Disclaimer: CBS/Paramount owns all things Trek. I'm just playing with the characters a bit. No infringement intended.

Summary: Some questions just HAVE to be answered. J/C. Post-Endgame.

Curiosity

By mizvoy

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." –Ellen Parn

March 2378

Curiosity got the better of them in the end, curiosity about certain lingering unanswered questions, about a close friend's few remaining mysterious qualities, especially after so many years of conjecture.

How would his warm, full lips feel upon her skin? How dark would her blue eyes turn when they were filled with passion? Where else on his body would she find tribal tattoos? Would she submit passively to his advances or match his aggression, taking what she wanted from him as he plundered her body? Would he be gentle or rough? Would she cry out or moan quietly?

The fact that they finally explored these areas of curiosity during their last day of debriefings was an irony they found especially gratifying.


The Oregon Coast

Chakotay ran along the bluffs that towered above the rugged Oregon coastline, enjoying the mist that cooled his overheated skin and appreciating the sense of solitude brought on by the low clouds and fog. He ran inside a white cocoon, able to hear the regular drumming of his footfalls, his accelerated breathing, and the dull roar of the surf hundreds of feet below, and able to see just enough of the path ahead to keep from stumbling.

As the towering outline of the five-star resort took shape ahead of him, he slowed to a walk and pulled the hood of his jacket over his head. He experienced a wave of anxiety and foreboding as he approached the buildings that had been his home for the last three months.

"Even a fashionable resort can feel like a prison after awhile," Kathryn Janeway had commented a few weeks earlier. "I wonder how much longer these debriefings are going to last? If I decide to make a break for it, will you come with me?"

"Not on your life. The food here is excellent, the maids leave chocolates on my pillow every night, and, anyway, I think we're lucky to be away from the public eye while we depressurize for a bit."

"You always bloom where you're planted, don't you?" she'd teased him, but with the gleam of real admiration in her laughing eyes. "I've always envied that about you."

He smiled now as he leaned over to catch his breath, his hands on his knees. What she'd said was true. He had been happy since he'd met her--happy on Voyager and blissful on New Earth. What she didn't know, and what he didn't mention, was that her presence seemed to be a critical ingredient to his satisfaction, wherever he was. He'd learned that the simple things bring the greatest pleasure—and for him, her simple presence in his life was the key.

The prospect of losing her upset him. The list of topics to be covered had dwindled very quickly in the last week, and the meetings had shortened to just an hour or two at a time, morning and afternoon. He had the distinct feeling that very soon, he and Kathryn would be set free—whether they wanted to be free or not—and the looming uncertainty made him nervous.

He had spent a restless night tossing and turning, and he'd arisen at his usual time, thinking that they would be embroiled in another debriefing by midmorning, only to have Kathryn call with unexpected news.

"The morning's meeting has been postponed until 1100 hours," she informed him with glee. "The only bad thing is that we're supposed to report in our dress uniforms."

"Must be an unexpected press conference or a photo op," he guessed. "Or maybe an interview with some new ambassador they want to impress."

"Probably. Maybe. Who knows?" She rolled her eyes. "I'm taking advantage of the free time by going to the spa for a massage and then taking a nice long soak in the hot tub. Care to join me?"

"Not today, thanks." He glanced out the window at the fog. "I think I'll go for a run."

"It's too cold and wet for my taste. See you at 1045."

The run had been just what he'd needed to help defuse his growing apprehension and give him time to ponder the reason behind the dress uniform requirement. It was unusual to have an unscheduled dress occasion, and he had a suspicion that it might mean that they were closer to the end of their "captivity" than he'd thought.

His anxiety had grown steadily after their return to the Federation. He'd been sorry to leave Voyager in dry dock where she would be slowly dissected by dozens of engineers and scientists, and yet relieved that the crew had been kept together for the first critical weeks of adjustment.

That relief, however, had been short lived. Most of the crew completed their debriefings in a month, and the senior staff finished three weeks afterwards, leaving the command team alone at the empty and echoing Oregon resort for the unforeseeable future while they underwent a series of comprehensive interviews. At least the later sessions had been more relaxed, with the participants wearing comfortable civilian clothing and meeting in a pleasant glass-walled conference room that had a breath-taking view of the Pacific Ocean.

What he liked best were the hours he and Kathryn spent together, the nights and the longer weekends, which consisted of Saturday night and all day Sunday. For the first time in years, they had been able to enjoy each other's company, spending most of their free time together, preparing for the next series of meetings, laughing over shared memories, worrying about their crew, playing velocity or going for long walks, and trying not to think about their futures.

They hadn't spent this much time alone since their exile on New Earth, when their real friendship had been forged, and in the five years since that time, their duties had come between them so often that their warm feelings for each other had finally chilled to icy inflexibility and shattered into a thousand sharp pieces. They had both been pleasantly surprised to discover that their friendship had endured in spite of all that had happened.

