Day Seventeen

James T. Kirk had certainly not been in Voyager's transporter room the previous day. So as far as Tuvok was concerned, there was only one logical explanation for the presence of his security code in the log. Tom Paris had to be the culprit.

Tuvok decided to see if the captain would draw the same conclusion, and once the alpha shift was well under way he headed for her ready room.

"Have you solved last evening's mystery?"



Tuvok was expressionless. "I have found a record in the transporter log which explains the flower's arrival in your quarters."

"Whose security code was used?"

"According to our logs, the rose was sent by Captain James T. Kirk." Tuvok delivered the improbable information as if he was reciting the periodic table.

"Well, I think it's safe to rule him out. Do you have a suspect?" She watched his impassive face. "Never mind. Do me a favor and try not to hurt Tom too badly."

Tom knew what was coming. He waited, tense but determined.

"Mister Paris, may I have a word with you?" Tuvok asked politely.

"Certainly, Tuvok." He indicated the seat across from him.

Tuvok hesitated briefly, preferring to speak in a less public part of the ship. With a glance around the empty mess hall, he decided that this would do.

"Mister Paris, I am curious as to what you were trying to accomplish with the transporter last evening. Would you care to enlighten me?"

"I was trying to give the captain a little nudge. I was hoping she would think the flower was from Chakotay."

"To what end?"

"They belong together. It's time she stopped denying her feelings. You may not have noticed, but the captain and Chakotay care very deeply for one another, yet they are holding back."

"I have shared a mind meld with Captain Janeway. I am well aware of her feelings for Commander Chakotay. I support her belief that it would be inappropriate to act upon those emotions."

"How can you say that?" Tom asked incredulously. "She's your friend. Don't you want her to be happy?"

Tuvok argued his position with typical Vulcan calm. "The captain will be happy when this ship is safely back home. Nothing which inhibits her ability to perform her duties in the meantime will result in her happiness."

"And how will a relationship with Chakotay inhibit her duties, exactly? Do you doubt their ability to have a relationship and still run this ship? Do you think that B'Elanna runs engineering any less efficiently now that she and I are a couple? I don't see the difference."

"Captain Janeway is in a position of command. It would not be appropriate for her to carry on an affair with a subordinate."

Tom snorted. "Affair? Come on, Tuvok. It would hardly be that."

"I did not intend to trivialize the nature of their emotions. But my argument is the same. A romance would not be appropriate."

"Almost every member of this crew is part of the chain of command. By your logic, no one on board can be involved in a relationship, because someone would always outrank their partner."

"Starfleet protocol does not interfere with the personal lives of the crew. The captain is expected to maintain a higher standard."

Tom nearly exploded. "A double standard, you mean. Why should she be miserable? Even if I agreed with the protocol, I would still think an exception could be made in this case. We're a long way from Federation space."

"The rules do not apply any less just because of distance."

"That isn't what I meant, and you know it. By asking the captain to obey protocol, you are condemning her to a very lonely life. This little pleasure cruise of ours could last another thirty years."

"I am condemning the captain to nothing. I am not asking her to obey protocol, I am simply supporting her decision to do so."

"It's the same thing, Tuvok." How could he get this across? "Your opinion would sway her. I know it would."

"Perhaps you are correct, Mister Paris, although I am not ready to agree with you. I do admit that the matter might require further thought. I will not report your activities to the captain at this time, and I will consider your words carefully."

"Thank you, Tuvok," Tom replied. It was the best he could have expected, under the circumstances.

Janeway had forgotten all about the rose on her pillow until Tuvok had appeared in her ready room. Briefly, she tried to wonder what Tom had been trying to accomplish, but she just didn't care.

It had been more than twelve hours since she had kissed Chakotay on the holodeck, and she had yet to recover. Dimly she recalled throwing one final barb in Tom's direction as she left the holodeck.

Then, alone in the turbolift, she had slumped back against the wall, able to think of nothing else aside from the softness of those lips, the feel of him, the taste of him after all these years. Her hips and waist burned where his hands had held her. Her heart raced and her entire body thrummed with arousal.

It had only been a kiss, she had told herself. A brief, gentle kiss, almost chaste, barely lingering. But it hadn't been only anything. It had been soul shaking. She could have made love to Mark and felt less. Poor Mark. She was suddenly very glad to know he had married someone else. He was a nice guy, after all. He deserved to be more than her safety net.

And what of Chakotay...just the sound of his name in her thoughts sent a thrilling jolt of electricity down her spine. She shivered, and tried to gain control of her thoughts. Chakotay, what did he deserve? More than she could give him.

It frightened her to realize just how close she had been to deepening that kiss. She could have lost control completely, even in front of the crew. She easily could have gone too far, and lost the closest friendship she had ever known.

She had leaned against the wall in that turbolift, desire coursing through every cell in her body, and wondered how she would ever face him the next morning. Then she had realized that she couldn't wait until morning. If she waited, that wall would spring up again. A wall of her own creation, not his, but it would happen.

The memory of the distance between them after New Earth had risen in her mind, and she knew that she needed to see Chakotay, her friend, now, before she sat beside her first officer in the morning. She couldn't let herself hurt him like that again.

So she had gone to his quarters. She had sat on his couch, pretending to read and thinking of nothing except the kiss they had shared. She had said nothing. Words would have complicated the issue. Her message required nothing more than her presence.

The captain would not have come to sit on his couch, but she, Kathryn, needed to be there. So neither had spoken, even when they had finally gone to bed, to sleep side by side with Chakotay's quilt barrier between them. They were still not lovers, but they were still friends.

Now, she sat alone in her ready room, wanting him, desperately. She was glad she had gone to him the night before, that she had managed to maintain that which currently passed as normalcy between them. Else, she would have feared that the only mask beneath which she could hide her desire was that of cold indifference.

She had to move past this. She had to gain control. He didn't deserve cold indifference. Again she cringed at the pain she had caused him after New Earth. He had given her his heart on that planet. He had exposed his very soul to her. And she had told him to check on a problem with the prefire chamber temperature in the phaser array. And what had he done with her slap in the face? Accepted it, quietly and without complaint. He had checked with phaser maintenance, reported back to her, and continued with his unwavering support.

He was always there, giving everything, tolerating anything, demanding nothing. Just like now. He was sitting out there on the bridge, patiently waiting until she was ready to talk to him.

Dinner. They would be having dinner, later. Was it her turn to cook, or his? Cook. Silly word. Replicate. That was more accurate. She focused on that, and tried to push the kiss out of her mind.

Why had she kissed him? Why hadn't she just pecked him on the cheek? Because she had wanted to kiss him, she admitted, and so she had let the circumstances push her into it.

What had been wrong with her lately? Ordinarily, she and Chakotay had an efficient and well balanced working relationship enhanced by a close friendship. Something had thrown it off recently. The long managed sexual tension kept making plays for the upper hand, interfering with the ease of both their professional relationship and their friendship. The attraction had always been present, but as strong as it was, it had never been such a strain before.

Part of it was the fact that she hadn't had to make a single command decision in more than two weeks. While that in itself certainly wasn't rare, the difference was the fact that in all likelihood this would continue for nearly six months. Uncomfortable with that fact, she leaned on him, perhaps unreasonably.

And now she had kissed him, and she feared that without some distraction she would think of nothing else for the next six months.

Chakotay sat on the bridge and tried not to stare at the ready room door. He tried to focus on his console, or on the blank viewscreen, rather than on the empty chair to his right.

He was still surprised that she had come to his quarters the night before. She had done it to quell his fear, to prove that she wouldn't hide behind her captain's mask because of the kiss, and he was fiercely grateful for that.

The kiss. Again he remembered the intoxicating effects of her lips. Again he felt her fingers sliding through his hair. Again he felt her body, pressed against his. He forced aside the desire to storm through the ready room doors and kiss her breathless. He ignored the urge to march down to astrometrics to personally search fruitlessly for a wormhole to the alpha quadrant.

Voyager had plenty of sophisticated equipment constantly searching for spatial anomalies. They had even adopted Borg technology for the purpose. Astrometrics did not require his assistance, and he couldn't bring a wormhole into existence by pure force of will.

The kiss. His mind returned to it for the thousandth time. He wanted to kiss her again, properly. Deeply. And without an audience. That couldn't happen on this ship. That couldn't even happen in this part of the galaxy. That could only happen thirty thousand light years away, in Federation space.

Here, in the Delta Quadrant, he had to demonstrate restraint. He could do that, he told himself. He could regain control over his own desire and get through the evening without kissing her. He'd been doing that for six years. He just hoped he wouldn't have to do it for thirty more.

Tom was frantic. Tonight was the last chance. He knew it. Tuvok might not tell the captain about recent events, but he would certainly not allow them to continue. Tuvok would do one of two things. He would either order the crew to end their current undertaking, or he would march himself into the ready room and offer his straightforward advice. Either way, it meant tonight was the last opportunity.

Drastic plans flew through Tom's mind. Were there any airborne aphrodisiacs? Could clothing really be captured in the pattern buffer? Was there some memory that the command team shared that might spark something? He raced out of the mess hall and headed for deck four, suddenly intent upon studying the alleged bathtub in cargo bay one.

Harry stood at the ops station and watched Chakotay stare at the ready room door. He wished he knew the outcome of Tom's discussion with Tuvok. At any moment the security chief could step out of the turbolift and descend upon the command deck. Or worse yet, he could go into the ready room and explain the situation to the captain.

At all costs, that should be prevented. Harry promised himself that if Tuvok made for the ready room, he would stop him. Even if it meant a confrontation. If the captain had to learn of the crew's recent project, it was probably best that she heard it from Chakotay. Or perhaps from Tom. But Harry was fairly certain that having the captain hear about her own love life in Tuvok's security report would not bode well for anyone.

B'Elanna raced around engineering, treating routine maintenance like mid-battle repairs. Wasn't Tom done with Tuvok yet? She considered a trip to the mess hall. Then she considered a trip to the bridge.

If all hell was about to break loose, didn't Chakotay deserve a heads up? As his friend, didn't she owe it to him to let him know what had been going on before Tuvok explained it to the captain?

Five more minutes, she decided. Then she was going to go find Tom. In the meantime, she grabbed a hyperspanner and crawled under a console.

