THE SOUND OF HER VOICE

By Shayenne

Disclaimer: Paramint? Paramullet? Paramonty? Parawho?
Rated PG-13

I was watching DS9 and saw the episode from which this title is stolen. In fact, the whole story is stolen from it. Brilliant episode, and I thought that it could be an interesting J/C story. So here it is. I've placed it in fifth season, a few months after Voyager makes contact with the Federation.

As always, grateful hugs and mulled wine to the Universe's Best Betas: Brianna and Mary S. (The Universe's Best Non-Beta was off the hook this time, as this story was her gift in VAMB's Secret Santa.)

"Captain to the bridge."

Janeway pushed aside her dinner plate with a barely concealed sigh of relief, and left the messhall at a fast clip, waving aside Neelix's offer of coffee. The call couldn't have come at a better time.

When she reached the bridge, a veneer of suppressed excitement overlaid the usual calm. Chakotay sat alertly in his chair, his hands gripping the arms, eyes intent on the console. Tom's relaxed posture was obviously a mask-his jigging knee gave him away. Only Tuvok seemed truly calm, as he impassively pushed buttons at his station.

"Report!"

"Captain, we're receiving a distress call. I'm trying to triangulate the coordinates." Harry raised his eyes to hers. "Captain, it's a Federation signature."

Janeway subdued the instinctive rise of hope, the bubble of joy that surfaced every time there was a tenuous link with home. How many times had they found Federation signatures? With Seska and her treachery, with stolen Starfleet technology. And all had come to naught. Harry's face wore an unguarded look of optimism. She nodded at him. "Keep working on it, Harry."

Slipping into her chair next to Chakotay, she asked in an undertone, "Anything to report, Commander?"

"No, Captain. The signature is Federation all right, but the location is difficult to pinpoint. It's the distress beacon from an escape pod, which of course makes me suspect a trap. What would a pod be doing out here in the Delta Quadrant?"

She nodded, her fingers already tapping on the console. "But this signature, it's not anything that came from Voyager. It indicates a pod from a galaxy class starship-Voyager has nothing like it. How would anyone in the Delta Quadrant know the signature?"

Chakotay's fingers brushed her hand briefly, and he quirked a half smile at her. "And that is why we're hoping that maybe this time, it's for real."

"I'm getting a more precise location," reported Harry. "It's at… That can't be." He fell silent, fingers flying over the console.

Janeway rose and moved to his station. "What is it, Harry?" She peered down at his console, where his fingers stilled on the display. "It's coming from the Gamma Quadrant. That's not possible!"

But the coordinates clearly showed the signal originated from the Gamma Quadrant, maybe seven light-years from the wormhole that led to Bajoran space. Janeway frowned. "Can you clean up the signal, Harry?"

"I'm on it." A small frown flickered between his eyes as he worked.

Janeway met her first officer's eyes across the bridge. Her hope and concern that this was another blind alley, another false lead, were clearly reflected in his eyes. Not another dead end, Kathryn,his eyes said to her. I don't know how many more of these the crew can take.

We have to try, her own eyes conveyed to him. We have to.

"Got it!" Harry's shout rang across the waiting bridge crew.

"…any Federation ships within range… if you can hear me, please respond. My name is Captain Lisa Cusak. My ship is gone, destroyed by Jem'Hadar fighters. I'm the only survivor that I know of. My escape pod crashed on an L Class planet, somewhere near the Monalian system. I have limited rations, and few medical supplies. Request urgent assistance from any ship within range…"

Janeway gripped Harry's shoulder. "Well done, Harry," she said.

"Should I send a response?"

Janeway hesitated. "Yes, we will. But we can't offer assistance. We must be forty thousand light years from her position; Before we reply, I'd like to know how we're getting the transmission. Our scheduled message to Starfleet isn't for another week, so I doubt we can pass on her coordinates to anyone who can actually do something about it. "

"False hopes. Maybe it would be kinder not to reply," said Chakotay.

"That too. Keep working on the path of the message."

*

It was during the dinner hour that Seven summoned Janeway and Chakotay to Astrometrics.

"I've traced the path of the message, Captain." The screen in front of her lit up, displaying the data. "The message is coming through a microscopic wormhole between the Gamma and the Delta Quadrant. The entrance is 2.4 light-years from our current position."

"How microscopic?" asked Chakotay, his eyes following the lines on the screen.

"Only fifteen microns in diameter. But it appears stable."

Janeway glanced across at her first officer. He met her eyes, and the gleam in them told her he had the same thought. "Could the wormhole be enlarged? Enough to take Voyager through?"

