Dear John

Note: Mark Johnson. Janeway's safety net. Her excuse and emotional refuge for four seasons. In "Hunters," Janeway comments on the finality of his letter to her, and it's easy to see that letter as inevitable - after all, she was still fifty thousand light years away and not coming home any time soon, and he had given her up and moved on. We could hardly expect him to end his marriage on the slim chance that she'd make it back in his lifetime.

And yet. Kathryn Janeway is not an easy woman to love, but I think she'd be a harder woman to give up.

Rating: K.

Disclaimer: The story is Paramount's; its soul is mine.

There was no reason for the call to come at night, but I always knew it would. My wife was sleeping beside me, her dark hair tousled, the fragile bones of her face lit up in the glow from the street lamps outside. I'm always startled by the translucence of her skin; she doesn't blush or tan but seems to shine in the slightest light. It's as though she's touched all over by moonlight, but never the sun.

When I commented on it, she said only, "My ancestors are from Kazakhstan, Mark, not Ireland." She said it with a smile, no ire, no anger, and she never said the name, but the words bit all the same. I let her smile and leaned forward to trail kisses over her pale smooth cheek, whispering, "I know," until she laughed and batted me away. I didn't say that I know exactly where she comes from, exactly who she is. And I know exactly who she isn't.

I heard the console chime in the next room, but she didn't. Lying away nights waiting for an official transmission has never been part of her history; she slept like a baby, but I only ever skimmed the surface, resting just below wakefulness, primed for that insistent beep. It didn't matter that I hadn't heard it in years: I was still waiting. There was always a robe thrown over the back of the chair by the window, an emergency transport token on the bedside table. I thought I'd never need them, I didn't even want to need them, but I was always ready.

I would have ignored it: past 0200, and probably a mistransmission anyway – a wrong number, my grandmother would have said. But after a few minutes staring at the ceiling, trying to block out the beeping, the thought that it was the downstairs neighbor calling in panic or the doctors calling about my mother, pushed me up and out of bed. Even with an emergency pressing at the back of my mind, I tied the robe over my bare chest and ran a hand through my hair before I hurried to the bedroom door.

I almost stopped, though, when I saw that it was a Starfleet signal, muted the console and went back to bed. I could have returned to my wife, the life I was barely getting used to, where no one got ordered off planet or drafted into distant and improbable wars. I slid into the chair behind the desk console, and leaned forward, fingers hovering over the keypad. In the next room, my wife turned over with a rustle and a sigh, and it was almost impossible not to go back to her. She had never disappeared without a trace and left me in pieces; she never would.

But of course, I entered the access code instead, opened the queue to see SC34157: (Janeway, P. to Johnson, M.) LIVE TRANSMIT. I drew in a deep breath; I knew Phoebe well, since we had spent years together, lamenting losing her sister and my lover first to meetings, then to deep space, and finally to fate. Since my marriage, I had seen her less and less. She was still mourning her sister, but I had stopped mourning my fiancé, and moved on to simply regretting the future we wouldn't have. Phoebe had never seemed to resent that, and we met it was still amicable, but I had never expected to see her past midnight over a secure channel again. I opened the call.

"Mark," she said, and then stopped short. Her grey eyes were shadowed, the dark circles underneath pronounced, and I could tell that she too had dragged herself from her bed. All the same, she was neatly dressed, hair swept into submission and a clean shawl wrapped across her shoulders. I knew without asking that she kept it by her bed too, to pull on when the chime sounded.

"Phoebe," I said. I couldn't read her expression; it might have been sorrow or fear, resignation or exhaustion. A thought grabbed me, and I leaned forward, suddenly tense. "Phoebe, is it Gretchen?"

"Oh, God, no." Phoebe broke out with a nervous laugh, and leaned forward too. In the light, her eyes were dancing, and I could see that a tentative smile played around her lips. "No, Mark, it's Kathryn."

My lips parted in surprise. "Kathryn's dead, Phoebe," I said automatically. After the official declaration and the memorial service, we had both clung to hope for months, wrapped up in the kind of fantasy that only military families know, and it wouldn't be the first time that Phoebe had called me late at night with a 'feeling.'

"She's not," Phoebe said, eyes bright. I said nothing, but I could feel the pity creep into my expression. I didn't look away, but it wasn't her I saw; I was confronted by the high cheekbones, arched brows, grey eyes so like the blue ones that I banished from my dreams. "Mark," she said sharply, and I had the feeling she knew exactly what I was thinking. "She's alive."

I pushed Kathryn away, lowering my voice. "I've accepted the truth, and you need to do the same, Phoebe. Kathryn is part of the past." The counselor's trite phrases sounded false and hollow, but there was nothing else to say.

