Note: Earlier this week, I somehow managed to upload a file of this second half that was missing a pretty pivotal scene. Here is the corrected version. There are a handful of other small edits and something got slightly rearranged. Apologies to anybody who read this during the 36 hours or so before I realized my mistake.

=/\=

Astrometrics was strangely quiet.

It had never been a bustling center of activity like other areas of Voyager, but today it seemed even quieter than usual. The background hum of the massive viewscreen was absent, and the main console was silent and dark. The illumination was minimal as it was on most of the ship, but Seven's ocular implant compensated for the dimness.

She had already removed the console's access panel and was pulling out its components one by one, arranging them in a pattern on the floor that would allow her to test them individually and replace them in as efficient a manner as possible.

She was alone in the room.

Tuvok, who had been her constant companion for the last few months thanks to his blindness and her responsibility for it, was on the Bridge today. And the Captain, who had promised to work with her in Astrometrics, had not yet arrived. In fact, the Captain was now two hours and twenty-seven minutes late. The ship's comm system was down for the second day in a row, so short of walking through the ship and locating her manually – and inefficiently – Seven had no way of knowing why the Captain was absent, or when she would arrive.

Perhaps she had been called away unexpectedly.

Perhaps she was simply avoiding contact, as she had since their arrival on Mawasi.

Seven had overheard the crew's murmured speculation about their leader's avoidance of anything other than cursory, line-of-duty contact with them. The Captain had visited most of the work teams, of course, and led senior staff meetings with her usual level of professionalism. She had not, however, been seen in the lodge for meals, nor had she joined any of the less-formal crew gatherings. Seven had even heard Lieutenant Paris describe her as a "ghostly presence," a silent specter at the edges of their gatherings and a melancholy thought in the back of their minds.

Seven had rejected the fanciful description, of course.

Nevertheless, her own observations were in line with the rest of the crew's. The Captain had removed herself from them, and no one knew precisely why. They were concerned for her.

Commander Chakotay's concern was especially evident.

His work was never anything less than thorough and efficient, but it was clear that he was emotionally compromised. Even Seven, as unfamiliar as she was with human emotions, could see the evidence without resorting to her remaining Borg implants and sensors. It was there in the slump of his shoulders whenever the Captain rebuffed him, the set of his jaw when the crew wondered about her. He was worried.

Worry was, of course, inefficient.

The Captain was an adult and fully capable of taking care of herself. His worry was irrelevant. As long as her work was thorough and efficient as well, there was very little point in anyone – the Commander or the rest of the crew – concerning themselves with her well-being.

Seven herself had more pressing concerns.

Tuvok's well-being, for one. He was also an adult, but no longer capable of looking after himself. Her concern and care were, therefore, necessary. And so she had devoted most of her off-duty time to helping him in whatever way he would allow. He needed her.

A curious sensation, being needed. Like being part of a Collective again.

And in addition to Tuvok, Seven had Astrometrics to contend with. It was vital that the system be fully functional before they left the Mawasi homeworld. So far the system had proved to be... non-compliant. She had requested the Captain's help because the Captain, unlike Ensign Kim, was far less prone to taking the system's recalcitrance as a personal affront.

Yet the Captain was absent today, and now two hours and forty-three minutes late.

And Astrometrics, as a result, was strangely quiet.

The whole ship was quiet, and had been since their arrival on the Mawasi homeworld.

Upon landing, the crew had evacuated immediately to the Mawasi resort cabins. Seven had directed the removal of her regeneration unit to a cabin near Tuvok's. She had thought that she would be assigned a roommate, given that she had no intention of using the soft bed. Occupying the cabin alone was an inefficient use of resources.

The Captain had given her an unreadable look when Seven had questioned her assignment.

"Is there someone you want to room with, Seven?" she had asked. "Someone in particular?"

Seven had blinked rapidly, unable to understand the reason for the question. "No, Captain. But I will not be using the cabin's full range of resources. Would it not be more efficient to assign a second crewmember to the space?"

The Captain had smiled. "The Mawasi have plenty of room, Seven. Enjoy it while you can. Soon enough we'll be back on the ship, living on top of each other again."

And so Seven worked alone most days, spent a few hours caring for Tuvok, and retreated alone to her regeneration unit in her inefficiently occupied cabin.

The Captain, however, had worked with her for the past two days in Astrometrics, and while she was not especially talkative, she had at least conversed about the repairs at hand. Seven, also not prone to idle conversation, had nevertheless found it...comforting to have another voice to listen to while she worked. The Captain seemed to understand this.

Seven pried another component from the console, scanned its serial number into her PADD and set it aside. This operation would be far more efficient if she had help.

She suppressed the very human urge to sigh and worked in silence for another seventeen minutes.

At 1100 hours, three hours later than her scheduled appearance, the Captain arrived in Astrometrics.

She breezed through the open doorway, offering an apology even before Seven could acknowledge her presence. "Seven, I'm so sorry," she began. "I had an appointment with the EPH this morning that ran longer than I expected."

"Apology accepted, although irrelevant, Captain." Seven stood up. "I have finished removing the components from the console so that we can -"

The Captain waved a hand. "Wait, Seven. I'm afraid I won't be working with you today. I just came to let you know." She cocked her head to one side. "And I came to give you and everyone the rest of the day off."

This time, Seven frowned. There was still much work to be done. "May I ask why, Captain?"

"Because Sam and Naomi are on their way, Seven. They'll be here in a few hours, and we're having a party."

Seven stood very still. "I am...gratified, Captain."

"I knew you would be." The Captain smiled, something none of them had seen her do for months. Seven found herself relaxing at the sight. Interesting. She would have to ask Tuvok what it meant that her commanding officer's expression could affect her in this way.

"So just leave this here, Seven." The Captain waved vaguely at the components lined up neatly on the floor. "We'll start in again tomorrow. For now, though, maybe you can help me with something else."

"Of course, Captain."

"Have you seen Chakotay anywhere?

Seven blinked. "I believe he had assigned himself to Deflector Control today."

The Captain raised the PADD in her hands. "I have the duty roster. I stopped in Deflector Control but he's not there. Has he been here today to check on you?"

Seven pondered her answer for a long moment. Knowing as he did that the Captain was to have been assigned to Astrometrics, the likelihood of his checking in on them was virtually nonexistent. The Captain might be avoiding him...but he was also clearly attempting to "stay out of her hair," as Lieutenant Paris might say. The fact that she was actively seeking his company for the first time since their arrival on Mawasi was a fascinating development indeed.

"Not today," Seven finally said, her face carefully devoid of expression.

"I see." The Captain slumped a little and her smile vanished. Seven filed this information away for discussion with Tuvok as well. "I guess I'll just keep looking, then."

"May I accompany you?"

The Captain looked up at her. Seven read her round-eyed expression as one of surprise. "Of course, Seven. I'd like that."

"Then I place myself at your service, Captain."

The Captain gave her a quick nod and headed out into the corridor, Seven following in her wake.

=/\=

Environmental Control was hotter than Vulcan's Forge.

Ironic.