Tuvok headed back to his quarters. He needed some time alone to think about the captain's situation. Would she be happier if she changed her relationship with Chakotay? And if so, did he dare interfere?

For once, he didn't see the logical answer immediately. But human emotions rarely conformed to logic. Tom had made some valid points, and they required further examination. He decided that meditation was in order.

The Doctor paced around sickbay. Was anyone going to let him know the result of Tom's talk with Tuvok? He almost wished that his ethics as a physician would allow him to tell the captain of the commander's recent dreams.

Perhaps he could trick the couple into thinking that one of them had contracted a rare disease curable only by copulation. Damn his ethical subroutines. Then again, the captain was a scientist. She'd recognize the absurdity of any such subterfuge.

Tal Celes was trying desperately to focus on her work. It was enough of a challenge to avoid mistakes without having to fight against her preoccupation with recent developments.

She was beginning to wonder whether the captain's reluctance to pursue a relationship was entirely due to protocol. Perhaps she feared that changing her relationship with Chakotay would endanger their friendship. If that was the case, then perhaps she had more in common with Janeway than she ever would have guessed.

Seven of Nine was uncharacteristically nervous. Twice now, she had double checked all of the systems in astrometrics. She had even cross referenced several readings with the more conventional systems in stellar cartography.

Finally impatient with waiting, she turned to Tal Celes. "Please report to the mess hall and find out what has transpired between Lieutenant Paris and Commander Tuvok. Inform me of your findings immediately. I will be in sickbay."

Startled out of her own thoughts, the young Bajoran shot her a look of surprise, but scurried off without a word. Seven must be worried; Celes had never heard her use the word please before.

Neelix tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible while he strained to hear what Tuvok and Tom were saying. He struggled to contain his sigh of relief when Tuvok agreed not to go talk to the captain.

After Tom raced out without a word, Neelix considered his own next move. It was pretty clear that regardless of what Tuvok decided, they were all going to be out of time fairly soon. Tuvok would not let the game continue, but would instead prefer the direct approach.

Samantha Wildman could barely concentrate on her work at the science station. She had absolutely nothing to do, and was occupied primarily with watching the first officer. And since all Chakotay had done all day was stare at the ready room door, he really hadn't been that interesting to observe.

She hoped that everything would work out soon, for all of their sakes.

Ensign Henley sat at the conn, feeling restless and unnecessary. Voyager was flying a straight line through empty space. Even Naomi would have been bored at the helm.

She wondered what was going through Chakotay's mind. Like everyone else, she knew about the kiss at Sandrine's. And judging from the fact that the captain hadn't emerged from her ready room all day, she was guessing that the kiss hadn't magically transformed the commanding officers into lovers.

Hadn't either one of them managed to read between the lines the other night? Every single former Maquis had managed to mention that they weren't particularly afraid of a stay in a Federation rehabilitation colony. Numerous crewmembers had made references to the value of love. Ensign Campbell had practically spelled out the need to sometimes bend the rules. How could they make it plainer before Tuvok put an end to their efforts?

Ensign Jenkins was really starting to question the value of standing at the tactical console. Absolutely nothing was happening. Watching the first officer stare blankly at the ready room doors was uninspiring. Watching the ops officer stare blankly at the first officer was even less interesting. Why wasn't anyone at least chatting? She answered her own question. It was because everyone except Chakotay was tensely awaiting Tuvok's return.

Lyssa Campbell was alone in transporter room one, and she wasn't particularly happy about it. She wanted to know what had transpired between Tom and Tuvok. She also wanted to know what was happening on the bridge. Were Captain Janeway and Chakotay acting normally? Perhaps something had changed. She hoped that something had happened, because she feared that Tuvok would make them all stop pushing.

She hated waiting. It was going to be a long shift.

Joe Carey had come to greatly respect Lieutenant Torres over the last six years. She was the best engineer he had ever seen, and he enjoyed working under her command. But today he was really wishing that she'd go elsewhere for the day.

There was nothing quite like an agitated half-Klingon. In the middle of a crisis, B'Elanna's ingenuity and efficiency were inspiring. But today was not such a day. Everyone was already on edge and the chief was not helping. Joe found himself almost as anxious to hear from Tom as was B'Elanna, and not just because he wanted to know what Tuvok had said to him.

Vorik had heard humans say that the only emotion Vulcans ever expressed was annoyance. Today, Vorik was contemplating a number of emotions, sympathy for Commander Chakotay's plight not being the least of them.

Had he remained on Vulcan, Vorik would have entered an arranged marriage when he experienced pon farr. He never would have had to pursue a mate. But having gone through pon farr while in the Delta Quadrant, he possessed an understanding of romantic frustrations that few Vulcans knew.

Now, he was debating as to whether it might be wise to go speak with Tuvok and share the knowledge gained in that experience. Ordinarily, there was nothing a Vulcan hated more than discussing emotions in general and pon farr in particular, but this was a special case.

Chell was wishing that he was back in security, rather than engineering. Not that the flurry of activity wasn't a pleasant distraction, but if he were on a security detail today he might have already learned the outcome of Tom's expected confrontation with Tuvok. As it was, he was still waiting for news.

Garan had never been a particular fan of Starfleet protocol. He had certainly not relinquished his traditional Bajorin earring lightly. Over the years, he had learned to follow the rules, and had even come to respect the ideals they represented. But as for blind adherence to pointless regulations? Well, he hoped that the captain and commander saw reason soon. He waited impatiently for word from the mess hall.

Naomi Wildman jumped up, startled, when someone entered the cargo bay. Tom didn't notice her at first, and began to examine various storage devices.

"What are you looking for, Lieutenant?" she asked, half hoping to startle him as well. "Maybe I can help."

"Maybe you can. I'm looking for a big crate that was stored in here about four years ago."

"Oh, you mean the captain's bathtub," Naomi answered brightly. "It's over here."

Tom grinned as the little girl led him to the object he was seeking. It suddenly occurred to him that Naomi, being a child, might very well know some things that no one else on board did.

"So how did you know I was looking for the bathtub?" Tom asked.

Naomi shrugged. "It's the only big thing in here that could have been here that long. Why were you looking for the captain's bathtub?"

"I was just curious. Do you know where it came from?"

"Commander Chakotay built it."

Tom was mildly shocked. "How do you know that?"

"Captain Janeway told me. She said he did it to cheer her up when they were stranded and thought that they'd never see Voyager again." Naomi seemed to be thinking hard. "Do you want to know what I think?"

Tom nodded.

"I think that Captain Janeway should tell Commander Chakotay that she loves him. I know all forty-seven suborders of the Prime Directive and all of the Starfleet General Orders. None of them say that the captain can't fall in love. I know she thinks she can't, but that just isn't fair."

"You're right," Tom said. "It's not a law, it's just a silly guideline written for very different circumstances." He thought for a moment. "Does Commander Chakotay know this is here?"

"I'm pretty sure he doesn't. Captain Janeway asked me not to tell him. She said he'd think she was being sentimental or something."

Tom snorted, then laughed when Naomi rolled her eyes in agreement. A thought crossed his mind. "We should beam it onto the bridge."

"No offense, but I think that's a really bad idea."

"Don't you see? If Chakotay sees this, then he'll know she kept it. He'll know that it meant something to her."

Naomi looked doubtful. "Maybe, but wouldn't they wonder what it was doing on the bridge?"

"They don't know that I know where this came from. I'll give them a line about the Golgafrincham B Ark..." Tom was thinking now.

"I think you should ask Lieutenant Torres what she thinks first," Naomi advised, wise beyond her years.

Neelix was alone in the mess hall when Celes arrived. He greeted her cheerfully. "Good timing! They just left. It looks like Tom managed to buy us those couple of days. Tuvok promised to give the matter some thought."

"Good." The flower had been her idea and the guilt was driving her crazy. "I'd better report back to Seven." She paused for a moment. "Neelix?"


She hesitated. "Do you think everyone on board will eventually pair off?"

"I don't think you can predict love. And not everyone is going to want to pair off. Samantha has a husband back home. Tuvok, Ayala, and Carey all have families as well. Why do you ask?"

"It just seems that everybody has someone. The captain and Commander Chakotay. Lieutenants Paris and Torres. Seven and the Doctor. Harrison and Mannick. I even heard that Chell is seeing Megan Delaney."

Neelix chuckled. "I don't think that one will stand the test of time."

"Well..." She turned to go. "I'd better go spread the news."



"Whoever he is, tell him." Neelix grinned. "Don't make us go through a fiasco like this again."

"Tom, we are not transporting that..." B'Elanna gestured at the tub, "...onto the bridge. Honestly, how would you explain that?"

"I was thinking I'd say something about the Golgafrincham B Ark," he answered reasonably, as if that made perfect sense.

"The what?" Lyssa asked.

"Don't even bother," B'Elanna said. "I'm sure it has something to do with some twentieth century film."

"Book, actually," Tom clarified. "And we have to do something. We might only have a few hours left."

"And you want to waste them by installing a bathtub on the bridge?"

"I didn't say we needed to fill it up. I just want Chakotay to see it."

"Then call him down here."

"Oh, that would be real subtle."

"And beaming it onto the bridge would be?"

Chakotay was actually nervous as he programmed dinner. He hadn't talked to Kathryn all day. In fact, they hadn't spoken to one another since the kiss on the holodeck. The peace of mind he had gained from her presence on his couch the previous evening was starting to dissipate.

Why had he kissed her? He could have ruined everything. She wouldn't blame him, he knew. He wasn't afraid she'd be angry. But he was furious with himself, and not just for the kiss itself. It had happened. He should have been able to come to terms with the event. Instead, all he could think about was how much he wanted to do it again.

One taste of those lips was not enough, could never be enough, as he had always known. The struggle to wait until the Alpha Quadrant would be harder now. Each day would be a battle for self control.

Right now, the challenge was dinner. A pleasant dinner with Kathryn, his closest friend. Hardly an unusual event, he reminded himself. They had eaten dinner yesterday. A picnic dinner on Lake George, no less. The thought struck him that perhaps the dinner conversation had been a bit too intimate; that it had somehow contributed to the kiss.

