Author's Notes: This is an extrapolation of the 4th season episode Hunters, as requested by my good friend Tammy. I have tried to stay as close to the episode as I can, but in the interest of my aims it has been adapted and extended.

Occasionally the chronology has been slightly tampered with, but nothing likely to cause an arrest by the temporal police.

Disclaimers: The events of this episode, the characters and the script, which I have adapted, are copyright to the writers of Startrek Voyager. I'm only playing with a pre-existing episode for no profit. All standard disclaimers apply.


Chakotay sat on the Bridge of Voyager, his head cocked to one side as he listened to the garbled audio coming over the ship's internal speakers. Next to him Kathryn shifted uncomfortably, her fingers tapping on the seat of her chair as she listened, trying to make sense of the scramble of auditory cues. Abruptly the transmission died, and Chakotay looked over his shoulder at Ensign Kim as the captain got to her feet, her restless energy finding an outlet in her stride.

'What happened?'

'I don't know,' Harry replied, his fingers dancing over his console as he attempted to retrieve the signal. 'It just stopped.'

Chakotay watched as Harry continued to interpret the data that flowed beneath his fingertips. The ensign's face creased in puzzlement before he straightened. The confidence in his own judgement was clear in his expression as he explained that the message was being transmitted using the same relay system that Voyager had used to transmit the Doctor to the Alpha Quadrant.

There was a moment of silence as everyone on the Bridge digested that information, and began to reach their own conclusions. Kathryn stood still, one eyebrow lifted slightly in surprise. She looked across at Chakotay as he rose to his feet. 'Starfleet Command must be using them just like we did,' he said calmly as he stood next to her, feeling her warmth mingle with his as his arm brushed against hers.

Harry worked quickly to try and clear the transmission, and finally the message came through clearly. No one on the Bridge spoke as the voice relayed its brief edict. The sound was faint, and a mechanical purr distorted the humanity of the words. Still, the missive was easily distinguishable: "This is Starfleet Command to the U.S.S. Voyager. If you are receiving this message then please study it carefully. We have information -"

The message ended in a crackle of static, fizzling into a hollow silence that lingered in the air, underlined only by the steady rumble of Voyager's engines.

'That's all we got. It looks like the bulk of the transmission is lodged in one of the relay stations.'

'Can you tell which one?' Kathryn demanded, her movements becoming more restless as she stalked towards the ops station. If Harry Kim had been younger he would have balked at the captain's demand, but years of experience had taught him well and he had his answer in only a few seconds.

'It's about 3.8 light-years from us.'

Even as Harry gave the heading Chakotay knew what Kathryn's choice would be, and he couldn't help but smile. He would never be one to say that his captain was predictable, but to think that she would ignore potential communication with Starfleet was ridiculous.

Her eyes were downcast, studying the drab carpet beneath her feet as her mind whirled through a variety of scenarios in a heartbeat. He could see her assessing and dismissing the risks. If there was even the slightest chance that she could get this crew home today then she would take it. There was no doubt about it, but it was still his job to analyse and question her decisions.

Over the past four years he'd become used to being the external voice of her internal concerns. In the beginning it had been a challenge. He would throw the gauntlet of the possible consequences at her feet and always, without fail, she would pick it up and prove him wrong. It had been like a test. How far could they push one another's loyalties? How long before the inevitable issues of Maquis and Starfleet arose between them once again?

It had taken the better part of a year for them both to realise that there was no struggle between them, and no challenge need be issued. Perhaps once he had envied her position as captain of this ship, but now he knew what hell it was for her. The weight was heavy on her shoulders, breaking her piece by piece. Even now with the hopeful news of a way home her frame was rigid, as though it bore too much pressure to relax. She had a strength that he knew he couldn't match. In fact he doubted that anyone on the crew could command Voyager for a week, let alone four years.

She bade Tom to set in a course in her most confident voice, giving a quick nod of acknowledgement as Chakotay spoke. 'Last time we used one of those stations the people who built it weren't too happy.' He settled in the chair to her left as she replied, her voice smooth and unwavering in her determination.

'We'll deal with that if we have to, but I'm not going to lose this opportunity. We're going to find out what the rest of that message says.'

She didn't turn to face him, and as he watched her profile he could see the tightness and strain in her features. Her hair hid part of her face from him, but the lines bracketing her lips and the intensity of her gaze on the view screen spoke volumes. She was already bracing herself for disappointment. If your expectations were low then what could hurt you? If you hoped for nothing then how could you be disconsolate when nothing was given?

As those around him on the Bridge began to speculate about what the message might say he wondered if she would have been this way a year ago. When had this distance set in, and how did he go about bridging it? There was no question that the job would fall to anyone else. Of everyone on the crew he was the one who she felt most able to reach out to. Even Tuvok, her oldest friend, would be lost in this situation. His cool logic would only intensify the irrationality of any human emotion, and although Chakotay respected the chief of security he knew that logic was not the way forward.

All he could do was trust that good news waited for them at the relay. Not for his sake, or the crew's, but for the woman at his side who couldn't bear to reveal her fear to anyone. Not even to herself.

It was almost too good to be true. After years of flying through the Delta Quadrant, lurching from one catastrophe to another, the crew finally had their first taste of home. Letters may not be as good as smelling the salty tang of a sea breeze, or hearing the voices and laughter of your family, but it was more than any of them could have hoped for.

The corridors buzzed with the news of it, and the Bridge was no different. The captain had long ago descended to Astrometrics, itching to get the data at her fingertips. Chakotay stood on the Bridge, monitoring the gravitational eddies as all around him spirits ran high. It was contagious. Even though he knew that there was precious little waiting for him on Earth, it was impossible not to get caught up in the thrill of the moment.

Curiosity was rife, and as he stood at ease in front of the view screen he tried not to watch the others too closely. There was barely a face that wasn't flushed with exhilaration, or pale with nerves. Letters from home had the potential to bring bad news as well as good. People would hoard and relish the few sentences they could get from their families, and with it would return that bittersweet homesickness and the wonderings of what life could have been if a different path had been taken.

His lips curved into a faint, self-depreciating smile. His choice had been made earlier, he supposed. When they had been dragged into the Alpha Quadrant his life was already without family. His roots were lost and his character tainted by un-centred rage. He had to acknowledge that without the chance events that led him to where he was today there was a good chance that he would already be dead. Instead he was here, and it was Voyager that had become his home. It held the friends who had become like family, and although the rigidity of Starfleet was still present it had flexed under Kathryn's command. It was similar to the desperate, close-knit life of the Maquis, but at the same time so different that it could be at the opposite end of the scale.

The whisper of the turbo-lift caught his attention, and Neelix emerged onto the Bridge. His face was split with a wide grin, and in his hands were cradled a few PADDs. The atmosphere thickened, and Chakotay wondered just how many people were holding their breath.

