in theory, for example, but in practice, there is much about it that still eludes me.”

           “Such as?  Maybe I can help.”

           “Very well.”  She gathered her thoughts.  “Let us examine your friendship with the captain as opposed to the one you have with Lieutenant Torres.  Then there is your rapport with Neelix and your association with me.  I am uncertain if, in fact, we are friends.”

           Dear me, thought Chakotay, no wonder she’s confused.  I would be, too.

           She went on.  “If you would clarify the differences between these relationships for me, help me understand the nuances of each, I believe I would have a better understanding of the meaning of friendship.”

           He stared at her, rubbing his jaw.  “All right.  I’ll try.  Where do you want me to begin?”

           “Lieutenant Torres.  When and where did you meet her?”

           “Hmm.  Let’s see.  I’ve known B’Elanna for a long time, nearly ten years now.  I met her,” he smiled, remembering, “on some godforsaken planet near the badlands.  We’d stopped there to try and pick up supplies – food, medicine and so on.  I was supposed to meet someone who knew someone, in a bar.  I was late, so I took a shortcut through a back alley.  And what should I find but this feisty little Klingon being roughed up by three huge Cardassians.  She was fighting back with everything she had, but obviously, she couldn’t hold them off for long.  So I helped her out.

           “She followed me to the bar, stayed with me and actually saved me when my contact and his friends tried to rob me.  I told her thanks, we were even, and started back to my ship. 

           “I remember – something made me glance back and there she stood, alone, with the most forlorn expression on her face.  At that moment, I knew I couldn’t just leave her there.  So I asked her where she was staying.  She said nowhere.  Turned out she’d been dumped on the planet by the captain of the ship she’d been working on.  Apparently, he’d objected when she didn’t welcome him into her bed.  On impulse, I asked her if she wanted to join the Maquis, work on my ship.  Her eyes lit up.  I made a point right then of telling her that she would not be expected to welcome anyone into her bed unless she wanted to.  And that’s how she came to be part of my crew.  Smartest thing I ever did, you know.  She’s repaid me countless times.”

           “Did you ever ‘climb into her bed’?”

           “You mean have an intimate relationship with her?  No.  She was too young, too insecure – and she reminded me far too much of my youngest sister.  Besides,” his voice went flat, “I was already involved with Seska.”

           “So,” began Seven, trying to clearly define their relationship, “you felt like her older brother, her protector.”

           Chakotay sat silent, then nodded slowly.  “Yes, I guess I did, at first anyway.  Although B’Elanna would tell you in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t need protecting.  But, it’s changed now.  It’s more – equal, if you see what I mean.”

           “Why is that?”

           “She’s older, more mature, for one thing.  And our circumstances are different now, on this ship.  But mostly, because of her relationship with Tom.”  He smiled gently, adding, “I’ll always have a special place in my heart for her, though.  And I know she does for me.”

           He stopped, lost in memories.  Seven rose and went to check the readings once more.  He glanced up as she returned, a question on his face.  She shook her head in reply – no change.  She retook her seat and turned to face him.

           “May I ask about your friendship with Neelix?  At first glance, I would have thought that you have very little in common with him.  Don’t friends share similar interests and ideas?  I thought that was a basic requirement.”

           “Well, you must remember that Neelix is a friend to every person on the ship – which takes considerable talent when you consider the wide variety of species present.”

           She mulled that over; he went on.  “I’ve found more than once that he has proven to be a good ‘sounding board’, if you will, when I need someone to talk to.  I guess he is for a lot of the crew.  His greatest virtues are his compassion, which encompasses everyone, and his sense of justice.  He is quite insightful, too, you know.  H can usually see right to the heart of a problem, spell it out concisely and then offer either a solution or at least a different point of view.

           “I’ve taken to consulting with him from time to time about one crewmember or another.  I find his observations are always valuable.  You should talk to him when we get back.”

           “Perhaps I will.”  She returned to the subject at hand.  “Then you regard Mr. Neelix as a ‘colleague’.”

           He thought about that.  “Yes, I guess so.”

           They were both silent then.  Chakotay waited, watching her – she actually looked slightly nervous.  Finally, he spoke.  “You want to ask about the captain, don’t you.”