Tom wiped his sweaty face on his sleeve, cursed mightily and sat back to stare at the console in front of him. The damn thing just wouldn't cooperate. He'd been trying all morning to get the ship's air recyclers up and running again. Nothing. Not even a wheeze.

An hour into the task he'd stalked down to the shuttle bay and opened the hull doors manually, just for a breath of fresh air. He'd found Chell there pulling spare parts from one of the shuttles. Together they had gone through the ship him deck by deck, opening as many access hatches and hull doors as they could find, hoping to let the fresh air in.

It wasn't helping. At least not in Environmental Control. Tom wasn't pleased about being assigned there in the first place. Chakotay seemed to have made a point of giving everybody else tasks they'd enjoy. Seven was in Astrometrics with the Captain, B'Elanna was elbow-deep in the warp core, Harry was working on the Ops system in Engineering, Neelix was in the galley. Even Chell, a scavenger of the highest order, got to do what he loved.

Tom had asked Chakotay why he couldn't be assigned to the Holodeck or Navigational Control. "The Holodeck is nonessential right now," Chakotay had replied, "and Nav is no good to us until the engines are running anyway."

"But why Enviro Control?" Tom asked.

"Because you're a man who appreciates creature comforts, Tom," Chakotay had said with a wicked smile.

Damn the Old Man anyway.

At least it was almost time for lunch. The incredible meals at the resort had just about become the highlight of his days. Well, the meals and the long, hot showers with real water. Along with the bonfires on the beach. The wide variety of Mawasi ales. And the soft, comfortable bed in the cabin he shared with B'Elanna.

Hell, maybe he was a man of creature comforts. Tasty food, a comfortable bed, a pretty woman, and time to enjoy them all. That was all he really wanted out of life. Maybe an occasional drink and a fast ship to pilot. He'd found them all on Voyager. And it was all so unlikely, he'd learned not to question it too much.

Even now, with the ship in shambles around him, he wasn't questioning it. They'd get the ship up and running eventually. Tom had complete faith in his shipmates' dedication to the cause. In the two weeks on Mawasi they'd all thrown themselves into the work without complaint, pulling together to make repairs, design replacement parts and come up with new ways to use resources. The hard work was a part of the crew's recovery process. Even those who weren't battling PTSD needed something to focus on in the aftermath of everything they'd gone through. The daily routine of meals together, hard work and gatherings at the resort and on the beach helped. The predictability gave them time to figure out what life after the Year of Hell was going to be like. Priorities were shifting. Tom could see it in their faces as they rediscovered who they were as individuals, who they were as a crew, and what they could be together.

There was still work do be done, of course, and Tom knew the healing process was an ongoing thing. Some of them would probably still be dealing with the consequences of everything they'd gone through for the next couple of years. Maybe longer. But at least they were getting there together.

Tom's stomach growled. He glanced at the chronometer and decided it was close enough to lunchtime to justify leaving his assignment a few minutes early. Just for good measure, he gave the Enviro console a good kick as he passed by it. It emitted a sad little wail.

"Serves you right," Tom muttered, and went off to find B'Elanna and Harry.

The corridors were dim and hot. The Mawasi sun had been shining on the hull all morning, and because the recyclers were offline the air had become stagnant. Tom unzipped his uniform jacket and slung it over his shoulder. No sense in arriving in Engineering a sweaty mess. B'Elanna's hypersensitivity to smell – his smell in particular – would probably send her into orbit. Tom grinned. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad.

Creature comforts, indeed.

Just outside Main Engineering, he started to whistle. Since the Year of Hell B'Elanna did not like to be startled. He'd found that out the hard way shortly after their arrival on Mawasi and spent their first days there being teased mercilessly about his black eye.

Now whenever he was about to approach her from the blind side, he whistled a warning. Today's musical selection was "We're Having a Heatwave," Irving Berlin, 1938. Seemed fitting, even if B'Elanna wouldn't recognize it.

He stopped whistling as soon as he entered the room.

B'Elanna wouldn't hear it anyway, given that she was cursing at top volume.

Tom was instantly on Red Alert, heart pounding. Not again.

He hadn't been completely truthful with Chakotay two weeks ago. B'Elanna's aggression hadn't been confined to their private interactions. Not by a long shot.

He trotted through Engineering toward the sound of her voice, hoping that she was just shouting in general and not at someone this time.

No such luck.

She was standing next to the dark warp core, screaming at Vorik. The young Vulcan looked startled – as startled as a Vulcan can look, anyway.

Tom slowed and listened.

The EPH had run a workshop for the friends and partners of PTSD sufferers on how to deal with these outbursts. Listen to the tone as much as the words, he'd said, which was especially good advice for Tom given that B'Elanna tended to scream in Klingon almost as much as Standard. Today Tom could make out only something about the warp core, and a mistake Vorik had made while performing a series of tests.

Wait, no, not a mistake. Vorik hadn't been working fast enough for her.

Tom listened to her tone again. Impatient. Frustrated. Desperate.

He took a good look at her. She'd stripped off her uniform jacket and turtleneck and her tank top was drenched. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and her cheeks were flushed.

She wasn't angry. She was hot. She'd always been a little hypersensitive to stimuli – heat and smell in particular – and even more so since the Year of Hell. It was possible the PTSD was causing her to express that sensory overload as anger. Screaming, in fact.

Tom caught Vorik's eye and nodded. The Vulcan gulped and nodded back.

"B'Elanna," Tom said softly. "It's okay. It's not Vorik you're mad at."

She whirled on him, cursing in two languages.

He held up his hands. "It's hot in here. You're just hot."

She bared her teeth. "Vorik's an idiot," she spat.

"No, he's not. He's a good engineer and he's been working hard." Tom searched his memory for the steps he'd learned in the workshop. "Take a deep breath," he murmured. "In and out. Remember where you are."

B'Elanna stopped stalking toward him. She took a deep breath. Then another.

"Good," he soothed. "Now think. Are you really angry at Vorik?"

She finally looked at him clearly...and started to relax. "He was working too slow."

"Or was he just being careful?"

Her face fell. "He was being careful," she said. "Damn."

Just like that, her aggression was gone. Tom felt as drained as she looked. They'd gone through this every few days since landing on Mawasi, and it never got any easier. At least the outbursts were becoming less frequent with counseling. He put his hands on her shoulders. "Last step," he reminded her.

She nodded once and turned to Vorik. "I'm sorry," she said. Tom hoped Vorik could hear the sincerity in her voice. "You were doing fine. I was trying to work too fast."

The young Vulcan straightened. "Apology accepted, Lieutenant." He nodded at Tom and withdrew.

B'Elanna collapsed against him, her face pressed to his chest. She wouldn't cry. She rarely did. So he just held her close and let her breathe until both of their heartbeats slowed and steadied.

Finally her arms tightened around him. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"It's all right," he said.

She clutched at his uniform. "But this shouldn't be happening. Not anymore."

"You have to be patient with yourself, B'Elanna. You're not going to get better overnight. This is a process. You have to take it one step at a time. Don't try to do too much too fast."

She nodded against him. "You're right. But there's so much work to do."

"And the whole crew is helping. We're all doing the best we can."