'I am happy to announce that I have the first letters from home.' The Talaxian was almost bouncing on his feet. He didn't need to be human to know what this day could mean to the crew. Years of working alongside the small conclave of lost people had probably given him more insight into humanity than most humans got in their entire lives.

'Who are they for, Neelix?' Harry's voice was steady, but he couldn't hide his emotions. The young officer was the perpetual optimist to Paris' cool cynicism. They balanced one another perfectly, and Chakotay saw Tom glance briefly at his friend as though concerned of the ultimate consequences a letter might have on Harry.

'Well, this one is addressed to Commander Chakotay.'

Chakotay raised his eyebrows in surprise as he accepted the small device from their morale officer. He hadn't expected a letter at all, let alone one of the first. He sat in his chair as he scrolled through the text, his heart tightening in disbelief as his smile faded away. The words were clinical, detached, as though the person writing them were telling a story with no meaning. To anyone else it looked like little more than a report, but he knew that the professionalism was nothing but a facade. It must have taken her hours to write the cool account, to keep the emotions clear of her words. Still the letter stirred his heart, making him breathless with the horror of it. His calm demeanour had frozen into a stiff mask as inwardly his emotions waxed and waned in a tempest of confusion.

Over it all one thought reigned: how strange that his thoughts should have turned to the Maquis today, only to receive this news.

'Who's it from, Commander?'

Neelix's cheery voice interrupted his thoughts and he blinked, realising where he was. He was sitting in a command chair on a Starfleet bridge and wearing a Starfleet uniform. His friends had died fighting for their cause, and now lay rotting in shallow graves and prison cells.

All the while he sat here, representing the organisation they had grown to hate.

The self-loathing took him by surprise and he struggled to keep his voice clear of it. 'An old friend,' he replied, feeling the tension on the Bridge increase. 'The person who recruited me into the Maquis.' He seemed to realise the open curiosity of the people around him. In a moment of more clarity he might have noticed that there was no hostility or distrust on their features: Starfleet or Maquis, but he could not see their concern for him. All he could see was his own failing, and it tasted like acid in his mouth. 'Maybe I'll read this in private.'

He instructed Tom to take the Bridge as he hurried away, PADD in hand. He needed time to think, time to breathe, and time to work out how to tell the other Maquis on board that their fight had finally been lost.

It took him an hour or more to read the letter properly, allowing every word to be etched into his mind like an epitaph on stone. His own feelings on the matter were restless and see-sawed from self-pity to self-loathing, all the while tottering on a fulcrum of grief. He could find no balance, and it was with a cool twist of mind over matter that he pushed the feelings down. He couldn't be the one to show confusion. The Maquis had integrated well into this crew and were respected in their own right. If he showed any disgust at what he had become they would echo it, and the long healed rifts between the two crews would part once more.

He made sure that his face was neutral and his motions calm as he worked his way around the Maquis, telling them quietly of what had befallen their cause. The reactions were mixed. Some wept and others raged, but one emotion shed some warmth onto his icy heart. Pride. Not only for his former crew, but for the one he helped command now. For every distraught Maquis there was a Starfleet man or woman to offer consolation. Friendships withstood the old flaws, and consolation was a universal language. He didn't know how much those from Starfleet knew of the Maquis cause, and what the various members of his old crew had been through. However, it was clear that there was no hatred, and no judgement passed. There were just listening ears and open arms.

Chakotay swallowed tightly as he strode through Engineering, facing the last Maquis with all his courage. B'Elanna should have been the first to know, but he simply hadn't found the strength to face her. The fiery young woman would be the one hit hardest by the news, and it was her reaction he feared the most. In some ways she had been his protégé. In her he saw every success he had achieved on Voyager. He knew the credit couldn't go to him. B'Elanna had grown and adapted on her own, but she was the one who'd first given him hope that they could all fit in.

He finally found her near the warp core, her fingertips waltzing over a console as she read a report in her hand. She looked at home here, and at peace. He hated the fact that it was up to him to shatter that hard found tranquillity. With a parched throat he tried to find the words to say, and took refuge in a simple question.

'Have you gotten a letter yet?'

She didn't even look up from what she was doing, giving a small shake of her head as she read through the PADD. 'Don't expect one.' There wasn't any hurt or resentment in her tone, and he knew that none of the other Maquis had told her the news. In a way he wished that someone had beaten him to it. A cowardly way out, he knew, but it would have been easier to face her pain and anger if he weren't the first to bear its brunt.

He swallowed, glancing at the blank grey console beneath his palm. It took his weight without a problem as he leant on it for support, not caring that the grey alloy was rough beneath his sweaty palm. 'Do you remember Svera?'

That got her attention. She turned to look at him in an instant, her dark eyes narrowing in calculation as she tried to work out where this conversation was going. That was B'Elanna: ice sharp and fire hot in her fury when the mood took her. Still, she had learnt that not everything could be solved with a burst of temper, and now she thought before she acted, sometimes, anyway.

'Of course.' She said it like it was a stupid question to ask, her eyes intense as he told her he had received a letter from her. 'Why would she be writing to you?'

He didn't respond. He couldn't back out now and leave her questions unanswered, but he wanted to. In a way telling B'Elanna was like accepting it as truth. He turned away from her, unable to look her in the face as he sorted through his own thoughts to find the right wards. His silence must have made her uneasy because she put the PADD down with a soft clatter of plastic on plastic. 'Chakotay, what is it?'

'Something terrible has happened. I read that letter for an hour before I could accept it.' He turned back to face her, trying to put some force into his words, trying to make her believe as he failed to convince himself. 'It's over B'Elanna. There are no more Maquis.'

She shook her head, her denial instant and adamant. 'What are you saying? There are thousands of us!'

He tried to explain about how the Cardassians had found an ally. How they had found the ammunition, weaponry and ships they needed to destroy the resistance once and for all. She stood there, statue still. Every muscle in her body was tense with rejection. She spoke names, whispers of a past that he could never forget. With each one she shook her head, refuting their death even as he wished he could deny it.

'Everyone except us is dead?' she asked, her face losing its colour as her lips pinched into a thin, tight line.

'Just about. Svera and a few lucky ones are in prison.' He grimaced at his own words, wishing he could spit them from his lips. How could it be lucky to be in prison, incarcerated as the vanquished in a war about what was right? It was no happy ending for the Maquis, and deprived of that he felt lost and broken.

B'Elanna clenched her fists, and in that moment he saw her temper flare. She shook with it, her skin pale and warm with her own fury. A comforting hand was pushed away as her voice rose in volume and her denials spilt forward. Her breath panted from her lungs as he tried to remind her of the risks that they had taken. The Maquis knew what they were getting into. It was no consolation, even to him, and it only served to stoke her anger further.