No, he couldn't let himself think like that. If he did, he'd be second guessing every word he said to her. And he would not let this friendship become awkward and strained. It meant far too much to them both.

The door chimed and his stomach somersaulted. He suddenly envied Tuvok's control. "Come."

He was not in any way prepared for the vision of loveliness that greeted him. "That's the suit you wore in Los Angeles," he blurted. He had expected a uniform. Why had he expected a uniform?

"It wasn't my idea." She sounded apologetic. "The Doctor asked me to dress for late twentieth century Earth." She shrugged. "Who am I to argue?"

Janeway was shocked that he remembered the suit. She hadn't thought of it until the Doctor had mentioned it. And even then she hadn't clearly recalled what it looked like. It crossed her mind that Chakotay might possibly remember every single time he had ever seen her out of uniform. She wondered if she should feel guilty for finding that flattering.

"So we're heading for the holodeck after dinner?" he asked.

"If you're interested," she answered, suddenly cautious. She was relieved when he smiled.


"Okay, Captain," Tom said. "Your character is simple. You're a scientific minded FBI agent, and Chakotay here is your dashing partner. He wants to investigate every wild story he hears. You're the skeptical one."


"Federal Bureau of Investigation."

"So we're spies?"

"Not quite. But the same basic idea."

"And what are we supposed to be doing here?" She gestured to the restaurant scene around them.

"Meeting your contact. Your goal in this scenario is to solve the mystery before it makes the newspapers."

"I see. And what role are you playing?"

Tom grinned. "I'm a member of the press. So are Harry, the Doctor, and Neelix."

Chakotay nodded. "Who else is playing?"

"Seven is the sexy, mysterious mercenary with the heart of gold." Tom laughed. "You should see the effect she's having on the Doc. But I can't give away too much." With that, he disappeared.

Their contact, a wild eyed teenager with hair down to his waist, arrived only minutes later. "I was followed," he explained frantically. "We have to get out of here."

They let the character lead them out of the restaurant and into a dimly lit, filthy concrete structure full of old-time gasoline powered automobiles.

"This looks like a bad place to be surrounded," Janeway muttered.

Predictably, gunshots rang out in the night. The contact, whispering frantically about UFO conspiracies and alien embryos, shoved an envelope into Chakotay's hand and bolted. Janeway pulled at the door handle on the nearest car.

"I think you'll find it's locked," a menacing voice drawled. "Now get your hands where I can see them."

The pair did as they were instructed, exchanging an annoyed glance as they did so. Five minutes into the game and they were already prisoners.

Their captor was joined by three other thugs, one of which gleefully produced handcuffs and gags. Another opened the trunk of the nearest car.

"I bet Paris thinks this is funny," Chakotay grumbled under his breath.

"Isn't it?" Janeway asked with unmistakable sarcasm. She was seriously questioning the value of being a good sport.

"Shut up," growled a thug. Gags were tied in place. "Get in the trunk."

Wearily, they complied. The thugs ingeniously handcuffed them to a metal protrusion on the inside of the compartment, slammed it, and disappeared. The pair was left facing each other, crowded together in the dark, confining space, with their hands secured over their heads. Bodily contact was unavoidable.

Chakotay was stunned when Kathryn squirmed even closer. She mumbled something around the gag.

"Whft?" he asked.

He felt her teeth against his cheek. She was trying to free him from the gag. He held still and desperately tried to suppress his physical response to her proximity. It was nearly impossible. He was keenly aware of her body pressed against his. Her hot breath feathered over his skin and her lips slid down his jaw as she dragged the cloth away from his mouth with her teeth.

He swallowed hard. "Thanks." His voice sounded strained. Probably best not to try to speak. He needed to remove her gag so that they could plan their escape. Had the situation posed any real danger it would have been easier to keep his mind on the task at hand. As it was, he was incredibly aware of every intimate detail.

Janeway was concentrating very hard on her breathing, but she couldn't stop her pulse from quickening as she felt Chakotay's lips brush against her cheek. Her gag proved to be tied tighter than his. Twice he was forced to readjust his grip on the cloth. They were both breathing faster by the time she was free.

Neither trusted their voices enough to speak. Chakotay struggled to reposition himself, trying to put some space between them. In the cramped quarters, with his hands where they were, it proved hopeless.

Flames of desire shot through her body as he shifted against her. Their faces bumped in the darkness and her self control shattered. Her lips sought his and he didn't resist. The hunger they had both fought so valiantly to contain burst free.

His ability to think with any level of clarity vanished as she drove her tongue into his mouth. They kissed feverishly, reveling in the taste of each other, so long imagined and so long denied.

Desperate to touch him, to hold him, she broke the kiss long enough to gasp out an order. "Computer, delete handcuffs."

"Unable to comply." Damn. Tom's fault, no doubt.

"Kathryn..." His voice, barely a whisper. His breath, brushing her lips. She kissed him again, her lips lightly nibbling his before he swept his tongue into her mouth, exploring thoroughly. A moan escaped her, and she again tugged at the handcuffs.

They both groaned in frustration. Ironic, she thought through the haze of desire. Finally, they wanted each other desperately enough to throw protocol to the wind, and they were physically restrained from even putting their arms around one another.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Chakotay knew that there would be consequences later, but he just couldn't make himself stop kissing her. He needed to kiss her. A phaser to his head couldn't have broken through the delirium of passion.

It was the awkward angle, and not common sense, that finally forced them to break the kiss. The pain in their shoulders became too intense to ignore. They both shuffled around, seeking escape or at least a more comfortable position.

"Do you have anything to pick these locks?" she asked softly. Her voice sounded strange in her ears. The words seemed to break the spell. The darkness spared them the effort of avoiding each other's eyes as they both tried to find a solution to their predicament.

"What is this we're chained to?" he wondered aloud, examining the metal protrusion as best he could. His fingers brushed hers and they both had to fight not to react. "Here, I think I can get this loose."

Together, they managed eventually to free the handcuffs from the trunk. But that still left them handcuffed, and to their vast annoyance they discovered that the chains were tangled through each other. They were shackled together.

"I don't believe this," Janeway growled.

"There has to be a way out," Chakotay reasoned. "This is a holonovel. It wouldn't include this scenario if there wasn't a way out."

She snorted. "This is Tom Paris' holonovel," she reminded him. She illustrated her point. "Computer, delete handcuffs."

"Unable to comply."

"Computer, illumination twenty five percent."

"Unable to comply."

"Computer, is there a way out of this scenario?"

"Please specify request."

"Does this storage compartment open?"




"Computer, how does this compartment open?"

"That information is not available."

"I guess we do this the hard way," Janeway said. "Let's see if there's anything in here we can use."

"Tom?" Harry asked.

"Jimmy," Tom corrected.

"Whatever." He brushed a strand of the long blond wig out of his face. "Where are Chakotay and the captain?"

"You means special agents - "

"Stop it," Harry insisted. "Where are they?"

Tom grinned. "In the parking garage."

"Why do I not like the sound of that?" the Doctor asked.

"Tom..." Harry looked his friend in the eye. "What have you done with the captain?"

"I haven't done anything with her. But they might have run into some characters that I added to the scenario. If they did, they should be locked in the trunk of a car by now."

Harry exploded. "Tom! Are you crazy?"

"Look, they need some alone time." Tom was still grinning. "This was the best I could do."

"I hardly think that's likely," the Doctor muttered. "What happened to being subtle?"

"Subtle went out the airlock when Tuvok saw the rose. Don't worry. As car trunks go, it's a fairly roomy one. I'll let them out eventually."

Chakotay was making a thorough examination of the fairly roomy car trunk in question. It was empty. He couldn't find a hand lamp or tools of any kind and his frustration was beyond description. He needed to get out of this confined space before he lost control and kissed Kathryn again.

Self loathing as he had never felt before washed over him. How could he have kissed her like that? What happened now? How were they going to deal with this situation? And why did her hair have to smell so damn good?

His struggle to maintain some semblance of control was feeling somewhat futile, and he very much feared the consequences. Physical contact was unavoidable under the circumstances. The trunk was not big enough for two people, and even if there had been more space, they were still handcuffed together.

Janeway was miserable. Why had she kissed him? Where did they go from here? They couldn't be lovers. Not on the ship. Not until the Alpha Quadrant. But if she couldn't even get through twenty four hours without kissing him like that, then how were they going to last? Even now, she couldn't focus on the task before her. Thoughts of his soft lips intruded, encouraged by the proximity of his body, and interfered with her ability to find a way out of the holographic trunk.

So much of her mental energy was diverted to the task of keeping her lips off of her first officer that she nearly didn't find the panel on the floor.

"Chakotay," she whispered. "I think I've found something." She wondered why she had whispered.

Together, they explored the edge of the panel. They soon discovered that it wouldn't open as long as she was lying on top of it.

A tremendous struggle followed, as they tried to find a position that left the panel accessible without increasing their bodily contact. It was a feat they might possibly have accomplished, if not for the handcuffs. She finally conceded defeat and climbed on top of him for just long enough to pull a toolbox from the compartment.

Torture, he thought. Cruel torture. Her body was pressed against him. Her hair was tickling his face. And then he was kissing her again, no more able to resist her lips than he was able to go without oxygen.

He kissed her deeply, all rational thought fleeing once again. His awareness included nothing beyond this kiss as his tongue explored the recesses of her mouth.

Janeway's control was equally shattered. She cared for nothing outside of this moment. His taste. His smell. His mouth, warm and moist. His arousal, throbbing against her. Ending this kiss was not within her capabilities.

As Chakotay reached to stroke her hair, they were again reminded of their predicament by the irritating confinement of the handcuffs. Panting, they broke apart.

Again? Not again! Why the hell had she kissed him again? She crawled off of him, welcoming the sharp pain when her knee banged against the toolbox. With fresh determination, she found a sharp metal implement and set about removing the handcuffs.

Damn. Why had he done that? How could he have done that? She was never going to speak to him again. He was going to lose his best friend. What had happened to self control?

He resisted the urge to rub her wrists when the handcuffs finally were removed. He rubbed his own instead. Kathryn jammed a tool of some sort into the trunk's locking mechanism and beat it viciously with the first hard object she found.

The trunk popped open.