"I know."

They held held each other tight for a few more minutes, until she drew back and looked up at him. "Thank you," she whispered.

"Any time. You know that."

She nodded and stood up on her toes to kiss him. When she drew back, she was wearing a small smile. "Why is it so hot in here anyway?"

He sighed and let her go. "Sorry. I've been trying to get the air recyclers running all morning."

She gave him a grin. "This is what happens when you assign a pilot to do an engineer's work. Want me to come take a look?"

He grabbed her hand, relieved that she seemed to be back to normal again. It never failed to amaze him how fast she could recover from one of these outbursts. Later, they would sit down together with the EPH and puzzle out what had caused it – although Tom was pretty certain it was the heat – and come up with a strategy for dealing with the same type of situation in the future. One step at a time. "Actually," he said, "it's time for lunch." He looked around. "Where's Harry?"

"He's up on the Bridge with Tuvok. I think he's working on the tactile interface."

"Think we can coax him to lunch?"

She shrugged. "It's worth a try. He's been more sociable since he started sessions with the EPH."

"I noticed. Maybe we can even get Tuvok to join us."

"Let's go."

Hand-in-hand, they headed toward the corridor – and nearly ran headlong into Captain Janeway. She sailed into Engineering at full impulse power, Seven right behind her. All four of them had to jump back to avoid a collision.

"Sorry, Captain," Tom yelped.

She gave him a crooked smile. "I seem to be moving too fast for my own good today."

Tom stared down at her. Something was different. She seemed...softer, somehow. "Everything okay, Captain?"

"Yes, thank you. But have you seen Chakotay anywhere?" She held up a hand when he opened his mouth to speak. "And before you ask, I've already looked in Deflector Control. He's not there."

Behind her, Seven spoke up. "And he was not in Astrometrics."

The Captain nodded. "We've also looked in Weapons Control and the main Transporter Room. We can't find him. But I need him right away."

B'Elanna squeezed his hand. Tom returned the gesture in answer to the silent question. Yes, he'd noticed the Captain's phrasing, too – and the fact that for the first time since he'd materialized on the broken Bridge two weeks ago, the Commander was apparently no longer persona non grata with the Captain.

"He's not here," B'Elanna said. She turned back to Engineering and raised her voice. "Anybody seen Commander Chakotay today?" she called. "The Captain's looking for him."

Heads popped up all over Engineering. There was a chorus of "No, ma'am" and "Not since breakfast."

Vorik stepped forward. "Perhaps he is at the resort for the midday meal."

Joe Carey's voice wafted down from the upper deck. "He hasn't been at lunch all week."

Tom watched the Captain's face carefully. Her expression went from hopeful to frustrated to worried in five seconds flat. "He's skipping meals?" she said. "That's not like him."

This time, Tom squeezed B'Elanna's hand. "How about we help you look for him, Captain?" he suggested. "And we'll send a runner over to the resort to see if he's there."

Gerron joined them. The young Bajoran was bouncing on his toes. "I'll go, Captain."

Joe descended from the upper deck. "I'll stay here in case he turns up."

Megan Delaney scooted out from under a nearby console. "Jenny's in Cargo Bay 2. I could go check with her."

From all over Engineering, crewmen stepped forward with offers to help her look for the wayward Commander. Tom kept his grin in check. Apparently everybody on the ship had noticed the seeming rift between the Captain and her right-hand man, and wanted to help fix it just as much as he and B'Elanna did.

She gave them all a look of surprise. "I..." she began, but faltered, gazing at each of their faces in turn. "Thank you," she said softly, then seemed to recover herself. "And you're all free to help me look for him, of course, but I have other news." She held up the PADD in her hand. "Sam and Naomi Wildman just contacted us. They're both fine and will be here in a few hours."

Just as there had been every other time a new arrival was announced, the news was met with a din of happy shouts. The Captain raised her voice over the noise. "We're throwing a party for them at the resort. So everybody, take the afternoon off. Go eat lunch, relax, and meet us at the landing pad at 1500 hours. Then, party at the lodge."

There was another round of whoops. Gerron darted out into the corridor, a man on a mission. The rest of them crowded around the Captain. She gave a quick nod. "Let's go find Chakotay," she said, and turned on her heel.

Tom and B'Elanna fell into step behind her, along with Seven and Vorik and a few others. Tom noted the surprised and delighted expressions on all his shipmates' faces as they wound their way among the disassembled consoles and out into the corridor, where the air suddenly seemed cooler and fresher than it had in days.

=/\=

By the time she reached the Bridge, Kathryn was hot and tired and felt as though she were leading a parade.

Seven had been with her since Astrometrics. They'd picked up B'Elanna, Tom, and Vorik in Engineering. Chell and Gloria Young Bear had joined them in the shuttlebay. Somewhere along the way both Delaney sisters had fallen into step with them. Without turning around, Kathryn knew there were at least half a dozen others besides. For almost an hour they had followed her through corridors, up and down Jeffries tubes and into little-known storage spaces, collecting more crewmen along the way. Suggestions had wafted up from the back of the group to the front for new places to look; news of Chakotay's absence passed from the front to the back every time they entered a room only to come up empty.

Kathryn felt lifted up by their unwavering support.

And also vaguely ridiculous when they all crowded into one turbolift for the ride to the Bridge.

When the lift stopped they all tumbled out behind her, startling both Harry and Tuvok at their work.

"Captain!" Harry exclaimed when he turned and saw them all surrounding him. "Something we can do for you?"

"I have news, Ensign, Lieutenant," she said. When Tuvok nodded at her, she continued. "Sam and Naomi are on their way. I'm giving everyone the afternoon off to meet them at the landing pad. And then -"

"Party?" Harry laughed.

Kathryn squeezed his shoulder, pleased at the sound of his laughter. He'd been withdrawn when they'd first arrived, and she was glad to know he was recovering. They all were. It wasn't going to happen quickly, but it was going to happen. She could feel it now, more strongly than ever before. "Party," she confirmed, and turned to her old friend. "You too, Tuvok. Seven's here to take you back the resort."

"Thank you, Captain," the Vulcan nodded.

"Before you go," she said, "have either of you seen Chakotay today? We've looked everywhere. I'm beginning to think he's left the ship."

Harry ducked his head. "Um," he said, and looked at Tuvok.

"Tuvok?" she asked.

Kathryn watched, fascinated, as Tuvok paused, head cocked to one side, then raised his chin as if coming to a decision about something. "The Commander is in your Ready Room, Captain," he said quietly.

All the air went out of Kathryn's lungs in a rush. "My Ready Room?" she whispered. She looked from Tuvok's serene expression to Harry's nervous one. "What's he doing in there?"

Harry took a deep breath. "We think he's cleaning it, Captain. For you."

Of course he was.

Kathryn's throat constricted.

She should have realized it sooner. The man had once built her a bathtub because of an offhand remark, after all. Cleaning her office? Just another gesture among four years of them – four years of the ways, large and small, that he had tried to make her life easier.