'I will make someone pay, I swear I will!' She braced her arms on the console, her fingers curving into talons around the grim Starfleet grey. Then, cruel and cold, a small chuckle escaped her lips. Her eyes were still dark with fury as she turned to face him and murmured, 'if we ever get back.'

He couldn't think of anything to say. All he could do was rest a hand on her shoulder and hope that she knew that his pain was just as intense. Even as he tried to think of ways to comfort her he knew it wasn't his place. Just as the other Maquis had done, B'Elanna would turn to the consolation of her Starfleet friends. That left him on his own with no one to turn to except himself, and he was poor company.

The corridors echoed with his footsteps, and he found himself more and more ashamed of his initial reaction. At some point in his life he had begun to see Starfleet not as the politically bound organisation, but as the enemy. They had disappointed him with their lack of aid, and had let politics blind them to the true events. That made them deceived and ignorant, but they were not the ones holding the weapons, or pulling the trigger, of raping and killing his people.

The shame was added to the turmoil of his emotions, and with a swift change of direction he headed for the Bridge. He would not apologise for his actions, nor would he deny them. He could only continue with his life as he saw fit and right now he knew where he needed to be. He couldn't change what happened, but he could make a difference to the lives of the people who had forced their doubts aside and embraced the rebellious Maquis.

Hours of the shift passed under his restless watch. Seven of Nine and Tuvok had taken the shuttle to the relay, and the chirps and beeps of the ship systems were a constant musical harmony of machinery in the quiet air. The atmosphere had faded from pure excitement to a volatile cocktail of expectation and dread. Harry Kim stared sightlessly out of the view screen, his mind obviously occupied elsewhere, and Chakotay knew that the young man still anxiously awaited news from home.

Just as he had predicted the letters had brought both good news and bad. The news of the Maquis had not remained quiet for long, and the joy some people felt was tempered with sympathy and pain at the revelations. It was impossible to get away from the letters. They fed the voracious rumour mill with the first real news they had received for months.

The captain was in her ready room, and Neelix had informed the commander that she had received a letter from home. He wondered if her heart had lifted as his sank into grief, or if like several others on board the news she had received had been less than joyous.

A small smile curved his lips as he tried to reflect on the more positive messages he had heard. Tuvok was a grandfather and that alone was worth a little celebration. The stoic Vulcan had borne his congratulations with his usual calm. Pride was too strong a sensation for the Vulcan to admit, but he had confessed that he was "pleased".

His own letter was going ignored in his quarters. He did not want to re-read those words. His grief was raw and painful, but alongside that was an insidious fear. He knew he would need to talk about it, but he wasn't sure who could best bear his counsel. His thoughts had, predictably, turned to Kathryn. She was his closest friend, and despite her intense affiliation with Starfleet she was often able to answer some of his questions. Her unique view occasionally stirred his anger, making him grind his teeth in frustration as she tried to explain herself.

Even the hot flare of his rage would be better than the numb, bloodless sensation that weighed his limbs and smothered his mind.

He downloaded some information onto a PADD and flicked through it, checking the details were correct. He knew she would see through it in an instant, but it was the way things had become between them. They maintained the guise of work, and it was through that their friendship had flourished. Some of the deepest conversations he had ever taken part in occurred in her Ready Room, and they all began with something as innocuous as a report: an offering to the invisible entity of Starfleet that lingered in every room.

He pressed the chime to her Ready Room and frowned as the sound of her voice reached his ears. He had heard many things in her words before: anger, frustration, joy and sorrow. Sometimes he had even thought he heard a trace of love, hastily smothered by her business-like demeanour, but he had never heard her sound so defeated.

Fear seized him, casting aside all of his own concerns. She had received bad news; he was sure of it. Bracing himself he dropped the PADD back onto the station nearest the door. He wouldn't need it. He knew that he had to show her that he was there on more than just business, and that meant no offering to Starfleet. Not today.

The doors hissed open obligingly and he made his way through, taking in the scene in an instant. She was slumped at her desk, pouring over some data at her computer. Her hands were clasped neatly in front of her, and he could see her fingers moving restlessly, as though she were smothering the urge to wring them fitfully. Her face was pale and her lips grim. No smile flirted there and no laughter lit her eyes. Something had suffocated it from her, replacing hope with worry and desperation.

She looked up at him when he spoke, and he forced himself not to hesitate at the pain she failed to hide. There was no mask hiding her features and that disturbed him the most. Never before had he known her not to attempt to conceal her emotions. What had driven her out of hiding? What had made her finally show her fragility so readily?

'Looks like Tuvok and Seven pulled it off,' he said, injecting a level of cheerfulness into his voice that he didn't feel. He placed his hands onto the desk, leaning towards her a little. It wasn't a threatening invasion of her personal space, but it gave her the option to shift closer if she needed to. 'The containment field has stabilised quite a bit. B'Elanna says she's downloading the letters much more easily now.'

She seemed to take refuge in those words, but there was no happiness in her voice. She was almost disinterested, as though she were thousands of light years away and all that sat in her Ready Room was a broken husk.

'That's good news.'

Chakotay tried not to wince at the dead sound of her voice. 'We don't have the shuttle on sensors yet, but they should be back soon.'

She looked up at his from beneath her lashes, and the sadness faded from her eyes. It was an unconscious gesture, inadvertently flirtatious, and Chakotay forced himself to concentrate on her words. He couldn't rush her. If he wanted to find out what was wrong it would take great care and patience to extract it from her. He would let her pretend nothing was wrong, just for a little while.

'I've learned a few interesting things about the relay station,' she said, a touch of enthusiasm bringing the passion back to her voice. 'It's generating as much energy every minute as a typical star puts out in a year.'

She turned the screen so he could see what she was looking at, inviting him closer to examine the data that scrolled across the page.

'What's amazing to me is that someone, a hundred thousand years ago, was harvesting micro-singularities,' Chakotay murmured, silently encouraging her to continue speaking.

She leant forward on her arms as though confiding a secret, a wry smile twisting her lips. 'If nobody shows up to protest I'd like to stay here for a while, try to find the answers to some of these questions.' She turned back to the computer screen, her profile graced with a faint blush of excitement. 'This is the kind of archaeological puzzle that's always fascinated me.'

Chakotay's smile strengthened as he watched her. Blue eyes absorbed the information on the screen at an amazing rate, while the sharp mind behind them analysed and hypothesised. It was rare these days that he saw Kathryn get enthusiastic about anything. The thrill of the hunt had faded for her, leaving her with precious little to enjoy in life. It made her even more beautiful in his eyes, and the innocence of her expression was not lost on him. He wondered what she had looked like as a young cadet on the science career track, amazed with everything she had seen and passionate about every theory that came her way.