           “Yes.  But – perhaps you don’t wish to tell me.”

           He rubbed his eyes, obviously considering what he should say.  Then, he sat forward to stare at her intently.

           “I’ll tell you, Seven, on one condition:  that you never, ever, tell anyone else, particularly the doctor.  I want your promise.  And if you break it,” his voice hardened, “both the captain and I will be very upset.  Do you agree?”

           “Yes.”  She hesitated.  “If the subject should come up in a discussion with the captain, could I talk to her?”

           He kicked that one around in his head.  Probably wouldn’t hurt – Kathryn knew it all, anyway.  He nodded and took a deep breath, then exhaled.  Defining the complex nature of his relationship with Kathryn Janeway was no easy task.

           “To begin, you know that she is my best friend, the person I am closest to, as I am hers.  Seems odd, when you think about how we started out.”

           “You mean as sworn enemies?”  

           “Yes.  But – right from the first moments, while we were still trying to sort out the crews, amalgamate them, practically force them together, at the point of a phaser in some cases, even then, I was intrigued by her.  It was like an undercurrent.  I couldn’t see it, but I could certainly feel it.”

           “What exactly was ‘it’?”

           “It’s hard to put into words.  ‘Attraction’ is the closest, I guess, but that doesn’t really come close to describing what I felt.  I tried to ignore it, treat her in a professional capacity only, but the pull was always there, beneath every interaction with her.

           “There is an expression used to describe the love of one’s life – ‘soulmate’.  And that’s what it felt like.  As if I had found a part of my soul that I didn’t even know was missing.  All my life, I had searched for completion.  When I was young, I thought I would find it in the stars, in space.  And for some years, I believed I had.  But I knew, even before I resigned my commission, that my destiny lay elsewhere.  My father’s murder was the catalyst that drove me out of Starfleet at that particular point, but I would have left eventually.”

           “The Maquis?”

           “….was something I had to do.  People, whole colonies, were being butchered by the Cardassians.  And the Federation sat on its hands and did nothing!”  His voice held an angry note which she had never heard before.

           He turned away, breathing hard with emotion.  “I’m sorry.  It’s an old tale now.”

           “You have no need to apologize, Commander.  Can you continue?”

           He nodded and forced himself to relax.  “I….it seems funny that I should find peace in the captain sent to capture me, doesn’t it?”
          
           “I believe it is called ‘irony’, Commander.”

           “’Ironic’ describes this whole mess in the Delta Quadrant pretty well.”  He paused, collecting his memories.  “The day I helped Kathryn find her animal guide – that was the day it all started to change.  She had always been such a proper captain.  I’d never seen the woman underneath, wasn’t even sure there was one.

           “It was just a chance remark about not having a counsellor on board, that prompted me to tell her about my people’s beliefs and practices.  She was absolutely fascinated.  So I got my medicine bundle, went to her ready room and showed her how to go on a vision quest.  We didn’t get very far before we were interrupted, but she did find her guide.”

           “Has she gone on many vision quests since then?  She has never mentioned it to me.”

           “I don’t know.  She hasn’t asked for help since.”

           “Is that when you started to fall in love with her?”

           He scowled a bit at the direct question, but then nodded slowly.  “I guess it probably was.”  He sighed softly, then went on.

           “I found myself more and more drawn to her.  At first, I continued to try to fight it, but – it was becoming very difficult.  I had no idea how she felt, or if she felt anything at all.  You must remember that all during this time, we were engaged in almost constant run-ins with either the Kazon, the Vidiians or both.  And the rest of the time, we were trying to hold the ship together.  There wasn’t much time to think about anything else.”

           Seven nodded.  She had read the logs.

           “The real change came when we were stranded on New Earth.  Suddenly, we had only ourselves to consider and the rest of our lives, or so we thought, to do it.”

           He smiled, remembering the woman she had been there.  “She was happy, you know, once she let go of the idea that she would find a cure for the virus.  When she took up the business of making a life there with me.  I knew by then that I was deeply in love with her.  I even told her, in a roundabout sort of way.  She never actually said what she felt, but I believe, if Voyager hadn’t come back, we would have become lovers soon after.”