"I don't know. Although it is currently stable, it is in the early stages of decay. Any attempts to widen it could cause it to collapse."

"It's worth a try. Seven, relay the coordinates of the wormhole to Tom, we'll move closer and see if there's anything we can do. Seven, is Captain Cusak still broadcasting her distress call?"

Seven turned to the panel, and the tired tones of Lisa Cusak filled Astrometrics. "Calling any ships. Is there anyone out there? I feel as if my words are going into the void. This is Captain Lisa Cusak of the Federation Starship Olympia. My ship is destroyed, requesting emergency assistance. Goddammit, is there anyone out there? Please, if you are there, answer me. Maybe you don't know what it's like to be alone like this, all your crew dead or missing, truly wondering if you are the only person for light-years; if you did, you'd be answering me."

Janeway's hand clenched on the edge of the console. Images rose in her mind, seeping up like swamp water. Justin and her father. The shuttle crash. The helplessness of being unable to get any assistance. The shuttle sinking. Her father drowned. Justin gone. Herself alone, fumbling with the transceiver, trying to send the distress call through the thickness of tears.

"Seven, try and open a channel to her. At least she can hear our voices."

"Channel open."

"Captain Cusak, this is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager. Do you read me?"

Only static greeted her. Janeway repeated her greeting, a second, a third time. "Can you clean up the signal, Seven? This woman needs to hear a friendly voice. I wonder how long she's-"

"Hello? Is there someone there? I can hear you talking." Cusak's voice held an edge of hope, an uplifting of syllables.

"Seven, is that channel still open?" At Seven's nod, Janeway repeated her greeting.

"Captain Janeway! I have never been so glad to hear anyone's voice in my life, and I don't even know you. What's your position?"

Janeway smiled ruefully. "Captain Cusak, you're not going to like my answer any more than we do. We're in the Delta Quadrant, approximately 40,000 light years from your position. We're receiving your signal down a micro-wormhole."

"The Delta Quadrant? And I thought I had problems. I didn't realize the Federation had ships.... Wait! Did you say Voyager? Captain Janeway? My god, we thought you were dead! You were declared missing!"

"Were. We made contact with the Federation only a few months ago. "

"I'm delighted to hear you're off the missing list, Captain. I've been working around the Cardassian border and in the Gamma Quadrant for nearly a year now, so your news must have passed me by."

Janeway lifted a hand. "Don't apologize, Captain. Enough about us. Tell us your status."

"My ship was attacked by Jem'Hadar patrols five days ago. We abandoned ship before she blew, but I'm guessing that most of the escape pods were destroyed. I was the last to leave, and my pod managed to land on this L class planet. I've scouted around, but there are no others here that I can see, and I can't raise anyone on hailing frequencies. I may... I may be the only survivor from a crew of seventy nine."

Although Cusak's voice was steady, steely even, the desolation in her tone came through, hitting Janeway in the solar plexus. There, but for the grace of God...

Cusak continued, "This planet--although that's too kind a description for this hell hole--is barely habitable. Temperatures drop to thirty degrees below freezing every night, and the wind moans like a bankrupt Ferengi. I've found shelter in a series of underground caverns. I've enough ration packs for another couple of weeks, and although it's not the finest accommodation Starfleet has ever found for me, I've had worse. I do have a fairly pressing problem though."

She paused, and the listeners in Astrometrics clearly heard the low howl of the wind.

"The atmosphere here is barely breathable. It has very high concentrations of CO2. I'm taking triox to help my system cope, but I only have enough supplies left for another three days."

"Captain, I won't say that we can definitely come to your aid in that time," said Janeway, "but we will try our damnedest to do so. I'll get a team together to study the wormhole immediately, to see if we can enlarge it enough to bring Voyager through. We've been searching for a way back to Earth for a long time now. A wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant sounds good to me. In the meantime, I'm going to patch your signal through to sickbay. Our doctor may be able to advise you on how best to stretch your supplies of triox."

"Thank you. I appreciate what you're doing. Before you transfer me, can I make one very indulgent request?"

"Name it."

"I've been alone here for five days. I'm a Starfleet captain, I can cope with this, but hearing your voice makes it easier. Hell, hearing a Jem'Hadar voice would be preferable to nothing. Can you leave this channel open?"

"Of course. What I'll do, Captain, is make sure that there's someone available to talk to you at all hours. Right now, I think you'll find our doctor will be eager to give you all the conversation you need. I'm sure we'll talk again ourselves."

