Author's note: This is an AU version of the two-parter "Equinox" I wrote with the intent of closing several plot holes, fixing the out-of-character behavior of Janeway in the episode, and fleshing it out with a strong J/C focus.

It's a sequel to my "Year of Hell, Season of Hope" AU, although it isn't necessary to read that story before reading this one. (Just know that in my story, the year of hell actually occurred, which means Voyager has now been in the Delta Quadrant a full year longer than in the canon universe.) I hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: The Star Trek universe and characters aren't mine, I'm just having fun playing with them.


Chapter 1

The blare of a red alert jarred Kathryn Janeway out of a sound sleep at 05:00. In an instant, she was wide awake and leaping out of bed. There was only one thing that could wake her up as fast as a cup of coffee, and that was a red alert. Nothing like a jolt of adrenaline in the wee hours of the morning.

Of course, in this case, she knew it was only a drill. There were advantages to being captain, and that was one of them. Belowdecks, she knew, Voyager's crew would already be scrambling for their stations, not knowing if they were about to face Borg, some faceless new foe, or simply an exacting Vulcan chief of security who would be scrutinizing their every move and criticizing them afterwards for every tactical mistake.

But Janeway was ready. Last night she had laid out everything she would need on her nightstand stacked it in the exact order she would need it. During the six years she'd spent in the Delta Quadrant, she'd seen more than her share of midnight emergencies. It was a delicate, carefully rehearsed ballet of movements that would get her dressed and to the Bridge in three minutes flat.

First, the nightgown came off over the head in one swift motion. Then the gray tank top was seized from the top of the stack and pulled over her head, followed by the gray long-sleeved mock turtleneck, which she fastened at the back of her neck with a slide of her fingertips. Then came the pants: step in, step in, pull up, tuck in shirt, zip up. She shoved her arms through the jacket's sleeves and zipped that too. Combadge already affixed. She sat on the edge of the bed and tugged on socks and then boots, and snapped the stirrups of her pant legs over the heels. She glanced at the chronometer. Two minutes down.

Almost there. She snatched up a brush and made her hair presentable. Done. And then she was out the door at a brisk pace, nearly barreling into Chakotay as she emerged into the corridor.

They caught each other's eyes and, without a word, broke into a run trying to beat each other to the turbolift. She managed to get in first, but only because he held back at the last instant, probably too gentlemanly to want to shove her out of the way. It didn't stop her from permitting herself a crooked smile as the doors slid shut.

"Bridge," she said in a triumphant tone. She glanced over at Chakotay expecting to see him glum about losing the race, but to her surprise he was grinning at her so widely that all the dimples had popped out.

"What?" Janeway asked. "I won that one, fair and square."

Chakotay assumed a mock stern look. "You're out of uniform, cadet," he said.

Janeway quickly looked down. Both boots were on, nice and polished and shiny. The uniform looked fine. She put her hand up to the collar and felt it. One, two, three, four. All pips present and accounted for. She glared at Chakotay.

"I am not," she said.

The door to the turbolift slid open, and they were at the Bridge. Chakotay leaned close to her and murmured one word: "Earrings."

Janeway gasped and put up her hands. No! How could she have forgotten? As quick as she could, she turned to hide her face from anyone who might be looking, unfastened the studs and tucked them into her palm. Meanwhile, Chakotay casually strolled onto the Bridge and barked, "Report!"

Drat, blast and thunderation. He'd won that one, fair and square.


They spent the morning coping with the tactical scenarios Tuvok had cooked up for the crew, and then the afternoon was spent trying to catch up on all the normal duties for the day. With the early start they'd had, it turned out to be a long day. As Alpha Shift was ending, Chakotay asked Janeway if she still wanted to do their usual Tuesday night working dinner, or if she was too tired.

"No, let's go ahead with it," she said. "Tuvok just gave me his report on the drill and we might as well go over it. Unless you're too tired."

"Not me. What are we having tonight?"

"I hadn't thought about it. What about... Italian?"

"Been spending much time at da Vinci's studio lately?" he teased her.

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"I thought so. You said Italian last week, too."

"Did I? We can have something else."

"No, actually, Italian sounds good."

