To his credit, Paul Darren didn't press the issue. Didn't force Chakotay to dig any deeper than he was ready to dig. That one word encompassed so much – more than Starfleet, more than Tuvok, even more than Seska. And, if he were honest with himself, much more than the stroke. Kathryn was there – in between, next to, hidden behind – in the middle of all those other incidents. He'd felt it when she wanted to define parameters while on New Earth; in the way she'd handled the Borg and species 8472; through her actions toward Ransom and the crew of the Equinox – and when she'd fallen in love with Michael Sullivan and Jaffen. But not in love with him.
Even now, he felt the weight of it pulling at him – now, when all those other times and places were past, and he had a present and a future with her.
Maybe he hadn't come to terms with the Delta Quadrant.
He'd looked up into the counselor's eyes – saw patience and understanding – and a willingness to let Chakotay choose the path and set the pace. Four months earlier, he'd rushed through Starfleet's required post-mission counseling sessions, staying on the surface, telling that counselor what she'd wanted to hear – he knew the patter of the routine.
But now, maybe, he would slow down, go deeper, tell Paul Darren not what he wanted to hear, but what Chakotay wanted to say – needed to say.
He thought of Kathryn, and knew there was so much more at stake.
"Ah, Captain, what a pleasant surprise!" The Doctor looked up from his computer screen as she walked into his office on the 11th floor. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Is the Commander all right?"
Kathryn smiled. "He's fine. No change since you saw him this morning."
"He's doing very well." He indicated a chair across from his desk. "Please, have a seat."
She sat down, relaxing back into the chair with a sigh.
A frown creased his face. "Captain, you sound tired. Are you getting enough sleep? I know you're staying the nights with him, but perhaps you should go home and rest for a while. He'll be all right. He has an excellent team taking care of him." He said the last bit with a somewhat self-satisfied expression.
Kathryn tried not to laugh. Humility was never one of the Doctor's strongpoints. "Oh, I know he's getting the best of care. I just don't like the idea of being too far away from him for too long."
"Especially now, I take it?" The Doctor raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
She pursed her lips. "I take it you've heard."
"I am tuned in to the proverbial grapevine, and I do have eyes." He smiled knowingly. "Some people may think it's cliché, but you do have a glow about you, Captain."
She felt a slight blush warm her cheeks, and she laughed. "Apparently, I've never been able to hide it. B'Elanna told me that my love life, or lack thereof, was a popular topic amongst betting pools while on Voyager."
"Yes. And odds were definitely in your favor. I think all of the crew will be quite happy when they hear of this new development. I know I am."
"It still doesn't feel quite…. real to me."
"Maybe because nothing has really changed - other than the fact that you've admitted your feelings to each other. The love was always there; it was just… unspoken."
She shook her head and issued another small sigh. "All those years, I convinced myself that he was just a loyal First Officer, a good friend… my best friend."
"And he was."
She looked down at her hands, knotted in her lap. "But he was more. And I couldn't let myself admit that." She raised her eyes to the Doctor. "I hurt him." She gave a half sigh, half laugh. "I know you're not wearing your clerical robe, or seeking confessions, but…"
"You can always talk to me, Kathryn," he assured her with a gentle smile. "I seem to remember a Starship captain who was there for me on many occasions." He saw the silent acknowledgement in her eyes. "As for Commander Chakotay, he's a very strong man. I'm sure that he has handled whatever… hurt there may have been."
Kathryn nodded, dropped her gaze. She knew that he had handled it – and how: Riley, and Kellin, and Valerie Archer. And Seven. She didn't blame him for those relationships…
She blamed herself for causing the hurt… Blamed herself because she couldn't give to him what others had given. And only barely given…
Those relationships were all so… short-lived. And she heard his words again: Five weeks – not much of a relationship.
She felt tears fill her eyes. This man – this loyal, steadfast, caring man – had wanted something that would last. And she hadn't been able to give him that.
She looked back up at the Doctor.
"I'll never hurt him again." She wasn't looking for absolution.
"He knows that." Just confirmation.
Lunch was very… quiet.
She told him that she'd been to visit the Doctor during his counseling session. And they both sensed that each of them had already done a lot of talking, and so they ate in silence – another bowl of soup, a chicken sandwich, a glass of milk, a cup of coffee.
It wasn't a difficult silence – over the years they'd perfected the art of being silent together: sitting on the bridge as the Delta Quadrant unfolded before them; working on reports in her Ready Room; gazing out the viewport after a satisfying, if not slightly burned, dinner; sailing on Lake George as a full moon rose high above them.
Sometimes, Kathryn felt like they handled the silences better than the conversations. Especially in the later years when words were said that shouldn't have been, while others went unsaid altogether.
But their silences had always been complete – full of acceptance, and trust, and commitment to their journey.
And now, they were on another journey. Still together.
Kathryn looked over at him, smiling at the line of milk that traced along his upper lip. She reached out and ran her finger across it. And sighed.
They were comfortable with each other. Perhaps a terribly middle-aged sentiment, but a feeling she wouldn't trade for anything.
Chakotay kissed the finger that she'd pressed against his lips, his tongue darting out and lapping at the drop of milk. Like a cat. And she giggled.