           He sighed again, a wistful expression in his eyes.  “Sometimes I wish….they hadn’t come.”  Seven sat very still.

           He shook his head and went on in a brisker tone.  “But they did and we had to go back to a command relationship.”

           Now she interrupted.  “Were you content to do that?”

           “Oh god, no!  It was probably the single most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do!  At first, I nearly went crazy sitting beside her, day after day.  I wanted my friend, I wanted the woman I loved, and she hid them, hid everything behind that captain’s façade.  And I couldn’t just stop loving her!  It doesn’t work like that.

           “But gradually, with time, I learned to put aside my feelings, to accept what she could give me, and to give her whatever she needed.  We have been able to build a deep, solid friendship over the years, one that I cherish very much.”

           “Do you still love her?”

           “You mean as more than a friend?”

           “Yes.”

           He smiled a bit sadly.  “Oh yes, Seven.  I’ll always love her, whatever she does, wherever she goes, I will love her for the rest of my days.  She’s my soulmate.”

           He got up then and went to the replicator before remembering it had been shut down.  Damn!  He really wanted a bowl of hot soup.  Emergency rations just weren’t the same.  He tried to ignore his stomach and sat down again.

           Seven pondered his words.  “Can our relationship be called a friendship?”

           He chuckled.

           “What is so amusing?” she demanded.

           “I’m remembering how we met.”

           She nodded, a bit stiffly.  “You killed the other drones and nearly killed me.  Are you glad now that you were unsuccessful?”

           He glanced up at her.  “Oh yes.”

           She relaxed back in her chair, which he noticed.  “Did you really expect a different answer?”

           “No.  But you do have an odd sense of humour.”

           He smiled at that.  “Tell me, what do you feel for me?  Or do you feel anything?”

           She looked surprised at his question, then stared out the viewport trying to analyze her feelings, with what he thought of as her ‘processing’ look.  After several minutes, she turned to face him.

           “I am unsure how to describe what I feel.  I do not like to be so imprecise.”

           “Seven, you’re trying to clearly label and pigeonhole every emotion – and humanoids don’t work like that.  Sometimes, feelings can’t be easily defined.”

           She nodded but he could see she was distracted.  “’Pigeonhole’?” she asked.

           “A twentieth century expression, one of Tom’s.  It means to categorize.”

           “Interesting.”

           Chakotay felt a shiver run up his spine.  “Is it my imagination or is it getting colder?”

           She got up to look.  “The temperature is dropping.”

           “Maybe we better dig out the emergency supplies.”

           She opened both storage bins – one held the environmental suits, the other had two thermal blankets and the emergency rations.  She pulled out the suits – Chakotay swore.   “Damn!  Look at them!  They’re useless!”  Both suits had partly melted, although neither of them could see any reason why. 

           Seven handed him a blanket.  “It is not that cold.  Yet.  We will adapt.” 

           They each wrapped a blanket around themselves and curled up in the chairs.  Not long after, she glanced at him, about to ask another question, then noticed he had fallen asleep.  She remained silent, staring out the viewport.

           An hour later, Chakotay was roused by the increasing chill.  He looked around to see Seven at the console, checking the readings.  She answered his unspoken question.  “The power drain is slowly increasing.”

           “How long, do you think?”

           “I would estimate we will lose consciousness in twelve to fifteen hours.  We should survive for another ten hours after that, possibly less.”  She paused.  “I will outlive you,” she stated firmly.

           He chuckled at that.  “My sense of humour must be contagious.”

           Her eyebrow went up.   “I was not making a joke, Commander, merely stating a fact.”

           He shook his head, amused.  What a long way they had come, he reflected.  When he remembered how much he had distrusted, even hated, her at first – albeit with reason, it was really quite astonishing that he could enjoy her company now.

           He shivered as the cold seeped a little further under his uniform.  Maybe if he had something to eat, he would warm up.  He picked up a ration pack, fingering it.  It didn’t look very appetizing, but – he ate it anyway.   Didn’t seem to make much difference.

           They huddled down in the chairs, blankets draped around their heads and shoulders.  Chakotay tried to relax, but found he was still cold – he couldn’t stop shivering.  A glance at Seven told him she was in a similar state.  He sat for a few minutes more, then abruptly got to his feet.

