Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners (yep). The original characters and plot are the property of the author (mine). The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise (nope, not at all). No copyright infringement is intended (nope, not even a little bit).

Notes: Occurs outside of the events of "Broken" and can stand alone, but is most certainly related. Specifically, to Gine and Van, with all my love. It's also for all you J/C ers, though. Hope this helps, ladies.

Here Before

I check the chronometer as I pull myself out of bed. It's 0237. I sigh heavily.

The doctor has commed me, enlisted my help. We've been here before.

She's dreaming again.

The routine is so familiar by now I don't even think to ask. I reach for the sedative which has appeared in my replicator tray…clambering awkwardly into a respectable pair of sweats as I half walk, half hop to the doorway.

It's been particularly bad this week. I'm so tired I barely avoid stumbling into the walls as I make my way into her darkened quarters, having keyed in the access code I'm not supposed to have.

We've been here before, and I know the path I must trace now by heart; there is no need to call for the lights. I'm at the entrance to her bedroom in record time.

Soft whimpers greet me there: tormented, afraid. Disheveled auburn hair spills over a white pillowcase. Her head tosses restlessly from side to side – trying to escape from the iron clutches of hell I know she's fighting to free herself from right now.

Soundlessly – having been in the Maquis has its advantages, even now – I reach out a trembling hand to steady her movements, holding her head still with the least amount of pressure possible. She still resists the contact, but not quickly enough. A hiss punctuates the silence of the crisp night air: the sedative is released into her blood stream.

Now, I wait.

Odd, that the act of administering a sedative is what awakens her, but it always does. She starts violently, a ragged gasp tearing out of her throat. Her blue, tear-blurred eyes are shining up at me, glistening in the faint starlight illuminating her pale face. I imagine that I can hear her heart pounding uncontrollably in the silence.

I know it will take a moment, and am prepared for the resentment, the hint of fear and even disdain she isn't able to mask in these few, unguarded seconds while she fights for control of her expression in the aftermath of her night terrors.

I fight the urge to hold her arms, to place a palm against the side of her face: to reassure us both with the soothing contact of my flesh against hers.

I don't touch her again; it's the worst thing I could do right now.

We've been here before.

The resentment and the anger, I have managed to reconcile by now – in her, and in myself. How desperately she wishes it weren't I who slipped into her quarters in these moments, the only time she is ever this vulnerable. How desperately I wish it were anyone, anyone else who had to witness her beautiful soul stripped raw and bleeding, staining the pristine, rumpled sheets with the invisible blood she still sheds in the middle of the night.

But there's no other acceptable solution, and we both know it. There is no one else who knows her as I do. There is no one else among the crew who could witness this heart-breaking sight and still have the ability to smile the next morning as she steps out onto the bridge and takes her place in the command chair.

There is no one else who is almost as good at masking the pain as she.

"Chakotay," she manages hoarsely as those haunted eyes clear with the understanding dawning there.

At least she no longer screams when she sees me standing over her…

We've been here before.

"I…" she clears her throat. Her single question is a desperate attempt to deny the truth which I know has already settled in her formidable mind. She knows by now what it means to awaken from one of her nightmares to the sight of me standing here. Still, she asks it: "Again?"

I can't lie to her. By the spirits of my ancestors, if I had it in me I would…I'd make up something, anything to spare her the truth, but I can't. I must tell her that she has, once again, betrayed herself in her sleep. I must confirm her suspicion that she has, once more, triggered the doctor's monitor with her frantic cries in the cold dead of night…

It wounds her further, I know. Another indignity on top of so many she has suffered already.

At least she has the dampening field to preserve her dignity in so far as the crew is concerned. In so far as I am concerned, to some extent…

We've been here before.

I nod, maintaining the silence. It's what she's comfortable with, what I've grown comfortable with…oh, yes, we've been here before. I watch the struggle for control. I observe the swallowed sobs, the quiet shudders she can't entirely suppress. I feel my own heartbreak trying to burn through the back of my throat.

And I wait for her to dismiss me, as she allows the sedative to do its work and drifts off into a dream-free slumber…

She sits up in bed, gathering the bedclothes about her slender shoulders, curling into the blankets until she nearly disappears. Only a sliver of her bare shoulders is visible beneath her head, the straps of her blue nightgown contrasting against her white skin.

