Here I Stand

Chapter 19

His left hand was numb.

It was often numb now, an aftereffect of the neurotoxin. It started with a tingling sensation in his fingertips, then pins and needles that crawled up his arm like a thousand stinging ants, followed by numbness that lasted for up to an hour. According to the Doc, he'd been hit with a highly refined form of the psylosinine and the lingering symptoms should ease soon. But five days had passed since "The Voyager Incident," as it was being called in the press, and the numbness still wasn't getting any better. It hadn't hindered his daily life yet, fortunately.

At least not much. He tried to shake the sensation back into his fingertips, but when he couldn't hold the board still anymore and the teeth of the saw began to catch in the grain, Chakotay decided it was time to rest for a while. The day was unusually hot and humid even for September in Big Sur, and he was tired anyway. So he set the handsaw aside and retrieved his lemonade from the deck where he'd left it with his sweat-soaked shirt.

He slapped his deadened hand against his thigh and eyed the abandoned saw. The redwood planks weren't going to cut themselves, and if he wanted to get the addition to the deck finished, he needed to work faster. An hour of numbness three or four times a day certainly wasn't helping his pace, and soon he would be back at the Academy for his usual roster of classes. The full week of recovery was a welcome break, but finishing the deck before the autumn rains came was looking less and less likely.

Maybe he should invest in power tools.

He shrugged the thought away immediately. There was something satisfying about doing the work by hand, cutting and smoothing and dropping the boards into place one by one, instead of just replicating prefabricated parts and assembling them. In town, he'd even found a source for reclaimed redwood lumber, saving the trouble of cutting down one of the heirloom trees that shaded his cottage. He had to trim the planks to size and plane the roughness out of them, but it was pleasing to watch the work of his own hands come together, and it gave him something to do while he waited to go back to teaching.

Hand tools and reclaimed wood. Kolopak would have been proud – and he would have enjoyed a long belly laugh at his contrary son, a Starfleet officer who insisted on working with saw and plane, hammer and nails.

Chakotay drained the glass of lemonade and mopped the sweat from his face with his discarded shirt. The setting sun was almost too warm on his body, and pricked at the new skin on his left shoulder. If he wasn't careful, he'd wind up with a very strange tan—brown everywhere with a shocking patch of pink where the plasma beam had burned away so much flesh. The new skin had been grown from his own cells so it would toughen and darken in time. For now, though, it was tender, baby-soft and fair compared to the rest of him, and felt tight and hot after long exposure to the sun.

He pondered going back inside the cool, shady house…but watching Kayma pace and putter would just make him more tired. He smiled to himself. She was waiting, not very patiently, for Harry and Tom and B'Elanna to arrive. The foursome had quite a weekend planned: A gourmet dinner tonight in Santa Barbara, then two nights in a luxury beachfront resort. Kayma's esteem for Harry had grown exponentially since The Voyager Incident, and no wonder. She was looking forward to getting to know him even better, she said.

Chakotay had told her to spare him the details. She'd only winked in response. Her bag—her very small bag—had been packed and ready by the front door since breakfast.

Chakotay was pouring himself a second glass of lemonade from the thermal carafe when he heard a groundcar pull up beside the house. Quick, light footsteps through the house, then, followed by the creak of the front door, and four car doors.

Four?

As he turned back into the house, Kayma's gleeful voice reached him even from the front yard. "Hey, Chakotay! Harry, Tom and B'Elanna are here, and they brought something extra for you!"

Puzzled, Chakotay threw his shirt over his shoulder and grabbed the glass in his good hand before he ducked into the house. Tom and B'Elanna were there just inside the front door, and Harry had his arm around Kayma. All four were grinning at him expectantly. He looked from one to the other for a clue, eyebrows raised, until Tom chuckled. "It's bigger than a breadbox, but smaller than a Type I shuttlecraft…"

"Oh, stop teasing the poor man." Chakotay nearly dropped his glass at the sound of the throaty voice. "He's been through enough this week."

Kathryn pushed her way between Tom and Harry and stepped fully into the room. She was dressed for the heat in crisp, blue linen, with her hair drawn up in a braid and a mischievous look in her eye. "Hi," she said, eyeing him up and down with a quirked eyebrow. "Please don't get dressed on our account."

With a start, he hooked a thumb toward the deck. "I was just working," he explained, and shouldered into the damp, smelly shirt. "You actually caught me by surprise, and…" He frowned at her in the lengthening shadows. "What are you doing here, Kathryn?"