Phoebe raised one eyebrow in a familiar gesture, and I swallowed hard. "I'm not arguing with you, Mark. This isn't another gut feeling. The admiralty called me at 0115." She tapped at the panels. "I'm sending you the proof Admiral Paris sent me. Believe it or not, but know that Starfleet Command believes it." Her expression softened, and she said, gently, "Call me back when you're ready to talk. I think I'll be up all night."

She closed the message, and I stared for a long moment at the queue, at the new file that blinked there: SC34211-ref34003. It had been a long time since I had received encrypted Starfleet communications, but I guessed that it was a standard media embed, forwarded from within Headquarters. It certainly wasn't a figment of Phoebe's imagination, but all the same, I didn't open it, just read the tag over and over. Fwd: [(Patterson, W. to Janeway, P.) re:EMH,VOY.]

"Mark?" In the absolute silence of the office, my wife's breathy voice was loud enough to pierce my concentration. I looked up to see her standing in the doorway, bare shoulders wrapped in the sheet and forehead wrinkled. She was clearly a little bewildered to find me at the console in the small hours of the morning, but then, she had arrived in my life long after Starfleet had taken my name of the emergency call list. "Is something wrong?"

I took a deep breath. "No, love," I said, reaching out decisively and switching off the screen. "I'm sorry that I woke you."

She fell asleep again quickly, but I lay awake for hours, watching the streetlamp's yellow light shine in her hair. Four months we'd been married; we had four months of living and working together, cooking extravagant meals and delighting in the mundane details of our partnership. It had seemed that I had learned everything important about her: I knew that she liked her borsht with pickles but no cabbage, that she stole the blankets each night but insisted that I pushed them away, that her brown eyes lit up whenever she was talking about social dynamism, which wasn't a topic that usually inspired excitement.

Now, though, she seemed a stranger, intimately familiar but ultimately unknown. I marveled at how lovely she was, how slight, how pale. I wondered whether she would have wanted a dog if I hadn't already had one. She often traveled to the Mars colony to visit family, but I wondered whether she loved the stars, if as a child she had ever pressed her nose to the transport window and wished to go there, someday. She was real beside me, real and impossibly solid, but still I didn't know her.

I turned over, staring at the ceiling. In a way, Kathryn had been a stranger too – a lovely, elusive stranger, who kept escaping to the stars. Though I'd known her all my life, it was much in the same way I knew my wife now, in the facts of past and her daily habits, bits and pieces of the life I had imagined us sharing. She liked her coffee black, made her bed each morning with precise corners but never picked up her books, and would almost squeak with excitement when a new article on particle dynamics came through the LCARS console. And yet, I had glimpsed something in her from the very beginning – the promise of a powerful, passionate soul, a woman it would take me a lifetime to know.

My wife shifted beside me, threw a sinewy little arm over my chest. The intimacy of the touch jarred me, because, as I drifted off to sleep, I had never felt more alone.

The next morning, I woke to find myself alone in the wide bed, the sunlight spilling across the walls in extravagant arcs. There was a cup of black tea on the bedside table, and I could hear my wife in the next room, humming as she gathered her things for work.

It took me a moment to remember why I was tangled up in my robe and why I felt so tired, and when I did I wanted to crawl back under the blankets, spend the day and every day after watching the shadows crawl across the room. I felt the empty ache of grief in my belly, and it would have been so easy to let it in – but I had promised myself that I wouldn't, four months ago. Though she didn't know it, I had promised my wife, too. I pushed myself up and took a sip of tea.

I had just shrugged on a clean shirt when she called to me from the office. "Mark?" she said, and there was a note of worry in her soft voice. "There's a transmission here from Starfleet Command – they don't usually contact civilians unless it's an emergency, do they?"

"No, wait – " I hurried out of the bedroom, still barefoot, but she had already opened the file. "It's nothing, really, just something Phoebe sent – "

I stopped in the door to the office, trying to place the voice that rang out across the silent room. "I told you, I don't have a name. I am the Emergency Medical Hologram aboard the USS Voyager." My wife lifted her eyes from the screen, and her expression was unreadable. Slowly, I walked around the table as the recording continued to play.

"All right, Doctor, could you repeat for the record your vessel's status?" I rested my fingertips on the back of the chair, inches from her shoulder. On the screen, a bald man sat behind a table, his arms folded, wearing an outmoded Starfleet uniform. I guessed that the other voice was a debriefing officer, sitting behind the recorder.