Chakotay did a few stretching exercises and then walked through the entrance of the hotel just as a small ground car carrying four Starfleet admirals arrived at the front of the hotel. He looked down at his rain-drenched running gear and decided to hide behind an enormous fern until they'd walked by. He recognized two of the officers, Admiral Hayes, chief of Starfleet Operations, and Admiral Benralage, who was in charge of Utopia Planetia, where Voyager had been undergoing an autopsy for the last three months.

"Four admirals, all in dress uniform," he thought to himself. "This is not a photo op. It's something big." He watched them head for the conference room and then walked slowly toward the guest wing, his imagination working overtime, trying to think of a reason for so much brass to come to Oregon on a cold and rainy Friday morning. He came to a stop and muttered, "Would they relieve Kathryn of command without the usual pomp and circumstance?"

Kathryn would be bitterly disappointed. Losing Voyager with no real parting moment would be a terrible blow, a final slight that would leave her feeling unappreciated and forgotten. He hurried to his suite and placed a couple of calls to San Francisco, soon confirming his fears—they were going to relieve her of command today. He hurriedly made a few last-minute arrangements and then met Kathryn in the hallway, as usual, so that they could arrive at the morning meeting together.

When the true purpose of the meeting became clear, Kathryn was, in fact, caught totally by surprise. Her hand tightened on his arm and she took a sudden deep breath, but those were the only outward signs of her shock and dismay. Later on, she would work through the emotional fallout in the privacy of her quarters--unless he convinced her to use him as her sounding board.

The admirals introduced themselves and lined up in front of the command team in the usual formal fashion, and Kathryn read her orders in a clear, strong voice. She was required to report to Starfleet Headquarters where she would assume the position of chief of the newly formed Delta Quadrant Studies team. She was also to turn over command of Voyager to Admiral Benralage, the commander of Utopia Planetia.

Chakotay stood at his captain's side as Voyager was taken from them, each word another wound in their hearts, until the admiral brought their seven- year adventure to an abrupt and humble end.

"Captain Janeway, I relieve you."

She raised her chin, tears shimmering in her eyes. "I stand relieved."

Everyone shook hands and paused for a few quick photos before the admirals packed up their gear and left the room for the next meeting back at headquarters.

"Report to this room at 1400 for your final debriefing," Admiral Alan Jones, their primary liaison with Starfleet, tossed back at them as he followed the others into the hallway.

The two friends stood in stunned silence for a long while before Kathryn finally sighed deeply and brushed the tears from her eyes with trembling fingers. "Well, that's that."

"That was wrong," he answered, his voice harsh. "You deserve a better change of command ceremony than that—in public, with your mother and sister here, with the crew on hand to cheer for you."

"What's done is done, and, anyway, it was just a formality. I lost Voyager months ago." She loosened the tight collar of the dress uniform. "We might as well get out of these monkey suits and find something to eat."

They walked slowly from the room, a respectful silence between them.

"I know this isn't how you meant the word, but aren't you 'relieved'? Relieved to be home? Relieved to have all the stress behind you?"

She chuckled. "I guess I am, when you put it that way, but I'm also sad. This was such a let-down compared to the day I accepted command of Voyager. It seems like a lifetime has passed since then."

"Come with me." He took her elbow and propelled her toward his suite. "I have a surprise for you."

"A surprise?" Her face lit up in anticipation. "For me?"

He grinned at her usual excitement about surprises and prepared himself for her inevitable needling. "I saw the admirals arrive when I was coming back from my run this morning and got an idea of what might be happening."

"You knew?" She stopped in her tracks and glared at him. "And you didn't warn me?"

"I guessed, and I didn't know for sure until we walked into the room." He pulled her arm through his, leading her to his door. "Now, close your eyes."

"What is it?" she demanded, giving him an excited look before she complied.

"You'll see." He led her through the door and closed it quietly behind them. "Now keep them closed for a minute."

"What have you done?"

"Be patient," he scolded from across the room. A moment later, he was at her side again. "Okay, now you can look."

She gasped as she took in the sight of a darkened room lit by two candles on a linen-covered table that sparkled with crystal and silver. Peace roses filled a vase and, at his command, soft music filled the room.

"I thought we needed a commemorative celebration," he explained as he led her to the table. She remained silent as he opened a magnum of champagne and filled two flutes, handing her one as he stood across from her. "To Voyager, may she always have a captain who loves her and brings her home."

"To Voyager," she whispered, fighting tears. She gently tapped his glass with her own and then took a sip, looking up at him in shock. "This is real champagne!"

"The best they had in the wine cellar." He winked as he put their glasses on the table.

"But we have a debriefing session this afternoon."

"It's just a formality—the final session." He gestured at the table. "Now, please sit down. I asked Maurice to fix us something special for our celebration and leave it for us in the chiller."

"This is so thoughtful of you." Her heart swelled in her chest as she watched him fuss over the food. He had always put her needs first, always helped her shoulder her burdens, and she regretted the fact that she'd taken him for granted and failed to tell him often enough how much she appreciated him. "I don't deserve you."

"You deserve better." He smiled at her as he set two salads on the table. "Now, let's relax and focus on all the good things that happened in the last seven years."