A hush had fallen over the Bridge behind her. Kathryn felt every eye upon her, heard every indrawn breath. She knew that her crew had noticed her absences from all their informal gatherings. She didn't think they'd noticed the way she was avoiding her First Officer. Belatedly, she realized how naïve she'd been, and just how disconnected.

She gave her head a little shake. "I should have known," she said. "Thank you both."

Harry leaned down to look into her eyes. "Don't be too hard on him, Captain. He's just doing it because -"

"I know why he's doing it, Harry." She patted his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. "And I don't plan to be hard on him at all."

Harry nodded and stepped away, giving her a clear path to the Ready Room. I'm ready for this, she thought, then crossed the Bridge and rang for entry. When nothing happened, she raised her hand and knocked, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach.

The doors slid open and she stepped into her office for the first time in two weeks.

Behind her, the crew exchanged expectant glances and settled in to wait.

=/\=

With the late morning sunlight streaming in through the windows, the Ready Room was like a sauna. Clearly, Paris hadn't gotten the air recyclers working again. Chakotay had long ago stripped down to his undershirt, which was now soaked through with sweat. He had half a mind to abandon what he was doing, peel off the rest of his uniform and go jump in the lake.

But there was work to be done, here and elsewhere, and he wasn't about to leave it undone.

Especially this work.

So far he'd managed to clean most of the grime from the office, and even though he was convinced the room – the whole ship, in fact – would smell like burned electronics for at least a year, at least the place was starting to look normal again. Familiar.

And that's all he really wanted: Someplace familiar for her to go. To work. To recover. To do whatever it was she needed to do.

He wiped a trickle of sweat from the back of his neck.

At the sound of the knock, Chakotay reached behind him and hit the override on Kathryn's desk without looking up from the disassembled console beside it. "I'll be with you in a second, Harry," he called. "Just let me put this back together." He heard Harry take two quick steps into the room, then the doors slid closed behind him. Chakotay snapped the console's components back into place and was reaching for the panel cover when he realized Harry hadn't said anything yet. "Everything all right, Ensign?" he asked, holding the cover over the open console.

"I don't recall ordering maid service to my office, Commander."

Her voice hit him like a punch to the gut. Startled, he dropped the panel cover, which glanced off the console, slid down and clipped him in the shin before clattering to the floor. He barked out a curse and grabbed at his leg, already feeling blood trickle into his sock.

Before he could inspect the damage, Kathryn had come around the desk and pushed him into her chair. "Let me see," she ordered, knelt down and yanked up his pants leg. Sure enough, the panel had left a six-centimeter gash across his shin.

He sighed. "I'll go to Sickbay."

"Nonsense," she said. "Without a dermal regenerator the Doc can't do anything for you I can't do with a medikit. Can you make it to the sofa?"

"It's just a scratch, Captain," he said, but lurched up and headed for the sofa anyway. She pulled a medikit from her desk and sat down beside him, motioning for him to prop his foot up on her coffee table.

Chakotay sat back on the sofa and watched her work. It was the first time he'd been alone with her in two weeks, and he found himself staring at her profile in the bright sunlight. A few hours ago she'd looked drawn and pale to his eyes, tired and weighed down with care. Now, though, she seemed lighter. He wondered what had made the difference. "Did your session with the EPH go well?" he asked.

"It did." She held up an antiseptic spray. "This is going to sting."

"Go ahead." She sprayed the gash and he hissed.

"Sorry," she said, and followed the spray with a cooling gel. "The session went long," she continued. "I had a lot to talk about today."

"Is everything all right?"

She wrapped a pressure bandage around his leg, then pulled his pants back into place and settled beside him on the sofa. He noticed she didn't answer the question. "I've been looking for you all morning," she said.

"You have?" He was surprised; she'd stayed as far away from him as possible for two weeks.

"You're supposed to be in Deflector Control."

He gave a half shrug. "I started out there today."

"You've been giving up your breaks to clean my office."

He looked away, unable to face her disapproval. "I'm sorry. I should have asked permission first." He took his foot off her coffee table and started to rise. "I'll leave you alone, Captain."

"Hey," she said softly, grabbing his elbow. Startled again, he sat back down. "Don't apologize. I'm not upset. In fact, it means more to me than you probably know."

He finally looked into her eyes, pleased to find them unclouded for the first time in months, maybe since before the Year of Hell. "I just wanted to do something to help you."

"I know. " She slid her fingers down his arm and took his hand in hers. He fought not to clutch at it like a lifeline. "Do you have a minute to talk?"

"Of course."

She took a deep breath. "First, I know you've been worried."

"It's hard," he acknowledged carefully, "not being able to do anything for you."

"I shouldn't have shut you out. I'm sure that didn't make it any easier."

"No."

"I know now that it was the wrong choice. It wasn't healthy for either of us, and I'm sorry."

He gave her a small but genuine smile. "Apology accepted."

She took his other hand in hers and held them together. "Second, you don't need to worry about me anymore. I'm all right, and I'm not falling apart. I just need to...come to terms with the Year of Hell."

"And have you?"

"Somewhat. I'm still working on it."

"You'll continue to see the EPH?"

"For the time being, yes. I'm hoping eventually I won't need to. But only with your help." She took a deep breath. "From now on, I'm hoping I'll have you to talk to so I won't need to see the EPH as often."

He swayed toward her, an instinctive, protective impulse that he had never been able to stop. "You know I'm always here for you," he said quietly. "Whenever you need me."

"I know. I forgot that for a while, but I won't anymore."

He nodded in acceptance of her promise.

"Third," she began, and stopped, her eyes on his, her expression timid and almost fearful.

His heart thudded in his chest. What could possibly have her so nervous? "Kathryn?" he asked. "What is it? What's wrong?"

She stared at him for a long moment. He held his breath. Finally she seemed to come to a decision, and with a small smile raised his right hand and interlaced the fingers of her left with his, palm to palm. "Third," she repeated, "we're going to be all right. Eventually, I think we're going to be better than we've been in a long time."

He inhaled sharply. There were suddenly a thousand things he wanted to ask her, wanted to say, but he couldn't find his voice. Instead, he stroked the soft skin of her wrist with his thumb, hoping his eyes would say all the words he couldn't.

"But I need a little more time," she continued. "And you have to trust me."

He nodded silently.

She lowered their hands into her lap again. "We're going to be fine," she said. "You and me."

Somehow, in spite of the lump in his throat, he found his voice again. "You and me," he echoed.

He could have happily sat there with her for the rest of the day, just listening to the sound of her voice, but she gave his hands one last squeeze and rose. She retrieved the PADD she'd left on her desk when she'd come around to look at his shin. "Word from more of the crew," she said with a wide smile. "Sam and Naomi are on their way. They'll be here in a couple of hours."

Chakotay knew how worried she'd been about Voyager's youngest crewmember and her mother. When Kathryn handed him the PADD, he couldn't hide his smile. "That's wonderful news, Kathryn," he said.

She gave a little gasp and placed a hand on the side of his face. "I've missed that," she whispered.

His heart lurched again. "What?"

"That smile." She sat back down beside him.

He put his hand over hers and held it to his cheek. "Kathryn..." he began, but she stopped him.

"After the party," she said softly. "We'll talk more then."