She shrugged and her smile, almost as nervous as it was playful, he now noticed, faltered a fraction. "Kayma called yesterday and told me she was going away for the weekend. She thought you might like some company."

Chakotay's gaze flicked to Kayma, who narrowed her eyes at him and nodded toward Kathryn. Her meaning was plain: Stop being an idiot.

He looked back at Kathryn and saw, finally, the Starfleet-issue duffel dangling at her side. They'd spoken only three times since the incident: Once as he was being wheeled out of surgery by the Doc, once on the afternoon he was finally released from Starfleet Medical, and most recently on the morning of the final incident briefings. They'd made tentative promises to get together soon, but no firm plans. He'd assumed that when her schedule had cleared and the inquiry over the destruction of Voyager was completed, she would summon him for the talk she'd offered a week ago. He figured they would have to be mindful of the constant scrutiny she was always under. They could risk dinner in San Francisco. Maybe a concert or two. Brunch in Indiana. Nothing too pressurized or suggestive. They'd go slowly. Her position demanded it.

And yet, here she was, standing in his living room with an overnight bag in her hand, the straps clutched so tightly in her fist that her knuckles had gone white.

As white as her face, falling into lines of confusion.

As white as her pale, freckled shoulders in that dress.

That silky-soft, shimmering dress on the day of Celes and Billy's wedding, shining in the light of the full moon.

The too-bright moon.

Chakotay caught her blue eyes and held them. "I'd love some company," he murmured, for her ears alone.

The blush began at her open collar and rose, while he watched in fascination, to the roots of her hair. As if daring him to mention it and without breaking eye contact, she raised her chin, stepped forward and dropped the bag in the middle of his living room.

He shoved his hands in his pockets, stifling a rising tide of pure want, and turned to Tom. "What time is your dinner reservation? You have a long drive this evening."

Tom smiled. "Long, but gorgeous. Just the water and the mountains all the way to San Luis Obispo on the-"

"The Old Cabrillo Highway," B'Elanna interrupted. "Then on to Santa Barbara. We know, Tom."

Kayma reached for her bag. "Let's go before we lose the light," she said.

"Too bad the rental's not a convertible," Harry said, and they all headed for the door.

Chakotay motioned Kathryn ahead of him, one hand brushing the small of her back.

The civilian rental car was big and boxy and a shade of bright green that made Chakotay's eyes hurt. In his right trouser pocket, his fingers closed around The Falcon's starter.

Tom and B'Elanna and Harry had helped him find Kayma, they'd organized the teams and joined the operation in spite of great personal risk, and they'd delivered Kathryn to him.

Chakotay sighed and shook his head at himself.

"Wait," he said, just as Harry raised Kayma's bag to stow it in the trunk. He held the starter out to Tom. "Here. Take The Falcon."

Four bright, eager faces turned to him in disbelief. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kathryn smirk and completely ignored her.

Tom swallowed hard. "Chakotay, you know I'd never ask, but-"

"You're the only one who hasn't, actually." Chakotay brandished the starter again. "Take it, Tom. Before I change my mind."

Were those tears in Tom's eyes? The younger man reached out slowly. "Are you sure?"

Chakotay gave him a half shrug, nodding at the group. "A pilot, an engineer and an ops man. What could go wrong?" He aimed a grimace at the rental car. "Just leave me the starter for that old thing in case we want to go anywhere."

Kathryn cleared her throat. "If you think I'll consent to be seen in that eyesore, you can just think again, Chakotay."

He took the rental's starter from Tom and glanced down at Kathryn with a quirked eyebrow. "So I take it you're just planning to stay in all weekend?"

She raised her chin at him. "I'm sure we can find ways to entertain each other."

The sultry purr in her voice pulled a groan from deep in his throat.

The four young people stared at them. "I, uh…" Tom began. "I think that's our cue to go. Now." He slapped a wide-eyed Harry on the back. "Let's go right now."

Chakotay laughed quietly as they bolted in four different directions like a bunch of frightened rabbits. Tom switched their luggage from the rental to The Falcon. Harry flung Kayma's bag into the trunk and headed for the front passenger door, but Chakotay caught him by the arm first. "You take care of her, Lieutenant," he warned, trusting Harry to know precisely what and whom he meant.