"And the bad things?" Her eyes glittered with tears. "The things we wish we could change?"

He gave her an encouraging look. "We'll forgive each other for our mistakes and raise a glass to absent friends."

"Yes," she agreed, her heart pounding. "Just one glass of wine, though."

"Absolutely." He gave her dimpled smile. "One glass."

The food was marvelous, the company was excellent, and soon the first glass was emptied and refilled. And then it was refilled a second time. And then a third. The longer they talked, the more personal was their conversation. She found herself telling him how much he meant to her and how much she would miss him "every day of my life."

"I'm not going anywhere," he promised. "You can depend on me."

She reached across his table and took his hand. "Let's toast to that."

"These last few weeks have been an eye opener for me," he admitted after the toast. "I can't remember the last time we spent this much uninterrupted time alone."

"I can." She twirled the wine glass between her thumb and fingers. "New Earth."

"Five years ago." He gave her a curious look; in all those years, she had never once mentioned that period of exile to him. "I thought you'd forgotten."

"I remembered too well." She could feel her face warming with a blush. "I couldn't let myself think about it."

"I couldn't stop thinking about it." His smile was wistful and his eyes lost focus. "I still wonder what might have happened."

"Do you really wonder?" Her smile was wicked as she thought about how close they had come to becoming lovers, but before he could reply, she changed the subject. "Let's move to the sofa. If I keep looking at that pecan pie, I'll finish the whole thing and be forced to replicate larger trousers."

He laughed, but stayed seated at the table as she rose from her seat, nearly overcome with remorse as the truth of her words sunk in. He did know what would have happened next. In fact, dreams of their imagined lovemaking had disturbed his sleep for months after they left the planet. She had meant her comment as a joke, not as a jab at his well-being, and yet he was stunned at how much the memory hurt.

"Hello!" she called, patting the sofa. "Are you on another planet?"

"I'm coming." He pushed back from the table and stood up with a groan, his head spinning and his stomach a little queasy.

"Are you feeling all right?" she asked as he steadied himself by grabbing the back of his chair.

"Too much wine. Do you realize we've drunk nearly half of this magnum?"

"Uh-oh, and it's only thirty minutes until the next briefing. I'll get us some coffee."

"You stay put. I'll get it." The trip to the tiny galley gave him time to collect his thoughts and regain control of his emotions. By the time he joined her, carrying two steaming mugs, he was able to smile at her again.

"Coffee," she gushed, snagging a mug and drinking deeply. "Thanks."

"If this isn't enough to counteract the wine, I have one dose of detox that the Doctor gave Seven, in case she drank some alcohol by accident. We can share it."

When she heard the former drone's name, her mood plummeted and the full effect of the champagne hit her. "I thought we'd agreed on one glass," she murmured, putting down the empty mug and pressing her fingers into her temples.

"We were celebrating." He shrugged his shoulders. "We lost track."

"I don't feel like celebrating any longer." She stood up, stretched slightly, and started to pace. "Now, I feel miserable. I remember how excited I was when I took command of Voyager, how I dreamed of great discoveries and adventures, how I imagined success far above anyone's expectations."

"Your first mission was successful. You managed to capture the Maquis and rescue Tuvok."

"I'm not sure 'capture' or 'rescue' are the operative words. And, anyway, I followed that triumph by stranding all of us 70,000 light years from home."

He shook his head. "I think you might have done us a favor. It would have been a crap shoot, at best, using the caretaker's technology without testing it first, especially with the Kazon firing at us the whole time. We might have all been killed. We might have ended up 140,000 light years from home."

"I guess you're right." She blushed, realizing for the first time that the likelihood of failure had never occurred to her. "I assumed we'd get it right the first time."

"I know you did." He laughed at the face she made, and then said, "I can't imagine any crew achieving more than ours did on Voyager. We mapped huge regions of unexplored space, met dozens of new species, pushed the envelope in propulsion, shielding, weaponry, and a dozen other scientific disciplines."

"I'm proud about our accomplishments, but I believe our biggest triumph was that we worked together so well. That's what makes it difficult to have our grand adventure end like this, without any real acknowledgment of the crew's seven years of dedication and teamwork. I just feel sad."

"The alcohol can't be helping. I'll get the detox." He stood up to retrieve it, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"I'm sorry, but it's not just losing Voyager that's bothering me, nor is it the alcohol. I should never have brought up New Earth. I always feel blue when I remember how . . . ." She shook her head, embarrassed at the tears that formed in her eyes. "I was happy being there with you."

"We were both happy. I'm sorry that New Earth has become a minefield between us when it marked the real beginning of our friendship."

"You're right, it was the beginning of our friendship. Yet the crew did the right thing by returning for us. We both know that."

"Yes, I guess we do know that." He paused, his eyes looking into the distance. "Even so, I often wonder what might have happened between us if they hadn't come back, or how different our lives might have been if we'd met under different circumstances."

"Oh, no." She shook her head in dismay. "I don't let myself think about things like that."

"There are times when I can't help myself." He led her back to the sofa where they sat down. "Do you remember the time the ship was shattered by that temporal rift?"