He blinked. "Party?"

"For Sam and Naomi," she said, slipping her hand from his.

He chuckled. "I should have known. Neelix's idea?"

"And mine." She headed toward the Bridge, then looked back at him. "Coming with me?"

"Always," he said, and fell into step at her side, almost overwhelmed by how good it felt, how right, to be back there.

=/\=

The Nihydron shuttlecraft hovered over the landing pad, kicking up a cloud of dust that caused Harry and Seven and Tom and all the rest to cover their eyes until it touched down and came to rest.

A ramp opened on the side of the craft.

A small child emerged, paused to search the gathered onlookers, and bounded down the ramp until she stood before Captain Janeway. She snapped to attention. Her voice, though childish, was clear and confident when she spoke. "Captain's Assistant Naomi Wildman, reporting for duty."

The Captain returned the salute with tears on her cheeks. "Acknowledged, Crewman Wildman," she said. "And welcome."

Naomi raised her chin. "We lost the escape pod, ma'am."

The Captain whisked Naomi up in her arms. "I don't care about the escape pod, Naomi. As long as you're safe."

Chakotay stepped up the ramp and pulled Sam into a rough hug. "We were worried about you," he said. "Welcome back."

There were hugs all around, then, and explanations about the loss of the escape pod, the discovery of the inhabited moon, the journey back to the Mawasi homeworld. Naomi was passed from adult to adult for hugs and kisses and words of welcome.

Eventually, Neelix took the child by the hand. "There's a party," he said. "And I made milkshakes!"

"Let's go," Naomi squealed. Sam took her daughter's other hand, and they headed out of the valley toward the lodge, the Voyager family falling in behind them like a parade.

=/\=

By the time Chakotay finished negotiating with the Mawasi staff for an additional cabin space for their newest arrivals, the party was in full swing.

The lodge's holographic decorations were still in North Shore hunting lodge mode, but now the room sported a long wooden table piled high with Naomi and Sam's favorite foods – or the Mawasi equivalent: Ice cream sundaes, fresh bread, mushroom crepes, stuffed peppers, cheese pizza and miso soup. There were plates of Mawasi fruits and vegetables, too, and at the end of the table a cooler full of chocolate milkshakes.

Chakotay helped himself to several mushroom crepes and a pile of fresh fruit. He'd skipped lunch and breakfast was hours behind him. And, if he were being honest with himself, he had to admit that the talk with Kathryn in her Ready Room had gone a long way toward easing his stress and bringing back his appetite.

After the third mushroom crepe, he surveyed the room and found her standing on the wooden staircase that led up to the smaller meeting rooms, leaning against the wall with a pensive expression. She looked...melancholy. He grabbed two milkshakes from the table and headed her way. When she saw him coming she smiled, but it was fleeting and she immediately went back to gazing at the party.

He stopped at the foot of the stairs, noting that he now stood eye-to-eye with her. "Milkshake?" he asked.

"Another one? I'm not sure my poor stomach can take it." But she accepted the frosty glass anyway and took a sip through the long straw. "Do our new arrivals have a place to stay?"

He nodded. "They'll be in a cabin near Neelix. We can show them after the bonfire."

"Perfect. Thank you, Chakotay."

He turned and looked over the party as well. Naomi was sitting on Tom's lap, laughing at the story he was telling, while Sam chatted happily with the Delaney sisters. "It's always good," he said, "when one of them returns."

"But there are so few of them."

So that's what had caused the melancholy. "More than sixty, and it's only been two weeks. I'd say that's a pretty good record so far."

"Do you think they'll all come back?"

"I think they'll all try."

"Those who can, you mean."

He turned to look at her again. "Kathryn," he said slowly, "I'm sure everyone who can will either come back, or find a way to let us know why they prefer not to. But we may never know what happened to some of them."

Her eyes, suddenly pained, shifted from the party to his. "But how long do we wait for word? How long do we stay before we know we've stayed long enough?"

"You don't have to decide that yet. The ship won't be spaceworthy for at least a couple of months."

"I don't look forward to making that decision."

"When the time comes, you'll look at all the information at hand and make the best decision you can. You always do."

She nodded. "Thank you." Her eyes were very bright.

He took her empty glass from her and set it on an empty tray with his. "Let's go outside."

She followed him through the main room and out onto the lodge's grand veranda, which overlooked the beach and the lake. The breeze had picked up again, blowing whitecaps on the lake and whipping Kathryn's hair around her face. She tried to tuck her hair behind her ears, gave up and folded her hands on the railing. Her eyes were very far away. He assumed that she was thinking about her absent crew. She was worried about them. He understood the feeling; he worried about them, too.

But he wouldn't let her wallow in her worry. Not today.

Slowly, he reached out and stroked the backs of her hands with gentle fingertips. "How did you get these scars?"

She blinked, as if coming back to herself from a great distance. "There was a fire in Deflector Control."

"What happened?"

She tried to pull her hands away but he held on until she relaxed again. "I talked to the EPH about it this morning. There's no need-"

"You probably told him that you did what you had to do, you weren't afraid, and you don't think about it anymore."

She stared at him, her eyes steely, then gave her head a little shake. "How long have you been able to do that?"

"What?"

"See right through me."

He smiled. "How long have we known each other?"

"Five years."

He rubbed his chin and pretended to think hard. "Hmmmm. I've been able to do it for about...four years and eleven months, then."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Really. That long."

He nodded. "Ever since I asked you if you would've served under me if we were on my ship instead of yours."

"But I didn't even answer the question."

"Yes, you did. You said, 'One of the nice things about being Captain is that you can keep some things to yourself.'"

"That wasn't an answer. That was...an evasion."

"And it said a lot."

"Oh really?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "And what exactly did it say?"

He grinned. "First, you reiterated your authority over me. That told me you didn't completely trust me yet."

She inclined her head. "I'll admit to that. It was still early in our journey. I didn't know you."

"I'm not finished."

She waved a hand at him. "By all means, Commander."

He chuckled. "It also told me you wouldn't have given me an honest answer either way."

"And what makes you think that?"

"Because even though you were starting to trust me, the bigger issue was that you didn't trust yourself with me."

Her mouth fell open. "You can't possibly think -"

"And stop trying to change the subject."

"I'm not trying to -"

"Kathryn."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "We are going to revisit this topic of me supposedly not trusting myself with you. Not now," she added when he started to interrupt her again. "But soon. I will not just let that comment slip by."

"I'm sure you won't." He took her hands again, brushing his thumbs across her scars again. "Now. Tell me how you got these."

She sighed and drew her hands away from him. "It was in Deflector Control. We hit a field of micrometeoroids and the system was offline. I couldn't spare anyone from the Bridge, so I had to go check it myself. I'd already put the crew off the ship by then. Only the senior officers were left." She closed her eyes. "There was a fire. I didn't have time to put it out and the doors were jammed open. So I went through."

"What were you thinking when you went in?"

"That if it was to be my last act as Captain, I hoped it would be enough."

"Enough for what?"

"To save them one last time."

He squeezed her hands. "It was enough. You saved them."

"Barely. I knew that the next time something catastrophic happened, it would probably mean the end for all of us."