           “This isn’t working.  I can’t get warm, and I don’t think you can, either.”

           She looked up at him, as miserable as a drone could be.  He took her hand.

           “We need to lie down together, wrap the blankets around both of us, “ he was spreading one on the floor as he spoke.  “If we can share body heat, maybe we can get a little warmer.”  He met her eyes.  “Agreed?”

           She nodded, her teeth chattering.  They lay down, cocooning themselves in the blankets.  Seven was tense, unsure where to put her head and hands.  She had never been this close to any living being.  She felt his breath float across her face.  “Relax.  You’re too stiff.”

           “I….have not been in this….position before.  I am uncertain….what to do.”

           He slid his arm around her, and brought her head down to his shoulder.  Then he took her free hand and draped it around his waist.  She discovered to her surprise that she was quite comfortable.

           “Is that better?” he asked.

           “Yes.”

           “I think I feel a bit warmer.  You?”

           “A bit.”

           They lay quietly after that, and then she began to speak about her experiences in unimatrix zero.  Whether it was their intimate position, or the earlier discussion about friendship which led her to confide in him, he never knew, but once started, she couldn’t stop.  It poured out of her, the story of how she had met and made a friend of Axum, how that friendship eventually turned to love, how she denied her memories when she first went back there, and how, in the end, they renewed their love when faced with permanent separation.

           “I still miss him,” she whispered, silent tears running down her cheeks.

           “I understand, Seven.  The pain of losing someone is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to deal with – and it will always be with you.  It will ease eventually, but it will never go away.”

           He wiped her cheek with his thumb, then pulled her a little tighter to him, stroking her hair.

           “I think we’re friends now, don’t you?” he asked softly.

           She didn’t answer, but snuggled in closer.  She found his body – comforting.

       _________________________________________________________________


           Twenty hours later, Voyager finally discovered its missing shuttle.

           “Captain!” called Harry abruptly.  “I’m picking up a vessel on long range sensors – with a Federation signature!”

           Janeway tried not to leap to her feet, but she was at his console very quickly.

           “Let me see.  Yes, you’re right!  Tom!”  Her fingers flew across the panel as she threw out orders.  “Set course for these coordinates – I’m feeding them to you now.”

           “Yes, ma’am!”

           “Voyager to Cochrane!  Voyager to Cochrane!  Come in!”  There was no answer.  She tried again – still nothing.  Damn!

           “Keep trying, Harry.”

           “Yes, ma’am.”

           She went back to her command chair, trying not to look too hopefully at the empty one beside her.  She attempted to sit still, but found herself pacing the deck in front of her.  ‘Come on, Harry!  Surely you must be getting readings by now!  Come on…’ the plea revolved through her brain.

           “Captain!  Two lifesigns – faint but they’re there!”

           Her sigh of relief was overshadowed by all the others as everyone relaxed just a bit.

           “Bridge to sickbay.”

           “Sickbay here. Yes, Captain?”

           “We’ve found the shuttle, Doctor, with two faint lifesigns.  Once we’re in range, we’ll beam them directly to you.”

           “Aye, Captain.  Standing by.  Sickbay out.”

           Five minutes passed, then ten.  She knew Tom had the engines at maximum.

           “Locking on to their commbadges,” came Harry’s voice, calm now.  “Transporting….transport complete.  They’re in sickbay, Captain.”

           “Excellent, Mr. Kim.  Good work, everyone.  Tuvok, tractor the shuttle into the bay.  I’m sure once B’Elanna’s back on the job, she’ll want to go over it with a fine-toothed comb.”

           “Aye, Captain.”

           She could wait no longer.  “You have the bridge, Commander.  I’ll be in sickbay.”  Her last words floated out between the closing ‘lift doors.

           The captain strode into sickbay, trying to project an air of calm, and not look as terrified as she felt.  She found Seven lying conscious but weak on a biobed.  Beside her, Chakotay was very still, eyes closed, his breathing shallow.  The doctor stood over him, concentrating on his tricorder, then closed it and disappeared into his office without explanation.

           “Seven, what happened?  Are you all right?”

           “Yes, Captain.  I am mostly undamaged although still cold.  It is a most peculiar sensation.  I do not like it.”