The man – the hologram – raised an eyebrow. "If you're going to send me back to my ship, time is precious – oh, very well. As I already explained to that other gentleman, Voyager is lost in the Delta Quadrant." I noticed that there were no rank pips on his collar, and that at his back was a stark hologrid. "We were stranded there nearly five years ago by a sporocystean life form known as the Caretaker. Local politics required that the technology that brought us there be destroyed, and the Maquis were drafted, so to speak." He paused and leaned toward the recorder, responding to some unspoken question. "But Voyager is perfectly intact, I assure you."

"We're all glad to hear it. Could you give me a current crew complement? Names, please, Doctor."

"Of course." His voice took on a slight singsong quality, but I barely heard his recitation, after the first name. "Kathryn Janeway, commanding officer; Chakotay, executive officer; Tuvok, tactical; B'Elanna Torres, engineering…"

After a few more names, the recording cut out, but I kept staring at the blank screen. This isn't another gut feeling. Starfleet believes it. I leaned my elbows on the chair back and buried my face in my hands: it was hardly enough, but I knew that if I called Starfleet and demanded the truth they would produce the proof positive that this had really happened. What I had dismissed last night as irrational and unlikely now seemed unavoidable and the ache inside me tugged, twisted, grew.

The chair jerked forward under my elbows as my wife pushed herself to her feet, but I didn't look at her. The hologram's sardonic voice echoed in my ear: Voyager. She stood for a moment, then said, softly, "Just something Phoebe sent?"

"I didn't know," I said quickly, pushing back nausea as her absence began to knaw at my insides. "Please, believe me – I didn't open it last night. I thought it was just some farfetched new evidence – I don't know, a sensor echo, a warp trail."

"Some warp trail," she whispered, and then laughed. It was a hollow, almost frightened chuckle, and I reached out trail a hand down her back, telling myself firmly that this was the woman who had chased the emptiness away. She flinched, as though she knew what I was thinking, then very deliberately relaxed. "What happens now?"

I sighed. She sank back down into the chair, and I rested my chin against the top of her head, letting my arms slip down around her neck. "I guess I call Phoebe, and apologize for calling her crazy."

She twisted in the chair, looking up at me, and I could feel her heart hammering under my hands. "No, I mean – what happens to us?"

"Us?" I brushed a strand of curling dark hair behind her ear, and kissed her on her forehead. Her skin was hot to the touch, and I reminded myself how much I loved that she wasn't particularly cool under pressure, that she didn't have to be. "Voyager has nothing to do with us," I told her, hoping it was true.

"Finally got around to opening that file, eh?"

Phoebe beckoned me into her office, shooing several teenage students out in the same motion. It was perhaps two hours after my wife had left for the university, claiming a family crisis to explain her lateness and my absence. I had sat in front of the terminal for fifteen minutes, trying to put in a call to Phoebe, but in the end I had grabbed my coat and headed out toward the nearest public transport station. I had been surprised that she hadn't answered at home, but now, seeing her nervous excitement, I understood that she had gone in to work to keep from flying apart.

Sinking into the proffered chair, I drummed my fingers on the table. "Yes," I said, finally. "And I came to apologize for implying that you were delusional." She cocked her head and waited. "You're not delusional," I added.

"No," she said. She fixed her piercing grey eyes on me, and after a second I looked away. "Is that all?"

"It was going to be," I admitted, remembering the way my wife had clung to me before she walked out the door, the worry in her dark eyes. I didn't want to hurt her, and I didn't want her drawn up into the media circus that Voyager was going to become. "But I need to know – Phoebe, I just need to know what happened."

She measured me with her eyes, and finally nodded. "After they left Deep Space Nine, they were transported to the other side of the galaxy by some kind of alien entity. Admiral Patterson said that they were carried seventy thousand light years initially." She swallowed, running her fingers through her fine brown hair. "I don't even know what that means."

"It's a lifetime at high warp," I said softly. "This alien didn't send them home?"

"He died," Phoebe said. "and Kathryn, being Kathryn, destroyed his phenomenally powerful technology that would have brought them back." I felt my mouth drop open, and Phoebe pursed her lips, shaking her head slightly. "Something about the prime directive, not upsetting the balance of power – honestly, I don't know, because I was too busy cursing her at that point to be listening."

I thought about that, about the kind of woman who could maroon herself for her principles. I didn't know whether to say it, wanting neither to glorify nor blame her. I waited, staring at my hands, for Phoebe to say it instead, when she snorted suddenly. She tried to swallow the laughter that came bubbling up, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. I watched her for a long moment as she chuckled helplessly, her eyes watering, until she finally managed to say, "I'm sorry, Mark, you must think – but it's just so – so – "

I started to laugh, too. "Epic?" I supplied.