"And how did that feel?"

She was quiet for a long time, staring out at the water. The longer she stayed silent, the more certain he was that even though she had talked to the EPH about the facts of the incident, she hadn't worked through the emotions. "It felt like a betrayal," she finally said. "I'd done everything I could to keep the ship running. We all had. But she couldn't protect us anymore, and she was about to exact her pound of flesh from me anyway." She leaned her elbows on the railing. "When I went into that room, I was certain I wouldn't be coming out alive. I lost consciousness right after I brought the array back online."

"Who pulled you out of Deflector Control?"

"Harry and Seven. When I didn't return to the Bridge, they went looking. I was surprised to wake up with the Doc. I thought I had reached the end of my journey." She gave a mirthless little chuckle. "Ironically, the Doc tried to warn me about PTSD then. I didn't listen to him. I didn't have time."

Chakotay studied her profile in the late afternoon light. She'd never been a particularly vain woman, at least not in his observations, and had made no attempt to hide or cover her scars. He'd been shocked to see them at first, but steeled himself not to react. Now, taking them in with fresh eyes, knowing how she had earned them, he realized that they symbolized both her fragility and her strength.

He reached out tentatively and brushed the backs of his fingers over her cheek. "What do you feel now? Still betrayed?"

"No," she said without hesitation. "Grateful."

"Grateful?"

"That I was able to save them. That she protected us after all. That you came back for us."

He turned his hand over and pressed his palm to her cheek. "And this? What does this feel like?"

She closed her eyes. "At first it felt...foreign. It wasn't my skin. But now... It's just a part of me. A reminder of everything we went through."

"Everything you survived."

"Yes."

"But there's no pain anymore?"

"No. It's uncomfortable. The skin is tight around my eye and mouth. But sometimes..."

He pushed his fingers through her hair. "Tell me."

She closed her eyes and raised her head. "Today, for instance. This wind... Where the skin is uneven, the wind feels like ripples across my face." Her brows knit together as she searched for the right words. "Feathers. Fingertips." She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Without the Year of Hell I would never have experienced that feeling. I'm not happy about what we went through, and if I could turn the clock back and avoid it, I might."

"But it did happen."

"It did. I accept that. It was terrible and traumatic. But good will come of it." She placed her hand over his heart. "Good already has come of it."

He smiled "You're healing, Kathryn."

She nodded and turned back toward the water, her hands resting on the railing again.

After a time the crew began to spill out of the lodge, across the veranda and toward the water, no doubt intending to begin the nightly bonfire a little early. By unspoken agreement, Kathryn and Chakotay stayed behind, allowing the crew time to themselves without their commanding officers.

Soon he offered his arm; she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and they began to make their way down to the beach. After they took a few steps together on the rocky path, Chakotay secured her hand closer to his side. "I have a confession to make," he said softly.

"What's that?"

"If we had wound up on my ship instead of Voyager, I wouldn't have asked you to serve under me."

She looked up at him, eyes wide. "You wouldn't?"

"I wouldn't have turned my ship over to you, either, so don't get any ideas, Kathryn." He shook his head. "No. But I trusted you. My instincts told me that you were tough but fair, and that you were going to look out for my crew as if they were your own. So if we had been on my ship..." He stopped walking and turned her around to face him. "I would have asked you to be my co-Captain. Not my subordinate. My equal."

She stood very still for a long moment, staring up at him. Then she gave him the crooked, wicked smile he'd missed for six months on the timeship. "That's good," she said. "Because I'm not sure I could have taken orders from you anyway."

His mouth fell open in shock. Then he threw back his head and howled with laughter.

=/\=

It took them almost half an hour to get the bonfire started.

The wind off the lake kept blowing the kindling away until B'Elanna, tired of Tom's incompetence, grabbed the lighter out of his hand, directed her engineers to form a Human/Vulcan/Bajoran shield around the fire ring, and lit it herself. It sputtered and sparked while she patiently added more kindling, then small sticks, and finally a dry log that caught quickly. When the flames leapt up to her satisfaction, she waved the engineers away and tossed the lighter back to Tom. "That, Helmboy, is how you build a fire."

Tom chuckled. "Yes, ma'am," he said, saluting her with a glass of fine Mawasi ale.

Across the fire, Naomi piped up. "Does Tom have to call B'Elanna 'ma'am,' Mom?"

Sam grinned at him. "Only when he wants to, honey. Only when he wants to."

Tom gave her a mock salute, then turned to look over the group in the waning daylight. There were close to seventy of them now, with more arriving every day. A few people weren't accounted for yet, and Tom knew they were a persistent worry at the back of everyone's mind. But for now, they were all just glad to be together, and to welcome two more back into the fold.

They sat in small groups, leaning on each other, talking and laughing together. Some of the groups were familiar to him, having formed long before the Year of Hell. But others, especially a few of the couples, were new. This is the way it's going to be from now on, Tom realized. We're all figuring out how important we are to each other, and how easily it can all be taken away.

B'Elanna sat down next to him.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. "Better," she said.

"Did you talk to the EPH?"

She nodded. "I have an extra half hour tomorrow." She elbowed him in the ribs. "You're supposed to come, too."

"I'll be there."

She settled against him. "Good party," she said. "Even Harry seemed to enjoy it."

"Once we dragged him away from Tuvok's console."

She kissed his cheek. "You worry about him too much."

"Someone's got to."

They were both quiet for a time. "You think they'll come to the fire?" she asked.

"Who?"

"The Captain and Chakotay."

"They came to the party."

"That's different. That was for Sam and Naomi."

Tom glanced back toward the resort and shrugged. "I don't know. He always comes eventually."

"But he doesn't stay."

"No." Usually Chakotay came alone, looking like he was missing a limb without the Captain there, and left early to watch the sunset by himself. "If he's with her, though..."

"If he's with her, then it'll be all right if he doesn't come." B'Elanna finished his thought.

"Right."

They watched the flames dance in the wind. "What do you think they talked about in her Ready Room?"

Tom chuckled. "No idea," he said. "But judging from his expression, it must have been quite a conversation."

B'Elanna laughed, too. "He looked like somebody had handed him the sun and moon on a silver platter."

"He sure did."

"Do you think she's okay?"

Tom sat very still for a moment. B'Elanna admired the Captain fiercely and tended to judge her own strength by comparison. "I think she will be," he said carefully. "In time, and with help."

B'Elanna snuggled into his side. "I think so, too."

Tom let out a long breath, grateful to have come up with the right diplomatic answer.

Soon Seven and Tuvok wandered by, arm in arm. Seven was talking with as much animation as Tom had ever seen in her. Tuvok was listening carefully, eyebrow raised. Tom and B'Elanna watched them go by. "What do you suppose that was all about?" he asked.

"Who knows? They're probably talking about how illogical this all is."

"Probably so."

Harry trotted over and stood next to them. "Some of the Security guys think we need another fire. Do you still have that lighter?"

B'Elanna grabbed it before Tom could make a move. "Stay here. I'll take care of it."

"Yes, ma'am," he said again, and winked at Naomi. The little girl giggled.

