SILK

Denosia was a beautiful planet. After a harrowing five months travelling through hostile sectors, it came as a relief when they were first hailed by representatives of the planet's government who invited them to make contact.

"They want both of us, Commander," Captain Janeway said after closing communication.

Chakotay had given her a strange look, then sighed deeply as he'd sat down next to her.

"What?" she asked.

"You need this break, Captain," he said as he leaned closer to her so that she alone could hear him.

"We all do. But don't worry about me - "

"You know I am. More than anyone on the ship, you need it most."

"Fine. Now let's negotiate, shall we?"

He had given a resigned shrug, like she'd noticed his done quite often in the last year, accepting her directives and decisions with little challenge. Something was wrong, but in the euphoria of making contact, trade negotiations, shore leave schedules, she forgotten to ask him about the silent protest.

But Chakotay was right. Her body still trembled in the aftermath of the hostilities they'd encountered. Once one ended, a new one waited round the next corner, each more intense than the one before. It had taken every inch of her fortitude, wit and determination to come out of everything alive. And through it all Chakotay had been her guide, her support, her loyal first officer and friend against whose broad shoulders she could lean. Her rock, as she always thought of him, especially lately…

It was just after midday and Kathryn enjoyed the sun on her face as she sauntered through the great market of the First City. Chakotay had decided to browse on his own. She didn't mind as they'd often browsed markets on friendly homeworlds, parting ways and re-joining again hours later.

From time to time, glancing about her, she would see some of the Voyager crew, conspicuous in their teal, gold and red uniforms. The Denosians wore flowing garments of the finest cloth, in muted shades ranging from forest greens to autumn shades. Their movements were graceful, unhurried, their demeanour friendly. In appearance they resembled the Bajorans. Kathryn gave an inward chuckle when she witnessed how they looked at Gerron with unblemished interest, touching his earring with great curiosity.

Giving a sigh that was mostly one of relief after the particularly stress filled months in hostile space, Kathryn continued her walk, pausing briefly at a stall to touch a trinket that looked expensive, or a bracelet she thought Phoebe might like.

She recalled the damage control and repairs to Voyager, how busy they were in the last month. The EMH had been at his busiest and when she'd been to see him, he didn't mince his words.

Take a break, Captain. Right now. Go sleep for three days, go to the holodeck and sit on a holographic beach and read, soak in some holographic sun. Just…anything! You are hardly aware that your body is shaking! Are you even aware that Commander Chakotay has absorbed most of the stresses to relieve you of some of yours?

Those were his words that floated about in her conscious since he'd given her that order.

Chakotay… She realised that he too, suffered.

If she admitted it to herself, her body still churned with the echoes of their violent exchanges against unfriendly races in vessels bigger than Voyager. She had been relieved when they reached benign space and found Denosia. With Chakotay they had spearheaded intricate trade and diplomatic agreements resulting in much appreciated rest and relaxation for the crew. After two days of negotiations they were free to explore the cities of Denosia.

Now after strolling along rows upon rows of stalls with colourful wares and crafts, a little square where games were played and Denosians entertained them with their planet's musical instruments, she felt somewhat better.

After the negotiations Chakotay had become quieter by the day. She felt put out by his reticence, unable to divine his thoughts. He was definitely preoccupied and unwilling to share whatever troubled him. Seven years in the Delta Quadrant and he remained enigmatic about aspects of his life. While they always browsed on their own, when she'd asked him this time, he'd declined joining her on her walks through the markets.

"Madame…"

She turned at the sound of the voice of a Denosian. He stood quite still behind his table filled with fabrics of glorious shades.

"Ah, you are Captain Janeway," he corrected himself as he recognised her face.

"You were at the consultations with the ministers," she said as she too, recognised him. "Albemarle, isn't it?"

"Indeed, Captain."

"I take it you have a special function at negotiations when off-worlders come to Denosia?"

She phrased her statement like a question.

"Yes. very special," he replied. "Please, would you be so very kind to look at my fabrics?"

Kathryn nodded, then lifted the first length. It was of a light coral shade she had not seen since she'd last visited New Orleans Market District on Earth. The fabric slid over her palm, the texture so soft and strong that she experienced a jolt right through her body. It was sheer and light. Her head began to swim. What was happening to her? Breathing in deeply and slowly expelling her breath, she regained her equilibrium, albeit briefly.

When Albemarle laid the piece flat on the table, he deftly twisted it in the middle, creating whorls that enhanced the way the fabric would drape. It was exquisite, the only word she could use to describe it.

"What is this? Silk?" she asked at length.