"Computer, arch," she practically bellowed. This time, she was rewarded with cooperation. The exit appeared and she headed for her quarters without looking at Chakotay. This would not be fixed by sitting on his couch. It could only be made worse. And she needed a shower. With real water. And cold.

Chakotay watched her leave, hating himself. He knew he wouldn't be seeing her again before morning.

Day Eighteen

After a sleepless and miserable night, Janeway stepped into the turbolift. She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sight of Chakotay standing against the back wall.

"Good morning," he greeted her cautiously.

They eyed each other in mutual discomfort. "About last night..." she began.

Harry Kim hurried to catch the turbolift, then froze when he saw the two commanding officers. They both looked serious.

"I'm sorry, Captain," he stammered. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

Janeway turned to look at Ensign Kim. He was clearly flustered. She had a sudden, unpleasant thought. "Does this whole ship think we're lovers, Ensign?"

Harry thought fast, then went for honesty. "No, ma'am. But we think you should be."

Her face turned hard. Harry knew instantly that he had said the wrong thing. Unable to escape, he prepared to hold his ground.

Chakotay felt the knot in his stomach tighten painfully. He looked up at the ceiling, unable to meet anyone's eyes without revealing emotion.

"That's what you've all been up to, isn't it?" the captain demanded, horrified. "That explains everything. The meetings in the holodeck. The car trunk. The rose Tom sent. That ridiculous bet."

"Yes, ma'am." He couldn't lie to her. He needed to say something. "We want you to be happy."

She seethed at him. "This is what has disrupted this ship for the last few weeks?"

She might have said more, but the turbolift arrived on deck one. The doors opened.

Without a word, the captain marched across the bridge to her ready room. Chakotay followed, his heart filled with dread.

She stood staring out the viewport, her face carefully devoid of emotion. Only her eyes revealed the pain she was feeling. Aware that he could see through her armor, she kept her back to him as she prepared to speak.

His desire to hold her, to offer her comfort, was almost a physical pain. It was torture, to stand by and watch her suffer like this. But he didn't dare touch her and he couldn't speak.

Don't put up that wall, Kathryn, he begged silently. He couldn't keep the emotions out of his own face, nor could he keep tears from escaping. He had forced her to this, with his lack of control, and now she would shut him out. She would go back to shouldering the weight of the galaxy, alone.

"Mystery solved." Bitterness slipped into her tone. "My crew has been distracted, erratic, even accident prone because I have failed to keep my professional distance."

"Kathryn - "

"Don't. Don't tell me it isn't my fault. It is, Chakotay. I've fantasized about us. I've led you to believe in the hope that there will be an us." The quake in her voice nearly betrayed her. She hardened her tone. "For years we've both held onto that hope. Well, that hope is gone. We can't let it continue. I can't live like this, and I can't ask you to live like this. We both have to move on with our lives. This proves it. We can't even afford friendship."

"Kathryn - "

"It's all or nothing, we demonstrated that very nicely last night, and so I'm afraid it has to be nothing. No more dinners. No more socializing. No more...of whatever the hell it is that we do. This ship needs a first officer more than I need a lover. Or a best friend."

"Kathryn - "

"Twice in two days, Chakotay!" Her mask slipped for a moment and his heart broke again.

"I'm sorry, Kathryn."

"No, I'm sorry." Her voice was shaking. "I've hurt you and I'm so sorry. I should have been more professional - "

He couldn't let her blame herself for his sin. "Oh, Kathryn, it's nothing that you've done, or that you do; or it's everything, I don't know." Suddenly he just couldn't leave it all unsaid. "You are so extraordinary, so special, and so very beautiful. I love you. I'm in love with you. And I love everything about you. Your strength. Your courage. Your wisdom. Your incredible blue eyes. Your smile. The way you say my name. You can turn me on with just the look on your face when you drink a cup of coffee. So, no, there isn't any way you could avoid the effect you have on me. This isn't your fault."

His words both touched her heart and tore at her soul. She longed for the freedom to respond in kind. But she couldn't, and she had to stop him from saying more.

He hurried to continue before she interrupted. He knew he couldn't change her mind, and therefore he couldn't let her think this was her decision alone.

He had to share the burden. "I understand Starfleet protocol as well as you do. I know where the boundaries belong; give me a few days, and I can do what you're asking. Not just because you are asking, but because I agree with your reasoning. Even if I wish that I didn't."

He stood there, tears streaming down his face. How could he turn and walk away? How could he leave her standing here, alone as she had never been before? "I hope we can be friends again - "

She cut him off. "No." She called on every shred of strength she possessed. "We can't. You are dismissed, Commander."

He turned and left. She collapsed onto the couch, tears escaping for her own heartbreak and his. She had hurt him again.

Chakotay stormed into B'Elanna's quarters. "Where the hell is Paris?"

B'Elanna looked up in shock. "Chakotay, what's - "

"Don't you dare." His look could have cut through transparent aluminum. "Just tell me where the hell to find Paris and then stay the hell out of my sight, Lieutenant."

Tom emerged from the bedroom. He certainly couldn't have pretended to not hear the first officer; all of deck nine had probably heard him.

"You! What the hell is wrong with you!" Chakotay roared. He glanced at B'Elanna. "Why are you still here?"

"These are my quarters."

"I don't care," he thundered. "Get the hell out."

B'Elanna left.

Chakotay shook with anger as he faced the helmsman. "What have you done! Do you realize what this is doing to her? Do you think she didn't realize how she felt? How I felt? Do you think it hasn't been hard for her, trying to keep those emotions at bay?"

"But if you love her - "

"Hell yes, I love her. I love her so much it hurts. But I love her enough to wait, to respect her feelings, to be the officer and friend that she needs. And now, thanks to your juvenile antics, she's hurting because of me. I can't even go comfort her. She has to go through this alone."

"I'm sorry, Chakotay. I thought - "

"I know what you thought," the first officer thundered. His eyes darted around the room, looking for something to throw. But these were B'Elanna's quarters, and Tom had long ago removed anything that would serve as a projectile. "Damn you!"

"Chakotay - "

"I don't want to hear it." Chakotay covered the distance between them in one jump, grabbed Tom by the uniform, and slammed him back against the wall. "Damn you!"

"What happened?" Tom tried to ask, mildly concerned for his own safety but far more interested in what had transpired between the commanding officers.

"You happened!" Chakotay shouted, his voice barely audible over the terrific crunch of Tom's nose breaking. "Do you know what you've done?"

Tom swallowed hard. Never had he seen Chakotay even close to this angry. He was suddenly very apprehensive about what exactly had happened. "What - ?"

The question went unfinished when Chakotay's fist connected a second time. Tom spit a tooth into his hand as he ducked a third blow.

Chakotay wasn't done. "She's alone because of you and your stupid games! Do you have any idea how she must feel?"

Tom winced at the venom in Chakotay's voice. He was slammed into the wall again. "Chakotay, tell me what happened."

"She threw me out of her life." Chakotay noticed the damage he had done to the conn officer's face and felt a stab of guilt. Killing Tom was probably not the answer. He took a calming breath. "It wasn't completely your fault. I kissed her. I slipped up and now I've lost my best friend."

Tom knew now that they had pushed too hard. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I really am."

The tears in the first officer's eyes spilled down his cheeks once again. "I'm sorry, Tom. You'd better get to sickbay."

"It can wait. How can I help?"

"You've done enough," Chakotay answered firmly and with a touch of bitterness. "This can't be fixed. Not now. Maybe not even in this quadrant."

"Maybe if I talk to her - "

"No. Leave her alone. She's embarrassed enough. Don't go trying to apologize. Don't make this worse." He struggled for control of his own emotions. "I swear, Tom, if you make this any harder on her..." His menacing words trailed off and he let the threat hang in the air, undefined.

Tuvok was startled out of his meditation by the door chime. "Enter."

The door slid open to reveal the tear streaked face of the first officer.

"May I help you, Commander?" Vulcans weren't supposed to experience emotions, but something rather similar to fear was suddenly crawling around in Tuvok's gut. There was only one logical explanation for the presence of an agitated Commander Chakotay at his door; the captain must be in trouble.

"I need a favor." Chakotay's voice was unsteady. "Kathryn and I...I mean the captain and I...well, we need a few days apart."

"Have you had an altercation?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"You either have or you haven't, Commander. I don't wish to pry, but it might be helpful if I understood the situation."

"We haven't had a disagreement, although we both have some issues to sort out. But she's upset, and I don't want her to be alone." The first officer was now battling back tears. "Tuvok, please, just make sure she's all right."

"Commander, I am aware that you and the captain attraction for one another. Would I be correct in assuming that those feelings are the source of your distress?"

"Yes," he admitted with great reluctance. "We've had some trouble with the parameters lately. Kathryn...I mean Captain Janeway is not at fault, but we've agreed that a few days apart would be best."

"I see." Tuvok said. "Am I to assume that you have agreed to remain friends, rather than to pursue a romantic relationship?"

The question surprised him. "We have agreed to keep our relationship strictly professional. Kath...the captain and I will not be spending any social time together in the future."

"Have you told her that you love her?"

Chakotay stared at Tuvok. Even the Vulcan knew? Did everyone know? He didn't answer.

"Perhaps you should."

"Tuvok - "

"She loves you."

"I know."

"And do you believe that she knows of your love for her?"


"I do not believe that it is logical for either of you to deny your emotions any longer, Commander."

"Kathr...the captain doesn't wish to violate protocol. I can't change her mind, and I don't believe I should try. I have to respect her wishes."

"Her wishes are in error. She relies upon your friendship, and she would be unwise to abandon it."

"She won't lose my friendship." He shook his head. "Never. I'll be there for her, the instant she changes her mind."

"Of that I have little doubt. But the captain can be an extremely stubborn woman. I suspect that she will need you before she is willing to admit it."

"That's why I'm here," the first officer said softly. "Please, don't let her be alone. You were her friend before she ever met me. Be there for her now. And please, Tuvok, don't pressure her; I don't want her to push you away as well."

When neither the captain nor the first officer had moved to claim the bridge, Harry Kim had stood back from his station as well. He very much feared that it might be best to wait. Gamma shift might just need to be a little longer this morning.

His concerns had proven well founded when the first officer emerged from the ready room. Chakotay hadn't even glanced at the command deck before entering the turbolift. His discussion with the captain had quite obviously not gone well.