           “I’m not surprised.  No one does.  Now, report.”

           “We reached the solar system where the asteroid field was located, to find extensive, ancient ruins on the second and fourth planets.  When I began scanning the field, we were hit by weapons fire of unknown origin.  Shields were disabled, then engines.  We were able to launch a distress beacon and then move out of range, using thrusters only.

           “We discovered a slow but steady power drain but were unable to locate the source.  We could only sit and hope for rescue before we froze to death.”

           Janeway noticed that not once during this recital did Seven’s eyes leave Chakotay.

           “When you’re up to it,” she requested, “I’d like a more detailed report.”

           Seven looked at her, startled, before turning back to the other bed.  The captain’s brow went up – this was atypical behaviour.  Just what had happened on that shuttle?  Her eyes went to the commander as well.  She walked over to him, staring down at his face.

           “He still loves you, you know.”  Seven’s voice made her jump; she swung around in astonishment.  The other nodded at Chakotay.  “He told me – out there – when I asked him.”

           Janeway turned back to him, her face softening, a smile starting to turn up the corners of her mouth.   She ran a gentle hand across his face and over his hair.  “I know he does.”

           “I am curious, Captain.  May I ask – do you love him?”

           She thought for a moment she wouldn’t get an answer, but then the captain sighed and nodded.  “Oh yes.”

           “But why are you not together then, as a couple, like Lieutenants Torres and Paris?”

           “We can’t, Seven.  As long as we’re out here, as long as I’m the captain and he is my first officer, we can’t indulge in anything more than friendship.  But – once we get home….”  Her voice trailed off as she smiled hopefully.

           Seven nodded thoughtfully.  “Have you ever told him that?”

           “No.”

           “Perhaps you should.”

           It was Janeway’s turn to look thoughtful.  “Perhaps I will.  Goodnight, Seven.  I’ll check on you tomorrow.”  She disappeared out the door.

         _________________________________________________________________


           Hours later, Chakotay lay alone in sickbay, asleep.  Seven had been deemed recovered enough to return to her alcove to regenerate, and the doctor had deactivated himself once the commander’s recovery was assured.  The lights were dim when the doors hissed open to admit the captain once more.

           She had gone to her quarters after her shift and tried to relax, but had found herself pacing, restless, unable to sit down.  Finally, she had given up and come back to check on him, telling herself she wouldn’t stay, she just wanted to see how he was.

           She sat down beside him, staring at his face as Seven’s words ran through her head, over and over.  ‘He still loves you’; ‘perhaps you should tell him’.  She found herself starting to talk, telling him how worried she’d been, afraid that this time she wouldn’t find him soon enough.  She took his hand in both of hers, clutching it.

           “Seven says you told her you still love me.  And that I should tell you how much I love you.  And I do, Chakotay.  I never said it before because while we’re still out here, we can’t do anything about it.  But I can’t help loving you….”  She stopped in surprise as she felt his fingers grip hers.  “Chakotay?!”

           He opened his eyes almost lazily and smiled up at her.

           “How long have you been awake?”

           “Long enough.”

           “Wha….how much did you hear?”

           “All of it.”

           She gasped slightly and tried to pull away, but he kept hold of her.  She relaxed then.  Oh well.  “Guess the cat’s out of the bag, huh?”

           He tugged her closer.  “Yup.  Now, why don’t you start over from the beginning.  I want to hear it again.”

           “It would sound just the same.”

           “I know.”  He stretched his other hand up and stroked her cheek very lightly.  “But I’ll never get tired of hearing it, no matter how many times you tell me.”  His voice was low, intimate.  She felt a shiver go down her spine.   Her reflexes kicked in and she started to pull away, then stopped.  Not this time.  She bent over him, caressing his face in turn.

           “I love you, and I will keep on loving you, always.  How’s that?”

           “Oh, that’s very nice.  Do it again?”

           She chuckled and perched on the edge of his bed.  “You’re a terrible man.  What I’m going to do is kiss you goodnight and go to bed.  In my quarters.  And when the doctor says you’re well enough, we will continue this discussion.  In my quarters.  Or yours.  I really don’t care.  Now – does that make you happy?”

           “Yes, ma’am!”

THE END

      
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