"Epic and absurd," she said, her voice catching. "Who but Kathryn couldn't just die, but instead- instead – " I could tell she was on the line between laughter and tears, between mirth and unimaginable grief.

"No one," I said frankly. All that grief, the anger and the relief, were mingled together, starting somewhere in my belly and rising steadily past my heart. The knot of grief lodged there since last night loosened and the release was physical: my hands shook and my eyes watered. Phoebe and I sat there together, laughing almost desperately, she at her sister's triumph, and me at the partnering tragedy.

I hadn't laughed like that for a long time, and I felt the buried heartbreak untwist, but I still couldn't tell whether it was relief or sorrow that crept through every muscle, every vein. I leaned back in the chair, meeting Phoebe's gaze, and together we sighed. "They should have guessed," she said at last, flicking her eyes toward the holoimages ranged along her desk. "They should have guessed, when they didn't find so much as a bulkhead in the Badlands, that they were still out there somewhere."

"They should have guessed," I agreed.

"Though if they're so far away – there was no way to know, was there?" She raised her eyes to mine and blinked back stubborn tears. "Was there?"

"No," I said, gently.

"Kathryn just – she's hard to kill," she added, a nervous hand fiddling across the desk.

I reached out to still her hand, wrapping her fingers in my own, holding her steady. "Phoebe, it's good to talk to you," I said, firmly. "But I need to know what happens now."

She nodded, and very gently pulled her hand away from mine. "I know, Mark. I forget that you – " She took a deep breath, and began rummaging through a pile of data modules on her desk. "It's hard for me," she said softly, "My husband, my colleagues, my friends – they don't know how, and I thought that maybe you – but I understand, you need to go home, and you can't do this with me."

I clenched my fist to keep from taking her hand again. "Do what, Phoebe?" I said.

"Wait for Kathryn," she said, clearly, looking up at me with a challenge in her eye. "Wait, and hope, and be ready to mourn all over again. I thought that maybe – she loved you so much, Mark, and I forget that – "

She hesitated, and I said baldly, "I didn't wait for her?"

"No," she said, the rich alto of her voice thin and brittle. "That you could stop waiting. Don't get me wrong, Mark," she added, hurriedly, "I understand, I – I envy you. You got another love, a second fiancé, a wife, and I just have this hole where my sister was. I don't get to stop waiting, and you do."

"And you're angry," I said.

"Not at you," she said, shrugging. Her narrow shoulders were tense, her grey eyes shadowed, and I remembered my own anger, the impossible grief that had collapsed in on itself and left me hollow. The dull, dry ache inside me barely echoed it, and seeing the blank anguish on Phoebe's face, I knew that I couldn't go back there. It had been the right choice when Kathryn had been dead, but now it felt like cowardice. "You want to know what happens now? I stay here and wait for my sister and you go home to your wife. That's what'll happen." She found the file she was looking for and held it out toward me. "That's what should happen," she added, her expression softening. "I know that's what should happen."

"I'm sorry I stopped waiting," I said quietly, not taking the module.

"Don't be. Your wife is a lovely woman, and Kathryn is alive and still a lifetime away." She shook the module at me. "But you need to write to her."

"Oh, no," I said immediately. "Phoebe, I couldn't – "

"Yes, Mark," she said, and her voice was like ice, like steel, like Kathryn's. "Starfleet is asking for letters. They think they can send them along the same network that Voyager used to send that hologram, and they're limiting it to one per family. You need to write to her."

"You, or Gretchen – " I said, helplessly. "She'd want to hear from – "

"She'd want to hear from you," she said firmly. "Mom and I agree. She loves you, Mark. Present tense, because I know her and the way she clings to the barest hope. No," and she held up a hand to stall my objection. "She's leading a solitary vessel across seventy thousand light years on the off chance that she can bring them home; next to that, holding on to you is small potatoes."

I swallowed, and closed my hand around the module. "What do I say?"

"The format and file limits are all on there; I think that one of Admiral Patterson's aides is coordinating the data packet, but I don't remember the name and – "

"Phoebe, what do I say?"

She looked at me appraisingly. Just then, she wasn't my friend, the woman who had sat with me for three days and nights after Voyager disappeared, who had taught me how to navigate Federation bureaucracy, who had shown me what it meant to be a Starfleet captain's family. No: she was the sister of a woman I had abandoned, and it didn't matter how good my reasons were or that as my friend she forgave me. "She deserves the truth from you, Mark."