Tom sat alone and watched the waves roll in, enjoying the cool breeze off the lake. Around him, his shipmates chatted about everything and nothing. They still had a mountain of work ahead of them to get the ship up and running again, and to deal with everything they'd been through for the last year. But they were well on their way.

We are so lucky, he thought suddenly, to be here, in this safe place where we can heal together.

He glanced over to where B'Elanna was bossing the Security staff around and smiled. And I'm lucky to be here with her.

He took a long drink of his ale and stared back out over the water. The Mawasi sun was sinking lower by the minute, painting the sky red and gold.

The conversations around him quieted suddenly, and he looked up.

The Captain and Commander were making their way down the path toward the bonfire, her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow. Chakotay was still wearing that surprised expression Tom had recognized on the Bridge, somewhat muted now. The Captain looked a little apprehensive. She took Chakotay's silver watch in her free hand.

Tom started to wave them over, but Naomi darted forward and grabbed the Captain's arm, babbling about sand castles. Chakotay let her go very reluctantly. At least he didn't look like he was missing a limb anymore without her.

Tom grabbed another bottle of ale and ambled over to the Commander. "Beer, Chakotay?" he asked.

Chakotay took the bottle from him, the smile vanishing from his face. "Let's take a walk, Tom," he said slowly. "I need to talk to you."

Tom blinked. "Everything all right?"

Chakotay inclined his head up the beach. "Walk," he said.

Mind spinning, Tom obeyed and walked away from the fire. What could he have possibly done?

Once they were out of earshot of the rest of the crew, Chakotay turned and looked out over the water. Tom stopped beside him. "What's going on, Chakotay?"

The older man took a long drink of his ale. "How's B'Elanna?" he asked quietly.

Oh. Tom closed his eyes. "Who told you?"

"Joe Carey. He was standing on the upper deck and heard most of it."

"Did he file a report?"

"No, he just came to me to talk. He's worried about her."

Tom watched the waves. "Tell him she's all right."

"Is she?"

Tom sighed. "She has nightmares sometimes. When she doesn't get enough sleep, she's more prone to flying apart during the day. And it was hot in the ship today, which couldn't have helped. I probably should have warned Joe to keep the rest of the staff out of her way."

"This wasn't the first incident, was it?"

"No."

The Commander raised his ale again. "Rank aside, she's my friend, Tom. Why didn't you tell me?"

"You've got enough to worry about without worrying about B'Elanna, too."

Chakotay looked at him. "What do you mean?"

Tom shrugged. "A half-Klingon engineer is one thing. But you're trying to help a starship Captain put herself back together."

Chakotay said nothing.

Tom glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "They're a lot alike, actually. They both tend to take on too much, then beat themselves up when they realize they can't handle it all without help."

Chakotay turned back toward the water.

Tom hid his smile behind his ale. In addition to changing the subject, the remark had clearly hit home. He let the Commander chew on it for a few minutes, then glanced toward the bonfire. "Speaking of the Captain," he said lightly, "it's good to see her out and about."

Chakotay turned, too. Tom saw the exact instant Chakotay's eyes found the Captain's across the distance. The Commander's face lit up, just for a second, before he spoke again. "She wanted to be here for Sam and Naomi."

"Are you sure that's the only reason? She seemed pretty glued to your side when you got here."

"Paris..."

"Hey, Old Man. Don't forget I followed her through the ship for an hour today looking for you. I saw the look on her face every time we went into a room and you weren't there." Tom drained his ale, rolling the rich brew around his tongue before swallowing. Later, he would wonder if it was the alcohol that made him so bold. "When you came out of the Ready Room, you looked like two completely different people. Or maybe not different. Maybe back to normal, or at least closer to it. We all wondered what you were talking about in there."

"Don't," Chakotay warned.

"'Don't?' Don't what?"

"You were going to ask what we talked about. Don't bother."

"I'm offended, Chakotay. Do you really think I'm that nosy?"

Chakotay snorted. "Hell, yes."

Tom chuckled in spite of himself. "Okay, maybe I am. But B'Elanna and I were talking earlier, and you should know..."

Chakotay finally turned away from staring at the Captain where she knelt with Naomi in the sand. "What, Paris?"

"You should know that no one would object. No one. Not after everything we've all been through. Things are changing. We are changing. Everybody feels it." He turned his back on the bonfire and met the Commander's gaze solemnly, awkward with the seriousness of the conversation but resolved to see it through. "If you and the Captain wanted to make a change, too, it would be all right."

The older man stood stock-still for a long moment, staring at him. Then he grinned that wicked, arrogant grin that drove Tom insane. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Paris," he said, "but you be sure to tell the Captain at the earliest opportunity."

Tom experienced a moment of utter confusion, but then the voice behind him made everything clear. "Tell me what, Commander?"

Tom had a sudden urge to wipe the ridiculous smirk off Chakotay's face. He turned around to find the Captain gazing up at him with an expectant expression. How much of the conversation had she heard? Tom had no idea. But turnabout was fair play, even after the Year of Hell. Maybe especially after the Year of Hell.

He favored his Captain with the most innocent smile he could muster. "Only that I'm thrilled to see you tonight, Captain, and I'm about to die of jealousy that you arrived on the Commander's arm and not mine."

"Aren't you sweet?" she said with a smile. She patted his shoulder. "But I think B'Elanna might have something to say about that."

Tom allowed his grin to turn almost as wicked as Chakotay's. "I think Chakotay might, too, ma'am." He nodded at both their startled expressions. "Captain, Commander. I'll leave you to it."

And he sauntered toward the bonfire and B'Elanna, leaving them both to wonder what he meant.

A few minutes later he looked back and saw them strolling along the beach away from the fire toward the cove where Chakotay usually watched the sunset, arm-in-arm again. He smiled to himself and let them go.

What was it Chakotay had said on the Bridge two weeks ago? That Voyager was "broken, but not bowed."

Maybe they all were.

The Year of Hell had tested them all, brought them all to the brink of their endurance. But they were finding the path back to themselves, slowly but surely.

The Captain and Commander were finding their path, too. Back to their friendship, back to their professional rapport, back to themselves. And maybe, now that they were safe and healing, maybe they would find a new path to walk together.

A sudden cool wind off the lake lifted his hair. When she shivered, Tom pulled B'Elanna closer to his side and placed a kiss on the top of her head.

She craned her neck to look up at him. "Everything okay, Helmboy?"

"Not yet," he said carefully. "But getting there. Soon it'll be fine. Just fine."

Epilogue

I can hear them, but they do not know that I am here.

I am some distance from the bonfire and cannot leave of my own accord, given my unfamiliarity with the terrain. Seven of Nine escorted me here but was called away and has not yet returned. She has left me seated on a log of driftwood some fifteen meters from the water, if I have correctly judged the distance to the sound of the waves upon the shore.

Decorum dictates that I alert them to my presence, given the personal nature of their conversation.

And yet...

I would not interrupt this conversation for something so trivial as my own comfort. It is long overdue.

"I missed you," the Captain whispers. "So much. I knew you were probably safer on the timeship than you would have been on Voyager, but I couldn't help but wish you were with us. Selfish, I know."