They went down to her quarters and started replicating food. In a few minutes they had everything ready and sat down to dinner. As they ate, they went over Tuvok's report and discussed his suggestions to improve crew performance, but before long they finished with the work and set their PADDS aside. The conversation turned to Italy. Chakotay had never been there.

"When was your first trip?" he asked her.

"I first went there when I was 10, for a family trip," Janeway said. "I had voted to go to Switzerland to see the historic particle accelerator there. I was furious when my parents went with my sister's idea to go to Florence instead. Phoebe was really into her art lessons by then and she wanted to see Renaissance art. I was convinced it would be dull and boring and horrible."

"And was it?"

"At first I thought it was. Then we went to the Museo Leonardo da Vinci Firenze. I went in expecting to see a bunch of paintings and sculptures like we'd been looking at all day. Instead I found a whole room full of models of inventions, really fascinating things like flying machines and self-propelled carts and scuba gear and even a robotic knight. I had no idea any human had thought up such things back in the 1400s. I knew da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper but I didn't know he was a scientist as well. I just fell in love with him right then and there. My parents couldn't drag me out of that room."

Chakotay laughed. "And thus began a lifelong obsession."

Janeway nodded. "I was much more enthusiastic about my own art lessons after that. I figured if da Vinci had enjoyed it, there must be something to it. Do you want any more of this pasta?"

"Ugh, no," Chakotay said, standing up and stretching. "In fact, no more Italian at these dinners, Kathryn. It's too good and I ate way too much."

She raised her eyebrows. "I was about to say, care for dessert?"

"Yep. I thought you'd never ask."

Janeway laughed. "What would you like?"

He thought about it for a moment. "Hmm. Going with the Italian theme, I'd say... tiramisu."

"Your wish is my command." Janeway stood up and walked over to the replicator alcove. Chakotay followed her. "Tiramisu," she ordered, and a small plate of the layered dessert appeared on the pad. She handed it to Chakotay, who leaned back against the side of the alcove and started to dig in. Janeway leaned against the other side, facing him.

Chakotay paused on the way to his second bite. "Where's yours?" he asked.

"Oh, no. I really did eat too much."

"There's always room for dessert," Chakotay protested.

"My uniform begs to differ."

"Oh, come on. You know there's coffee in this, right?"

She gave him a mock glare. "Are you trying to torture me?"

"I can't enjoy mine unless you're having some."

"Of course you can."

"Eat the dessert, Kathryn."

"No."

"Yes. Eat it. That's an order."

She laughed. "You can't order me around, remember? Who has more pips?"

"Irrelevant. We're not on duty. Here. I'll cut this one in half. I'll have half and you have half. That way we're both only being half-bad."

"Half-bad is too bad."

"It is not. Stop being difficult. I know you want some."

"What I want and what I do is not always the same thing," she countered.

"Touche. Here, then. Just one bite." He held the loaded fork out to her.

"Get that away from me!" She laughed and tried to push his arm away. "It has your germs."

Chakotay looked wounded. "There's nothing wrong with my germs. Here."

She tried again to fend him off. "Chakotay, if you get whipped cream on my uniform, I swear I'll..."

"You'll what? Throw me in the Brig?"

"I was going to say, kill you."

They stared at each other a moment, and then burst out laughing. It was a full minute before they could calm down enough speak again.

"Fine then, you win," Chakotay said with a sigh, taking a bite of tiramisu at last. "But next time, I'm going to make you eat dessert first."

"You can try." She leaned back against the side of the alcove and watched him eat until the dessert was gone and he had recycled the plate.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Chakotay asked, folding his arms and looking at her intently.

"Here it comes," she said wryly. "Very well, permission granted."

"Do you always wear earrings in the middle of the night?"

It took her a moment to switch gears in her mind and remember what had happened that morning.

"Yes," she said. "Next question?"

Chakotay lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "What for?"

"Because I can't wear them when I'm on duty, and if I don't wear them at night the piercing will grow in."

"But if no one can see them..."

She gave him an amused look. "I see them, every night in the mirror before I go to bed."

Chakotay regarded her for a moment, and then shook his head slowly. "You fascinate me," he said.

"How so?"

"I've seen you almost every day for the last six years, and here I was thinking I knew pretty much everything there is to know about you, and now I find out I didn't even know you wear earrings on a daily basis. Or nightly basis. It's like you have this whole secret world I don't know about."