"You mean the time you burned out the deflector dish."

He nodded. "I refused to tell you the details of what happened because of the temporal prime directive."

"I remember how smug you were about that," she grinned at him. "Are you finally ready to 'fess up'?"

He leaned back against the cushions and crossed his arms over his chest, giving her a long, meaningful look. "I told you that the ship was fractured into dozens of different time frames, each one containing members of the crew."

"Yes. Some from the past, others from the future."

"The Kathryn Janeway I met came from a time before Voyager left Deep Space Nine. She knew nothing of our being caught in the Delta Quadrant, and she'd never met me in person."

"Really?" She leaned toward him, obviously fascinated. "What happened?"

"When I first walked onto the bridge, she was determined to throw me in the brig."

"Of course," she chuckled, "you terrible Maquis rebel, you."

"However, I managed to talk my way out of that and win her trust in the process. Barely."

"That doesn't surprise me. Go on."

"We had to work together to resolve the problem, coming up with a plan that required us to travel all over the ship and through many different timelines. In the process, we became friends, and I found out something that I always wanted to know." He paused, his eyes going unfocused as he remembered.

"Well?" she demanded. "What did you find out?"

"We were about ready to implement the plan and return everyone to their proper timelines when she pulled me aside for a moment. She was reticent and a little bit uncomfortable, but she told me that the two of us seemed to be very close friends in my timeline. She wanted to know how just close we became."

Kathryn stared at him, her mind quickly connecting the dots and seeing the big picture. Of course, that question implied that her past self had been powerfully attracted to him, so much so that she imagined their relationship going far beyond friendship, in spite of her engagement to Mark Johnson and Chakotay's rebel status. "So, what did you tell her?"

"I told her the truth." He shrugged. "I told her that there were barriers we never crossed. She seemed a little disappointed by that."

"I bet she did," Kathryn replied with a wink. "I'm disappointed, so why wouldn't she be?"

"You're disappointed?" He didn't bother to mask his surprise. "Aren't you the one who brought up parameters?"

"Yes, of course, I was. Don't forget that I was engaged to be married. And, I was your superior officer, and likely to be for the rest of our lives." She sighed deeply. "Why do you think I avoid imagining myself meeting you in another time or under different circumstances? It would be pouring salt on the wound."

"What wound?" he wondered out loud.

She frowned, her voice a whisper, "The wound I created in my heart when I let you go."

There was a protracted period of silence before Chakotay found his voice. "You mean to say that the woman from the other timeline was attracted to me?"

"She would have to be, wouldn't she? We are basically the same person."

"That's what I suspected, and it was the first time that I knew for sure that you cared for me." He rubbed his face with his hands. "It took me awhile to come to terms with what that meant. When I took the time to think about it, I realized we probably would have been involved with each other if we'd met under different circumstances."

"Probably." She clinched the hand she'd unconsciously placed on his forearm and then turned away. She could feel the second piece of pecan pie in the back of her throat and swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. "Maybe you should get that detox hypospray, after all."

He left the room without a word, and she closed her eyes in despair. Her emotional discomfort reminded her why she usually avoided discussing such volatile personal matters with him. Her other self hadn't thought things through or she would never have asked him a question that revealed her feelings so openly. But, to be fair, that Kathryn couldn't have been aware of their desperate situation nor of the limitations that it put on their relationship. And, when that woman had met him, she undoubtedly had been caught up in the surprise and exhilaration of their attraction to each other.

She clearly remembered feeling a shock of recognition when she first met him in person—the natural magnetic attraction and the instinctive conviction that he would do her no harm. She recognized him as someone she could trust, someone she knew, and the emotions behind that reaction had been too dangerous to contemplate. In the ensuing months, she'd focused hard on remembering her fiancé, Mark, mentioning his name to Chakotay frequently as a sort of shield against the influence her first officer had over her feelings.

Now that they were home, however, they might benefit from talking things through openly and putting the questions about their attraction to rest. She would like to do so, but only if she was able to keep her pulse from racing.

"I hope half of a dose is enough to do the trick," Chakotay said as he reentered the room, calibrated the hypo, and pressed it against her neck. "I'll take the rest."

She rubbed the spot absently and reached for the mug of coffee, turning back to their earlier discussion. "We always seem to work together well," she admitted. "Even on Quarra, when I didn't know who you were, we found common ground."

"Are you kidding? You turned me in to the authorities," he answered, sitting down heavily beside her. "I'd hardly call that working together well."

"I did that because of Jaffen. He shamed me into letting him report you because he suspected that I was attracted to you. He saw you as a threat, and he made me feel guilty about it—here I was, drawn to another man, and on the very same day that I moved in with him. And he was right--you did end up taking me away from him."

"You were attracted to me on Quarra?"

"I'm a sucker for dimples, I guess." She gave him a wink. "You have a way of showing up right after I become seriously involved with someone else."

"Bad timing has always been one of my worst problems." Their laughter died quickly as they remembered that his untimely, if brief involvement with Seven of Nine had short-circuited their first real chance to be together when Voyager returned to the Federation. The spell of companionship broken, he sighed and said, "Some things never change."