"Of course, sir," Harry stammered. "I'll be careful and make sure nothing happens to her. I swear."

He tried to maintain his fierce expression, but Harry's look of pure terror was just too much for him to take. He grinned and released the younger man's arm. "Have a good trip, Harry."

The bewildered Lieutenant dove into The Falcon, slammed the door behind him and stared straight ahead, his hands locked together in his lap. Chakotay leaned over the edge of Kayma's door. "Try to stay out of trouble this time."

Kayma leered. "As long as you try to get in some trouble, Chakotay."

He shook his head at her. "You be sure to have a good weekend," he said, "because I'm sending you back to your mother on Monday."

"Fine. I'll call Abeke and Neka and tell them to start packing." When he tried to withdraw, she grabbed the lapel of his open shirt, pulled him back down to her and kissed his cheek. "I'm happy for you," she whispered in his ear. "I love you."

"I love you, too, chitsa," he replied. "Have fun."

As they watched The Falcon speed down the dusty lane, Kathryn looped her arm through his. "I know that was difficult," she said, patting his bicep, "but you've made the children very happy."

He shrugged. "It's just a car."

"Of course it is," she soothed. "And the Mona Lisa is just a painting."

He smiled. "Now you're mocking me."

"Never, Chakotay." She led him towards the house. "Has everyone really asked to drive it?"

He nodded. "Even the Doc. Even Tuvok."

She drew back and stared up at him. "You're kidding."

"No. He offered to drive it back here after I left it down the highway when I was looking for Harry and Kayma." He gave a long-suffering sigh. "And then Seven offered to assimilate it."

Kathryn laughed out loud. "So helpful, our Seven."

"'Helpful' isn't the word I would use," he grumbled, which just made her laugh harder.

"Come on," she said, pulling him through the house. "Show me what you were working on when we interrupted you."

In the fading evening light he explained his plans to expand the deck further toward the edge of the bluff so that, when friends and family came to visit, there would be room for a bigger table and more chairs. She paced off the space with her head bent and her eyes fixed on the planks, both new and old, until she reached the southwest corner of the deck, where he'd marked off a rectangle in green chalk. "What goes here?" she asked, looking up at him with an impish twinkle in her bright blue eyes.

He held her gaze. "I was thinking a hot tub."

"I approve," she said at once.

"I thought you might. Although…" She shoved his hands in his pockets. "I don't need your approval for anything anymore. Do I?"

She blinked. "No, I don't suppose you do," she answered softly, and took a slow step toward him. "Given that there's no chain of command between us anymore."

"No crew," he said, watching move, her steps light, her expression unreadable.

"And no Voyager," she finished. She was so close now he could smell her perfume. Just as he had on the night of the wedding, he bent his head to catch every hint of the light, sweet scent. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Anything," he breathed.

She tilted her face up to his. "What's for dinner?"

She was trying so hard to rattle him…but he caught her staring at his lips. "I have no idea, Kathryn," he said, and stepped away from her.

"What?" she gasped.

Hiding his smirk of satisfaction from her, he shrugged and bent to gather his hand tools. "When Kayma's not here, it's just bread and broth for me."

She gave him a hum of disapproval and headed into the house. "You're a terrible liar, you know," she threw over her shoulder. "I'm sure there's something wonderful in that kitchen of yours."

"Really, Kathryn," he said. "I wasn't expecting company, but I can make you something if you're hungry."

He made to follow her into the house, but in the doorway she turned back with a tender smile and placed a hand in the middle of his chest. "I can manage," she said. She nodded toward the deck. "Finish putting your things away while I conjure us something to eat. Take a shower if you like."

"Is that a not-so-subtle suggestion?"

With a laugh, she patted his bare chest. "No, you smell just fine to me. Like fresh air and sunshine. But I know that after a day of working outside you like to clean up before dinner."

He caught his breath for a moment. She knew…because she remembered. The hand on his chest was suddenly almost too warm to bear. "Kathryn.."

She shook her head a little. "Soon," she said, and he couldn't pretend to misunderstand her meaning.

He inhaled slowly to center himself again and gave her a half smile. "I won't be long. Use whatever you can find in the kitchen and pantry, but just…try not to burn my house down, all right?"

She banged her knuckles against his chest. "I take it back. You smell like an old bear, Chakotay, and if you don't take a shower I'm calling Starfleet for a beam out." With a defiant toss of her braid, she turned her back on him and disappeared into the house.

