Author Notes: Written for VAMB's Secret Summer 2013, which turned out to be for Malezita. Her prompt was "a HOT/Romance J/C addition to the episode "Bride of Chaotica." As always, I aim to please. The link to the companion piece, "The Man Who Knew Too Little" can be found on my profile.

"…and the Cardassian says, 'Yes, but how do you get all those Ferengi in the washing machine?"

Dalby doesn't wait for my reaction and roars with laughter too loud for the confined space of the turbolift. After few seconds, it snaps off and he frowns.

"You've heard it before," he realizes aloud.

"Once or twice." I offer him a game smile. "But you tell it well."

He nods but his smile doesn't return. "You headed to bed?"

"In a bit," I say then, when his attention doesn't break, add, "Neelix wanted to talk to me about something first."

"Probably a new Delta Quadrant delight," he says with no small amount of sarcasm. The turbolift slows and stops. "Goodnight, Commander."

He has no idea how true I wish that was, the former or the latter. A good night isn't spent in quiet subterfuge, riding all three turbolifts to opposite ends of each deck, chatting up crewman hustling between shifts. If anyone checks, I've been on my way to the messhall, engineering, a moral crisis, and stellar cartography for a little over an hour. If anyone compares notes, it will look like I've been following up on a few issues, nothing more. And it must look that way, at least as far as internal sensors go. I'd welcome a mouthful of Leola root or some clashing medley of Talaxian spices. Hell, I'd suck mud if it meant I didn't have to keep secrets... from her.

Not that I am doing anything particularly off policy. If we were back home, she would be circumscribed to Starfleet Medical. Here, she only has us to bait her into managing her self-care with a little more care. Or really, any at all. So, we've had to make a few modifications to the practices regarding the health and welfare of our captain. All that said, if she catches me, she'll be more hurt than angry. More embarrassed than anything. The only comfort is, if I'm caught, I'll drag the Vulcan down right along with me.

He meets me on deck five with an open tricorder in his palm, already scanning for her bio-signs in the decks above us, readings that will stay off the main computer, away from the cool, intuitive eyes of our captain. When he's satisfied, he folds it closed and offers me a swift nod.

We fall into step, side by side. "Why do I always feel like we're doing something wrong?"

"I have observed that humans often associate late hours with clandestine activities. However, paranoia in this case could be associated with your previous malfeasance."

Hard to believe I have come to rely on him the way that I do, that the anger and hatred I once felt for him were very real things. And even though he rarely makes a joke, I can't help but feel like he's at least goading me a bit.

"Are you suggesting I have a guilty conscious, Tuvok?"


"Well, I suppose we could wait until after the morning briefing," I say.

When she's had her coffee and her eyes and ears are open, I don't say. Fixed on everything above, below, and behind her: from the forward sensors to the resonance coils to Harry's burgeoning head cold she hadn't failed to mention this afternoon. You should pay a visit to sickbay, Mr. Kim.

No, Tuvok knows as well as I do this isn't a meeting we get to have any other time of day and only ever once a year, as quickly and quietly as possible. Lingering invites suspicion, and suspicion invites curiosity. And curiosity never killed more than a few hours for Kathryn Janeway.

Still, Tuvok considers my suggestion before he says, "Now is acceptable."

In Sickbay the lights are dimmed to nighttime levels, but it's the only calm thing about the room. The Doctor rises from his desk, meets us halfway to the door, but his eyes stay over our shoulders.

"The Captain?" he asks with clear trepidation.

"Asleep." But even that's uncertain. I shurg and add, "Or at least deep enough into her book by now she's not interested in checking the internal sensors."

Which is how we almost got caught last year. An assumption on my part, that after chasing space-pirates to recover our stolen computer core and taking a flying leap off an open precipice with Leonardo da Vinci she would be at least somewhat tired. Tuvok and I had made a very narrow escape of our own while the Doctor did his best to distract her with his latest aria. We'd agreed long ago we would never lie to her, not directly, but it wasn't lying if she didn't think to ask the right questions, like:

Why is the first and second officer in command of the ship having an unscheduled meeting with the chief medical officer?

Or better still: What did you discuss?

"Very well." The Doctor hands each of us a PADD and settles back into his chair while Tuvok and I sit opposite him. "As far as her general health, she's fine. Neurological scans confirm she is mentally fit, although her serotonin and norepinephrine levels are a little low."

I nod. "She's been taking cat naps in her ready room."

I've caught her, at least twice, and by the knowing look on Tuvok's face, I'm not the only one.

"So her chiropractic analysis would also suggest." He punches a few notes into the PADD and lays it on his desk. "I'll say, like I do every year, it could be better. If we were in the Alpha Quadrant, I'd file an official request to grant her leave as well as an extensive psychoanalysis."

The former has always been true, but the latter is new this year, mostly because of a sudden retreat into her own personal hell while we were crossing the Void. While part of me wants to chalk it up to calm waters and cabin fever, I can't stop the niggling sensation that at the time a few months ago, I glimpsed a certain future.