He grinned. "What?"
"I know you can't tell me, but I'm convinced that your spirit guide is a lion, or a tiger, or a leopard. Maybe an ordinary housecat." She ran her finger across his cheek, up over the lines of his tattoo. "You are so… feline."
He wasn't sure what to say to that, and so he said nothing, just grabbed her hand and kissed her palm before returning to the soup, and milk, and silence.
Which was broken a few minutes later by B'Elanna who came in with Miral balanced against her shoulder. "Apparently there are no age restrictions for visitors, so look who came to see her Uncle Chakotay."
The smile he gave her lit up the room, and he pushed the bed table away. "Hand her… over. I c-can hold her." He glanced down at his right side.
And B'Elanna leaned down and placed Miral on the bed in between his right arm and his chest. He curled his hand up over the small, wriggling body.
"Hey, there…" he breathed, leaning his head over and placing a soft kiss on the tiny ridges of her forehead.
Miral just smiled, reaching up and grabbing at his chin.
B'Elanna leaned toward Kathryn, whispering theatrically. "Women can't resist him."
With a roll of her eyes, Kathryn whispered back. "Tell me about it."
How a four-month-old baby could capture the complete attention of three adults was a mystery to Kathryn Janeway, but somehow this particular baby could. She blinked up at them, grabbed at their fingers, smiled at the silly faces they made. She bounced to the rhythm of their voices as they all leaned over her, telling little nonsense rhymes and singing songs. She seemed to react to their every movement and word until finally, heavy-lidded little eyes fell closed, and with her head cradled in the crook of her Uncle Chakotay's arm, Miral Paris fell asleep.
"She's wonderfully entertaining, B'Elanna," Kathryn noted. "I'm surprised you and Tom ever get out of the house."
"Don't get me wrong. I love her. But she isn't always this charming." She gazed over at her daughter, safely tucked against Chakotay's side, her head pillowed on his bicep. "For some reason, she never cries when Chakotay holds her."
"That's because Chakotay's personality puts women to sleep," Tom's voice chimed in as he came through the door. He shot a grin in Chakotay's direction, then leaned over the back of B'Elanna's chair and kissed his wife.
"I beg to differ with you on that one, Mister Paris," Kathryn interjected, gazing over at the man on the bed. "I find Chakotay's personality quite… stimulating."
"I may be too young to hear this," Tom chuckled, sitting on the end of the bed. He looked over at his baby daughter, who yawned and shifted in her sleep before settling closer to Chakotay's chest. "Seriously though, how do you do that? Sometimes I can't get her to stop crying, and with you, she's either all smiles or sound asleep."
Chakotay lifted his eyebrows and shrugged.
"He could do this with Naomi, too." Kathryn smiled softly at Chakotay. "Do you remember?"
Late one night, they'd been working on reports in the mess hall when Samantha had come in with a very fussy baby hoping that Neelix might know how to calm her. Before the Talaxian even had a chance to offer a suggestion, Chakotay had gotten up, gone over to Samantha, and taken Naomi. He'd held her to his chest, tucking her tiny head under his chin. Instantly, she'd stopped crying.
From then on, whenever Naomi got overly upset, Samantha would seek out Chakotay's help. It didn't happen a lot because usually she was a very happy, content baby. But on those rare occasions, only he had been able to quiet her. Part of a first officer's duties, he had simply said, one of the perks of the job.
"I always thought it had something to do with your spirit guide," Kathryn said. "Maybe babies just sense that… inner peace."
Chakotay rolled his eyes. He wasn't sure how much inner peace he had at the moment.
"Personality notwithstanding, it could be that air of command," Tom proposed. "Or maybe that Maquis Mauler thing you've got going…" He grinned. "Some women like that."
"It's the arms."
She said it so softly, they could barely hear it, but their attention turned to B'Elanna. She sat low in her chair, her fingers steepled under her chin, her eyes focused on Chakotay.
She held her lower lip between her teeth for a moment and then sighed. "Your arms… make them feel safe."
Later, as they were leaving, B'Elanna leaned over to kiss Chakotay's cheek, and then whispered in his ear. "Thanks."
He didn't ask why. He knew.
In the almost ten years that he'd known her, there had been several times when he'd wrapped his arms around her – in friendship, in support, in sympathy, in joy. Those years with the Maquis, when an arm draped around the shoulder was enough to get you through another night. That first year on Voyager, when a casual embrace gave her the strength to face another day as chief engineer in the face of some opposition. After they'd learned about their fellow Maquis, when he'd held her firmly and forced her to see what she was doing on the holodeck. And that day when he'd walked her down the aisle and given her away to the other man who loved her.
For B'Elanna, he was commander, friend, brother, father. And shelter.
Before she pulled away, he lifted his arms and hugged her, right one strong and grasping, the left – getting there.
Then she stepped back and smiled. "I'll be back at dinner," she promised, following Tom and Miral out the door.
Kathryn went over and sat on the side of the bed, leaning into the space where the baby had been, letting her head fall onto his shoulder. He tightened his arms around her.
"She's right. I'm feeling very safe."
He grinned and kissed the top of her head. "Me, too."