Harry had forced himself to wait a full five minutes before he, too, left the bridge. He headed for sickbay. The Doctor could summon Tom and the others while arousing the least suspicion, although it hardly seemed to matter now. They were caught.

B'Elanna rushed back into her quarters as soon as Chakotay left. She stared at Tom's battered face. "Kahless, Tom, what happened?"

"He kissed her."

"I meant what happened to your face."

"To hell with my face. He kissed her and she threw him out."


"She's not even speaking to him," Tom moaned. "My God, B'Elanna. He cried. He actually cried. I just don't know what to do."

"Let's get to sickbay. The Doctor can fix you up and we'll figure something out."

"We should have stopped when I saw her crying on the holodeck." Tom let himself be led to the turbolift. "What are we going to do?"

The Doctor and Seven jumped apart when Ensign Kim rushed into sickbay. They both read the panic on his face. "Ensign?"

"The captain knows," he said flatly. "So does Chakotay."

"How did that happen?" the Doctor demanded.

"She guessed. She asked me point blank to confirm it, and I couldn't lie."

The Doctor sighed. "After Mister Paris' less than subtle approach last night, we can hardly be surprised."

"Tom!" Harry exclaimed as B'Elanna led a bloody Tom Paris into sickbay.

"Well, Lieutenants, what have you done to each other this time?" the Doctor asked. He ran his tricorder over Tom.

"It wasn't B'Elanna. It was Chakotay."

Harry gasped.

"I guess we don't have to ask what he thought of last night's escapade." The chief medical officer studied Tom's face. "This is the most impressive nasal fracture I've seen since Lieutenant Carey's little accident a few years back." He turned to B'Elanna. "Have you been giving lessons, Lieutenant?"

"Funny," she said. No one laughed.

Janeway managed to pull herself together and summon Tuvok to the ready room. She had decided that a few days off were in order, for herself as well as for Chakotay. She needed to turn command over to the tactical officer temporarily.

"I need a few days to myself."

Tuvok searched her face. "Captain, you are not being logical."

"No, I suppose I'm not." She sighed. "I'm letting my emotions get out of control - "

He interrupted her. "On the contrary, Captain, you are attempting to deny your emotions and I do not believe that to be the logical course of action."

She glared at her old friend, shocked. "Et tu?"

"I understand your desire to adhere to protocol, but I no longer agree. It is time to adjust the rules, Captain."

"Adjust the rules, Tuvok? You mean ignore regulations entirely, don't you?"

"To quote another captain I once knew, let the regulations be damned."

"I can't do that." She was adamant. "You know all of the reasons as well as I do. This issue is not up for debate."

"Captain - "

"You are dismissed." Her tone was clear. He left.

Ensign Campbell hurried to sickbay, somewhat worried by the tone of Harry's voice. She met Neelix in the corridor. The morale officer looked downright frightened. Wordlessly, they sprinted the remaining distance.

"Tom! What happened to your face?" Neelix asked as they entered.

"Chakotay happened to my face."

"Chakotay did this?" Neelix gasped. "Chakotay? Tall fellow? With dark hair and a tattoo on his face? That Chakotay?"

"They know, then." Lyssa didn't really need an answer. "This is not good."

"What now?" Neelix asked.

"Yes, what now? I was wondering that myself, Mister Paris." The Doctor loaded a hypospray and fidgeted with an osteogenic stimulator. "Now that you've pushed Chakotay over the edge what are you planning for an encore? Perhaps you could antagonize the Gandhi hologram into coming at you with a knife?"

"We're waiting for Tuvok." Tom winced slightly as the Doctor began to repair the damage to his nose.

The Vulcan in question entered. "I see you have spoken with Commander Chakotay." Tuvok impassively surveyed Tom's battered face. "I have just had a word with the captain."

"And?" B'Elanna prompted.

"Both she and Commander Chakotay have decided to take some time off. She has turned command over to me until further notice." He paused, studying the faces around him. He seemed to make a decision. "After much thought, I came to the conclusion that the captain and commander would be best served if they stopped denying the feelings they have for one another. I offered them both my advice. Unfortunately, they both chose to disregard it."

A miserable silence settled upon the group.

"What can we do?" Tom asked at last.

"I don't think there is anything we can do, Mister Paris." Then Tuvok surprised them all. "Although I am open to suggestions."

After speaking with Tuvok, Chakotay returned to his quarters. They felt big and empty. Kathryn's book still sat where she had left it on the couch. He stared at it for a moment, then headed into the bedroom.

He flung himself onto the bed. He hated the thought of Kathryn suffering alone in her ready room. Worse, it was his fault. He had sworn to protect her, and now he had caused her pain.

He wanted to go to her. He wanted to comfort her. His mind desperately tried to find a way to help her. He belonged by her side, easing her burdens, not adding to them.

The pillow she had been using lay beside him. He reached for it and clutched it to him. And once again, the tears began to flow.

With a display of fury that would have made B'Elanna Torres proud, Janeway flung the nearest padd at the wall. Why the hell couldn't everyone have left well enough alone?

She had trusted her crew, and she was deeply wounded by their behavior. They all knew of the protocol; surely they wouldn't think that she would disobey it? Tuvok's betrayal was especially painful. Now she had lost her two closest friends, and she felt her isolation acutely.

Worse than her own pain was the thought of Chakotay's. She had trampled upon his heart once again. Her throat constricted as she remembered the anguish in his face; anguish she had caused.

In a way, she hoped she had finally hurt him enough to extinguish the love he felt for her. Then perhaps he could find someone else. She hated herself fiercely for the stab of selfish jealousy that thought produced. She wanted happiness for him, if not for herself. If he found someone else, then perhaps they could even afford friendship again. And she wanted that very much, despite the fact that she didn't feel she deserved it.

Day Nineteen

Janeway ignored the door chime. She was therefore shocked when someone entered anyhow. Tom Paris. Damn.

"I suppose you've come to apologize." Her voice was carefully neutral.

"No, I haven't. I don't have anything to apologize for."

That was unexpected.

"I have something to say, and you are going to listen."

"I don't think you have any right to tell me what I'm going to do." Anger edged into her voice.

"You're wrong, and you will listen."

"Do I need to call security, Mister Paris?"

"Throw me in the brig. Bust me down to crewman. I don't care, Kathryn, as long as you hear what I came here to say."

"You will address me as Captain," Janeway said in her most authoritative voice. She gave Paris a look that would have intimidated the Borg Queen.

"No, I will address you as Kathryn." Tom was not backing down. "The Captain Janeway that I know is one of the bravest people I've ever met. When you decide to demonstrate that courage again, I'll call you Captain. But while you're hiding in here like a coward, I'll call you Kathryn. You are a person, not a title. Maybe you need to remember that."

The two glared at each other.

Tom softened his voice, if not his posture. "He loves you."

"Mister Paris, I don't - "

He cut her off forcefully. "No. Be quiet and listen. He loves you. You love him. You can't hide from that."

"Mister Paris. My relationship with the Commander is strictly professional, and my personal life is none of your damn business anyhow."

"Don't give me that crap. You love him. Why are you afraid to say it?"

"You are dismissed. Now get out."

"I'll get out when you admit that you love him."

"That isn't going to happen. Get out now."

"So tell me that you don't. Go ahead, Kathryn. Tell me you don't love Chakotay. You can't, can you?"

She couldn't. He was right. She glared at him. Kathryn Janeway did not like to be cornered.

"What is it, Kathryn? The ship? Admitting that you love the commander is hardly likely to cause a warp core breach. The crew? I think we've all made it clear how we feel. You have our blessings. Starfleet? Who the hell cares what they think."

"I do." She said it softly. A flicker of emotion showed beneath her captain's mask.

"Why?" he demanded. "Did you worry about what Starfleet would say when you made me your helm officer? Or have you forgotten that I had lost my Starfleet commission? Did you worry about their opinion when you made B'Elanna chief engineer? How about when you bargained with the Borg? Or gave holodeck technology to the Hirogens? Or granted Harry permission to date Lyssa? No, you did what was best for this ship and this crew. That's what makes you a good captain."

"This is not the same." The ice was back in her voice.

But Tom had his answer. He turned and left.

Chakotay stared at the ceiling, his thoughts still on Kathryn. He wondered if she had slept at all the night before. He hadn't.

He couldn't imagine life without her. He wouldn't. Without her, he would be incomplete. So, if the only way they could go on from here was to end their friendship, he would have to find the strength to accept it.

He would miss the touch of her hand. He would miss her smile. He would miss her companionship. But if the only way he could remain by her side was as her first officer, that is what he would do. He had sworn to remain by her side and he could hardly do otherwise. And as much as he wanted more, the thought of any less was intolerable. Living without Kathryn would be like living without a soul.

Could he do it? Could he sit beside her on the bridge every day without revealing a shred of emotion? Not for a single moment did he even consider that he could stop loving her. His love for her was a part of him. But could he hide it? Could he keep his feelings out of his eyes? Out of his voice?

Yes. It would be hard. But yes. If that was what she needed, he could do it. For Kathryn, he could do anything. It was just going to take a little time.

The bridge had never been so quiet. All eyes were on Tom Paris as he emerged from the ready room. He looked at each one of them in turn. "There's only one way we can fix this. We have to find a way to contact Starfleet."

Ten minutes later they were all gathered in the conference room. The captain's chair remained empty, a symbol of their purpose. Tom Paris stood behind it, eyes blazing with determination.

Tuvok sat in his customary place and listened. He had little choice but to allow his fellow officers to try what they would. It was only logical. The ship was far from operating efficiently as things were.

The captain had remained sequestered in her ready room since the previous morning, not even emerging for meals. Neelix and Campbell had even beamed food onto her desk when the computer confirmed that she wasn't bothering to use the replicator. The first officer hid in his quarters, unresponsive to all hails. The entire crew was distracted.

He was reasonably confident that the captain would appear if a true emergency arose. He imagined that the commander would as well. They'd probably even manage to work together with some efficiency. But Tuvok wasn't prepared to gamble the welfare of the ship on human emotions. And he had to admit that he wanted Captain Janeway to be happy as much as Lieutenant Paris did.