Time and loss had converted our impromptu expedition to the Delta Quadrant into her personal crusade. She's always craved action, but at some point, desire had become distraction. I didn't have to see the torment in her eyes or hear the glassy break in her voice to know it also consuming parts of her she'd fought to keep in stasis, partitioned away and sustained only on hope. Even though I know the symptoms, I'm not even close to the cure.

Tuvok eyes the report. "In the past, she has been successful at using guided mediation to ease her emotional unrest. Though she is more grounded than the average human, she is not Vulcan."

Which means, within her exists a breaking point. But, if anything, his words come out tinged with remorse and perhaps fear that in time, he might not even be able to help her. He continues:

"Protocol allows for us to take command in her stead. We could propose general leave."

"And send her where?" the Doctor asks before I can. "Alone in the Delta Flyer, where any number of hostile species could attack her?"

"I agree. Shore leave is a luxury we don't have right now," I say. "I just wish there was something we could do to get her to relax."

"Is there something specific you are concerned about, Commander?" the Doctor asks.

"No. Yes. I can't explain it. After the incident with Tom, she hasn't spent much time with any of the crew." Present company notwithstanding. She still meditates with Tuvok, still keeps our weekly dinners… but even that feels rehearsed. Like she's maintaining these relationships solely because she knows she has to.

"Captain Janeway has always been a private person," Tuvok says.

"Agreed. But after this most recent event with the Devore…" I let the thought die.

No need to dredge up that specific topic, and certainly not with Tuvok present. Although the Doctor is well aware of what part of our interlude with Inspector Kashyk bothers me. It bothers him, too. And did, the minute she requested the inter-species compatibility report and subsequent injection. If sex could make the difference in protecting us, she would have consented. A stop-gap to save her ship, her crew. It's why the Doctor risked court martial for telling me any of it.

Subsequently, she insisted it had never come to that, though she did confess to kissing him. Once. In the shuttle bay. I wasn't happy for her paying even that price, and I took great pleasure boxing with a Terellian wearing Kashyk's holographic face in the weeks that followed.

The Doctor breaks our long silence. "I'm afraid I haven't made matters much easier."

Meaning the most recent near-catastrophe where he discovered the missing memory engrams. I wave away his intended apology, knowing that he has as much right to grow as an individual as any of us do. As much right to her comfort and friendship as she has to ours. It's the blending of those things with her command that is difficult.

"What we need is a kha-wahkan," I say finally.

"A ritual dance?" the Doctor asks. It's hard to remember he's a walking-talking database. Still, his translation matrix undercuts the totality of the idea.

"In times of war," I explain, "tribal leaders would recruit the men from different villages into battle. But when the fighting was done, the tribal leaders would re-enter the villages, sometimes with less than a forth of the men they took with them. The people would perform a specific dance, and the chiefs would join them, as much to mark the beginning of peace times, as to re-acclimate themselves with the village. It was a way for the people to express their gratitude but also their forgiveness for what the chiefs were forced to do in harsher times."

I shift in the chair before continuing. "Remember what happened after Talent Night? It was like someone pumped fresh oxygen into the ship. We just need to find the right opportunity, a way to combine regular duty with a little fun."

"A spoon full of sugar, so to speak," the Doctor says.

Tuvok raises and eyebrow but nods. "Your plan could increase crew efficacy and production."

I shrug. "Now all we need is the right moment."

Agreed, we stand and move toward the door. The Doctor stops me with a gentle hand on my elbow. "Commander, next year we might consider talking to her about reducing her caffeine intake."

I chuckle and pat his shoulder. "You know, Doc, I'll miss you when you're decompiled."

Sometimes opportunity knocks. Sometimes it kicks down the door. I could have picked a better holodeck program than Captain Proton to have running when we are forced into a subspace shear. The senior staff is spilt, almost right down the middle. While B'Elanna, Tuvok, and I find Tom's simulation too ridiculous for words, he, Harry, and the Doctor insist it is an historical recreation of how the past viewed the future. Kathryn, it seems, will be the swing vote.

"Have you had a chance to review Paris' report?" I ask.

Tuvok lifts his head and then an eyebrow as I lean into his station. "I have."

"Well, what do you think?"

"His plan seems actionable, however juvenile."

"My question was more directed at the matter we spoke about last week."

Tuvok searches his memory then reconsiders my question. "You believe the captain should participate in this… frivolity?"

"You said it yourself, Tuvok. She's not a Vulcan. She needs the camaraderie as much as we all do. Besides, we apparently can't leave this layer of subspace until Chaotica is defeated."

I have to give it to him. He takes it in stride, without anymore argument than the repugnance of a single, lifted eyebrow. "She will not be pleased."

No, I can't imagine she will. "You can be very convincing."


"If this is going to work, I'm going to need you in my corner." Maybe the entire ship. "Get Tom up here. And Seven. We've only got twenty minutes before the briefing and we're going to need a plan."

"And you think Proton…" She's smiling, at least amused by Paris' proposal "…mainly you of course, could still do that?"

"Well, we'd have to knock out the lightening shield first," Paris says.

"A force field," Seven says beside me.

"Now you're catching on," Paris affirms. He turns his attention back to Kathryn. "The destructo-beam on my rocket ship can disable the death-ray, but only if someone gets inside the Fortress of Doom and can shut down the lightening shield."