"I think we both gave up years ago, didn't we?" she buried her face in her hands, regretting that they'd started this discussion after overindulging in the wine. "We missed our chance."

"Do you think so? Is that why you were never willing to discuss it?"

"I refused to discuss it because I knew we weren't in a position to do a damned thing about it." She stood up and walked away, ordering a fresh cup of coffee from the replicator but then just staring at it in the alcove. "It makes me miserable to think about something I want, but can't have."

"And that brings us back to square one." He joined her at the replicator, standing behind her so he could lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. "What would have happened if we'd met at a different time? Under more favorable circumstances?"

She turned and looked up at him, her blue eyes luminscent with tears, and caught her breath at the desire she saw in his eyes. Because his hand still rested on her shoulder, he felt her body tremble as her eyes darkened with undisguised longing.

Seven years of unanswered questions hung between them, questions that could be quickly and easily answered, if they only dared to do so. She could take a single step closer to him and lift her face to meet his lips. He could pull her into an embrace and wrap his arms around her. They could forget everything and everyone else and focus, once and for all, on their burning curiosity, on their ravenous yearning to explore how far their mutual passion would take them. They just had to take the chance.

He moved his hand up her neck and into her hair, gently tilting her face upward as he leaned toward her. She felt his other hand slip around her waist and closed her eyes in anticipation, her pulse quickening as his warmth and the distinctive aroma of his scent filled her senses. She dreamed of relaxing in his arms, safe and protected from all the troubles of the galaxy and relieved of the burdens she'd carried for so many years.

As his hands pressed her against his body, he took pleasure in the way his larger frame enveloped hers, how he could finally rejoice in the sweet warmth and soft comfort of having her body beneath him, beside him, surrounding him.

When their lips touched, the kiss was a revelation, a searing, glowing firebrand that blazed through their flesh like wildfire, turning into ashes every excuse that they had used over the last seven years to keep this very kiss from happening. After a brief, breath-taking moment, they ended the kiss and pulled back, looking at each other in wonder and surprise, and then they shifted their bodies slightly to enjoy complete, full-body contact when they began a second, deeper, more probing kiss.

She melted into him with a rapturous sigh, molding her body against his as he lifted her slightly from the floor, smiling down at her with unrestrained delight. Neither of them had ever felt more alive than they did at that moment, their senses heightened by desire, their bodies crying out for pleasure and release. The kiss marked the resumption of an exploration that had been interrupted years earlier, the awakening of emotions that had been long repressed, and the opportunity to confirm whether their love would be as passionate and as complete as they had dreamed it would be.

Their eyes closed as their lips nearly touched. They paused to share each other's breath, their lips slightly parted in anticipation, when a loud pounding at the door brought them out of their trance. They stepped away from each other quickly, gasping in alarm and feeling slightly dizzy, and then they heard a voice through the door.

"Commander? Captain? You're late for the afternoon session, and Admiral Jones is growing impatient."

Chakotay cleared his throat, struggling to slow down his pulse and to sound as normal as possible, "We'll be right there. Give us five minutes."

"I'll let the admiral know you're on your way." They heard the man's footfalls as he made his way back to the meeting room.

Kathryn put her hands to her face, feeling the warmth of the flush that flooded her body. "If you'll excuse me for a minute, I need to freshen up before I can show up at that meeting."

He watched in despair as she hurried to the small bathroom, and then he returned to the kitchen so that he could bathe his face in cool water and try to regain control of his emotions. He had gone from burgeoning excitement to absolute disappointment in less than a second, and now he felt exhausted and apprehensive about what would happen next. Their physical contact had proven to be even more compelling than he'd imagined it might be, and yet he was unsure of what she would do about it now that their brief kiss had been interrupted. It was possible that she would brush it aside as an aberration brought on by too much wine and raw emotion, and the thought of that made him sick with sorrow.

She soon reappeared, once again a controlled and professional Starfleet captain. Without looking him in the eye, she said, "We'd better get this over with."

He nodded and followed her into the hall without a word, following a step or two behind her as she hurried down the hall. Then, without warning, she stopped and turned to him, her hands on her hips, her eyes troubled.

"What?" he asked, almost running into her. "I'm right behind you."

"Were you planning to leave tonight? After this meeting ended?"

He blinked, taken aback by her question and depressed that she was already planning to leave, when it seemed to him that they had every reason to stay put for a few more days. He shrugged and said, "I guess so. I hadn't really thought about it."

She made a face, turned on her heel, and started walking toward the meeting room at an even faster pace. "I haven't decided, either," she said, glancing at him over her shoulder. "Are you coming?"

He sighed and followed her into the room, sitting down beside her at the table as Admiral Jones and two captains welcomed them. His eyes widened a bit when he realized that everyone else had changed out of their dress uniforms. He reached for a glass of water as Jones asked, "I thought you two knew that you could dress comfortably for this afternoon's meeting."