"Thank you, Captain. And please, call me Lisa. All of your crew. Formality is not what I need right now. Somehow, I find it can freeze the friendship out of a voice."

"I understand, maybe more than you realize. And I'm Kathryn. It's been a pleasure to talk to you, Lisa. Hopefully, the next time we talk, I'll have something more positive to tell you."

~ ^ ~ ^ ~

"Tell me, Lisa, how's your singing voice?" The Doctor's fingers flew over his console, as he worked computations.

"Not as good as yours, Doc. I have to admit I've never heard a hologram who can sing like you. "

"Oh? I'm flattered. You must have been in contact with some of the finest holograms in the Alpha Quadrant. Maybe you'll pass on to them what a fine singing voice I have."

"Oh, I will indeed." Laughter suffused her voice. "I've heard enough of it."

"If you object, you can tell me to be quiet. After all, I'm a hologram, I don't have feelings."

"I think you do have feelings. I can hear it in your voice. You're upset because you think that I'm laughing at you. I'm not, Doctor, I'm smiling at your pride in your accomplishment. And from what you say, you're valued for yourself, not only your medical abilities."

"I like to think so. And with my mobile emitter, I have as much freedom as any member of this crew. I socialize, I have friends. I've even had sexual relations."

"Really? Well, congratulations. I'm glad you're as human as all of us."

"Yes. It was a very interesting experience. It's made me more sympathetic to some of the crew who, for whatever reasons, don't take a partner out here."

"Oh? What reasons would they be?"

"Some are hoping their partner in the Alpha Quadrant is waiting for them. Others find Voyager's pool of potential mates too small. And then there are a couple of cases where a person chooses not to take a mate, as they feel it will compromise their position on board." The Doctor concentrated on his calculations.

"That last reason wouldn't affect many people, would it?"

"No. But believe me, it exists as a valid reason in their minds, however much I've tried to argue to the contrary."

"Why do you argue? Are you pursuing someone who gives that reason?"

The Doctor hesitated. "Noooo, I'm not. But I consider them a friend. And I want my friends to be happy. Lisa, you're a captain. Do you-"

The computer's beep stopped him. "Ah. I have my results. Just a moment, Lisa, and let's hope I have something positive to tell you."

"You've told me lots already, Doc. And I have to say that after five days in this cave, some good news would be welcome."

"Well, let's hope you consider this to be good news. You're currently taking the recommended dose of triox. Now, based on your height, weight, the exact composition of the planet's atmosphere, and your general level of fitness, you can safely cut that dosage nearly in half. Instead of three days supply, you can eke it out to get five days worth. That will give us an increased margin to either find a way through the wormhole, or, failing that, get a message to Starfleet on your behalf."

"That's the good news?" Lisa's sigh echoed down the link. "Well, I'll take it."

~ ^ ~ ^ ~

Voyager hung in space. Out there was the wormhole that led to the Gamma Quadrant. So close, so tantalizingly close. Janeway stared out the viewport of the briefing room. "I want to go out there in an environmental suit and pry it open like an oyster."

"If only it were that simple," replied Chakotay.

She turned to him, and touched his arm. "This is our best chance. Seven's scans show that the wormhole is deteriorating more slowly than we first thought. We just have to find a way to enlarge it."

As the rest of the senior staff filed in, she dropped his arm and took her place at the head of the table. Once they were all seated, she resumed. "I've had Captain Cusak's link put through to here. After all, this discussion concerns her as much as us. Lisa, can you hear us?"

"I can. Hello everyone."

Janeway wasted no time. "Harry, Seven, can you tell us what progress you've made analyzing the wormhole?"

Harry spoke up. "The wormhole is a lot more stable than we first thought. It's in no danger of imminent collapse, although it is decaying. The problem is enlarging it sufficiently to take Voyager through."

"I'm working on an idea using proton bursts," said B'Elanna. "But I can't be 100% sure if it's stable enough that it will work. If I'm wrong, it could collapse completely."

"Is there anyway we could beam the Doctor through the wormhole to deliver a supply of triox to Lisa?" asked Janeway.

B'Elanna shook her head. "No. The planet's atmosphere will dissipate the signal too much. It would be dangerous to try, we'd probably lose him. We could attempt to beam only the supplies of the drug though. I really should have thought of that before."

"Do it. And then get back to trying to widen the wormhole. And now for you, Lisa. How are you holding up?"

"Pretty well, all things considering. But I'll be pleased to get a new supply of triox. I'm beginning to feel dizzy and weak."

"That's a symptom of hypoxia," said the Doctor. "Your body will adjust to the lower oxygen levels in time, although if we can get a transport through to you, there'll be no need."