The fact that he gets it out in one breath is impressive, more so that he did it with a straight face. Still, he is enjoying this too much, which almost makes me hesitate before asking:

"And who's supposed to do that?"

I don't risk so much as taking a breath on the back end of the question, knowing full well Kathryn's outward amusement will fall quickly to suspicion if so much of a wink is passed between us. She's not so concerned with Tuvok or Seven – never expects or suspects them capable of lies – but me, Paris? Unfailing.

"Arachnia," Paris says. "Queen of the Spider people."

For a second, Kathryn looks like she's swallowed something hard. "Charming."

She puts her back to us all then scoots up onto the table. It's hard not to notice her fidgety and somewhat provocative gestures, her back arched a little more than usual while her fingers stroke the soft underside of her throat.

She suspects. She has to. I'm certain of it. And she's telling me so in a language she knows I'll read as plainly as the smile Paris isn't even remotely trying to hide anymore.

"Chaotica thinks so. In the story, he's in love with her. He's been trying to form an alliance since chapter three. She's the only one he trusts. The only one who can get close enough to disable the lightening shield." Tom folds his arms over his chest before striking the killing blow. "Somebody is going to have to take on her character."

"Who'd you have in mind?" She twists and smiles at Seven, lovingly, but when she whips back around, she finds Paris beaming directly at her. In an instant, she's up and off the table, shaking her head and her hand. "Oh, no."

The next attack is expertly launched, leaving her little room to maneuver around all of us, though she tries, pacing off the length of the room to her favorite place against the windows.

"It's the role of the lifetime!" Paris says.

"Captain, need I remind you we have exhausted all other possibilities of escaping this layer of subspace," Tuvok adds.

"Until we can eliminate those distortions, we're trapped," I say.

Now, even Seven can't keep the smile out of her voice. "Think of it as Starfleet's first encounter with Planet X."

Kathryn turns, her eyes narrow, hand gesturing for silence. No more help from this audience needed, but also… Real anger flashes once across her thinned glare. There and gone like a lightning bolt across a clear sky. Now, her eyes are locked on me. I let the smile curl the corner of my lip, safely beyond any obvious reproach. At least for the moment.

Her voice is a seething whisper. "Thanks."

Which expresses a hundred things... but none of them gratitude.

Thank God Paris is relentless as he moves to meet her. "Uh, Captain, it won't be so bad. I explain to you what you can expect. I can tell you –

"All right. All right." She swallows, tugging at the corner of her uniform, as if she worried it will fly off and leave her as naked and uncertain as she feels. "I'm a size four."

I make it out of the briefing room with my limbs intact. In fact, she doesn't even try to hold me back. I take her silence as a symptom of a much deeper-felt emotion, expect it to linger just below the surface for a week, maybe more, before being snapped out over some innocuous misstep that has nothing to do with her real unrest.

I'll deal with it then.

We adjourn to separate corners of the ship with respective assignments in hand. Paris is already in the hololab when I arrive to oversee his preparations.

"And what is that?" I demand when I look at the console.

"Specifications for Arachnia's costume."

Certainly not. Not now or ever am I sending her in a lace body-stocking that is too revealing for a Dabo girl. A band of copper beads covers only the most intimate parts, leaving nothing, if anything, to the imagination.

I don't even try to keep the anger out of my voice. "The idea was to have fun with her, not at her expense."

Paris swallows hard, tries to look more innocent than amused. "Exactly why I wanted to make some modifications first." He returns his eyes to the monitor. "Lift the collar, extend the sleeves, lengthen the skirt." The commands are danced into the computer while he searches my face for any indication he's moving in a safer direction. "There, how's that?"

Maybe it's his age, or the fact she's his commanding officer, but his second attempt is as bad as the first for all the opposite reasons. I frown at the screen.

"If you have a suggestion…" Paris motions toward the console, but doesn't step away.

If time has taught me anything, it's that Kathryn dresses the same way she leads. Her preferences are more suggestive than provocative, safely playing to what she considers her strengths. With that in mind, I keep the high collar but open the neckline to expose a perfect diamond of flesh then pull the waist down to sit low on her hips. I make one last alteration and split the skirt.

Paris nods. "You've got a flare for women's clothing, but that slit is going to hit her a little high."

"You were prepared to send her in a bikini," I say flatly.

"Right. Well, all we have to do now is program the specifications for the replicator." He hesitates over the input for specific measurements. "Let's see, she said a size four so…"

Even from over his shoulder, I know it won't fit right, too much slack in the waist, not enough in the hips.

"36, 25, 38," I say quietly.

Paris freezes, his mouth held open on a long consonant. He closes it, nods once, and starts to make the correction. "I'm not even going to ask how you know that…" He works at the controls for a moment longer then turns again. "You know what, yes, I am going to ask."

Because I pay attention. I watch her weight the same way I watch the light in her eyes grow ever dimmer. Watch her hips lose their gentle sway, replaced with the hitch of constant pain. Too much work, too little play. Too little rest. Too high of heels. I know because it is my job, but also because I love her.

But Paris hasn't earned the right to question any of that, so I don't smile when I answer: "I know B'Elanna's, too, if you really would like that answer."