He puttered on the deck for a few more minutes, just long enough to stow his tools in the a locker and cover the unsealed planks with a waterproof tarp to protect them from the day's humidity. When he sauntered back into the house, Kathryn was happily humming to herself in the kitchen, surrounded by bowls and pans from his cabinet and boxes and bins from his pantry. For just a moment he feared for the safety of his digestive tract, but surely, with fresh ingredients at hand and not a replicator in sight, she couldn't concoct anything noxious enough to poison them. So he gave her a cheerful wave and headed for his bathroom, stripping off his sodden shirt as he went.

In the hallway between his room and Kayma's, he nearly tripped over Kathryn's duffel bag.

Interesting. Last time he'd seen the thing, it had been in the middle of this living room floor. Either Kathryn had suddenly developed a neat streak or she was trying to tell him something. He leaned back to glance into the kitchen, but she had her back to him and appeared to be carrying on a one-sided argument with his stove.

Standing in the shower under a stream of hot water, it occurred to him that maybe she was really trying to ask him something. The placement of the bag, halfway between his room and Kayma's now-empty one, could be a subtle way of gauging his interest. Would he move the bag? And if so…where? Which room?

He knew exactly where he wanted to put it, and her, and not just for the weekend.

With a jolt, he groaned and ordered the water to a colder setting.

Ten minutes later, he almost had to dive back into the shower when he strolled into his room in search of clean clothes and discovered the bag resting on the end of his bed.

He stared at it, shocked at first, but then with a slow, knowing grin. He threw on an old pair of gym shorts and an Academy Boxing Club T-shirt and padded barefoot back to the kitchen.

She barely glanced up from grating carrots when he leaned against the countertop beside her. "Feel better?" she asked. When he hummed an affirmative reply, she leaned close to him. "You certainly smell better."

He snatched a whole carrot from the pile and bit into it. "You left something in my room," he said between bites.

"Did I?" She set aside the carrots and took up a bunch of bright green herbs, twisting them in her fingertips and tearing them into small pieces. "I'll retrieve it later."

He munched his carrot. "What are you making?"

With a sigh, she reached into the chiller and brought out a large serving bowl full of noodles and chopped vegetables. "I was going to make you a stir-fry. But your stove and I have not yet come to an understanding, so we'll have this instead. I found the vegetables and the leftover noodles in the chiller and made a sauce from the things in your pantry." She dumped the carrots into the bowl along with the shredded cilantro and a handful of chopped peanuts. "Spicy peanut noodle salad. Best I could do on short notice."

Chakotay stared. "I'm impressed, Kathryn. Maybe you really can cook and your problem is just with replicators." She swatted him on the arm. "I mean it. Cooking is nothing but applied science, and you're a scientist."

"Maybe I've discovered a latent talent."

"Maybe you have." He eyed the ingredients in the bowl. "I couldn't have done any better myself. All you need are a few lime wedges."

She raised a hand and reached into the chiller again, emerging with a bowl of lime wedges and a triumphant smile. "Voila."

He chuckled. "You're amazing. Just when I think you can't surprise me anymore, you do."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Maybe you should wait until you've tasted it."

"I'm sure it's delicious."

"How about you grab us a drink and we go find out? Meet me on the deck?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, avoiding the annoyed little kick she aimed at his shin as she passed by, bowl and plates in hand.

From the chiller he chose a bottle of Moscato – light and sweet, the perfect accompaniment for the spicy salad, but also with a lower alcohol content than their normal fare. Chakotay hadn't eaten since breakfast and knew anything stronger would go directly to his head. He had a feeling he'd want to be clear-headed for the next few hours so he'd be able to remember them for the rest of his life.

By the time he got to the deck she'd dished up two plates of salad and was waiting expectantly for her drink. He fumbled with the corkscrew for a moment before he realized he hadn't regained enough feeling in his left hand to hang on to the bottle properly. Moving the bottle to his right hand, he slapped the left one against his thigh until she reached out and stopped him.

"Chakotay? What's wrong?" Her blue eyes were clouded with worry when he looked up.

"Aftereffect of the neurotoxin," he answered. "My hand goes numb sometimes."

She frowned. "Harry doesn't have any side effects."

"No, but he was shot with a different weapon. Suder's was a just a prototype." He clenched and unclenched his fist a few times. "The Jem'Hadar were carrying a more sophisticated version, loaded with a more potent neurotoxin."