"Thanks, Doc. And thank you, all of you, for your company over the last day. I'm looking forward to getting to know the rest of you."

"I'm the next head on the block," said Chakotay. "You're keeping me company in my office. We're working on the duty roster."

"I can hardly wait!"

"You could try and sound a little more enthusiastic."

"That's all for now," said Janeway. "B'Elanna, Seven, let me know your progress on stabilizing the wormhole. Doctor, I'll be waiting for your report on transporting the triox."

The senior staff filed out, except Chakotay, who lingered.

"Something I can do for you, Chakotay?"

"I hope so." His smile warmed his eyes. "Dinner later?"

"I'd like that. I'll bring the wine."

"Will you be through by 20:00?"

"I'll make sure I am. See you later."

She watched him leave onto the bridge. The evening now stretched warm and comfortable in front of her.

~ ^ ~ ^ ~

Chakotay reached his office, and closed the door. A cup of tea from the replicator and a pile of PADDS. And Lisa's company.

"Are you there, Lisa?" he asked.

"I am. So tell me about you and Kathryn."

Chakotay nearly choked on his tea, but managed to turn it into a cough. "You've made me burn my mouth," he complained. "Are you always this direct?"

"Apparently so. Stop changing the subject. That warmth in your voice when you asked her to dinner wasn't strictly professional."

"We're friends. I'm willing to bet you're friends with your first officer."

"I hope I still am. I hope, that against all odds, she made it out of the Olympia."

The sadness in her voice made Chakotay curse silently. Lisa didn't need that particular reminder now.

The pause hung for a moment, and then Lisa drew a deep breath. When she spoke, her voice had resumed its normal teasing quality. "But there's a difference between you and me. I don't want to make my first officer my lover. You, on the other hand-"

"You didn't tell me you were Betazoid." Chakotay gave up all pretence of the duty roster, and set the PADD aside.

"Don't need to be. It's obvious. I can hear it in your voice."

"How do you know we aren't lovers?" he challenged.

Lisa paused. "Lucky guess? To be honest, I wasn't sure. Kathryn could simply be better at hiding it than you are. So are you?"

"No," he admitted.

"But?"

"You said you were Captain Cusak? Funny, I could have sworn it was counselor."

"I'm waiting, Chakotay."

"Yes. I want to be more. A lot more."

"So she doesn't feel the same?"

Chakotay sipped his tea as he pondered that question. "No, I think she does feel that way. There have been times when we've been so close to pushing over those boundaries. On New Earth, where the two of us were stranded for a while. One time when she nearly died; another place where I almost did. The time we nearly made it home via the slipstream drive. But always, something happens, and at the last moment those damn protocols rear their heads and we slide back to being friends."

"She slides back, you mean. And you go along with it."

"Like I said. You're good."

"Years of practice. Chakotay, it's not forbidden for a captain to take a lover from her crew. I've done it. More than once.""

"And did it work out?"

"For a while. I had a relationship with my science officer that lasted two years, until David was transferred to Starfleet HQ. A glorious love affair with a Lieutenant Junior Grade. Now that one was pushing it, as the rank difference was great, but it never seemed to bother Angie. And no, we didn't hide it either, before you ask. And then there was the time I dated my ship's doctor. That one wasn't so great, in retrospect; S'Nuk was Vulcan, and he found it extremely difficult to accept me as his superior officer during duty hours."

"A Vulcan? Must have been...?"

"Predictable? Dull? Logical? Not necessarily. And don't make a Pon Farr joke. Vulcans can have sexual relationships outside of Pon Farr."

"I wasn't going to. Well, just a small one."

"So, there's no reason that Kathryn and you couldn't have a relationship. And she must know that. What's really stopping her?"

"It's different here. We may not get home for another forty years. And these days, how many relationships last that long? Or are smooth sailing if they do? There's too much at stake for Voyager and her crew."

"Sounds like you agree with Kathryn. So why are we debating this?"

"I don't agree with her. And you started it."

"You think you can live harmoniously with her for forty years?"

"No, of course not. We'll fight. Kathryn can be stubborn, erratic, illogical at times-"

"Now who sounds like the Vulcan?"

"-but I balance her. We're good for each other. And I know that..."

"Know what?"

"That she completes me. That we are... soul mates." He gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Sounds like cadet angst, doesn't it? I've never said that out loud before."

"Say it enough and maybe you'll start to do something about it instead of sitting on your butt and whining about it!"

"Not fair! I do not whine. "

"Maybe not aloud. But I bet you sit in your quarters and mope."