"Silk?"

"A fabric created by a silkworm, the cocoon of its larvae, on my homeworld."

"We call it sia. And yes, Captain, on Denosia it is also produced by a certain insect."

"It's beautiful," she said, her voice awed as she caressed the spirals created by Albemarle's nimble fingers.

"It is more than beautiful. Have you noticed, Captain, that you are alone at this table?"

She glanced up sharply and retracted her hand from the soft material. She hadn't noticed at all. She looked about her, saw her crew and many Denosians milling about, crowding other stalls. She even noticed Chakotay standing about thirty metres away, in conversation with B'Elanna and Tom Paris. There was a general commotion about her, although the noise had remained just background sounds. She was indeed the only one standing at the stall. She gazed at Albemarle again.

"Why?" she asked, suddenly deeply perplexed.

"Captain, I have not shown you the sia that complements this shade," Albemarle started, caressing the spirals of the coral swatch on the table. He bent behind his table and retrieved another swatch of fabric. Another muted shade, reminding her of the sky over Indiana in autumn, not quite blue, but somewhere indefinable.

"Like tolai," Albemarle said when he noticed how she frowned again.

"Tolai?"

"Like when the sea and sky meet…"

Kathryn blinked at his apt description. She caressed the swatch, its softness and sheer texture every inch as breath-taking as the coral on the table. Sea and sky, indeed. Teal, she thought, a pastel teal was the closest to Albemarle's description. Then he used his bony fingers and placed the teal over a part of the coral fabric and began gently twirling in such a way that the teal and coral meshed together in swirls that made her gasp. Albemarle heard her intake of breath and touched her hand gently.

"This table and this cloth," he began, "go together. But it is more than that, Captain Janeway."

Her eyes already mirrored her question, perhaps hundreds of them as they battled for ascendance in her brain. Why, indeed, was this table special? She caressed the two joined cloths, felt the sudden breathlessness that had taken hold of her. Her fingers stilled, yet she could feel a certain pulsation, as if the cloths were breathing, trembling under her fingers, trying to tell her something.

"Many people, Denosians and those visitors from other worlds, and now, your vessel, are a little afraid, for the sia speaks to them."

She felt it, a message as yet not understood. She glanced up to meet his gaze.

"It has magical powers?" she asked, her voice tinged with a little scepticism.

"You do not believe in magic?" he asked, seeing her sceptical look.

"I believe in the order of things. This," she continued as she touched the sia and tolai lightly, "this cannot have magical powers." But then, her inner voice asked, how could she feel as though the sia and tolai were telling her something?

"No, Captain Janeway, it cannot turn itself into something else," Albemarle answered her question of earlier, "but what it does is speak to you. Your ordered mind cannot absorb this, so I ask that you accept it."

Kathryn nodded. "So tell me, what does it say?"

"You do not know?"

She closed her eyes, the pattern of the spirals imprinted on her brain, like a persistent image that lingered delicately at the edge of her conscious. She could see the two shades, how they blended, yet still able to appear teal and coral together but each still with its unique identity. Her hand rested on the sheer cloth, incredibly silky soft to the touch. She felt once more a slight trembling, not sure whether it was her own fingers that caused it or the fabric itself. A pattern emerged that caused her to gasp. A shape formed, delicately outlined. Her brows knitted together, slowly relaxing when the outline, completed, appeared like something she had seen before, something she knew from the first days. Then followed an array of events against a backdrop of colours, shapes and senses.

Kathryn's eyes flew open. Frowning deeply at the strange occurrence, she glanced first at Albemarle, only seeing him clearly after she'd dwelt in a haze amongst the corals and teals of flowers and Earth's natural wonders, her clear skies, her seas, seeing him... Albemarle returned her smile, remaining motionless behind the table.

Kathryn felt something, an urge to look away, to cast her eyes in another direction. Not the skies or the throng of visitors to the market. Something deeply magical that emerged through her ordered mind, the mind of absolutes.

What it was, she didn't know. All she knew was that she had to walk, for the magic she denied was happening. Magic? she thought absently. What it was, was never far from her. It was so strong, the magic that seemed to wrap itself around her, it impelled her to move away figures that obscured the one object she had to connect with. As if all about them were frozen in a moment, she saw him clearly, standing about thirty metres away studying something at another stall.

Chakotay. Dear, beloved man.

And Kathryn wondered suddenly why she thought of him as "dear" and "beloved".

He had not looked up yet, and so her thoughts flew through seven years of trials, of adventures, of bitter differences of opinion, of rejecting everything he offered to her.