She looks so tiny like this, nearly swamped in a tangle of those covers. Her eyes appear huge in her head, shining with those unshed tears that nearly break what's left of my heart.

So fragile…

So unlike the steel-reinforced woman I know I will watch come striding onto the bridge in less than six hours from now, ready to take on all the Delta Quadrant can throw at us.

She looks away from me, and I see the struggle continue as her eyes – those incredibly blue eyes I know so well – continue to try to force the tears back.

We've been here before. She will win the battle, of course; she always does. The tears will be defeated, forced back through the sheer exertion of her incredible will, and I will be dismissed to the emptiness of my quarters. To the torment of the inability to heal the horrendous wounds still manifesting themselves in the vital core of the woman I love, even though her physical injuries have long since been healed and forgotten…

We've been here before.

But tonight is suddenly, inexplicably different.

Tonight, she breaks away from the wretched, practiced steps of our tragic dance for the first time in nearly a year. Tonight, she yanks the familiar right out from under me, leaving me to wonder dimly if I will ever cease to be surprised by this magnificent woman. This woman I love, and who has the sharp mind of a brilliant scientist and the courageous heart of a natural-born warrior…

The woman who is condemned to relive her most crushing defeat, the worst night of her life over and over again in the solitary silence of her quarters.

Tonight, for no reason that I can determine, the tears win. They begin to fall freely, marking her beautiful face and leaving a stain of vulnerability that cannot be denied. A stain, I realize suddenly, that is matching the dampness left on my own face as my tears, released by the sight of hers, are flowing, cascading in hot trickles down my face, spilling onto the carpet and wetting the grey material.

I wonder stupidly if they will leave a stain there, also. How can they not, when they are so bitter, so tinged with acid remorse and the anguish of such helpless torment?

"Chakotay," she whispers, her breath hitching on my name. This time when she utters my name, it is different – so different from the hard dismissal I have grown so accustomed to hearing. There is no surprise, no slow set in of reality, no ghastly realization of the horror striking her all over again.

No attempt to cover the quiet despair in her voice.

There is only the plea, the silent request in that word. There is the soft, gentle caress she hasn't infused into my name with her careful inflections for many, many months now…

"Chakotay," she repeats, and this time it is undeniably a muffled sob. And my heart is overflowing with the unmistakable invitation she is issuing now, even as I stand frozen by her bedside. "I can't…" incredibly, she lifts her head to face me, not even attempting to hide this unprecedented loss of control. Sharing it. Openly.

With me.

"What?" I try, through a throat so dry and swollen the word is hardly a croak. "What can't you do? Tell me what you need from me, Kathryn, and I'll do it. You know I will."

"I can't, anymore," she manages through barely controlled sobs.

Panic strikes me. I don't know what to do now. I know what I WANT to do; surely I know that. But what I don't know is what she can handle, how much is too much. How much of this is her, and how much of this is exhaustion and trauma finally overwhelming those formidable barriers and seemingly never-ending shields…

For a terrible moment, there is silence, broken only by her quiet sobs.

"Please," I whisper, more afraid now than I've ever been before. Still not knowing...

But when she slowly frees a trembling hand, unsteadily reaches out to me, unsure of my reaction, it's all I need. I snap out of it.

I move.

I move to where I belong, to the place that my own shattered, tormented soul calls home. Shifting the covers to the side, I slide in beside her, gathering her small frame into a bone-squeezing embrace just as she lets go, finally, the bitter tears and stifled sobs escaping from her at last.

Automatically, I tuck her head against my chest, holding her tightly as the bittersweet sensation of her tears soaking through my shirt confirm that this is reality; this isn't a dream. She's asked for my help, finally.

Finally, I am permitted to help her heal.

And there's no resistance from her. For the first time in a year she doesn't tense, doesn't try to hide the fact that she can't help recoiling from my embrace. She melts against me, sobbing brokenly against my chest. Whispering of horrors untold, and violations unimaginable. Lamenting with me the loss of the woman she was, the woman that can never be reclaimed now, not after what was done to her.

After what was taken from her.

I listen, for the most part silent while stroking her hair until she can confess no more, can reveal no more of her soul-shattering secrets and then she has collapsed, exhausted, against me.

Again, I experience panic and the dreadful sensation of not knowing…not knowing what it is she wants, or expects, from me…

She lifts her head again, sniffling. Weary. Drained, but relieved somewhat from her terrible, self-held burden. She meets my eyes.