It's an inflammatory thing to say, but it's also the question he's always wanted, but never dared, to ask. Just how close am I, or have I been, to his girlfriend? Maybe he fears the truth or just the broken nose he'll earn for suggesting it.

Either way, Paris draws in a deep breath and forces a smile. "You're a hard guy to like, you know that? Not all the time, but…" He lets the thought die, tries instead for something more genuine. "It would be nice, you know. To have another couple on board that B'Elanna and I could spend time with. God knows she would love to see you happy, and the Captain –"

"– and I are not a couple," I finish for him.

"Yeah. Okay." He turns back to the display. "You just happen to know her measurements off the top of your head."

I don't see her beforehand. And by the time everything is said and done, the ship freed from subspace and damage reports rolling in, I am exhausted. Kathryn and the others stay on the holodeck to assist with the manual shut down, but the process takes longer than they anticipated. Too tired to hold my head up, I pass the bridge off to Tuvok and take my reports back to my quarters for the night.

While I have a dozen others to read, I want to hail the Doctor. Obviously she succeeded in defeating Chaotica, but I'd like to know if our other plan has worked. Ultimately I decide there will be plenty of time in the coming days to find out, and instead unfold my medicine bundle across the table before sliding to the floor. My chime rings as I begin my prayer.

"Come in," I call without standing.

Kathryn makes it past the threshold but stops, her eyes held on the animal skin just beyond my knees. Anyone else and I'd cover it, hurry to maintain the privacy of my ancestors. But not from her. While I know she holds no particular faith in any practice, she has always regarded what I've shown her with the utmost respect. Even now, I can see she's regretful for intruding at all.

If she notices the new objects that have crept in over the years, she makes no mention. I have no belief she remembers much from our time on New Earth or what significance I have imparted of the objects secreted here. She looks at me, around the room, then back to my face. She looks exhausted. And she's still in that costume.

"My sonic shower is out," she says dolefully. "Can I use yours?"

"Or course." I stand. "Do you want me to call B'Elanna and see if she has some time to look at it while you do?"

Kathryn waves away the offer. "She has her hands full. Besides, it took Seven's and the Doctor's help to get me into this damned thing. I'm probably going to need help getting it off as well."

She fights the dramatic collar off her neck, dumps it unceremoniously on the floor then turns her back to me. "Just get the clasps. I think I can manage from there."

The dress is easy enough, a few snaps and then a thin zipper that opens the entire back from neck to tailbone. The undergarment she has looks medieval by design, and I realize, since she hasn't moved away, she means for me to loosen that, too.

"There should be laces at the top if you –"

"I'm familiar," I say, but don't offer how. I rest a firm hand on her right shoulder and knit the slack ends of the stays in the other. "Exhale."

When her breath goes out, I yank the ends of the cord, pulling it tighter before the whole thing comes loose with a little sigh. She fills her lung again, seeming grateful for an unrestricted breath. I work the bodice open to expose more skin, but the brutality of the thing now bares a clear mark, as does the more pervading issue of her life in the Delta Quadrant.

Fresh bruises blossom around her waist. Those I understand. A traditional corset is made of bone. The replicated one she's wearing is tri-polymer, but no more forgiving. It's the rest of it that bothers me. Depressions as wide as my index finger sit in the spaces between her ribs, the lean muscles of her normally shapely back are gone.

When? When did this happen and how did the Doctor miss it, I want to ask, but don't. I already know the answer. Instead, I let my fingers to chase the itches away from her reddened skin, smile at the way she arches to meet my touch, silent but seeming pleased by the relief it affords her.

But I'm not stupid, nor am I saint, and a half-stripped woman – especially this woman – is a difficult reality for my body to ignore. I move my hands to the safety of her shoulders and ease her a few steps forward.

"Go ahead. I'll get you a towel."

She nods and gathers her skirt with one hand, still holding the other across her chest. She steps out of the heels easily and loses almost six inches of height. When I hear the steady thrum of the resonance coils, know that she's good and wet, I activate the comm link to sickbay.

"Commander?" the Doctor asks. "Is something wrong?"

"The Captain has some bruising around her ribs. Can you send the schematics for a dermal regenerator to my replicator?"

"She really should come to sickbay."

I tip my head, as if to ask: do you want to tell her that?

If holograms could look tired, the Doctor certainly does. "Very well. I trust you know what you are doing?"

"I've patched my fair share of injuries, Doc."

"I imagine you have. Tell her she must come see me tomorrow."

"Understood. Chakotay out."

The comm snaps off and a few seconds later the replicator hums to life. I pull a towel from the bedroom closet and deposit it soundlessly on the chair beside the smoked glass of the shower. Water slaps the partition, but the outline of her body is nearly imperceptible through the rising steam. I chuckle involuntarily at the sight of the dress heaped on the floor then gather it up as well. Paris was right, the slit did hit her a little high.

I scoop up the ridiculous collar and heels and toss the whole into the recycler. By the time I return to the bedroom, she is standing at the door, covered armpit to knee in a clean white towel. Her hair is still damp, slightly darker, but drying quickly. She shakes the remaining water from her hair.