If you tell me that you don't feel anything, then I'll tell you that you hide what is the best part of yourself.

Help me fight this war, Chakotay, then I'll rest.

Seven years and you haven't rested. Your body requires respite.

I'll tell you when I've had enough, Chakotay. Right now it's still way too early.

My shoulders are broad. Lean on me.

I'd like to, but not now…

She recalled conversations now, once almost forgotten in the haze of their arduous journey, a journey not yet complete. And those conversations stood out, those and many more like them. They stood out as clearly as if they occurred only yesterday.

Kathryn gazed at Chakotay and the softness of corals and teal, separate yet fundamentally complementing each other so absolutely that she hardly realized how the storm inside her stilled. She was seeing him for the thousandth time and for the first time, awareness sudden and silent as it dawned on her how incomplete she was without him. Awareness that scared her for her path of loneliness lay clear before her. Awareness that finally, she would gladly walk the path he walked. Gladly.

Chakotay.

It was there, all the time from that day through the mist of two starship viewscreens when his face, fierce, strong, battle-hardened glared back at her. She had sensed that beneath all that anger, peace for her could only ever be attained if she let his peace touch her. Love had eased gently into her being. He looked so dear, so achingly familiar, so achingly beloved that her eyes felt wet as she gave a soft sob.

In that moment Chakotay looked up and directly at her.

He'd sensed her eyes on him. It was not an altogether strange feeling. He always sensed Kathryn, even when she wasn't anywhere near him. Perhaps, he conceded, it was because they were always so close together - on the bridge, going over reports in her quarters or his, sitting together in the mess hall enjoying early breakfast, their weekly dinners. How many times had his insides burned and his heart raced because he felt her own body exude the restlessness that was always a part of her? She touched him without ever touching him and he'd wondered a thousand times whether she couldn't feel the effect she had on him.

Perhaps denying that she did. Only, another thousand reasons existed answering to the 'why' she couldn't follow the destiny of her heart. He remained patient, allowing it to rest just beneath the surface of his yearning.

Today he wanted to hover in her orbit, but not too intrusively. Just enough that he could observe her whenever he looked up from studying the many intricate jewellery pieces he'd seen at two or three of the stalls.

Then he paused when he saw something he liked. He held up the chain bracelet with charms of animals. He surmised they were the fauna of Denosia for he did not recognise any of them. It was what he considered to be Denosia's version of solid gold. It glinted in the sun as he moved it over his fingers. Kathryn would love this, he thought, as something unique to this planet.

Yes, Kathryn would like it, he knew with certainty. But would she accept it? He thought of the wooden box in his wardrobe that contained pieces he'd collected at homeworlds that found their way into his rosewood box. He'd replicated the box in the first year of they journey.

Giving a light sigh he asked the seller for a purchase price.

"So little?"

"Yes, to give to the one who holds your heart captive."

"How do you know what's in my heart? he asked.

"I just know."

"That is fabrication. Nonsense," he added when the Denosian frown at his word.

The old trader smiled. "I can see how your frown and your trembling fingers as you hold the bracelet reveal what lies deep and unanswered. You are wondering whether that person would accept a gift of beauty from your heart."

He gazed at the man for long moments, allowing the Denosian's words to sink in, allowing himself to accept the truth from a stranger. He'd nodded as he completed the exchange for the beautiful bracelet.

Yes, he wondered, would Kathryn accept it? She had been standoffish, a mood that intensified in the last year. How was he ever going to win her heart? How? In his rosewood box lay the eighteenth century watch he'd replicated for her birthday which she had gently declined, speaking about rations and saving. They'd been in a particularly difficult sector of space during which Voyager had sustained significant damage.

Adding the bracelet to the others in his box would be admitting defeat. His heart asked for nothing more than that Kathryn take it in her hands and cradle it, cosset it gently and hold it to her bosom. That was all he asked.

In the moment when his thoughts were heavy with images and conversations of Kathryn, he looked up, straight at where Kathryn was standing perhaps thirty metres from him.

Even from that distance he sensed how the turmoil he always felt in Kathryn began to lessen. Their eyes remained connected, in hers a quiet, gentle resolve. His heart thundered so wildly that the pain of it made him gasp.

He began walking slowly towards her. His body strained in the determination of his movement. As if by common consent the crowd parted for they sensed his mission. The Denosians nodded knowingly and those Voyager crew he passed simply frowned. Had he looked at them he would have seen how the frowns of confusion changed to a silent joy. Awareness of their reactions hovered only at the periphery of his conscious. His gaze was on Kathryn and even as he approached her he could see how a thousand emotions flitted across her attractive features. That none of those emotions registered as restraint or fear caused a painful pounding in his heart. She remained rooted to the spot, the new resolve in her eyes rendering her immobile. Did she arrive at a divine insight that made him walk unerringly to her without the fear that she would reject him once more? When he reached her, he nodded first to Albemarle before fixing his eyes again on Kathryn.