"I assure you, sir," she answered, her voice totally serious, "that we were about to get out of these uniforms when we realized that we'd waited too late to do so."

When Chakotay heard her words, the water he was swallowing went up his nose and brought on a coughing fit as he struggled to catch his breath. He stood up and nodded at the attendees, saying, in a raspy voice, "If you'll excuse me for a moment."

"Absolutely," Jones replied. "Take your time."

She gave him a sideways look and a smirk that brought on another fit of coughing. She had known perfectly well that her words carried a double meaning that only he would understand. He shook his head in amazement as he stepped into the hallway to clear his nose and throat of water.

Inside the meeting room, she gazed innocently at their interviewers. "I'm trying to imagine what else you might possibly have to ask us about."

"Not much really," Jones answered, picking up a PADD from the table. "Just some closing thoughts about the way the two of you cooperated in running the ship."

"All right," she said, as her first officer returned to the table. "What would you like to know?"

"How long did it take the two of you to establish workable parameters for your relationship?"

"I'd say we're still working on that," he replied, turning to his captain. "Wouldn't you?"

"I'd say so, yes," she nodded, her mouth quirking into a smile. "Any decent relationship takes constant effort and attention when you are forced 'to sleep in the same bed,' to speak figuratively."

"I imagine so," Jones replied, frowning as Chakotay continued to clear his throat. "What shared qualities helped you forge such an effective alliance?"

"We both wanted the same thing," she replied, her voice so calm that no one would think twice about her meaning. "Even though we were pretty sure it would take years before we could achieve it, the mere thought of it was enough to sustain us."

"A shared goal," Jones nodded, "that is, the goal of getting the ship home."

"That, too," Chakotay replied, barely managing to keep a straight face as Kathryn reached under the table to take his hand. This was a familiar game, one they'd played a few times when they spoke privately with some smug alien dignitary or blow-hard, sending each other carefully disguised editorial comments that, if spoken directly, would have brought on a diplomatic disaster. To do the same thing while speaking to a Starfleet admiral was a delicious game that heightened his regard for her. He gripped her hand in return, afraid that his laughter would give away their scheme.

Admiral Jones continued, "You had no one to consult about your plans, no one to advise you. How did you deal with the inevitable differences of opinion about how to proceed with problems you faced along the way?"

"We didn't handle it well, at least, not always," she answered, glancing briefly at the man beside her. "You don't reach positions of authority in any hierarchy, Starfleet or Maquis, without becoming something of an egotist. But, we had no one else to rely on, and so we were determined to find common ground, no matter what the price. We needed each other, you see, in ways that no one else on the ship could understand or appreciate."

"Rather like an arranged marriage," Jones suggested, leaning forward, "a marriage of convenience."

"That became a 'love match,' although with barriers we could never cross," Chakotay interjected. "Once we understood each other, we managed to flourish in spite of the hardships."

"Which leads me to the next question," Jones said, with a smile. "Not many people can spend seven days in close proximity, much less seven years. Didn't you get tired of each other? Weren't there times when the other's habits and tics almost drove you over the edge?"

"Yes." They answered in unison, eliciting a laugh from everyone else in the room.

She squeezed his hand and continued alone. "Those faults were never self-centered or hazardous, however. They ranged from bad habits, like my coffee drinking, to poor ones, like my inability, at times, to listen to anything that conflicted with my own ideas." He inhaled suddenly, and she turned to him. "Did you think I didn't know about my own worst faults?"

"And that wisdom and honesty, even about her own faults," he replied, "is what made me, and all of us, really, follow her without question. I never saw her make a decision that wasn't based on the best ethical reasoning she could find—not even when those decisions skirted the edge of the Prime Directive."

"Maybe it's this trust between you that seems so extraordinary," Jones commented. "You seem to believe in each other without any reservation."

"Now we do, maybe," she answered with a laugh. "But it is a trust forged over weeks and months together. I carried a heavy, awesome responsibility that, at times, got the best of me. He knew that and did whatever he could to help me, as any friend would do."

"Just a friend?" one of the captains asked.

"Captain!" Jones admonished, giving the man a withering look. "We agreed that there would be no personal questions about the intimacy of their relationship."

"Why would you think that friendship wouldn't be enough?" she demanded, once again gripping his hand hard beneath the table. "Nothing is more comforting or more reliable than an intimate friendship."

"Well, of course, that's true," Jones replied slowly. "It's just that we have two officers, alone, far from home, a man and a woman . . . ."

She stood up, her hands on her hips, her eyes glaring. "So, of course, we had to be lovers."

"No one said that you were lovers!" Jones glared at the captain who had spoken out of turn. "Please, don't be angry simply because we thought of the possibility, even if you didn't."

"Who says we didn't?" She laughed at the look of surprise on the admiral's face and winked at him. "But, we were captain and first officer twenty-four hours a day out there. We didn't have the time or the chance to explore anything but friendship and, ultimately, friendship was exactly what we needed most." She sat down and placed a hand on Chakotay's shoulder. "Friendship, gentleman, is the bedrock of any relationship. Don't you agree?"