"I probably should have thought a little further ahead than this," she says wearily. "I forgot my uniform."

I smile and motion toward the bed. "Lie down."

Her eyebrows shoot up and a hard knot tenses in her neck. I hold out the dermal re-generator. "It's me or the Doctor. Take your pick."

She isn't pleased but seems too tired to offer further protest. She twists the towel down around her waist, still keeping one end against her chest before placing herself face down on the bed.

I ease to the mattress, careful to balance my weight above her, but focus held on the bruises. Her body tenses against my touch, and a gentle, probing finger earns me a pillow-muted hiss.

"Sorry." The dermal re-generator makes a shaky first pass over the worst of the damage. I work swiftly, watching the skin go from a mottled purple to a dusky green. "Please tell me you at least had a little fun today."

"A little."

"But?" I press.

She sighs. "I can't help but feel like this was some kind of payback for locking Tom in the brig."

I frown. I certainly hadn't intended on that. "Well, I hardly doubt he planned on running us aground on subspace and starting a war with trans-dimensional aliens, if that's what your insinuating. Remember when we found Tuvok's training program?"

"You mean the other one that tried to kill us?"

"You said then, you're more than a captain. You're the leader of a community. They need you to be human, someone they can feel comfortable coming to, as much as they need you to be playful. There will be circumstances, like with Tom, where you will have to punish them, but you're also going to have to know when that is over."

She turns her face against the pillow, but waits for me to continue. "I told you earlier this year that you had picked a bad time to isolate yourself from them, but what I didn't say was, there is no good time." All of which she knows. And accepts. Has from the moment she issued the command to destroy the Array, which is why I hesitate to mention it now. "Maybe… he saw your participation as an opportunity to make things right between you, of letting you know he harbors no hard feelings for what you had to do."

My hand runs over the skin behind the beam of light as I survey my work. "Anywhere else?"

"No. I think that was the worst of it." She shifts beneath me, stretching to test the muscles. "It was your idea, wasn't it?"

And despite all that guilt and exhaustion, she's still startlingly perceptive. But I can't tell if its embarrassment or amusement hedged in her voice. What I do know is it's not anger, and for that I am thankful.

"Was it that bad?" I ask honestly.

"Only slightly less humiliating than this."

"You have nothing to be ashamed of in front of me."

I set the tool aside to splay my hands across her lower back, startled when my thumbs meet and my fingers still have more than enough reach around her waist. I massage the tension from the muscle, working my way up her skin with slow, firm pressure. Kathryn says nothing, does nothing. I knead my palms deeper into her skin, moving across her shoulder blades and into her neck.

My fingers find their way into her hair. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's slightly longer than it was this afternoon."

Again, she sighs. "I had the Doctor stimulate the follicles. I'll cut it back to regulation length tomorrow."

I gather it together, relish its softness as it passes inside my fist. I've missed its length, had missed it the moment she walked on the bridge with it cropped just below her ears. It was symbolic as anything, even if she hadn't thought so at the time and only done it to preserve herself valuable minutes in the event of an emergency. But it was also the most tangible difference in her on- and off-duty, and for a short time a balanced reminder of both.

If I let myself think about it, I can't help but reflect on our journey in the Delta Quadrant like a slow falling pendulum, beginning on one side of a clearly divided line and arching slowly toward the center. That center had been our third year. The only time I felt we had traveled beyond the delicate grounds of our unspoken affection, that she knew I loved her, however indirectly. It was no longer the elephant in the engine room. And those awkward, hesitant glances were replaced with longer, deeper stares. Occasional touches. More frequent dinners. She knew I loved her, and while she never committed herself to it, she did regard it with the same respect she held for my ancestors. It was a time I felt truly at peace with myself, with her, with our crews. The only time that I knew, no matter what lay before us, we would meet it head on, together, and without hesitation.

But eventually, even that fell away. As we made a connection to Starfleet and lost it, realized Arturis was a charlatan, inexplicably fell out of slipstream... had our hopes lifted and dashed in successive blows. I felt the distance between us widening. The long, wistful looks she held across our dinner table faded. Expressions I tried and failed to draw out of her, gone. Certainty as fleeting as her long, auburn locks had been. There one day, gone the next, returning briefly but with a promise to vanish once again. Missed. But never mentioned. And never mentioned, now, that I'll miss it tomorrow, too.

She shifts beneath me and, with unprecedented skill, keeps the towel pinned across her chest as she looks up at me.

"Something on your mind?" she asks.

My fingers situate at her waist, careful to keep all my weight on my knees, more careful to hold my expression in check as I realize there is only a loose towel between us. My thumbs touch over the center of her navel while the rest of my hands are folded around her sides.

"You're too thin, Kathryn."

Something stalls in her eyes, a hesitation read first as anger then anxiety. Suddenly, an uncharacteristically self-conscious woman is lying beneath me, counting down all the ways she considers herself to be inadequate. I won't pretend to ever understand this behavior in women, even ones as perceptive as she, but I watch it happen in a few heart-breaking seconds. Eventually, she tries to twist her face away.

I catch her chin and pull her eyes back to meet mine. "Which is not to suggest you are not still beautiful."