A light blush stained her face, but happiness lay in the way light danced in her eyes like he had never seen before. He took her hands in his and drew her gently into his embrace. There was no reserve from her for he knew instinctively that she had none now. And so they stood for endless moments while Albemarle smiled kindly.

She felt soft in his arms, the sensation alien to him. His fingers laced through her golden tresses. He bent to press his lips against her hair in a quiet, grateful benediction. Then Kathryn lifted her face to him. It was there, the release from everything that bound her to her duties, purpose, command. He had never asked her before. She had never answered before. Yet both knew what questions there had been in their hearts and how quietly, in an afternoon on a planet full of mystery, they simply knew that capitulation is never always about subjugation, but liberty.

He took her hand and tied the bracelet around her wrist, knowing that this time she wouldn't refuse his gift.

"Walk with me, Kathryn."

"I'll walk beside you. Always."

Her hand held firmly in his to the delight of onlookers, they moved away, perhaps to return to the ship or to find a less public corner of the vast market place to express their joy.

Albemarle waited until the couple moved out of sight, remembering how closely the man, Chakotay, held his arm around Captain Janeway, protectively, exactly as he had hoped they would be. , During the trade negotiations he had sensed their pain, and even as they had stood close together, also sensed how distant they were. He sensed in her the preservation of her heart; in Commander Chakotay the desire to take her heart and protect it with his. It was time, the city's Prefect told him, to return to the market and continue his work with Sia and Tolai.

He sat down, pulling the two swatches with him, giving a great sigh of satisfaction as he caressed the fabric. As if by some divine order, there appeared in his hands two exotics birds - one in the colour of the sia and the other a tolai. His eyes were full of tears and they grew warm as he spoke to them, like a father who bestowed a blessing on his children.

"Sia, Tolai, she would not have believed me," he said gently. "Our task here is done."

He stood up, raised is hands and released them to the blue sky, They hovered above him, then with swift flapping of wings they were off. He kept his eyes on the birds until he could no longer see them.

That night in Chakotay's quarters they sat on an intricately woven rug on the floor. Their heads were close together and sometimes he would lean in and brush his lips against hers. It filled him with wonder as she returned his caresses.

He showed Kathryn the rosewood box containing the treasures he had collected over the years - gifts for her when he had had no hope of them being received. She lifted the watch from the box and let the chain slide over her fingers. No words were spoken though her gratitude was in the way she smiled her thanks.

Silence surrounded them as Kathryn inspected each little treasure. The way she cosseted each item, smiling at him with the light in her eyes, he felt like drowning once more.

Then Kathryn frowned as she rubbed her chest for she felt some irritation. She had been doing that since they'd sat down on the rug, but he'd thought it could be just her overflowing happiness. Now he too, frowned. She had not noticed it when Chakotay's arm had been so protectively around her when they left he market. Now she opened her jacket, surprised when two feathers fell to the floor, one the colour of teal and the other a shade of coral. Her eyes lit up again as she recalled some mystical occurrence.

Kathryn told him about the cloth at the market stall, how she told the seller she didn't believe in magic when he suggested the fabric was speaking to her. Albemarle had told her how she was a person of scientific absolutes, that she would remain unconvinced and sceptical about the mystery of things.

And do you believe him now?

She told him how the fabric vibrated as she caressed it, that her scepticism had been tested in those moments.

I always sensed the restlessness on you even when you were at rest, he said, touching her cheek.

She told him how, in those moments all the fight left her because she began to believe the truth of Albemarle's words, that she had herself arrived without any fanfare at the truth.

What was the truth, Kathryn?

Albemarle spoke about the sia and tolai, how the cloths were only perfect when they co-existed more than what the complemented each other.

Sia and Tolai, Chakotay mused. Coral and teal, like these two feathers.

She told him how, when she looked up, she saw him, and how in that very moment peace descended upon her like a dove.

Chakotay picked up one feather, twisting it gently between his fingers. How was it possible? he wondered. The he drew in is breath. It was better that he not ponder on the mystery of the feathers, but rather that he accept it.

What will you do with it? he asked eventually.

She answered that she would let it join the watch and the bracelet in her medicine bundle.

"Then I am happy, Kathryn."