She tilted her head and considered for a moment. "So I do."

"Really." Chakotay leaned forward. "Tell me all about it."

She shook her head with a small smile. "I can't. It's secret, remember?"

"Don't you trust me?"

"Perfectly."

"Then tell me," Chakotay said. "Tell me how to gain admittance to this secret world of yours."

Janeway considered for a minute. "Well, for starters, you have to ask very nicely."

"Done. Then what?"

"You have to be persistent. I don't always answer the door when I hear a knock."

"I see. Why not?"

Janeway shrugged a shoulder. "Too busy working."

"Maybe you work too much."

"Guilty as charged. But I don't always have a choice."

"You should just leave the door unlocked," Chakotay suggested, "so your friends could let themselves in."

"If I did that, I might let things out as well as in."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"You don't know what's in my secret world," she reminded him. "Dragons. Monsters. It can be a dangerous place."

"I think I'm willing to risk it."

She laughed a little. "Yes, but is the rest of the universe?"

"I've got it!" Chakotay said suddenly. "The perfect solution. How about you give me a key?"

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You want a key? To my secret world?"

"Then I can let myself in whenever I need to. No need to trouble yourself."

Janeway leaned back against the bulkhead and pursed her lips. "Interesting idea. I'll think about it."

"Don't take too long." Chakotay's dark eyes were locked on hers, and suddenly what had felt like teasing a moment ago didn't feel like teasing anymore. "I have all kinds of suspicions about what you keep locked in there," he murmured.

She couldn't look away from the intensity of his gaze, and to her dismay she realized that her heart was suddenly going a million miles a minute and her face was growing hot. She had no idea what to say, but it hardly mattered because she couldn't seem to make herself speak. He was standing so close to her that it was like staring into the white-hot center of a supernova, and all there was room for in her awareness was an all-consuming, burning curiosity to know what it would be like to kiss him. Just once. Just so she would know.

Her mother had always told her that curiosity would be the death of her.

She knew then that she had been careless to let the conversation get so out of hand, but it was too late to stop it now. The moment stretched out and the tension grew. It felt as though she were caught between Chakotay and the bulkhead behind her by some invisible force, and in vain she tried to think how to escape, but it didn't work because for some reason she had more than half a mind not to escape it at all.

Just when she thought she absolutely must speak, no matter how stupid the thing she said, lest Chakotay somehow figure out what it was she was really thinking about, Janeway's combadge chirruped.

"Seven of Nine to Janeway."

Janeway's relief was palpable. Bless Seven and her inadvertently impeccable timing. At last she managed to drag her eyes away from Chakotay and touch her combadge. In front of her, Chakotay slowly straightened up and backed away ever so slightly.

"Yes, Seven, what is it?"

"Captain, as I was attempting to fine-tune our long-range sensors in Astrometrics, I picked up on a signal being transmitted from a location 3.2 lightyears from here. It is a distress call."

"I see. Did you inform the Bridge?"

"No. I thought you would want to see the message yourself. It is from a Federation vessel."

"A Federation vessel?" Janeway said, startled. She glanced over at Chakotay, who looked every bit as surprised by the news as she was. "Yes, thank you, Seven. I'll be right there."

When the connection cut off, Janeway cleared her throat and pushed off from the bulkhead. "Well, Commander," she said briskly, "what would you say about a walk to Astrometrics?"

"I thought you'd never ask."


"... Federation starship Equinox. We're under attack. We need assistance. This is Captain Ransom of the Federation starship Equinox. We're under attack. We need assistance..."

Janeway stood on the platform in Astrometrics, staring up at the screen in fascination as the distress call clip played over and over. It was real, or at least it certainly seemed to be. She even recognized the man on the screen wearing a Starfleet uniform and pleading for help, although she'd never met him in person: Rudy Ransom, an exobiologist who had made quite a stir when he made first contact with a species the Federation had thought extinct. Starfleet Command had rewarded him for the accomplishment with a promotion to the rank of captain and command of his own ship for his research. He had a truly brilliant mind, and she had always wanted to meet him.

"What are they doing all the way out here?" Chakotay wondered.