"Should I call the Doc?"

He shook his head. "It'll be all right in a few minutes." With a sheepish smile, he handed her the bottle and the corkscrew. "But if you want a drink, you'll have to open this yourself."

They ate in silence for a time. The noodle salad was delicious, satisfying but not too heavy in the evening heat, and the fizzy, fruity Moscato contrasted perfectly with the dish's spiciness. While they ate, he made an effort to keep the conversation light.

"How did your inquiry go?" he asked. "Will there be any repercussions for destroying the ship?"

She shook her head. "The Review Board asked a lot of pointed questions, but in the end they found that what you and I and Owen testified was true: It was the best decision we could make with the information at hand. We had no way of knowing that the Sagan and T'Pask and Enterprise would get there so quickly. And Nechayev and Hayes tried to hide it, but I suspect they're relieved that they no longer have to decide what to do with Voyager." She sipped her wine. "Frankly, they were more concerned with why I took the first shot in the firefight."

He twirled the glass in his fingertips. "I wondered about that, too."

She stared out at the water and the setting sun for a long moment. "I couldn't listen to him anymore, Chakotay," she murmured, her face still turned away from him. "I know your peace was hard-won, and the way Evek tried to shake it…" She raised her chin, as if daring the entire Pacific Ocean to defy her. "I just couldn't let him do it."

"You didn't think I would do something…impulsive…did you?'

With a crooked smile, she reached out and took his left hand in hers. He was pleased to find that he could feel it now, and noted that her skin was soft and cool against his. "No. I knew you wouldn't. But I also knew how much his words had to have hurt you, and I couldn't stand it."

He squeezed her hand. "And did the Review Board accept that as justification?"

She gave him a crooked smile. "Not for a second," she replied.

He wanted to ask if there had been any repercussions for taking that first shot, but she turned away again as if attempting to close the subject. So he contented himself with a simple, "Thank you, Kathryn," and let it drop.

"When do you go back to teaching?" she asked.

"Monday. Tuvok's been covering my classes this week."

Kathryn laughed. "I'm sure your students enjoyed that."

"I'll hear all about it on Monday, no doubt." He glanced at her with a smile. "Thank you for taking the boxing team down to UCLA while I was still in the hospital."

She shrugged. "It was fun." She lowered her voice. "Granor and Z'Mora both fought honorably."

He gave a soft chuckle. "So I heard. Granor called me the next morning. But I understand Senek didn't fare so well."

"All the way back to San Francisco he kept telling me that really, he's a pacifist."

"He's certainly no boxer."

"Definitely not." She toyed with her wineglass. "Do you think Professor Pastinha would consent to reforming the Capoeira team for him?"

Chakotay cocked his head to one side, considering the idea, and his student. Senek had the natural grace he'd come to expect from young Vulcans, but had always been reluctant to actually land a punch. Capoeira would satisfy the boy's physical training requirement, while just barely addressing his self-defense requirement –at least until he willed himself to fulfill the requirement in the more accepted way. "That's a good idea, Kathryn. I'll ask Isobel on Monday."

The sun continued to sink over the ocean, taking a measure of the day's oppressive heat and humidity with it. A cool breeze blew in off the water. It quickly dried the lingering dampness in his short hair and fluttered the hem of Kathryn's dress. He offered to take their drinks inside, but she shook her head at him with a smile. "I do love it here," she said. "It's so peaceful."

He nodded. "Kayma has been threatening to move here permanently."

"How is she doing?"

"She's fine. She stayed with me at Starfleet Medical until they released me."

"B'Elanna told me. Was she afraid to come home alone?"

He nodded solemnly. "She's led a pretty sheltered life. I think the whole thing rattled her more than she let on."

"But she was amazing, Chakotay. Once she shook off her initial fear, she was observant and helpful. And she was so compassionate toward Suder." Kathryn gave him a crooked smile. "More than I was, to be honest." She sipped her wine. "I visited him on Tuesday. He only wanted to talk about you."

Chakotay scowled. "Is he angry he didn't get his revenge?"

"Actually, no." Her eyes were very soft on him. "He said that before your team led him away, he saw you with Kayma. He said…" She folded her hands in her lap. "He said that's all he really wanted: To lead a normal life, and to have someone look at him the way she looks at you. He wanted to know if he'd ever have that."