Everyone nodded. Jones glanced at the clock. It was Friday afternoon and the debriefing team had endured many long weeks of separation from family and routine work. He was determined to arrive home early, since there was so little left to be done here.

"One last question," the admiral announced, leaning forward to face them. "And then you're free to resume your lives."

"All right," she answered, quelling the excitement that bubbled inside her.

"Is there any exploration that you left undone in the Delta Quadrant that you wish you could investigate more fully today?"

They sought each other's hands beneath the table as the fresh, exhilarating memory of their passionate kiss washed over them, relieved that no Betazoid officer was present to sense the emotions that churned within them. In spite of the danger that their subtext discussion might be detected, she swiveled in her chair to look at him as if they were quietly sifting through their memories for an answer. In truth, the exploration they most wanted to investigate more fully had been rudely interrupted by this very meeting.

He returned her gaze, an inscrutable look on his face, and braced himself for whatever double entendre she was about to utter, for he had no doubt that the twinkle in her eye was the signal of a carefully-framed, inscrutable answer.

"That's an interesting thought, Admiral," she said at last, turning to face their questioners once again, "and a topic that the commander and I haven't really discussed. What would we dearly love to explore that we couldn't explore in the Delta Quadrant?" She paused to let the question hang in the air. Chakotay rubbed his mouth to disguise the grin that threatened to split his face in two.

Jones cleared his throat and offered some suggestions. "Perhaps an especially tantalizing anomaly? Or some engineering achievement? Or a culture that intrigued you?"

"Oh, Admiral, there were many such wonders that I would love to study more closely if I could. But, if doing so required a return to deep space, my answer is no. I've had enough of that for a lifetime." She shook her head. "I'm happy to stay inside the Federation for the foreseeable future."

"Then perhaps there is some data that you brought with you," Jones continued. "A piece of hardware? A series of scans or other information available in Voyager's records?"

"Now that you mention it, there is something I brought with me that I would like to study closely." Her face lit up with a smile.

"Excellent!" Jones was obviously pleased with her answer. "We all feel bad about the way you were relieved of command this morning, and I wanted to assure you that the scans and records that you made will always be available to you for further study."

"I may take you up on that offer, sir, but not for awhile." She turned to give her former first officer a quick wink. "I think I would like to explore a different body of knowledge—one that I was forced to leave untouched on Voyager because of my duties as the ship's captain. It's something I've wanted to get into bed with for years, and I suspect that it will keep my interest for the long term." She stopped to watch as the man beside her sat up straight in his chair and busied himself by filling his glass with water, his hands trembling. "Are you all right, Commander?"

"Fine. I'm fine," he croaked, downing the water in a gulp and coughing, again, in embarrassment. "Must be something I ate."

She gave him a worried look and then resumed her discussion with Admiral Jones. "However, I don't need to access Voyager's computers at this time."

"Let me know if you change your mind, and I'll make the files available to you at once." Jones stood up and circled the table to shake hands with Voyager's command team, his two assistants following close behind him. "You've earned some time off, don't you think?" He smiled at both of them. "You're welcome to stay here for the weekend, if you haven't made arrangements for a place to live. Of course, just call billeting if you decide you want to use Starfleet housing somewhere . . . like Hawaii or Bermuda."

"Thank you, sir," she answered for both of them. "That's very generous."

Jones and his entourage left quickly, leaving the two friends alone in the room, facing an uncertain future for the first time in more than seven years.

"Well, that's that." She turned and walked to the window where she could watch the waves crawl toward the shore. He could see in her posture that she was dejected. "The end is really here."

"In just three months," he replied, moving to stand beside her. "I thought it would take a lot longer."

"I did, too." She glanced at him and gave him a cryptic smile. "I guess the fact that we've had contact with Starfleet over the last year or so gave them a chance to come to terms with some of what we'd done before we returned."

"Also, now that the war's over, the 'crimes' of the Maquis seem a little less offensive than they did seven years ago."

"True." She glanced at him and then averted her eyes. "I should apologize for playing 'the innuendo game' when the stakes were so high. I hope I didn't embarrass you too much."

"You came close. Although I enjoyed the game, as always, you almost gave me a heart attack a couple of times." His grin showed off his dimples, but he seemed strangely bashful. "What made me happy was that you liked our . . . that what was happening when we were so rudely interrupted wasn't . . . that it didn't happen just because we'd consumed too much . . . well, that you weren't just letting the wine go to your head. Or, that's what I hoped you meant."

"I was afraid you'd think I'd regret that." Her face softened into a smile at his unusual stammering, and she cupped his cheek with her hand, letting her thumb brush over his lips. "My only regret is that it's taken so long for us to explore this part of our relationship. I'd almost given up on us."

"So had I." He smiled down at her, but then a movement outside the window caught his attention, alerting him to the fact that they were standing in full view of anyone who might be walking from the main building to the transport station located just outside the resort's front gate. In fact, Admiral Jones and his entourage would be using that transport station on their way back to headquarters. He took her hand in his own and nodded toward the window. "Let's go somewhere less public."