Tom looked at B'Elanna. "We need a way to not just contact Starfleet, but to maintain live communication for a significant time period."

"Tom, we've had to jump through hoops just to relay messages to them. How the hell am I supposed to accomplish a direct comm link?"

"We'd need a wormhole or a spatial anomaly," Harry said. "And we all know the likelihood of finding a wormhole to the alpha quadrant."

"A small one would suffice. It wouldn't even need to be entirely stable." Seven looked thoughtful.

"Too bad we can't make one ourselves." B'Elanna looked at Seven. They were sharing a thought.

Seven said what they both were thinking. "The Romulans can."

That got everyone's attention in a hurry.

"If we could get even a brief message to the Romulans, then perhaps they could give us a hand. Besides, any message to the Federation would have to pass through Romulan space."

"The Romulans aren't exactly buddy-buddy with Starfleet," Harry said. "Contacting them could get us all court martialled."

The Doctor snorted. "Oh, who here hasn't risked court martial already?"

"This would be different."

"I agree that my dealings with the Romulans haven't always been friendly," the Doctor said. "But they haven't all been unfriendly, either."

"The Romulans can't be trusted," Tuvok said.

"I found Telek R'Mor to be an honorable individual," Seven said. "It would not be logical to assume that he was the only such individual among his people."

"R'Mor's dead." The coldness of the statement was at odds with the softness of B'Elanna's voice.

"His daughter would be in her twenties now." Seven seemed to be speaking only to B'Elanna, who nodded in reply.

"We did promise to someday tell her that her father was a noble man."

Tom looked back and forth between B'Elanna and Seven. He was somewhat surprised at the affection they each seemed to hold for R'Mor. Of course, he had been otherwise occupied during the Romulan scientist's visit; he had been trapped in the shadow universe, painting pottery.

"So let me get this straight." The usually optimistic Harry Kim was skeptical. "Our plan is to send a message blindly into Romulan space on the hopes that it will reach one individual, whose name we don't even know?"

Tuvok spoke up. "Remember, the Romulans are not aware of the fact that we believe R'Mor to be deceased, and in fact we do not have conclusive proof that he has indeed passed on. The Federation database could have been mistaken; perhaps he did not die in 2367. The report of his death may have been exaggerated by the Romulans for security reasons. Or his stay on Voyager may have affected his future history in some way."

"If he was alive, he would have sent our messages to Starfleet in 2371," B'Elanna said without hesitation.

"Are we sure he didn't?" Neelix asked.

"Starfleet thought Voyager had been destroyed in the Badlands," the Doctor pointed out. "If R'Mor had sent those messages, they would have known differently."

"Perhaps he made an attempt to send them, but Starfleet didn't receive them," Seven suggested.

"Regardless, our best option may be to address our message to the Talvath, in hopes that if R'Mor is not alive, then the current commander of that vessel will have reason to help us, or will at least be able to put us in touch with R'Mor's daughter or someone else willing to assist us."

"That sounds like a longshot, Tuvok," Tom said.

"Indeed it is, Mister Paris, but it does seem to be the only plan that we have."

"Even if they want to help us, can they?" Joe Carey asked. "As I recall they were having a little problem with temporal distortion."

"They've had nearly twenty years to work on that technology," Seven said. "They are likely to have corrected that problem by now."

"They no longer have the help of the Shepherds," Vorik reminded them. "They might have abandoned the project entirely.

"I don't know about that," the Doctor said. "Romulans are notoriously persistent."

"Our first challenge is to figure out how we think we're even going to contact the Romulans," Tom said. "Suggestions?"

Tom's intrusion had served to convince Janeway that she didn't dare face her crew yet. She had no desire to have the same conversation with everyone on board. It occurred to her that Chakotay was the only one who hadn't argued with her decision. In fact, he had put forth significant effort to prove to her that he agreed.

She felt a surge of gratitude for his support. When she recognized that it had turned into a feeling of affection, she scolded herself firmly. He was her first officer. Nothing more. His support should serve to confirm her decision, not to comfort her. Comfort implied friendship.

How could she hope to set aside this friendship? Had she been lying to him just a week before, when she had claimed that she wouldn't trade it for anything? Now she was throwing it away.

No, she reminded herself. She had already destroyed it. She had destroyed it the moment she let her lips touch his; the moment she had lost control she had made their friendship impossible. It was too late to change her actions. Now she had to live with the consequences.

Many hours later, a dozen officers again gathered in the briefing room. Seven of Nine pulled up some schematics on a monitor.

"This device will open a transwarp conduit into Romulan space. It will be highly unstable, but I believe that we can send a message beacon through it with a forty two percent probability of success."

"Unfortunately, we'll have to install this system on one of the shuttlecraft," B'Elanna added. "With the resources we have available, we can't make it work on a ship the size of Voyager. And we'll only have one shot at this."

"What about the Delta Flyer?" Tom asked.

"I don't believe that would be the best option." Seven brought up another set of schematics. "Whatever shuttle we use has a very low probability of survival. It is highly likely that the shuttle will be pulled into the conduit behind the beacon."

B'Elanna nodded. "And if that happens the shuttle will be torn apart. The conduit will not be big enough for even an escape pod, let alone a type six shuttle."

The Doctor leaned forward. "Pardon me for asking, but what about the shuttle's pilot?"

"We'll have to transport the away team off of the shuttle the moment the beacon is launched," B'Elanna said. "I can't say it won't be dangerous, but it can be done."

Tuvok looked particularly displeased. "Once the beacon is launched, how much time will we have?"

B'Elanna seemed reluctant to answer for a moment. "Maybe a minute. I'll know more once we run a few simulations on the holodeck."

"Is there any risk to Voyager?"

"We don't believe so. The ship will need to be within transporter range of the shuttle, but the conduit should collapse before it poses any threat to anything outside its immediate vicinity. We'll know more after running the simulations."

Tuvok made his decision. "Proceed with the simulations."

Day Twenty

No one in engineering had gotten much sleep. Joe Carey supervised the modifications to the Sacajawea while B'Elanna, Seven, Tom, and Harry ran simulations on holodeck two.

It quickly became apparent that the plan was too risky to attempt without some alterations. In six attempts, the away team survived only once.

"Damn!" Tom shouted as the hull once again breached on his holographic shuttle.

"Does the profanity serve a function, Lieutenant?" Seven asked.

"It makes me feel better. Harry, what is the delay with the transporters?"

It was B'Elanna who answered. "We only had three seconds from the time you launched the beacon before your hull breached. That isn't enough time to get a lock. You have to cut down the amount of time between the opening of the conduit and the launch."

"Let's try it one more time. Maybe seven will be our lucky number."

Seven raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement of his very small joke.

Janeway hadn't slept once again. Not that she had tried. She hadn't even left the ready room. Returning to her quarters didn't seem like the right step. They were too close to Chakotay's, and she still didn't trust herself not to weaken. In the ready room, she was constantly reminded of her responsibilities to the ship. Her quarters felt too much like home.

Twice she had used the computer to locate Chakotay. He had been in his quarters both times. She hoped B'Elanna would go offer him a shoulder. It wasn't fair for him to suffer alone.

Chakotay was mourning his loss in solitude. He kept reminding himself that things could be much worse. Kathryn was, after all, still alive. This loss could be borne because it wasn't complete.

For six years, his greatest fear had been the thought of losing Kathryn. Every time she was in danger, his heart again knew the same icy grip of fear.

How many times had he stood in sickbay, terrified that this time she wouldn't pull through?

How many times had he paced around the bridge, fighting to keep panic at bay while she faced peril without him on the surface of some alien planet, or aboard some alien ship? He shuddered at the memories of her all too frequent visits to Borg cubes.

He remembered performing CPR, his face wet with tears as he pleaded with her to breathe. He remembered clutching her wrists with all of his strength, praying with all his heart as he dragged her up the side of an alien mountain.

He had not lost her permanently, he tried to remind himself. It was the friendship he had lost, not his captain. They would work together again, just as soon as he found the strength to control his emotions. And he refused to give up the hope that someday they would reach the Alpha Quadrant.

"So," Harry was saying, "If I take the Delta Flyer, I can launch the beacon from behind the Sacajawea while Lyssa transports Tom and Seven back to Voyager."

B'Elanna shrugged. "Let's try it."

Tuvok found himself in a difficult position. He could not allow lives to be risked in order for the message to be relayed, and he knew he shouldn't allow a shuttle to be sacrificed. But Tom thought that the captain would benefit from speaking to Starfleet, and he didn't disagree.

In fact, Tuvok knew what Tom most likely did not. He knew that the captain's personal life had previously required the interference of Owen Paris.

The plan they had was fraught with difficulties. It was risky, incomplete, and not even particularly likely to succeed.

The captain was liable to be furious. Those involved could even face court martial, but as the Doctor had pointed out, who on board Voyager hadn't already broken regulations at some point? Tuvok himself had even disobeyed orders more than once.

Again, the briefing room. The tension could have been cut with a laser scalpel. Tuvok listened as each part of the operation was explained.

That the Sacajawea would be sacrificed had become an accepted fact. The Delta Flyer would be launched as well, although neither it nor Voyager would be subjected to any particular danger.

The away team was Tuvok's primary concern. If they weren't transported off of the shuttle in a timely fashion, they'd be sucked into the unstable conduit. Torres claimed a one hundred percent success rate in recovering them once they had changed tactics, but he was still concerned.

This plan contained an acceptable level of risk for a legitimate mission. But for a covert operation intended to tamper with the captain's personal life, there was no acceptable level of risk.

These thoughts all passed through Tuvok's mind. All eyes were upon him, waiting for his approval. "Proceed."

B'Elanna took a few minutes away from engineering in order to compose a message for the Romulans:

This message is intended for Dr. Telek R'Mor, the Romulan science vessel Talvath, or any loyal Romulan willing to grant a favor to old friends aboard the Federation starship Voyager. We have been allies in the past, when it served the best interest of both the Federation and the Empire. Now, we humbly ask for your help. You have technology which we do not possess. We would not ask you to divulge any secrets, but we could benefit from your assistance. There is nothing more at stake than the personal welfare of Captain Kathryn Janeway, but to those of us on Voyager that is sufficient cause to risk our careers, even our lives. We hope you recognize our sincerity, and see fit to aid us.