And she is. All the makeup scrubbed from her face, the dye from her hair. Stripped of costume and sentiment, she is strikingly, remarkably beautiful. I lean forward, just enough to brush my lips against hers. When she doesn't move to return the kiss, I withdraw.

The quaver in her voice betrays her own words. "W-we shouldn't be doing this."

"Again, you mean," I say. "We shouldn't be doing this, again."

The tremble leaves her voice and passes over her whole body.

Again, because we've done this before. The prickling awareness of exactly how she looks beneath me isn't just born of my fantasies, though they have certainly maintained the memory. No, we've been right here… before.

Though it feels like an eternity since I've touched her, held her, kissed her, in actuality it's only been a few weeks. A month, before that. The longest she's gone – I'd like to think been able to go – is six weeks. Holding herself at a certain distance, careful to keep her eyes and body balanced in my periphery. Until all at once, she breaks. The cable snaps, and she tumbles headlong in the opposite direction. Fortunately, that direction has always been me.

"I really just wanted to use your shower," she offers.

"I believe you."

Because there is no agreement between us. No expectation of regular sex or certain affection. Even now, I can see the lingering hesitation in her eyes, the real fear that she is using me to fill the void that isolation has craved inside her. She still knows I love her; that I allow this because I love her, and love her in spite of what she needs now.

Tuvok was right when he said she wasn't Vulcan. Vulcans don't use sex to seal the wounds the world inflicts on them, or the ones they inflict upon themselves. Humans do.

A hard, clinical look has led me to the conclusion that it's biology alone that allows this to work for her. Beneath everything, she's a woman, and it's part of her she can't alter or detach, something that cannot be sacrificed for the sake of her command. By design, her body must relinquish control. To allow her to feel, to be filled. She must allow it to happen, but once she does, it's truly and irrevocably out of her hands.

It's also how I knew involving her in Paris' ridiculous holodeck program would work. Once the idea is plant, she is all too happy to surrender to the suspension of disbelief. I have no doubt, in those few hours, she was Queen Arachnia, as sure as I know for the next hour she will be completely mine, even though she insists...

"I had no ulterior motive."

"I believe you," I repeat, kissing her more firmly this time.

And I do. It's exhaustion that have brought her here, seeking the comfort of warm water and clean skin. I'm the one easing her into other things, punctuating sentence with kisses she won't turn away from. Maybe she's too tired, or too careworn to fight back: maybe all the reason I need to stop this, right now, release her, and bid her goodnight.

But we're not unalike, her and I. Just like the role she played today, I am a character in Paris' holonovels. The man who knows too much. Who knows what her voice sounds like rasped and breathless, how her skin tastes. The way the heat rises up and across her stomach, how it flushes her throat pale pink. Who knows for each wet inch I travel, her muscles will expand to accommodate and draw me deeper. Who knows it's instinct that arches her breast toward my mouth as she begs for it to stop as senselessly as she begs for it not to. I know far too much about her. I know this woman wants to beg.

My hands move up her arms, thumbs lingering on the soft skin of her inner elbows before tracing the path to her shoulders, her throat, and her collar bone. Finally, I find my target and wrap the edge of the towel in my fist.

"Stay or go," I say. "Your choice. But I'm warning you, I've had ulterior motives since the minute you walked in wearing that dress."

She swallows hard. I watch the flex of muscles as it moves down her slender neck. Cast in the light of the stars, the hollows of the throat are pools begging to be explored. The index of my free hand runs a quick lap across the skin, and I'm rewarded with a tender sigh.

After a long minute, her chest rising and falling half a click faster than normal, I begin to doubt she'll answer me at all. I tug again at the top of the towel, pulling it just far enough to expose the top swell of her breast.

"Stay or go," I repeat and jerk the towel a little harder.

More skin. More lines for my eyes to rove and I don't feel an ounce of guilt for how freely my gaze falls across her, even better for the reaction I receive as her fingers uncurl from the edge of the towel. My hand makes one last motion, sweeping away the barrier between us.

My mouth goes to work on her body, tasting the soft points of her throat before departing for the newly-healed skin of her ribs. I break contact long enough to pull my undershirt over my head then work my way down her thigh to the place where a Hirogen hunter's bullet once decimated the firm muscle.

I lift my face to see hers, resting most of my weight on the bed beside her while coursing my fingers over the slick, scarred flesh. "I love your skin, the way you react."

Another long shudder passes over her, followed by a longer, breathless moan. I don't give her time to relax before slipping a single finger between her thighs. As predicted, I feel her ripple and flex, locking down desperately to draw me deeper inside her. I trail soft kisses against her stomach, content to set a slow pace and watch my fingers move in and out of her.

It occurs to me this is more foreplay than she's allowed to date. In general, our encounters are a flurry of clothing that never fully makes it to the floor, only open at the critical parts to allow the connection.

So, she must be tired. Too tired to offer any honest objection, or as honest as she can be while she's letting her first officer finger her.

No, not her first officer, I remind myself.

Here and now, I can't be her first officer, and to say anything close to the like will bring these four walls in. Part us for another six weeks, which happened exactly once, shortly after Seven was brought aboard, and I accidentally called her Captain instead of Kathryn as I came.