She was such a mystery to him, even now. He'd never asked her what had changed her path from science to command, and he had never found the right moment to broach the subject. Her hair was tickling her cheek and he resisted the urge to sweep it from her face and stroke away the faint lines of sadness that still haunted her expression, despite her interest in the relay.

'Want a cup?' she asked, picking up her coffee cup and moving around the desk. Her steps were weary and oppressed, and the china rattled slightly in her shaking hand.

'No thanks.' Standing straighter he clasped his hands behind his back, watching her walk away from him. In an instant the tension had returned to her, the fire of interest dying and leaving nothing but ash in its wake. As gently as he could he took the next step, asking the question that had plagued him since he'd entered that room. 'You haven't mentioned your letter. Who was it from?'

It was an easy enough question, inviting no explanation if she didn't want to give any. She put the cup down on the table, and he didn't miss how she wiped her hands on her trousers as though a nervous sweat slicked her palms. She flicked her hair from her eye with a small motion of her head and inhaled as she replied.

'It was from Mark: the man I was engaged to.'

He clenched his jaw involuntarily, not sure what to say. He hadn't been naïve of her relationship with her fiancé, and had always suspected that the lingering remains of the betrothal blocked her from moving beyond friendship with anyone else. The jealousy that flared in him was selfish and harsh so he smothered it quickly. Instead he studied her, trying to read her body language as she continued to speak.

'He told me about the litter of puppies my dog had, how he found homes for them, and how devastated he was when Voyager was lost.' Her arms hung at her sides, defeated and lax as her fists clenched and unclenched, though whether in anger or misery he couldn't tell. 'He told me how he held out hopes that we were alive, longer than most people did, until he realised that he was clinging to a fantasy.' She smiled sadly, the defence of her fiancé clear in her voice even as she tried to acknowledge that he was no longer hers.

'So he began living his life again, meeting people, letting go of the past.' She swallowed tightly, moving a step closer to him and putting a hand on her hip. 'About four months ago he married a woman who works with him. He's very happy.'

Chakotay looked at the woman in front of him, feeling his heart swell with sympathy as her features flickered with pain and her voice became husky with her grief. She was trying to smother her emotions, and as she stood there against the velvet backdrop of space he thought he had never seen her so strong. It was not her denial of her sorrow that made her so, but it was the truth of her words. She didn't blame Mark for moving on, but she couldn't hide her own pain at his actions. How could one woman, full of cunning and determination on the Bridge, be so willing to understand and forgive at her own expense?

Slowly he took a step towards her, lowering his voice and speaking gently as he watched her face, noting every line of distress.

'And how do you feel about that?'

She parted her lips, a faint wince forming around her eyes as she tried to put her feelings into words. Her tone was dismissive, but far from indifferent. 'Well, I knew he'd eventually move on with his life, but there was such a finality to that letter.' There was a glimmer of moisture in her eyes, even brighter than the stars behind her, and he felt a spasm of shock go through him. It wasn't that Kathryn didn't cry, but that she was barely holding back her tears here, in front of him. He didn't know whether to take it as a sign of her trust, a measure of her pain, or both.

She blinked them away, tilting up her chin as though to force the sadness back. One droplet fell from her lashes, tracing a painful wound of liquid across her skin. He had expected her to brush it away, to dismiss it without a thought, but instead she wore it like a medal; perhaps not with pride, but without denial.

His fingers twitched behind his back as he resisted the urge to caress her tears away, as though her sadness could be removed with such a simple gesture. He tried not to feel anything for himself, to push away the thoughts that she would never cry for him as she did for Mark. They were heartless and base and could serve no purpose for either of them.

Cautiously he lowered himself into the chair at her side as she sat down, measuring the distance between them automatically. He wanted to reach out and take her hand, to do something to bridge the gap that was already widening, but he knew where the line had been drawn. Instead he leant forward a little, studying her carefully and waiting for her to speak.

She sipped the coffee thoughtfully, finding a measure of calm in the bitter brew. The tear evaporated from her skin as though it had never fallen at all. He found himself wishing that her pain was so easily dissipated, but Chakotay knew she was already pushing it down inside her, adding it to a briar of other hurts that would one day entangle her in its thorns.

Kathryn seemed to awaken from some kind of reverie and with a swift shake of her head she dismissed the matter entirely. Her hair, already tousled from the day was beginning to fall into disarray, but she swept it behind her ear as she murmured an apology. 'I'm sorry, Chakotay. I never asked about your letter.'

If it had been another member of the crew they wouldn't have seen the pain that passed across his features, but she was used to the signs by now. At the first flicker of his expression she placed her cup down with a clatter and reached out to take his hands, losing her cool fingertips in his warm palm. 'Chakotay, what is it?'

He didn't answer straight away, choosing to stare at the carpet beneath his feet instead. Only when her thumb traced absent circles on his skin did he look up into her face. All of her own sadness and distraction had faded away, replaced instead with a fearful determination. Kathryn knew tact, and she knew diplomacy. She also knew when both could be cast aside as irrelevant. This was not his captain searching for information, but his confidant. She had peeled away all of his past secrets without judgement, and now she would do it again.

He began slowly at first, describing the letter and the reaction of the Maquis crew. He saw her pride like a beacon in her eyes and knew that she was glowing because of the reactions for every faction of her crew. She was proud of the Maquis for their passion and sorry for their pain. At the same time she was relieved at the Starfleet crewmembers' responses and support.

Chakotay's grip tightened on her hand unconsciously as he finished speaking, not daring to mention his own reaction and hoping that she wouldn't ask. He continued to stare at the floor and Kathryn's gentle sigh was a ghostly whisper in the calm air of the Ready Room. She didn't take her hand out of his as she stood up from the sofa. The grimace on her face was almost comical as she instead sat at his feet, forcing him to look her in the face.

She took a deep breath and looked at him sternly, a frown creasing her brow as she spoke. 'That was an interesting report from my first officer about the morale of my crew, but you haven't spoken for yourself.'

Chakotay sighed and leant back, removing his hand and tugging absently on his earlobe. 'I'm ashamed,' he murmured, staring out of the window at the vast expanse of infinity, unbound by any horizon. 'Not of the Maquis. Not of our defeat. Of myself.'


She was looking at him with such beautiful confusion that he almost smiled. He had never thought that the admiration he had for her was returned so fully, but she obviously couldn't fathom what he had to be ashamed of.

'It felt as though I'd betrayed them. I'd left them to die while I was here, living in comfort -'

'With your enemy?' Kathryn's voice was soft, edged only with the faintest trace of accusation. She was watching him intently, reading his face as though it were an open book. He tried to do the same, to analyse her expression and chart the hazardous way ahead. Her features weren't shrouded; they were merely blank. It was as though she had yet to feel an emotion that could be adequately displayed.