"Good idea." She led him by the hand across the room and into the hallway where she laced her arm through his, walking as close to his side as possible as they made their way slowly toward the guest wing. "I can't believe that I have absolutely nothing to do for the next six weeks."

"I imagined you'd spend that time with your mother and sister."

"I will spend some of it with them, but not for awhile. I had no idea we'd finish the debriefings this early, so I told them to go ahead with their plans. Mom's attending a seminar on Rigel V for another week, and Phoebe's in-laws are arriving today for a ten-day visit." They took a few steps in silence. This wing of the resort had been dedicated to Voyager's senior staff and was now empty except for the two suites occupied by the command team. "What about you? Won't you be going to Trebus to see your sister?"

"Eventually, after I take care of some loose ends on Earth." He covered her hand with his own, giving her an affectionate glance that made her pulse jump. "Since there's no one waiting for you in Indiana and since I can't tie up those loose ends over a weekend, maybe we should stay put for a couple of days. Admiral Jones said it would be all right."

"That's not a bad idea. This is a pleasant location, and there are some wonderful things to explore around here." She gave him a wink. "You know how I love to explore."

"I thought you might be tired of my company after spending the last seven years with me."

"Most people would expect us to be tired of each other," she chuckled, leaning her head against his shoulder, "but the fact is that I like being with you, even after seven years of togetherness. I can't imagine myself ever tiring of your company."

He stopped, and she turned to face him, a questioning look on her face.

"This item you brought home? The one that you were forced to leave untouched on Voyager?" he asked, unable to look her in the eye. "The one you want to 'get into bed with'?"

"Well," her mouth quirked into a crooked grin, "it sounds dreadfully presumptuous of me when I hear you say it. I should at least ask you if you want to get into bed with me."

"I think you know the answer to that question." He stepped closer to her, backing her against the wall outside her door and then brushing her hair away from her face with his fingers. He leaned in so close to her face that he could feel her breath on his neck. "I'm just as curious as you are about those unanswered questions."

"I'm particularly curious about the questions that take two people to answer." She relaxed slightly at his chuckle. After so many years of denial and emotional repression, she was relieved to be able to act on her feelings and was emboldened to know that her feelings were reciprocated. She closed her eyes, tilting her head so that his hand supported it. "I've been worried that our amazing first kiss was a product of the champagne." She took a deep breath, trying to clear her head. "However, that's a working hypothesis."

"We'd need to test that hypothesis to know for sure." His forehead was touching hers as he let his arm slip down behind her shoulders and pull her body close to his own. "I'm willing to give it a try."

She nuzzled his chin with a sigh. "I don't think we should start the test in the hallway, do you?"

"It might be prudent to retreat to your room."

"Good thinking." She turned in his arms and began tapping her entry code into the door panel while he dropped kisses on her neck and shoulder and then nuzzled her ear. When her first attempt at the code failed, she laughed, "I'm having trouble concentrating on this door code for some reason."

"That's funny," he murmured into her ear, "because I'm not having any problem at all concentrating on what I'm doing." When she finally managed to open the door, he followed her into the darkened room, expecting her to raise the lights. Instead, she turned, put her arms around his waist, and snuggled into his chest.

"I'm dying to find out whether that kiss was genuine," she whispered, almost dizzy with anticipation. Now that she was close to him, secure in his arms, she found that he towered over her. She had to look straight up to see his eyes and was spellbound by this new perspective on his face. The restrained power of his body excited her as she realized how easily he could physically subdue her, if he wanted to do so. She reveled in the warmth of his embrace and soon fixated on his sensuous lips. She wanted to feel them on her face, her neck, all over her body. She trembled at the thought of revealing herself to him, body and soul. His breath was warm on her face, and she breathed it in as she spoke. "Aren't you curious about how it will be?"

"Yes, I'm curious, and not just about the kiss." Her eyes were black pools in the dim light that seemed to draw him closer to her. One hand tangled in her hair, while the other pressed against the small of her back. He could feel her breasts against his chest, her thigh against his groin, and imagined the delights of her body that awaited his discovery. He wanted to envelop her, so intoxicated by the passion in her eyes that his heart pounded in his chest and his growing arousal prodded against her hip. He spoke softly, yet she could hear a warning in his tone of voice. "If I kiss you again, I'll want more. Much more."

"Oh, I hope so." She lifted her face to his and brushed his lips lightly with her own, her eyes drifting shut as a tide of yearning flooded her body. "I want to know . . . I've wondered for so long . . . what it's like to make love with you."

He grew suddenly still and looked down at her with tears in his eyes. "Have you, Kathryn? Have you really wondered?"

"I've dreamed and fantasized about us for years."

"So have I," he admitted, giving her a tender smile. "I've always wondered if reality would live up to everything I've imagined."

She stood on her tiptoes and whispered into his ear, "Let's alter course and find out."

As he scooped her into his arms and carried her toward the bedroom, she laughed aloud at the thought of opening this new and exciting line of scientific investigation, of finally discovering, with the proper attention to detail, the answers to their many questions.

They were explorers, after all.

The End