Tonight is different.

"You'll stay?" she asks simply, and I can see the sincerity of the request written, clearly, across her pinched features.

Amazingly, I think she fears that I will refuse her invitation.

My heart leaps within my chest. I study her face, searching for any sign of doubt or uncertainty. I know what she is asking, and what she is not asking. I am searching for the now-familiar apprehension that will betray her uncharacteristic uncertainty that I will misinterpret her intentions…

When I can detect no hint of personal fear, no indication that she questions my motives for even a moment, I am free.

I will stay.

"Of course I will," I assure her, reveling in the peace settling over her features at my response.

It's been far too long since I have been able to see her truly at peace.

Delicately, carefully, and reverently, I arrange my precious bundle on the bed until she looks comfortable. I really can't even believe she's letting me do it at all… Keeping the fingers of her left hand intertwined with mine, I shift my own body to lie down beside her. She doesn't protest, or even seem to want to do so. She only heaves a contented sigh that is like a balm to my raw soul.

"I'm sorry," she whispers, unaware. Unaware that she has just given me the very medicine my tortured, ravaged heart has been crying out for all this time. Unaware that I have needed this as much as she has. Perhaps even more so – she has ever been the stronger of the two of us.

Her eyes have closed. "I wish…" she murmurs almost unintelligibly, trailing off ruefully.

I know, though, what she means. Spirits, do I know…

"No," I admonish her, propping my head up on my hand in order to watch her drift off to sleep. It's a sight I have longed to see for six years now…

Freeing my hand from hers, I allow myself the liberty of smoothing her hair, tucking it behind her ear. "There's nothing to be sorry for, nothing to regret."

Yet there is so much to regret…so much pain and heartbreak to mourn. So much hurt has been inflicted…the murderous rage, along with the impotent self-hatred I know so well is rising within me…

But nothing either one of us can do will change the past. It was she who first spoke this damning truth aloud.

She was right.

The hot tears are still stinging my face. For so long, I thought I'd never again know the meaning of this word: peace.

I have it, though. It's here, right here in front of me. Or at least…there is the promise that one day I will know it again. And the promise is lying beside me, cradled against me. Mine to hold. Mine to protect, if not from the harsh realities of our existence out here, then at least from the mind-numbing terrors of the dream world.

Though it isn't necessary, I find myself repeating an old blessing, one that comes from my people. My father taught it to me when I was a young boy…I'm surprised I still remember it. I thank the Spirits, beyond grateful for the incredible gifts I have received this night. After so much torment, so many agonies of the soul, these precious gifts are difficult to accept at face value…

And then I ask my spirit guide to grant the woman I love the gift of sleep: a sleep without fear, free of the demons that have been haunting her dreamscapes for nearly a year…

I don't know if the prayer has been answered, but a tiny smile seems to decorate her lips as I shimmy down to lie more closely beside her. Another gift, and my heart seems to overflow with the quiet, triumphant joy, the wonder of that one, small smile...

I'm not deluded enough to think this is the end of pain, the end of our nightly routine. When she awakens she will be embarrassed by her loss of control. She will be angry with herself, with me, even, for allowing this unprecedented moment of humanity.

Perhaps I will be angry with myself, too. Probably.

But I won't be sorry. Nothing can negate the simple fact that we both needed this tonight – needed each other.

Tonight is different.

It isn't the wild, loving embrace tinged with passion I've dreamed of, nor is it the heated, frenzied declaration of love I've fantasized about. But perhaps it's a start.

In any case, it's enough.

Tomorrow will bring new challenges, and eventually, the demons will take hold of her again. Eventually, they will invade her dreams, and then the doctor will be calling me to see to her again…

We've been there before. We'll be there again, I know. But I think, just before sleep overtakes me, that as long as we manage to end up here afterward – with me beside her, where I have always belonged – it will be all right.

I whisper the words we've been repeating to each other for so long. "It'll be all right now, Kathryn."

Only this time, I mean it.

"Believe you," she answers, with some difficulty if her slurred speech is any indication.

And then she's gone, dead to the world, the sedative...or perhaps the prayer...having finally done its work.

I stare at her for a while, content to watch her sleep. More than content, really. And I can't ever seem to help marveling at how beautiful she really is...

Exhaustion pulls at me, insisting that I get some rest, myself. For the first time in too long, I think that I can sleep through the night, too.

I do.