"Not selfish, Kathryn," the Commander answers, his voice equally soft, but clearly audible to my superior auditory sense. "Perfectly human. It's natural to want our friends with us in times of stress." I hear a rustle of fabric, followed by a quiet exhalation. He has touched her, possibly placed a hand on her shoulder; she has sighed in response. I have observed this interaction between them so many times that I can see it, even in my darkness. "I missed you, too."

They are quiet for one minute, then two. I have not heard footfalls in the sand, but for a moment I wonder if they have moved on down the beach. Then he speaks again, his voice pitched very low. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," she answers quickly. "Anything."

He inhales deeply. "Why were you avoiding me?"

She does not answer. He continues. "Until today you turned down every invitation to spend time with me. Even just breakfast in the lodge seemed to be more than you could bear."

"Oh, Chakotay," she whispers. "I'm here with you now."

They are quiet again. When she finally speaks, her voice is choked with emotion in a way I have not heard since the moment she decided to sacrifice herself with the ship. "I haven't been avoiding you because I couldn't bear to be with you. Far from it." She sighs. "I have some very strong, unresolved feelings that I thought were nothing more than PTSD symptoms."

He is silent for a long moment."And are they symptoms? Or are they something more?"

"I think they might be something more. But I have to be sure before I act on them, because once I do, there will be no going back."

He makes a sound in his throat that I cannot interpret. "Kathryn-"

"Not yet," she says, stopping whatever he was going to say. "I'm not quite ready to have this conversation. Soon, but not yet. Can you accept that?"

"I'm a very patient man."

"I know." I hear the rustle of fabric again, but cannot fathom who has moved, or how. "Thank you for coming back for me," she says.

"I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't."

"I was ready to give up. You threw me a lifeline."

"It was my lifeline, too, Kathryn."

Now I hear the brush of skin against skin.

There is silence again, this time for many minutes. I hear only the waves on the sand and the quiet of two people who are standing so close together, I cannot distinguish her breathing from his.

He finally breaks the silence. "You're shivering. Come back and sit with me by the fire," he says.

She does not respond verbally, but must have assented. I hear their footfalls in the sand as they return to the gathering at the bonfire. I could call out to them to help me return, but I do not want them to know that I have overheard them. So I continue to sit, listening to the waves.

Starfleet would not condone the change they are poised to make to their relationship.

Starfleet would be wrong.

Captain Janeway has given everything that she is in service to Starfleet, from her fiancé and her father to her best years as a commander. And yet they would deny her this, if they had the opportunity. They would forbid her the companionship of one who is worthy of her in all ways, one who has given everything that he is in service to her.

Starfleet's position may be justifiable in the Alpha Quadrant. But here, it is irrelevant. I am gratified that she has begun to realize this.

I hear quiet footfalls behind me. "Tuvok? Is that you?"

"Yes, Neelix," I respond.

"May I join you?"

"Of course."

He sits beside me on the driftwood. "They didn't know we were here, did they?"

I cannot reprimand him for eavesdropping, given that I am as guilty as he. "Clearly not."

"It's good, though, isn't it? Good that they're finally getting their feelings out in the open?"

"Yes. I believe it is."

"Me too. It's important to have someone you can turn to who understands and accepts you. Someone who will be there for you, no matter what. This will make them stronger."

"I agree."

I hear him turn an object over in his hands. "I got a holoimage of them," he says. "Would you like me to describe it for you?"

"Please."

"They're facing each other at the edge of the water. He's holding her left hand in his right, and she has her right hand pressed to his heart. They're just standing there quietly with the sun setting beyond them." He stops speaking for a full minute, then sighs. "They make me miss Kes so much," he whispers. I have never heard his voice so soft.

Vulcans do not have the same need for companionship that humans and so many other beings do. And yet, since the accident that blinded me, thoughts of T'Pel have never been far from me. "I understand, Neelix," I say, equally softly.

We sit together in silence for a time.

He clears his throat. "Even though I support their decision," he says slowly, "your Starfleet wouldn't, would they?"

"No."

"It's too bad," he says. "Theirs is a bond for the ages." He is quiet for another moment. "The crew will be happy for them. But even so... I don't think we should tell anyone what we overheard."

"Nor do I."

"In fact," he continues, "I'd like to make sure this is kept quiet until they're ready to tell the crew themselves. They deserve some time together before -"

"Before Mister Paris knows."

"Exactly."

"There is much that I can do from the Security station to ensure their privacy."

"I had hoped you would say that, Mister Vulcan," he says. "And I'll do what I can in my own small way. I'm glad we're agreed."

"Indeed."

He stands. "Say, where's Seven? She didn't just leave you here, did she?"

"In fact, she did. She thought she would only be gone a moment, but has not yet returned."

"I think I'll head back to the fire for a while. Would you like to come? Or I could walk you back to your cabin, if you prefer."

"Thank you, Neelix." I stand. "The fire would be acceptable, if you please."

"Of course." He places my hand on his elbow and we make our way slowly over the sand and back to the gathering, where he leads me to a chair near the fire.

I listen to the voices around me. Neelix pulls together groups for more holoimages. Sam Wildman sings softly to Naomi. Megan and Jenny Delaney plan a welcome party for Mike Ayala and Ethan Baytart, who are scheduled to arrive in two days. Tom Paris, B'Elanna Torres and Harry Kim discuss refinements to the ship's replicators, now that they are making progress at bringing the system back online. Captain Janeway requests an upgrade to the ship's coffee selections; Commander Chakotay asks if he will be granted a larger ration of replicator credits to cover the Captain's resurgent caffeine habit.

The banter continues until the chill of the wind off the water forces us all back to our cabins. The pattern of footfalls tells me that no one leaves the gathering alone. We all depart in pairs and groups, including me. The Captain places my left hand on her right elbow and I feel her hook her left arm through the Commander's right. Together, the three of us make our way up the beach and along the path back to the resort. He points out obstacles along the rocky path; she guides me around them with her touch.

There is much about our journey that Starfleet would not condone.

There is much more that they would never understand.

-END-

Notes:

The title of this story, "What the Wind Feels Like," comes from the Mary Chapin Carpenter song "Holding Up the Sky."

I've probably made Naomi out to be older than she actually would have been during The Year of Hell. Apologies to canon purists. Likewise, I realize the ship probably has an IM or email system for use when the comm is down. That fact was inconvenient to my nefarious purposes, so I ignored it. :-)

Coming up next:

"Secret World 2: Innocence and Magic, Amen"

There are at least six other stories in this series, possibly as many as nine. Some of them exist only as 14-year-old notes, outlines and scenes. Some of them are more finished. "What the Wind Feels Like" was about half finished before I started working on again; careful readers can probably tell exactly where I picked it up and started working on it again. "Innocence and Magic, Amen" exists primarily as notes. It'll take me a little longer to work it all out, but hopefully the tone will be more even as a result.

And I'll post it all at once so there's no chance of leaving out a big chunk like I did with this one. (I write for a living, for Pete's sake. You'd think I'd be more careful. Sheesh!)

Thanks for reading,

Laura