Chakotay swallowed around the lump in his throat and looked away. "And when I got to him, all I wanted to do…"

She touched his hand again. "But you didn't."

"Because of you."

She shook her head. "I only reminded you of who you really are."

He smiled. "And saved me from myself."

"It's what we've always done for each other, isn't it?"

He nodded. "What's going to happen to Suder now?"

"Rehab and then trial. He'll be prosecuted, but the Doc found so much in his system besides the psylosinine that there's no way he was responsible for his actions while he was under the True Way's influence."

Something had been gnawing at him since Owen's revelation at Starfleet Medical. "Was it really just the True Way, or was the Dominion involved as well?"

Her lips drawn together in a thin, grim line, she turned away from him. "That'll all come out in Evek's trial."

Chakotay blinked. "I look forward to that," he said slowly. "I assume I'll be called to testify?"

"We all will. Tell Kayma she can't leave the planet."

He gave a soft chuckle. "I don't think she's going anywhere for a while. Not if Harry has anything to say about it."

She laughed, too. "He's a quick study, our Harry. They're cute together."

"They're good for each other. He'll be a stabilizing influence on her, and she'll bring out his playful side."

"So you approve?"

"Very much." He rubbed his chin. "Not that my disapproval would stop her, of course."

"Of course."

They watched in silence as the last rays of the setting sun painted the sky with red and gold. Chakotay closed his eyes, listening to the surf crash below and the first signs of the forest coming to life all around them. These were the sounds he'd missed during seven years on Voyager. Moving water. Leaves in the breeze. Birds and insects and animals. He glanced at Kathryn from lowered lids and wondered if she'd missed them, too.

She turned abruptly and caught him staring at her. "What is it?" she asked.

He gave her a soft smile. "Just enjoying the view."

To his surprise, she blushed again. "I spoke with Richard yesterday," she said softly.

Chakotay's heart began to pound in his chest. "Oh?"

"Right after Kayma called me and told me she was going away with Harry for the weekend." She drained her glass and set it aside. "I said I couldn't see him anymore."

Chakotay swallowed hard. "How did he take it?" And why didn't you let me watch?

She gave him a half shrug. "Not well," she said. "He was shocked, to be honest. I suspect he thought that this last crisis would be enough to convince me to resign my commission, move into his mansion in Cupertino and never go to space again."

He smiled. "He doesn't know you very well."

"No, he doesn't," she said, and held his gaze for a long, electric moment.

He couldn't tear his eyes away from her. "Can I ask you a question about him?" She raised her chin and gave him a wary look. "Don't answer if you don't want to, but… Why him? Why Tenson and Councilman Deegan?"

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Why all the older men?" When he nodded, she turned and looked out over the water for a long quiet moment. "I was thirty-eight years old when I took command of Voyager," she began. "I'd been engaged twice but never married. And I'd known the man I was engaged to…almost my whole life."

He started to offer her words of comfort and consolation on the breakup of that engagement, but she held up her hand to stop him. "I'm glad Mark moved on," she said. "If he hadn't, if he was still waiting for me when we got back…I'd have broken things off with him anyway."

He had no answer for that, so he simply watched her rise and stroll to the edge of the deck, her gaze fixed on a distant point somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. "When we got back, I had to relearn who I was again, and part of that was figuring out what kind of relationship I wanted…if I even wanted a relationship."

"You weren't sure?"

"No, not at all." She turned to face him again. "And I didn't want to risk hurting someone I truly care about until I knew. Understand?"

He nodded, unable to speak.

She turned back to the water. "I thought at first that the fact that they were all ten years older than me was just a coincidence."

"It wasn't?"

Her laugh was low and dark. "In retrospect, no, it wasn't. I felt like I aged a couple of decades out there, Chakotay, not just seven years. I locked myself into thinking I needed someone…settled."

"So…" he said, casting a nervous glance at his house and his yard and the lumber piled neatly for his new deck. "You don't want settled?"

She turned an impish smile on him. "'Settled' I can live with. 'Boring,' I can't abide."

He grinned. "Fair enough."

She nodded once, decisively, and turned back to the water, her hands on her hips. He was transfixed by the sight. "As for Richard…" She sighed. "My senses were trying to tell me something that my conscious mind didn't want to admit."

"Trying to talk yourself into something that wasn't there?"