The scent of her body combined with the taste of her on my fingers is an intoxicant as swift and liquidating as any Romulan ale. I take a measured moment to suck every ounce from my index and forefinger, acutely aware of her hips lifting and falling against the bed. I'd be happy to oblige her and return my hand to her warmth, but she needs to ask first.

With her head thrown back, I know she can't see my hand hovering over the apex of her thighs. But she can feel it. The heated presence of my fingers dancing millimeters from the ache that is ever-increasing. One knee comes up, foot flush against the bed as she squirms toward the mere promise of a touch. She tucks her bottom lip between her teeth, fighting back the words that she's dying to say. Has to say before my fingers will return.

Her left hand is snaking across her stomach, on clear trajectory toward her breast and at least some self-satisfaction, when I snatch it, careful not to touch any other part of her, and force it back to her side.

"No," I say. "Tell me."

She whimpers but her teeth hold fast to her bottom lip, intent to maintain her silence, intent to let me take over and fill the voids she cannot ask to have filled. My hand withdraws and eventually so do I, aware she is watching with hooded, hungry eyes. I stay just close enough to let her watch as I work the clasp of my pants free. Watch while they slide down, followed by the shorts beneath. My want for her is undeniable, and I use my hand to show her just that, running a long, clean stroke over the painfully hard skin.

She whimpers again, more frightened than anticipatory, and the sound almost gets me. But I see it for the tactic it is, one she has developed through our repeated encounters. A way of getting what she wants without asking, or admitting, she needs this. She knows me as well I know her after all, and she knows that for me fear, even feigned, is an exponentially powerful aphrodisiac.

It calls to a part of me older than words. Begs me to take her by the knees, jerk her to the edge of the bed, and bury myself inside the place in her that was built by nature to house me. All of which I do... except the last part.

In one swift move, I hook my hands under her calves and pull her to the edge. Instinctively, her legs come up to encircle my waist, but I stop her, hold her open and stare at the smooth, bare skin glistening in the light of the stars.

It tickles me to think of the care she takes to remove the downy hair from her most intimate parts. Proper Starfleet Captain, legs spread in her bathtub, preparing herself for her first officer's tongue. I wonder if she pleasures herself then, before or after, but toss the thought away. I don't need any more fuel for the fantasies that run through my head when I hear the water splashing between the walls we share.

There are more pressing things at hand.

Her eyes open fully, mouth parted but still in silent search of what she wants. I lift my chin, slightly mocking and infinitely defiant, but it should be a familiar look for her. I'm convinced she practices it.

I keep my back straight but lean into her, brushing the head of my cock over her slick, wet folds, then quickly withdraw. That almost does it; almost sends her over the edge where she is too desperate to hold back anymore.

"Please, Chakotay. Please…"

"Please what?"

It's a hard thing for her to say, to hear herself say. Please fuck me. I urge her on with caresses to her damp, inner thighs, pleased as she scoots them further and further apart, using every part of her to draw me in. Every part except her voice.

Come on, lover. You can do it.

And I want her to, so badly I have to break my eyes from the sweet desperation in her face to the bastion of stars beyond the window, find a still point, and hold to it. Anything else and I am going to explode all over her. I lick my bottom lip, clamp down on my tongue. Even that image is too much in the moment.

When she seems content to maintain her quiet, I change tactics, begin to ease her knees up and over my shoulders as I sink to the floor. She knows what's coming – impossible not to – especially when she feels my breath crashing against the sweet, wet lines of her body. She told me once, in some pre-sleep, post-coital stupor, it frightens her beyond measure. But then again, I can't imagine why it wouldn't. Letting me bury my face into these parts of her, arrest her of complete control. With me inside her, she's still part of the act. Here, she's confined to a place with nothing more than accommodate the width of my shoulders and let go… I can image it is horrifying, especially for someone like her.

Positioned comfortably between her legs, I ease one digit inside her. Then another. She tenses, whimpers, then releases a long, shuddering sigh. I kiss the inside of her thigh, lapping the tangy taste away from her skin, noticing, and not for the first time, even this part of her is tinged with coffee. My tongue slips closer to her center, drawing out the seconds, knowing the anticipation is as arousing as the actual touch.

When my mouth finally does encircle her, she rises ever so slightly from the bed, and I have to rise with her to maintain contact, not let her back away, or break from my insistent mouth, all the while making the apology I know I owe her.

I'm sorry pulled you out of your comfortable numb. Reminded you you're human, not Vulcan, not Borg. That I won't let you shut out these needs out completely, that I won't let you shut me out at all.

I hear my name, full and long, rounded out on the syllables in a way that means she knows the difference between speaking it and saying it. She slams her head back, eyes closed, as the next words erupt from her throat.

"Please, fuck me."

I wrench her knees apart and move into her again. "Open your eyes, Kathryn. Open your eyes."

She does. Startling blue, edged with black, wide for an instant then softening. Wide again when I slide inside her, breath choked out by a diffusion of one tension and the rise of another. My first stroke is shallow, dipping just far enough to feel the first wave of soft resistance. I pull out then ease into her again, careful to keep watch on her face. She'll close her eyes if I'm not mindful, slip into some quiet, anodyne coma where her body detaches from her soul, and none of this will matter.