He nodded mutely, unable to deny the first violent slash of hatred he had felt on the Bridge. 'Then I told the others, and their reactions forced me to see how alien and misplaced mine had been. I loathed myself for the present. They blamed the past we've left behind in the Alpha Quadrant. I don't need anyone to tell me that they were right.'

'I understand.'

It was the last thing he expected to hear from her, and for a moment he was tempted to lash out: to ask how she could possibly conceive what it was like to live while other people died for what you believed in. The words were so close to the surface, but she didn't hold up a hand to stem them. Instead she waited, watching him swallow them back; bitter pills on his tongue.

'I understand why you feel that way,' she explained, never letting her eyes leave his face.

'How can you?' Chakotay shook his head, shifting restlessly in place. 'It makes no sense for me to feel that way. You know as well as I do that Starfleet isn't the real enemy.'

'No, but it might as well be.' He looked up at her sharply, concentrating on every nuance of her features as she continued. 'What did Starfleet do to help your cause? Mistakes were made on all sides, but that doesn't mean the reasons behind the conflict were misguided or misplaced.' She sighed, getting to her feet stiffly and retrieving her coffee. 'Now it's over, and there are no real winners.'

She sipped the beverage, wincing as the now cool liquid touched her lips. Setting the cup back down with a clank she turned to face him again. Her face was pale and pinched, and he felt a stab of sorrow for making her day that much worse. Her jaw clenched, and he realised that she had no excuses for the organisation that ruled her life. Her jaw clenched tightly and her hands curled again into fists, and he knew that she couldn't find any forgiveness for Starfleet. The realisation made her words all the more potent.

'I'm so sorry, Chakotay. The Maquis won't be forgotten,' A derisive smile twisted her lips for a moment, 'no matter what Starfleet and the Cardassians hope for. I won't let anyone forget about the Maquis on this crew, and I won't let anyone hide what they were fighting for.'

It was a promise. He could see the honesty of it in her face and in her stature. The defeated woman he had seen only a few minutes ago had stepped back into the shadows, replaced instead with someone who had the power to fight for those who no longer had the power to wage their own wars.

He stood up, reaching her side in a few paces and looking down at her. It was easy to forget how diminutive she really was. As a presence she towered over everyone else onboard, and her lack of height did nothing to detract from her command. Now, she was determined. Kathryn may never agree with the way the Maquis had fought for their beliefs but now her crew, Voyager's crew, carried those beliefs. She'd do anything for the people who served under her on board this ship, and she'd keep going until victory was her claim.

'Thank you.'

She raised her eyebrows in surprise and smiled in return, her eyes dropping to his lips for a moment before she looked away, clearing her throat.

'There's nothing to thank me for. I should be thanking you for listening to me talk about Mark.'

Was it his imagination or was that a flush on her cheeks? Whether it was at the memory of Mark or his proximity he didn't know, but when she looked back her eyes were a darker blue, and there was no trace of tears in their depths. His heart jolted strangely, and the grim spectre of pain and grief faded somewhat.

In moments of painful clarity he acknowledged to himself that a relationship between himself and Kathryn was a fantasy, nothing more, but he still thought frequently of a time when she would acknowledge what lay dormant between them. Now he could see that the fantasy was not his alone. It was a faint acknowledgement, little more than an unspoken suggestion, but it was something to light the darkness of the day.

His voice caught in his throat, soundless to express the questions he longed to ask. He was no lovesick fool, and he wouldn't pine after the impossible. Still, something told him that today he was one step closer to removing the boundaries she had drawn between them.

The innocent chime of the comm. channel broke into his thoughts, silencing him utterly as he listened intently to Harry's voice.

'Kim to the captain, can you come to the Bridge?'

Kathryn paused for a moment, her eyes lingering on Chakotay's face and her lips slightly parted as though to speak. Within two heartbeats she withdrew, pulling away from him in everything but reality. Her eyes dimmed and turned away from him, and with the slightest shake of her head she pushed all her human concerns and emotions aside. Without a word she strode out of her Ready Room, every inch the captain.

He didn't hesitate to follow, knowing that the necessities of command forced him to follow her suit. As much as he cursed Harry's interruption Chakotay knew that it was a blessing in its way. He needed time to think, to regain his balance and find the right way forward. If this was his chance then he would not lose it with a few thoughtless words or actions. For now it was the ship business that needed their attention, and its demands could not be ignored.

'What is it?'

Her demand was met with an instant response. 'We've picked up an automated distress signal from Tuvok's shuttle. Sensors show that there's no one on board.' Harry's face was grim as he relayed the news, and Chakotay found his eyes meeting Kathryn's in confusion. A dozen scenarios instantly came to mind, all of them ominous. He saw the flicker of guilt in her eyes and wished he could shake it from her even as he read her thoughts.

She knew that Tuvok and Seven were in danger, and already the blame settled on her shoulders. She had been lost in her own troubles in the Ready Room while two members of her crew were in danger. The doubts and recriminations painted a tortured picture across her expression before she shook herself into action.

The Bridge crew were already honed into an effective team, and it was with quiet confidence that they took their stations, searching the surrounding space for any sign of their missing comrades or any threats to the safety of Voyager. Chakotay took his seat, using the console nearby to conduct his own scans.

Kathryn moved from station to station, glancing at data and manipulating the scans with ease. He could hear the obliging chirp of command codes and input as she set to work. She never questioned the crew around her, but kept a close eye on the pulse of information that came from the sensors on the ship's hull.

It was a painstaking hour of work, and when Harry announced the presence of a Hirogen ship Chakotay felt his gut clench in concern.

'Tuvok and Seven are on it.'

Alive? Chakotay wondered, knowing that the same unspoken question lingered on everyone's lips. The captain didn't ask. She didn't have to. Her confidence was too great to give the worst conclusion any credit. Instead she gave a sharp nod of her head, indicating that Kim should open a channel to the alien vessel.

She faced the view screen like a champion, her eyes cold and her back straight. Every nuance of her posture spoke of her dominance. Chakotay wondered if the Hirogen would find it insignificant, or a tantalising view of more potential prey. It was unlikely that they would find her intimidating. Few aliens did - until they knew better.

'I'm Captain Janeway of the Starship Voyager, You have two of my crew on board.'

The Hirogen moved through the shadows of his ship, a massive creature. Vaguely humanoid the metal of his armour depicted striking musculature. Ridges and barbs protruded from the armour, giving him a more fearsome appearance. Very little of his flesh was showing, but two eyes gleamed from mottled pink skin. His gaze was calculating as he looked down, the angle of the camera making him loom even more.