Long live the Empire,

Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres

Chief Engineer, USS Voyager

She included both voice and text versions of the message, as well as the stardate and Voyager's current coordinates, then went to assist Seven and the others with the final systems check on the Sacajawea.

Tom ordered himself not to bite his fingernails, and chewed a hole in his lower lip instead. Too much depended upon the success of this mission, and the odds were not in their favor. Jury-rigged Borg technology, unstable transwarp conduits, unavoidable hull breaches, and favors asked of Romulans did not add up to a good idea. It wasn't death he feared. It was the captain's reaction if and when she learned about it all.

As he boarded the Sacajawea with Seven, Tom wondered if he'd be thrown in the brig before or after Chakotay broke his nose again.

Harry and B'Elanna climbed into the Delta Flyer with the message beacon and tensely awaited the signal to launch. Neither dared think what might happen if they failed.

Tuvok, on the bridge, gave the order to drop out of warp. Ensign Henley turned Voyager forty five degrees, then brought the ship to a full stop. The Sacajawea and the Delta Flyer would perform the operation off the port side, thus out of sight from the viewport in the ready room.

Janeway felt her ship drop out of warp. She was then sure that she felt it turn slightly. Without any stars to judge by, she couldn't be sure. Please, she thought, not a crisis. Not now. She had been crying, and couldn't possibly be seen on the bridge.

Shakily, she retrieved her combadge and tested her own voice. It was hoarse and unsteady. Damn. But then again, she could hardly be surprised. She had done nothing but cry for two days.

"See," she muttered to the empty room. "This is why a captain is supposed to remain detached."

After a deep breath, the captain managed to collect herself enough to inquire after the welfare of her ship. "Janeway to Bridge. What happened?"

Everyone froze. Tuvok could hear the strain in his captain's voice. He realized that they had already made an error. The captain had felt the ship drop out of warp.

Vulcans did not lie, with rare exceptions, but the captain was awaiting an answer he couldn't give. Furthermore, the engineering station was manned by Vorik, who had the same constraints. Without speaking, Tuvok turned and nodded to Ensign Jenkins at tactical.

"We're at a full stop as scheduled by engineering this morning, ma'am," Jenkins lied smoothly.

"Acknowledged," Janeway managed, half way between relieved and annoyed. Now she wasn't even being informed of ship's business? But then again she had turned command over to Tuvok temporarily. She wondered what she had been trying to accomplish by doing that. She certainly didn't feel any better now than she had two days ago, and she didn't anticipate feeling any better in two days time.

Hell, two years wouldn't be enough to erase this pain. Her loss was too great for her to recover in a couple of days, and the guilt produced by the fact that it was her fault didn't help. The time was needed not for healing. It was needed for adjusting to the hurt, so that she could cover it up, and hide it from those around her. She still had a duty to get this crew home.

Chakotay jolted awake. He wasn't sure what had disturbed him, but as he regained his grasp of reality the bigger mystery was how he had even managed to drift off. Fresh pain shot through him as he remembered Kathryn's words.

While not meant to be cruel, they had still wounded him deeply. He had seen the pain in her eyes as she said them; felt her grief even as he felt his own. Even now, it was her feelings that were on his mind. Was she still hiding in her ready room? He suspected as much.

Was there some way he could help her? Had Tuvok offered her support, as he had asked? How could he find out without the agony of speaking to someone? In his current mood, Kathryn was the only person whose company he could tolerate, but that wasn't possible. If only he had kept his lips to himself.

Miserable, he rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Perhaps he would dream of Kathryn.

Tom moved the Sacajawea into position. In truth, his job in this operation was ridiculously easy. It hardly even required a reasonably competent shuttle pilot, let alone someone of his skill.

But the fact remained that the team aboard the Sacajawea would shortly be risking their lives to fix his error. He couldn't fail to be a member of that team.

Harry moved the Delta Flyer into position, smiling as he always did at the ridiculous control panel Tom had designed for the small ship. It looked like something out of a bad twentieth century television show.

"Harry," B'Elanna ordered. "Open a channel to the Sacajawea."

"Channel open."

"Seven, are you all set?"

Seven's voice was heard over the comm link. "I am prepared, Lieutenant."

B'Elanna took a deep breath. "Then let's do it."

Seven tapped a series of commands into her console and the Sacajawea began to vibrate.

"I'm reading microfractures in the hull," Tom announced tensely. "Increasing power to the structural integrity field."

"The conduit is opening," Seven announced.

The computer calmly informed them all of impending doom. "Warning. Hull breach in ten seconds."

Tuvok rose from the command chair and turned to Ensign Campbell at ops. She nodded. "I have a lock on them, sir."


"Bridge to transporter room one."

"We have them."

Things were not going quite as smoothly aboard the Delta Flyer. The beacon had been successfully launched into the conduit, but that was the last thing that had gone correctly.

Both Harry and B'Elanna were now fighting to keep their vessel under control and in one piece.

The Flyer was shaking violently as the unstable conduit, unsatisfied with the random parts of the Sacajawea it managed to devour, tried to pull a second vessel into its hungry mouth.

"Reverse thrusters!" B'Elanna shouted unnecessarily.

"What do you think I'm doing?" Harry's hands flew over the console.

"Why is that thing still open?" B'Elanna demanded. She was working to increase shield strength, although without much success. "Computer, give me a level ten forcefield."

"Unable to comply."

"Why the hell not?"

"Please repeat request."

"Never mind." The engineer frantically cannibalized a storage unit, intending to use it to patch the impending hull fracture. It was a trick that had worked before, but she knew full well that it would buy them a minute, and no more.

"Delta Flyer to Voyager," Harry shouted. "A little help, here?"

Just before the tractor beam locked on, the thrusters cut out, throwing Harry and B'Elanna to the floor. The makeshift panel blew out, and the vessel began losing atmosphere as it was towed into the shuttlebay.

"Voyager to Delta Flyer," Tuvok repeated. "Delta Flyer please respond." He turned to Campbell. "Beam them directly to sickbay."

Tom Paris, just leaving the turbolift, stopped dead in his tracks. "What happened?"

"They lost thrusters and breached their hull."

The blood drained from Tom's face as he turned back to the turbolift. "Deck Five." Had he just killed both the woman he loved and his best friend? Not again. Please not again. Not B'Elanna. Not Harry. Please, God, not again.

B'Elanna and Harry rematerialized in sickbay. Both were unconscious. Both were bleeding. Harry was breathing; B'Elanna was not. Furthermore, the engineer had a twisted metal panel protruding from her stomach. The Doctor observed these facts instantly and flew into action, hyposprays blazing.

"See to Mister Kim," he ordered as Tom rushed in the door.

Blocking out his fear for B'Elanna's safety, Tom moved to comply. He grabbed a medical tricorder and ran it over his friend. Concussion, fractured clavicle, assorted contusions and lacerations, but nothing life threatening.

With a sigh of partial relief, Tom took action to reduce Harry's cranial swelling and administer a painkiller, then allowed his attention to turn to B'Elanna.

Ensigns Wildman and Campbell were both now frantically assisting the Doctor. For an eternal minute Tom again feared the worst, but then B'Elanna gasped and began coughing.

"Easy, Lieutenant," the Doctor warned. "You've somehow managed to get part of a storage compartment lodged in your abdomen."

"I wondered where that went." She tried not to wince in pain. "Harry?"

"Everyone's safe," Tom assured her.

She nodded. "Did it work?"

"Too early to tell." He took her hand in both of his. The Doctor and Lyssa began to remove the foreign object from B'Elanna's midriff. Tom turned his back on the procedure in an attempt to fight off the nausea her wound was causing him. He had seen worse. In fact, he had treated worse, but this was different. It was B'Elanna and it was his fault. "What happened on the Flyer?"

"The conduit remained open longer than anticipated," B'Elanna answered through clenched teeth. The Doctor had administered painkillers, but Klingon or not, she was having a bit of trouble ignoring even the numb sensation of having metal removed from her gut.

They both heard the whine of the medical transporter, followed by a rattle as the metal dropped to the floor.

"Nicely done, Ensign," the Doctor told Lyssa. "You'll be surpassing Mister Paris in no time."

B'Elanna smiled up at Tom. "Maybe we can try that maneuver again. If Lyssa gets enough practice maybe the Doc really will replace you."

"We'll see about that," the Doctor replied cheerfully. "Now let's see about getting some of these organs put back together, Lieutenant."

Everyone was steering clear of the captain, but as the dinner hour approached Neelix took it upon himself to check on the first officer. Not without some trepidation, he rang the chime. Silence was the only response.

Chakotay heard the door chime and debated with himself as to whether to respond. A small part of him hoped it was Kathryn, although he knew better.

It was more likely to be B'Elanna, or perhaps Tom, and he had no wish to see them or anyone else. Kathryn, in the unlikely event that she appeared, would open the door herself. Anyone else he'd rather ignore.

Neelix, not easily discouraged, hit his combadge. "Neelix to Chakotay."

The first officer ignored the chirp as well. A red alert might have driven him from his quarters, but little else could motivate him to open the door.

Day Twenty One

The alpha shift shuffled onto the bridge and took their posts. Tom had found himself stuck with the captain's duty shift when Tuvok revised the roster. B'Elanna, who was technically off duty for medical reasons, slumped beside him in Chakotay's seat.

No message had yet come from the Romulans. The captain and first officer still remained incommunicado. Everyone was tense.

B'Elanna glanced nervously at the ready room door. Her fear now was that the captain would emerge before the response was received. The last thing they needed was for the captain to be on the bridge if and when the Romulans made contact.

Hours passed, without even idle chatter. People came and went for lunch. Seven of Nine even made excuses to loiter on the bridge. Then, an anomaly off the port side. Ensign Kim and Ensign Jenkins announced its appearance simultaneously. Harry put it up on the main viewscreen before Tom even gave the command.

"It's not a wormhole," Harry observed. "I'm receiving a hail."

"Onscreen," Tom said. He and B'Elanna both stood to greet the young Romulan woman who appeared.

"I am Dr. Tarleya R'Mor of the Romulan Astrophysical Academy, aboard the science vessel Talvath. We received a communication from Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres of the Federation Starship Voyager."