She hummed her agreement. "I just wasn't attracted to him. I tried to rationalize it away for weeks, but in the end..." She favored him again with that mischievous grin he'd loved since the first time he'd caught a glimpse of it. "The heart knows."

"Is that what you told Richard? 'The heart knows?'"

"More or less." She sauntered over and perched a hip on the table next to him. "He warned me about you, you know."

"You told him you were coming here tonight?"

"No, but he figured it out. I think it all goes back to the night of the wedding, when he noticed how I couldn't keep my eyes off you."

His mouth nearly fell open. "Really?"

She nodded. "I thought at first it was the occasion, or maybe the champagne and the music had gone to my head. Maybe even the full moon." When she reached out and ran the backs of her fingers over his cheekbone and into his hair, he held his breath. "Then I decided it was the suit. I hadn't seen you in a month, and I hadn't seen you out of uniform since before Earth. I've always loved a man in uniform, of course, but that suit… That beautiful suit…"

He hooked a thumb toward the house. "It's hanging in my closet, if the two of you would like to be alone."

She gave his cheek a soft pat. "No, but we will have to find an occasion for you to put it on again."

"Done." He placed a hand on her knee. "As long as you wear that dress."

"It's a deal." She ran her fingers through his hair. "Richard thinks you're a hothead."

"Does he?"

She nodded. "Hotheaded, violent and disrespectful."

"'Disrespectful?'" he echoed in protest. "Where did he get that idea?"

She dropped her hand to his shoulder. "You cut him off on the comm."

"That was Owen," he corrected, and shrugged when she cocked an eyebrow at him. "He only beat me to it by about half a second, though. If Owen hadn't cut Richard off, I would have. I had much bigger fish to fry."

She gasped and shook her head at him, hands clamped over her mouth.

Alarmed, he stood up suddenly. "Kathryn?"

Her laugh, when it finally began, sounded like it came from the depths of her soul. Doubled over, her fist twisted into the front of his shirt, she laughed until there were tears on her cheeks, until she was gasping for breath. He found himself chuckling along with her. "You're not going to tell me why that's funny, are you?"

She shook her head and laughed harder, leaning her forehead against his chest for balance.

"Well, as long as it made you laugh, I guess I don't need to know." When she looked up at him, he saw that a few more tendrils of auburn hair had escaped from the braid and framed her face with soft curls. He smoothed them away with his fingertips. "You're beautiful when you laugh."

She placed both hands on his chest. "Chakotay…"

He smiled down at her. "You're always beautiful to me. You always have been. But when you laugh… You laugh with every part of you. Your eyes, your face, your whole spirit lights up. You light up. And I can't look away. I want to make you laugh like that every day, every hour for the rest of our lives."

She drew in a sharp breath. "What are you saying, Chakotay?" Her eyes were luminous and endless in the low light.

The vow he'd made to himself on Voyager came back to him. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, curling his hands around hers. "I just want to be yours again," he answered. "I think I was once, or I could have been. But I made a mistake, and—"

"We both did."

He shook his head at her. "I made a promise I didn't keep, and I want to make up for it in whatever way you'll allow. If you only want my friendship back, it's yours. If you want nothing from me at all, I can live with that, too. I know this puts me in a position of weakness. Maybe that diminishes me in your eyes."

She gasped and tried to pull away from him, but he refused to let her go. "But loving isn't a weakness. It's a strength. It's my strength. It's made me strong enough to accept whatever you can give me, even if it's just friendship. Because I've come to realize I'm no good to any other woman, Kathryn. I don't think I ever will be, not as long as I love you the way I do now."

When he saw her blink back tears, he smiled again. "So here I stand, ready and willing to be whatever you want me to be. Colleague, friend, lover." He lowered his voice. "Husband, if you'd have me. But that's what I want, Kathryn. To be yours again, your man, as much of me as you want, in whatever way you want me."

The electric moment lingered between them. Time bent and shook and hurtled into the past. Seven years of deep and complicated friendship, seven years of misunderstandings and mistakes, seven years of uncrossed barriers and unspoken words hovered over them. The memories were so thick and so real he felt he could touch them, if only he were willing to let go of her hands.

Slowly, silently, she lowered herself from her perch on the table, her body sliding against his, her eyes boring into his. "I want all of you," she whispered, "in every way."

Her words drew the very breath from his lungs. He swayed once, eyes closed in silent thanks…and pounced.

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