'Disconnect your link to our module, and leave this space.' His voice was guttural, with the faintest hint of a snarl. It seemed disconnected, disembodied from the creature that stood so proudly. The mask covered its lips, hiding all but the most faint expressions from view. Chakotay rose to his feet, standing behind Janeway. Unconsciously he lifted his chin, watching the alien with defiant eyes, but even his large frame was of no consequence to the Hirogen on the ship. He was merely another, bigger form of prey.

'Not without my people,' the captain said firmly.

'They are my relics.'

Chakotay heard the captain clench her teeth at the flat statement, and wondered if she was recalling the gruesome remains of the creature the doctor had found earlier. Was that all that remained once the Hirogen had recovered their trophies?

Kathryn took the deep breath of a woman whose patience was being tested before she spoke again. 'I'm prepared to offer you something for their safe return. Surely we can come to an agreement.' It wasn't a compromise. It was a strategic move to test her opponent for weakness. Chakotay had seen her do it many times before, checking the willingness of a race to bargain or deal. Unfortunately he doubted that barter was in the Hirogen's vocabulary. They were a powerful race, used to taking what they were not given without a thought.

'If the rest of my group arrives you will be taken as well. I'm giving you a chance to run.'

The temperature on the Bridge seemed to drop a few degrees despite the careful regulation of the environmental controls. Harry's quiet intake of breath was barely audible, but Chakotay couldn't help but share the ensign's sentiments. The implications of the Hirogen's words were like a slap in the face. It was a blatant challenge, and Chakotay knew that Kathryn wouldn't back down.

'We don't run.' Every word was clearly enunciated, almost spat at the screen in disgust at the suggestion. Even Harry's grim warning that three more ships were approaching on an intercept course was not going to deter her. Despite the inadvisable logic of the situation Chakotay knew that the rest of the crew would be in agreement. It wasn't about something as nebulous as honour or as petty as pride. It was about getting as many of the crew back to Earth alive as they could. They would fight for every life without question. Besides, there was always the lingering thought that next time it could be you that Voyager was fighting for. Next time the captain's orders could be the difference between seeing your family again, or being jettisoned into the cold vacuum of space as no more than a corpse and a casket.

'They are mine!' The Hirogen's emphasis was cruel and feral, a challenge to the death as Kathryn's last plea for Tuvok and Seven's return fell on deaf ears.

'Then get ready for a fight. Red alert!'

The view screen went blank as the blaring notes of red alert sounded throughout the labyrinth of Voyager's corridor. The red light gave the Bridge an eerie, bloody look. It was the call to war. In centuries past there may have been rousing speeches, or gruesome chants, but the flat notes of the siren were enough to drive the crew into action.

The captain prowled. It was not a restless, aimless stride, but one with purpose. Harry kept her updated of the Hirogen's status, reeling off a bout of statistics about their opponent. They were formidable: a match for Voyager, if not the dominant force. B'Elanna was working furiously to extricate the message from the relay. She was trying her hardest, and the captain knew that she couldn't ask for any more.

Still she moved restlessly, as though wishing she could flex time itself. Grimly Chakotay wondered what else the message from Starfleet contained. Despite her kindness to the crew Kathryn would not be this concerned about personal communications. There was something else to fight for, and he felt unbalanced.

She didn't have to tell him everything. He knew well enough that there were some things that were locked away even from him, but it still made him feel as though he were taking an uncharted course. He turned back to his console as Harry continued in vain to target the away team for transport. The construction of the Hirogen vessel made it impossible to get a lock.

'The other three ships are closing. They're within six thousand kilometres,' Chakotay warned, his eyes glued to his console.

'Captain,' Tom called out, 'those ships have massive weapons. They've definitely got us outgunned.'

There was a tiny pause as the woman in command gathered her thoughts about her, planning a strategy to save them all from imminent disaster. Looking over his shoulder Chakotay saw her staring thoughtfully at the view screen. Then, like a star going nova the inspiration shone in her eyes. It was cautious, but there was a trace of happiness at her own cunning when she spoke.

'Harry, let me see those ships in relation to the relay station. Maybe we can use that quantum singularity to our advantage,'

'How?' Chakotay asked, listening intently to her explanation.

'If we can boost the effect of the singularity and increase the gravitational pull then we might be able to stop them.'

'An anti-thoron burst might do it,' Harry added.

'If we're not careful then we might be pulled in as well,' Paris warned from the helm as he stood ready to follow whatever orders came his way.

'Don't worry, we'll be ready for it. Harry, create a low level warp field around Voyager: sub-light energy level. That should help counter-act the gravitational pull.'

'If the field is too strong then we won't be able to beam Tuvok and Seven aboard,' Chakotay pointed out, testing the plan for flaws. To be honest it was riddled with potential pitfalls, and success could just as easily become disaster. With all the skill in the world pulling off this manoeuvre would need the touch of lady luck herself. Still, he thought, if anyone could do it then it was this crew.

'On my mark direct a level eight anti-thoron bust towards the station. Have thrusters ready for full reverse, Mr Paris.'

There was a moment of breathless anticipation. The air smelled of stress and sweat as everyone concentrated on their designated tasks, ready for the inevitable order. It was like waiting for the axe to fall. Would it be an execution, or would fate hand them a last minute pardon?

'Do it.'

Voyager trembled with the stress of the operation, her hull straining as the singularity began to destabilise. The great rumbling vibrations shook the fragile humans inside the ship's shell, and Chakotay felt his ribs shudder in concert with the greater shivers of the vessel around them.

'It's working!' Chakotay raised one eyebrow. He was surprised, although he knew he shouldn't be. The Hirogen ships were being dragged in towards the black hole as it was released from the restraints that had imprisoned it for so long. Space was already curving to its will as massive forces sucked them towards the event horizon.

'Try the transporter lock again, Harry,' Kathryn called out, striding across the shaking floor towards the ensign.

It was like balancing on a precipice, tottering at the mouth of an abyss and waiting for the inevitable shift that sent the ship plummeting into the void. Shields and integrity fluctuated as Voyager was twisted by the strain. Chakotay felt sweat prickle on his brow and his stomach tighten. He urged her to hold together, as though he could keep the ship in one piece by will alone. He knew that behind him, despite her cool demeanour, the same mantra was racing through Kathryn's mind.

'Torres to the Bridge.'

'Janeway here.'

'The anti-thoron burst collapsed the signal, Captain. I've gotten as much of the message as I'm going to get.' B'Elanna enunciated each word clearly over the dull roar of the trembling ship, leaving no room for misunderstanding. The finality in her tone was unmistakable and Chakotay knew that even Kathryn couldn't miss it. There was no hope for getting the rest of that message from the relay. There was simply nothing left to recover.