"Perhaps they came to search for us," Seven said.

Janeway shook her head. "I doubt it. The Equinox is a Nova-class science vessel, built for a crew of 80. It's designed for planetary exploration, not long-range tactical missions."

"Where are they, Seven?" Chakotay asked.

"I have their coordinates," Seven said. "Heading 258 mark 12. But the distress call was transmitted approximately 14 hours ago. It may be too late."

"We've got to check it out, in any case," Janeway said. "I never thought we would find another Starfleet crew out here." She glanced over at Chakotay. "Commander, set a course, maximum warp."

"Aye, Captain."

When Chakotay had left, Janeway looked back up at the screen. Ransom looked exhausted, desperate, and the Bridge behind him was a smoking disaster. There was no way to tell exactly what was happening to the Equinox, but it looked as though they were in as dire straits as Voyager had been a year and a half ago after enduring months of vicious attacks by the Krenim.

"Hold on, Captain," she murmured. "We're coming as fast as we can."


With hours to wait before they would rendezvous with the Equinox, Janeway returned to her quarters. She began to clear away the dishes from dinner and recycle them in the replicator. At first, thoughts of the Equinox filled her mind - wondering how they had gotten here, and what kind of trouble they were in - but gradually she began thinking about what had happened tonight with Chakotay.

She was more than a little worried about it. After a year or so in the Delta Quadrant, their uneasy alliance had morphed into a good working relationship, and from there it didn't take long for a real friendship to emerge. It had brought her a lot of pleasure to be able to have someone to talk to and relax with after hours. Normally captains tried not to socialize too much with subordinates on their own ships, lest discipline should break down or accusations of favoritism emerge, but in this unusual situation where she had no equals to fraternize with and no way to go on leave, she had permitted herself the pleasure of Chakotay's company. He had been in command of his own vessel in his Maquis days, after all, and was therefore the closest thing to her equal. And out here in the Delta Quadrant where the occasional power struggles for promotions or sought-after transfers were suddenly irrelevant, she didn't think it could cause much harm to crew morale.

Then New Earth had happened, and suddenly that comfortable friendship began to be marred by bouts of unwelcome physical attraction. At first she didn't worry about it too much. Back then she had still harbored some hopes of getting back home in time to pick up where she had left off with Mark. She knew she had enough self-control, and Chakotay had always behaved appropriately, and it wasn't an issue.

Apparently something had changed.

She tried to put her finger on what had caused it. When had this started? Was it when she had finally taken Mark's picture off her coffee table and put it at the bottom of a drawer? How long had she and Chakotay been having these working dinners, and when had their friendly conversations turned into flirting? She stared at the table, and tried to remember when she had started decorating it with flowers and candles. It looked like she'd been on a date tonight. It felt like a date. Why had she never thought of this before? She'd been so careful about the clothing. Once Chakotay had suggested they make these dinners civilian dress, and she had said no. Wearing a uniform was a good reminder to keep behavior professional. But tonight her uniform had let her down. Tonight her own good sense and self-control had fled.

She shouldn't have been caught off guard by this. Wasn't this just how it had happened with Mark? A long, slow slide into greater and greater intimacy, the changes coming so imperceptibly that she didn't notice until they had already happened. She should have known better this time. She should have seen this coming.

Now, she had to figure out what to do about it. If they were in the Alpha Quadrant, she could have taken the coward's option and transferred him away. Here, the obvious answer was to stop holding working dinners and go back to doing all business in her Ready Room or his office while they were on duty. Cut back on the off-duty socializing. Set some boundaries and stick to them. But she hated the thought of doing that. It felt too much like delivering a slap in the face to Chakotay. Maybe he would blame himself. And it wasn't his fault. He hadn't taken any liberties but the ones she'd given him.

And she really didn't want to give the dinners up. She didn't want to give this friendship up. The idea of spending more time alone, of going back to the days she had debated every night whether to eat in the Mess Hall and risk getting too much in the way of the crew on their off hours, or eat alone in her quarters, when she was so tired of eating alone... right now it felt overwhelming. But she had no idea where and how to draw the line with Chakotay anymore.

She had to figure it out, and quickly.

TO BE CONTINUED

Author's note: I welcome feedback! Please let me know what you think in the comments below.