"I am Lieutenant Torres." B'Elanna got right to the point. "We're hoping you can help us."

"I will do my best. As a rule, my government does not trust the Federation, but Voyager is another matter. You mentioned Captain Janeway's well being. Is she ill?"

"Not physically," B'Elanna assured the Romulan. She proceeded to explain.

"...So, she insists on following the rules, and Starfleet protocols forbid a captain from becoming romantically involved with a member of the crew. But our circumstances are hardly typical. We wish to contact Starfleet and obtain an exception to this rule. Our captain is a bit too stubborn to ask herself."

R'Mor smiled knowingly. "My father counted your captain as a dear friend. Before he died, he made me promise to someday serve her tea in our family home. He would be pleased to know that we could help her."

"He was a noble man," Torres said. "I am honored to have known him."

"So, how exactly can we help you? I understand that you cannot contact Starfleet without breaching our space, but I suspect that you want more than our permission to do so."

"We were hoping that your people were still researching the creation of artificial wormholes. We wouldn't ask you to share your research, as much as we would love to see it, but we were hoping you'd help us establish a live comm link. I see that you do have some method of doing just that."

"We do. And ordinarily, I wouldn't dare let members of the Federation know what we can achieve. But this case is worthy of an exception. The Romulan Empire owes a great debt to Captain Janeway."

"So you'll help us?"

"Yes. Without Shepherd technology we can no longer artificially construct a wormhole large enough to bring a starship through, but you were correct in assuming that we did not stop our research in that area. We cannot get you home, but we can provide the assistance you require."

Admiral Owen Paris stared at his monitor in disbelief. A private message from the Romulan Empress? He would have been less confused by a note from Santa Claus.

A long haired Romulan woman appeared on his monitor.

"Greetings, Admiral Paris. I have been told by a trusted friend that you are an honorable man, and so I am forwarding you this message as a favor to those who in the past have saved my Empire, as well as your Federation, through their heroic actions. Now, they need assistance themselves.

"I beg of you, please honor their humble request. I believe you will find it within your means to do so. I only hope that they are correct in their belief that you will find it in your heart as well.

"The Romulan Empire will gladly welcome the necessary Federation ship into our space, be it Starfleet or civilian, a runabout or your flagship.

Our only request is that you move swiftly, as matters of the heart are not to be taken lightly."

Matters of the heart? How could such a thing possibly require a Federation vessel to enter Romulan space, and why would the Romulan Empress take a personal interest?

He opened the attached text file and read.

Admiral Paris,

This message has reached you through the kind assistance of the Romulan Empire. They possess a technology which has proven useful to us. More, I will not say. I am sure that you understand.

The purpose of this correspondence is to ask that you grant a favor to those of us aboard the USS Voyager. We all wear this uniform with pride, and strive to uphold the ideals of Starfleet. But there is one sacrifice that we feel is too great under the circumstances.

As you know, unless Voyager locates an anomaly or obtains advanced technology, we are nearly thirty years from Federation space. But our captain is choosing to sacrifice her personal life by putting it on hold until we reach Earth. We don't want her to sacrifice her happiness for us, as we believe it to be unnecessary. Her command ability would not be hampered by any decision she made in her personal life.

I am asking for you to speak with her, or send a Starfleet counselor to speak with her. The Romulans have the means to establish live communication. Perhaps with Starfleet approval she will be willing to move forward with her life. Captain Janeway has been an inspiration to us all, and protocol or not we do not feel that she should remain lonely when happiness is within her grasp.

The captain is not aware of this communication at this time. Please direct your response to the Romulan science vessel Talvath. They have the means to relay messages to us.

Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres

Chief Engineer, USS Voyager

His initial response was to wonder what the hell B'Elanna Torres was doing begging favors of the Romulan Empress, but he quickly realized that he was unlikely to discover the full story without speaking directly to Voyager.

He didn't doubt the sincerity of the request itself. He knew Kathryn to be extremely cautious in her personal life, and he was not surprised that she was holding back from a potential relationship.

Without knowing the circumstances, he couldn't make a judgment as to whether or not she was right to put such a thing on hold, but he did acknowledge that she might be making that sacrifice unnecessarily.

"Computer, list Starfleet vessels within ten light years of the Romulan neutral zone." He listened to the short list and smiled.

Commander Will Riker rushed onto the bridge of the Enterprise, sleep rumpled and perplexed. "Report."

"We're at warp nine point six on course for the Romulan neutral zone," Commander Data replied.

"We're what?" Mention of the Romulans had the first officer immediately on edge.

"On orders from Admiral Paris himself," Captain Picard said as he took his seat. "It seems that Voyager has found a means to transmit a message to this quadrant, and has need of our assistance."

"Kathryn Janeway. Of course. I'm surprised the Admiral hasn't ordered us to drag Earth to the Delta Quadrant for her." The first officer didn't even try to keep the uncharacteristic annoyance from his voice. "What's the emergency? She low on coffee?"

"Will, they've been out there for six years. And the Admiral's son is on that ship." Deanna Troi was shocked at her partner's bitter tone and the strength of emotion she was sensing from him.

"I'd bet you my right arm we're not doing this for the Admiral's son, spoiled though he may be." Romulans? His mind ceased to categorize Voyager's captain as spoiled and somewhat rude, and instead regarded her as potentially dangerous.

"And I'd bet mine that you've had a relationship with Kathryn Janeway," Troi teased gently.

"I'd hardly call it that," he grumbled. "So what are we doing for the Admiral's pet captain that warrants violating the neutral zone?"

"It seems we have an invitation from the Romulan government to cross the neutral zone and enter their space," Picard said. "Admiral Paris suggested that we hurry. As for the nature of the emergency, you know as much as I do."


"That is what the Admiral said."

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Riker complained quietly. "We have no idea what we're heading into or why."

"That's not quite true," Counselor Troi interjected. "The Admiral forwarded me a confidential request from Voyager's chief engineer."

Deanna's revelation did little to comfort the first officer. "As I recall, her so called chief engineer is a Maquis terrorist. For that matter, so is her acting first officer. Now they've apparently gotten into bed with the Romulans and we're supposed to trust them?"

"I don't like this either," Picard agreed. "I respect Captain Janeway, but I'm not so sure about Lieutenant Torres, and I'm certainly not sure of the Romulans. Deanna, care to enlighten us?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I can't give details, just that there are crewmembers who are in need of a ship's counselor. I believe Torres was being sincere. As a deception, it doesn't make sense." Deanna Troi shrugged helplessly. "There are certainly easier ways of luring the Enterprise into Romulan space."

"They need a ship's counselor?" Riker asked incredulously. "That's the emergency? And the best solution they could come up with was to send the Enterprise into Romulan space? Unbelievable."

Deanna shot Will a questioning look. "What is it?"

He shrugged. "Look, it's not that I'm not sympathetic, but no one at Starfleet went to this much trouble over the disappearances of Montgomery Scott or James Kirk, and those men were heroes to the Federation. There have certainly been plenty of lost ships.

"How is it that Janeway's crew gets such special treatment? First, Admiral Paris lets the Pathfinder project completely monopolize the Midas Array, and now this. I don't think it warrants the risk. We can't afford a confrontation with the Romulan Empire just because someone on that ship is homesick."

"It's a little more than that. They could be out there for the rest of their lives, and they need someone to help them through some of the consequences of that fact."

"Maybe, but I'll feel better when this is over. You know that I'm really not overly fond of any mission involving the Romulans."

Captain Janeway was trying desperately to get her emotions under control. She needed to get back to the business of running her ship. But for once, her determination was failing her.

Again, the painfully bittersweet memory of Chakotay's last words to her bubbled to the surface of her mind. She remembered how very badly she had wanted to speak similar words, and decided that she should.

Not to him. That wasn't possible. But she needed to express them. Then maybe she could put this behind her. She reached for a padd, then changed her mind and crossed to the replicator.

"Paper and pen." She took the items and sat down to think.

Dear Chakotay,

I don't know under what circumstances you might finally read these words. If I'm dead, then I'm sorry. It shouldn't have come to that, but as I write this I just don't see how it can be otherwise between us.

I love you, Chakotay. I think I always have. At least, I can't seem to remember a time when I didn't. I know I haven't shown it. I've hurt you so many times, and while this can't excuse the pain I've caused you, I do want you to know that each time I trampled your heart, your good, kind heart, mine broke as well.

When I said someday, I meant it with every fiber of my being. It was my greatest desire, to someday make a life with you. Was, because as captain of this ship I can't let it be. But I don't see how I can ever stop loving you.

If you have found someone else to love, please know that I wanted that for you. Even as I sit nursing my self inflicted wounds, I have promised myself to not let petty, selfish jealousy rear its ugly head if you find another.

You deserve happiness, and I cannot give it to you. I want to see that light in your eyes again, even if it isn't for me. But I hope I've said those things to you, at least. If I haven't then I'm a coward.

I know you have probably already forgiven all of the pain I've caused you, even though I neither ask for nor deserve your forgiveness. But I do want to apologize. Too little, too late, perhaps, but I need to say it.

I'm sorry that I destroyed our friendship, which I always treasured so highly, with my impulsive and irresponsible behavior. I threw it away recklessly, and I hurt you deeply in the process. I'm so sorry. I still don't know what came over me. I've always loved you. I've always wanted you. But that night it got out of control, and I trampled on both your heart and my almighty Starfleet principles.

I don't deserve the comfort I'm seeking by writing these words, but I don't know how else to gain control over my emotions right now, and I need to get control for the sake of the ship.

So I'm going to tell you again how much I love you. Because I do love you. There just aren't words to describe how very much. My strong, brave, gentle, wise and loyal Chakotay, who has given me so much while asking nothing in return. Your smile melts my heart; what I wouldn't give to see it again.

I don't know what cruel fates allowed us to find each other, only to keep us apart, divided by duty and protocol. But as selfish as I know this to be, I still can't help but be glad to have known you.

All my love, always.


She stared at the emotional letter she had written and sighed. There really wasn't anything she could do with it. It was selfish of her to even consider leaving it for him, for some future date. Why pour salt in the wound?

Again, she crossed the room to the replicator. "Computer, recycle."

On to Day Twenty-Two: T rated version or ST-17 rated version.

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