The captain's face twisted in disappointment: a moment of anger at her own failure visible on her features. With a sharp nod of her head she accepted the loss. 'Acknowledged.' She pointed a finger in Harry's direction, already striding across the Bridge to a different console. The aim of the hunt had shifted subtly. Now there was nothing to concentrate on except getting back the lost members of their crew.

'Harry, hail those ships.' Silence reigned for a fraction of a heartbeat before the faint whine of static indicated an open comm. channel. 'This is Captain Janeway. Agree to retreat and we'll restore the containment field.'

There was no response to her demand, and only the warning signal from helm gave them any indication that they had been heard.

'Captain, they're firing!' Paris' console exploded in a shower of sparks as Voyager jerked under the onslaught like a puppet on a string. The heavy, dull boom of the missile hitting home was like the first chime of a death knell. Billows of smoke filled the Bridge, giving the air a piquant scent of melted plastic and burning wire. Chakotay forced himself to focus on the data from his monitor. If he looked around now, assessed the damage or checked for the injured, he would be failing in his duty. Still, he risked a glance in Kathryn's direction, relieved to see she was still on her feet. Her hands were clenched around the support rail, white-knuckled and firm. Her expression was one of grim determination. She had begun this fight, and now she would finish it.

'Their weapons are destabilising the containment field!' he called out, his fingertips pressing buttons as he tried to make the information tell a different story.

'This is Janeway. Stop firing!' The strident words rang out in the small command centre, tinged with angry desperation at the Hirogen's own stupidity. 'You're putting yourselves in grave danger.'

'The field is going,' Harry yelled over the fizz and hiss of another explosion. 'The singularity is about to be exposed!'

It was like nothing Chakotay had ever seen. Despite the dire situation he watched as the relay wavered. Metal, thousands of years old, stood no chance under the stress. It folded inwards on itself, curling up like a wilting flower before vanishing in a dazzling flash of light. Violet streams of matter spun around the micro-singularity like water around a plughole, waltzing in a downward spiral towards the dark infinity of the black hole.

The Hirogen ships were drawn inwards like spiders caught in the flow. Orange flame blossomed from their hulls as the metal was peeled away, crumpled like paper by the massive forces that warred in the eddies of space.

'Captain, the ship with Tuvok and Seven is still being pulled in.' Chakotay watched the screen, his face severe. They weren't out of time yet, but the clock was still ticking.

'Get a tractor beam on it.'

He nodded, setting to work with swift skill as Kathryn faced Harry, watching him struggle to beam their colleagues aboard as the tractor beam waned, its strength no match for that of the singularity.

'If we try to transport them now the gravity well could scatter their patterns.'

'The tractor beam is weakening. We're going to lose them!' Chakotay warned, urging the captain to take some form of action.

'Harry, we'll have to risk it.'

The captain and ensign struggled for Tuvok and Seven's patterns as Chakotay sat in his chair, watching the ship's systems with eagle eyes. He kept half an ear on their conversation, but barely heard their suggestions and results as Voyager gave another violent heave, barely managing to stay clear of the abyss herself.

'The tractor beam is almost gone, Captain. We're losing this tug of war. That ship is heading into the black hole.'

She looked at him, and in one swift moment he saw that she was not going to give up. She would risk the whole ship if she had to.

'I'm re-aligning the pattern buffer. I've got one more shot at it,' Harry shouted, his young face creased with concentration as he tweaked and recalibrated the transporters.

The last Hirogen ship drifted inwards further, the faint drag of the tractor beam now gone it swung like an unanchored ship in a rip tide. Flames roared along its hull as the metal gave up, exploding into tiny shards of matter that were devoured by the ravenous hole in space. The crew fell silent, no one speaking as Ensign Kim continued to work. It was only when he announced that Tuvok and Seven were in transporter room two that a faint sigh of relief stirred the air.

It was short-lived. The imminence of their own demise settled like a shroud across the crew, stirring their movements with the desperate will to survive.

'I need more power. We're being pulled in!' Paris yelled over the top of the whines and beeps of his console. His whole body was stiff as though he longed to run from the phenomenon, but his hands were glued to the console, unable to leave their dexterous dance across the panels.

'Transfer all available power to the engines,' Kathryn called out, her face set in stern lines as she watched. There was no hunt, and there wasn't the thrill of victory. It was easy to fight another living being, but something as erratic as a black hole was a powerful phenomenon. You might was well try and battle a storm.

'It's not enough,' Tom replied with a shake of his head as the ship gave another lurch.

'Shut down life support.' They were fateful words from any captain's lips. Shutting down life-support was a gamble at the last chance saloon. You may save the ship at the cost of her crew, but it was a bet Kathryn was willing to take.

'Structural integrity is failing,' Chakotay called out as the shrill squeal of metal made his next words redundant. 'The hull is starting to buckle.'

'We're going in!'

'Open the anti-matter injectors to 120.' It was a move Chakotay would not have expected, and spoke volumes for her suitability as captain. Kathryn knew this ship, and she knew what the vessel could stand.

'Captain, that could breach the core!' Kim's audacity at questioning the captain's orders went unreprimanded as her cool, clear words cut through the panic.

'So will that black hole, now just do it!'

There was a whine of power and a sudden surge. The entire ship shook like a dog coming out of the water, casting off the gravitational eddies as she surged back into normal space.

'We're free.' Tom sighed in relief, his posture relaxing as he gently charted a safe course away from the singularity, leading the ship like a man would a lame horse.

'Resume course,' Kathryn said quietly, and for the first time Chakotay noticed the sweat on her upper lip and the paleness of her face. She met his eyes and smiled, easing his concern with a brief gesture. 'I'll be in Astrometrics.'

She swept out of the Bridge, leaving the crew to gather their wits about them. Imminent death had been turned away once again, and the atmosphere was thick with the scent of a fight. It took a few moments for every man and woman there to adjust their minds and to remind themselves that, once again, they had pulled through.

Chakotay looked across at the Ready Room doors, his patience waning as he waited for Tuvok to finish his report. He and Seven had been given a clean bill of health by the Doctor, and it had been left to the Vulcan to inform the captain about their latest enemy. Several hours had passed since they had hovered on the brink of annihilation. Tom was leading the ship with care while Harry worked on the transmission from Starfleet, attempting to decode its contents.

Shifting in his seat Chakotay did one last check of the ship systems before getting to his feet. If the rest of the crew noticed his restlessness they didn't comment. Perhaps they attributed it to the news he had received in his letter… He shook his head slightly. It felt like a lifetime ago that he had read those words.

He let the chime of the Ready Room doors sound, and heard the captain's swift response. 'Come in.' She sounded harassed, but it was better than the defeat that had imbued her tone only a few hours before.

The doors parted with a hiss and Chakotay stepped inside, pausing as Tuvok treated him to an impassive glance. Vulcan's may not be the most expressive of their emotions, but it was obvious that he sensed something pass between the captain and first officer.