I nodded dumbly, bit my lips and closed my eyes. I imagined Kathryn as I had last seen her – paging through reports, a cup of coffee in one hand, hair teased high and her uniform pressed to within an inch of its life. Was she still like that? Because I had never planned on letting go of that woman, the one who lined her pips and pins up on the nightstand before sleeping with her ear against my heartbeat. I had given up a warp trail, a smudge of hydrogen and carbon scattered between distant stars, not a warm and breathing woman with narrow palms and bright blue eyes, lost but still hoping for me.

"Oh, God," I said, finally, opening my eyes to find that they were wet with tears. "I didn't wait for her."

"Mark? Are you here?"

I started as my wife laid a warm hand on my shoulder. "You're home," I murmured, swinging my feet to the floor and glancing out at the darkening street.

"You fell asleep. You must be exhausted," she said, sinking down beside me and running her arm around my neck. I yawned, probing the couch cushions with my right hand for the PADD I had been holding before I drifted off. "Did you speak with Phoebe?"

"Yes," I said.

Her arm stiffened almost imperceptibly. "And?"

"I had to write a letter," I said, evenly. I dropped the PADD into her lap, leaning against the back of the couch and watching her profile. Her expression was deliberately neutral, controlled in a way that she usually wasn't, and I wasn't sure I liked it. That blank frown might have hid fury or fear, and it reminded me that the easy, open woman I had fallen in love with was not all that she was.

"It's short," she said, scrolling through it too fast to have read anything.

"Well, there's limited transmission space," I said, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. "They're still on the other side of the galaxy, and Starfleet isn't sure how long the communication window will be. It might be the only data packet they have time to send, and they want everyone to have a chance to hear from their families."

"Families," she repeated, then held the letter out sideways to me. "You'd tell me if I needed to read this, right?"

"You can read it, love," I said, softly. "You should."

She nodded and took the letter back, slowly paging through the text. I knew what she would see there: a few short sentences about the puppies, a message from Gretchen and Phoebe, my genuine relief that she was alive, and the inevitable truth.

It had taken me hours, distilling it down to fifteen hundred characters, and in the process it had been a dozen different letters. The first had been cold, distant, direct; the second was entirely about the dog. In the fifth, I admitted how much I missed her still, and I had wasted a sixth draft waxing poetic about losing her. By three o'clock and the eighth draft, I had cut out all the references to her eyes and my heart, and by four the word 'love' appeared only once. By the eleventh, I had found the words to tell her about my wife. In the end, the letter was ordinary, straightforward, almost foolishly simple: Mollie had puppies, I'm glad you're not dead, and I've been married for four months. There weren't words to say how sorry I was, how broken I had been, how much I regretted this banal end to something so extraordinary – and so I had stopped trying to find them. In the end, I said only the obvious: so long, and good luck.

So I knew what my wife would read, how friendly and bloodless those four hundred words were. I knew that I had never apologized for moving on, that I had never said how easily I could go back to waiting for her. Kathryn didn't need to know that for her I would gladly return to that widower's limbo, lie sleepless nights wondering if the call would come, wait a lifetime just to kiss her when she disembarked. Kathryn would never ask it of me, and it would kill me, but I would have done it. My wife didn't need to know that either.

She finally set it down on the table. "Is it really so simple?" she asked softly.

I met her eyes, almost black in the half-light. "Yes," I lied. She loved me; she had known me sunk in grief and seen me struggle out of it. But she could never know what it was like to love someone like Kathryn, bound to impossible principles and driven by passionate curiosity. It didn't diminish my wife, that she wasn't all tangled up in history like that, and it didn't make me love her less – but it did mean that she could never comprehend the scars across my heart. "I told her the truth: I held on to her longer than most, and then I let her go."

"Really?" I could hear the quaver in her voice, but she pressed on, quickly, "Because if you want to tell me that this changes things, I understand –"

"Hey," I said, and I kissed her very gently, catching her lips on my own and feeling her tremble against me. "Nothing's changed." I held her a moment; had she really just told me that she was ready to give me up to a woman three quadrants away? If so, I had underestimated her. The thought that she understood, enough to release me, made me glad that I'd written the letter I had.

"Computer, encode letter for delivery to Captain Kathryn Janeway," I said aloud, and this time, my voice did not catch when I said her name. "Care of Lieutenant Deidra Ammeht, Starfleet Command." I tucked my chin against my wife's head and thought; before I went to bed that night, I'd have to hang my robe up on the back of the bathroom door, put the transport token away, and mute the console. I wouldn't be getting any more calls, and even if I did, it was time to stop answering them. I took a deep breath, inhaling the clean scent of her shampoo all mingled with the musty odor of the old books she worked with. It wasn't warp plasma and Starfleet soap, but it was almost as familiar, almost filled the hole in my heart, and I kissed the top of her head gently. "Send."