I still myself against her, just long enough to reach into her hair and pull our faces together. "Stay with me, yatay-rah. Stay right here."

And this is why she comes to me, time and time again. Because I know too much. I know what she fears. Where she hides. And how to protect her from both. I wait for the gentle nod of acceptance then begin to move again.

She takes everything I have. Each percussive blast shoving her against the bed until the room is full of the wet sound of our skin meeting over and over again. She soaks my thighs, my stomach, all the while, holding my eyes. Unapologetic but still vulnerable, needful but also desirous of what I have to give.

The first wave begins to climb over the back of my knees, up my thighs and into my hips. The tension grinds down my control so the rhythm becomes unsteady and short. Kathryn eases me deeper into her embrace, one hand against my ass, urging me on, one on my shoulder as I bury my head into her hair.

"I need you," she whispers to me. "I need you. Please…"

She won't wait long, not with those words and not at this rate. I pull back to see her, just in time to feel the first clenching grasp of her orgasm as it pushes the breath up the back of her throat. It sends me over the edge and I feel the roar of blood in my head and thicker things between us.

I collapse across her, boneless and warm, relishing the feel of her cool kisses against my temple. I slide out and roll onto my back beside her. She turns her head, smiles at me, and brushes the sweat from my forehead with the back of her hand.

It's a sweet gesture, but as devoid of expectation as it is of promise. She lingers for a moment longer then pushes herself off the bed. My ears follow what my eyes cannot, the soft pad of her feet across the carpet until they are too distant to perceive. A moment of silence. Then the soft whine of the transporters as she disappears.

The days the follow are bright, renewed. It's a sentiment echoed across the ship. I try to attribute the sunny glow I feel to a pair of binary suns we pass, but the sensation lingers long after they disappear from sensors. The crew takes a week of smooth space to relax and the galley is the place to be. Neelix prepares a few more Terran delicacies than usual, which draws a crowd for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's a relief to see everyone's spirits lifted, more so to find Kathryn among them, most nights at the center of the low couches, surrounded by the officers from the lower decks, Starfleet and Maquis alike.

They listen intently, their eyes starry and transfixed by her charismatic presence, and she by their good-natured humor and willing spirit. Tuvok even offers me a nod of acknowledgement from his lonely place in the furthest corner of the room. I gather my own plate and move to the only table not occupied, but am alone only a few minutes before B'Elanna joins me.

"You are never going to guess what I heard," she says as she wedges a fork inside Neelix's take on a chicken potpie.

"Probably not, but go ahead."

I've never given much thought to the scuttlebutt of a starship, but like most rumors, it usually holds a half truth. They're worth monitoring for at least that much, and the Klingon across from me is generally first to know them all. B'Elanna does her best to let me squirm, folding over the thick crust of her dinner before constructing the perfect bite. She chews through it, watching me for a long moment until I finally give into her game, set my fork aside, and offer her my undivided attention.

"What?" I ask.

"36, 25, 38."

I'll kill him. No, better yet, I'll let Kathryn kill him. My mind seizes around the thought. No, she's the last person who can know, especially now.

"Paris," I hiss.

"What? Did you think he wasn't going to tell me?" Her eyes shift side to side, checking the room, making sure we aren't overhead. "And when the hell were you going to tell me?"

"When there was something to tell." I pick up my fork again and go back to my dinner. "Which there isn't."

B'Elanna checks the room again, but this time lets her eyes linger on Kathryn. "There isn't?" she asks.


"Then how do you –"

"Because I do," I snap.

I know too much.

She straightens in her seat and blows out a long, slow breath. "Oh."

Instantly, I regret it. Of all people, B'Elanna has earned the right to ask, deserves the most honest explanation I have to give. It occurs to me she might be the only one who does, including Kathryn, at least for the time being. I rub my temple and look at her again.

If it were just sex, a way to take the edge off, it would be easy to leave it there. B'Elanna certainly understands that. But it's not, never has been, and probably never will be.

"Yatay-rah," I say softly.

From beneath hooded eyes, I watch the pieces slide into place. Unlike anyone else on this ship, B'Elanna has been offered a rare glimpse into the man I truly am. Spent enough time around me and my sister to know what words are sacred to our people, and unlike the Doctor, she understands the full width and berth of those terms.

Yatay-rah. Beloved. Most loved. But most importantly, the other half. A word B'Elanna's heard spoken only in theory, never in application. The one Kathryn hears every time, never knowing what it truly means.

We sit in silence for a few more minutes, considering our plates and not each other.

"She has no idea, does she?" she asks softly.

"And she's not going to get any ideas. From me, or you," I say. "Understand?"

B'Elanna opens her mouth, starts to protest, but closes it again and nods.

We finish our dinner in polite conversation, rehashing a few old stories with a comfortable familiarity that is her way of expressing her loyalty but also her love. Even though she's talking about supply raids and oily Cardassians, she's watching me with the kind of low intensity that says I have her silence, now and forever.

Kathryn stops by our table before she leaves for the night, passing on a joke; one both of us have heard so many times it's not even remotely funny.

We laugh anyway.