'If you'll excuse me.' He turned on his heel, striding out with a nod of greeting to Chakotay before letting the doors slide shut. Kathryn rubbed a hand across her forehead, no doubt fighting off another headache, although whether it was Tuvok's report or the events of the day in general that spawned the pain it was impossible to say.

'Repair teams have inspected the ship from stem to stern,' he told her as he braced his hands on her desk, watching some of the stiff lines of worry on her face fade away. 'Except for some maintenance that's needed on the warp coils everything seems fine.'

A tiny smile formed, tilting one corner of her mouth upwards. It lacked strength, but it was a small acknowledgement that, against all odds, they'd done it. 'Good. Do you want some coffee?'


'Cream and sugar?' she asked, the lilt in her voice suggesting that such pollution was sacrilegious.

Kathryn Janeway may know him well, but she never remembered the way he liked his coffee. With a small smile he corrected her. 'Two sugars.'

'Ugh, two sugars?' She pulled a disgusted face, levelling an accusatory glance in his direction as she walked to the comfortable curve of the couch and the crockery that decorated the table there.

'You know you drink too much of that stuff,' he said gently as he followed her. It was a familiar lament, and she knew it held no weight.

'Really?' It was almost sarcastic, but the smile took the edge off her words. Between him and the Doctor there was always someone trying to tell her to look after herself. He knew that it wasn't so much that she didn't care about her own well-being, but that of the crew took higher priority. Coffee had become too broad a substitute.

'If I'm not mistaken that's you're third cup today.'

'Fourth,' she corrected him, 'and on a day like today it won't be my last. Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised. It's got me through the worst of the last three years.' She handed him the fragile cup and he cradled it in his hands. As always he felt large and awkward when faced with such a delicate thing, but he sat down without comment as she relaxed on the couch and propped her feet on the table. It wasn't a particularly lady like gesture, but it was comfortable and familiar. Besides, Kathryn may be a woman, but she was often far from demure.

'Oh, I'm sure Voyager will be fine,' she continued as she tapped one finger on the rim of her cup absently, 'but I'm worried that the crew might be a different story. I think they were thinking that mail call would become a regular part of their day.'

He nodded, knowing that many had wanted permanent contact with home. If nothing else it was a constant reminder of what they were striving for, and the welcome that would await them on their return.

'Neelix is putting together an impromptu party. He thought it might cheer them up.'

'Leave it to Neelix to come up with the right idea at the right time.' Kathryn grinned, taking a sip of her coffee. The mirth danced in her eyes and brought a touch of warmth to her face. The emotions of the crew and captain were reflections of one another. The morale affected the captain's mood, and in return the captain's prevalent feelings dictated the actions and reactions of her crew. The effect could be both relieving and disturbing, and on some of the worst days it was hard to find a glimmer of happiness in any face on board the ship.

Taking a deep breath Chakotay put his cup down, resting his elbows on his knees as he softened his voice, speaking as a friend rather than a colleague. 'How are you doing?'

'Me? I'm fine.'

There was a small, dismissive shake of her head, and Chakotay couldn't help but give a quiet chuckle. 'You'd say that if you'd just had your legs torn off by a Trakan beast,' he pointed out, knowing that there was barely any exaggeration in his statement. 'Look what you've been through in the last few days.'

She sighed, her breasts moving gently against her uniform with the motion. She leant her head back and treated the ceiling to the vacancy of her gaze. It was a signal of defeat, but it wasn't going to stop him.

'We finally make a connection with home and then it's ripped away from us. We manage to make another enemy who's going to try and hunt us down and destroy us and, on top of that…' He trailed off, feeling his nerves increase as they approached the subject that had plagued him all day. He had tried to fathom how any man who loved Kathryn could move on, and failed. It wasn't the lustful notions of loyalty that gave him that conclusion, but a certainty that if she was lost to him then he could not bring himself to offer the same intensity of love to another woman. He would be cheating his next lover and himself by pretending he could.

'It's all right, you can say it.' She lifted her head, meeting his eyes with her own gaze. The hurt was still there, but it was fading as logic and rationality soothed away the disturbance of her emotions. 'On top of all that I got a "dear John" letter.'

Her smile was self-depreciating as she turned to stare into the depths of her cup as she spoke her confession. 'It wasn't really a surprise. I guess I didn't really expect him to wait for me, considering the circumstances. It made me realise I was using him as a safety net, you know? As a way to stop becoming involved with someone else.'

She looked up at him for confirmation, and he felt something catch in his chest. It was a painful rush of emotion that he daren't betray. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? Was she admitting that now, without Mark, there was a chance for them to begin a relationship?

'You don't have that safety net anymore.' His words felt dry on his lips and he forced his feelings aside. Logic might not always be the key, but he had to see what was in front of him without the haze of fear or promise.

'That's right.' Her lips twisted in something akin to pain and Chakotay felt his happiness fade. She was depriving herself; he could see it. As soon as one barrier was pushed aside another grew in its place. 'Then again my life is far from uneventful here in the Delta Quadrant.' He smiled faintly at the truth of her words, waiting for her to continue. 'It's not like I would have had a chance to pursue a relationship, even if I had realised I was alone.'

'You're hardly alone,' Chakotay pointed out, wondering how she could ever feel that way. Only Kathryn could feel isolated on a ship with more than one hundred other people on board. He hesitated for a moment, trying to find the courage to voice the words on his tongue. 'To my way of thinking there's still plenty of time.'

'Plenty of time,' she repeated quietly, holding his gaze with her own. So many emotions dwelt there that it was hard to sort one from the other. Was she reminded of the long journey ahead of them? Did she realise that she didn't have to do it alone? Her isolation was a cage of her own making, and he could only wonder if she realised that. She was the only one who could unlock her prison cell, and yet she stayed there, surrounded by invisible bars and trapped by her own rules.

Hesitantly he reached out, taking her hand in his. 'I'll still be here, however long it takes.'

This time her smile was strong and true, and he knew that the double meaning of his words had not escaped her. He would always be there as her first officer for the duration of their voyage, and he would always wait for her to open her arms to him.

She would find a way to have it all, he was sure of it. He had faith. Not just in her ability to lead this crew home, but in the strength of her passion. Kathryn would not let the role of captain restrain her forever, and when that day came then he would be at her side.

'Neelix to the Ready Room. The party is about to begin, and there are only two people missing.'

Kathryn looked up at the ceiling with a flash of annoyance, as though cursing the untimely interruption. Raising her voice to carry to the comm. system she said, 'We're on our way!'

Coffee cups were set aside as the two of them got to their feet, and with a grin Chakotay offered her his arm, laughing gently when she accepted it.

There may be no professions of undying love, but something had flourished between them, delicate and beautiful.


The end