Chakotay set his tea carefully down on the desk so that he didn't spill it. "Very clever, Lisa. Provoke me enough, show me that it takes two to make any decision like this, and that it's my inactivity and refusal to push Kathryn that is sabotaging our happiness. Stir me up with your words, until I'm thrashing around like a wounded targ, and then push me out the door to declare my love to Kathryn."

Slow clapping came across the link. "Well done, Commander. Now who's playing counselor? You've saved me a lot of talking. All that's left is for you to storm out of there and down to the ready room."

Chakotay grinned, and propped both feet up on his desk. "I don't think so. But I give you full marks and a promotion to senior counselor for trying. Now let's talk about you. How are you feeling?"

"All the better for talking to you and others on the crew. But I hope that soon-"

"Doctor to Commander Chakotay. We're ready to try beaming down a supply of triox to Lisa. B'Elanna still doesn't think we can get a person through, but it may be safe enough with the drug. Have Lisa standing by."

"I hear you, Doctor. And thank you."

"Transporting now."

Chakotay waited. If the transport was successful, then that would allow them a little more time in trying to widen the wormhole.

"It's coming..... wait, I'm losing it... Damn! No luck, Chakotay. I guess I'll wait to see your faces."

"What happened, B'Elanna?"

"I don't know. The signal lost cohesion. I'll try again."

Several unsuccessful attempts later, B'Elanna was forced to admit that she was unlikely to succeed. "And we never get it back," she said. "We've used up the entire amount Doc replicated."

"Thank you all for trying." Lisa's voice sounded as upbeat as ever, but Chakotay sensed she was very downhearted by the failure.

"Anything I can do to cheer you up?" he asked.

"Storm out of your office, down to the ready room and declare-"

"Okay, okay. I get the picture."

~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~

Kathryn entered Chakotay's quarters and set the wine down on the table. It was set for two, and from the silverware laid out there were at least three courses. Chakotay wasn't in sight, but he called out from the bedroom, "Open the wine. I'll be there in a minute."

He emerged, his hair damp from the shower, and she waited while he ran his fingers through it, pushing it into some sort of order. Damp spikes clung to his forehead, partially covering his tattoo. Carefully, he took the glass from her, his fingers brushing hers. "You managed to get away in time."

A droplet of water ran down his jaw, and she caught it with a finger. "Earlier than you, it seems."

"I'm used to you being late. I build it into my schedule."

"So tell me to be here an hour before you really mean."

He grinned. "I do that all the time!"

Their banter continued while Chakotay programmed the replicator, then on through the tomato and basil soup he served. Looking at him, Kathryn pushed down a surge of hope. That this time, their twisting path home really had found a shortcut. That B'Elanna would jimmy open that wormhole with her usual ingenuity, skill, and brute force, and Voyager would rocket her way to the Gamma Quadrant. A short detour to rescue Lisa, and then....

Home. Starfleet. Earth. Family.

And Chakotay. His arms. His heart. His love.

"...Kathryn? Have you heard a word I've said?"

She came back to Voyager from the Gamma Quadrant to find Chakotay smiling at her. His expression was amused and tender. As if he knew exactly what she had been thinking. Knowing her as well as he did, he probably did.

"Not a word," she admitted. "I was light years away."

He was silent for a moment, twisting the stem of his wineglass around and around. The wine swirled, rich ruby red inside the glass. "Were you thinking about the wormhole? And what's on the other side of it?"

She nodded. "I'm trying not to get my hopes up again. But it's okay to dream a little, I think. There's a lot for us on the other side, Chakotay. I was thinking of Earth. And who is on the other side of the wormhole."

"Yes. Lisa. I hope we get there in time."

She hadn't been thinking about Lisa. The person who waited for her on the other side of the wormhole was the same person who was sitting opposite her now. That was how she spun the scenario in her head and oh, how she hoped it was right.

"Have you talked to her yet?" Chakotay kept his gaze fixed on his glass, where the wine still swirled.

"Not yet. Tomorrow, I hope."

"I think you'll enjoy the conversation. She's very astute. And opinionated."

Kathryn flashed him a flirtatious glance. "Has she been telling you what to do?"

The wine glass faltered, and then resumed its steady motion. "Are you sure you haven't talked to her yet?"

"Not personally. I'm looking forward to it. It seems she's quite the conversationalist. There's no shortage of volunteers to man her comm link. The Doctor is insistent he has a second turn, and Ensign Abruga is positive that Lisa helped her solve a personal problem and wants to thank her."

"Lisa gives good advice."

Kathryn studied him; her head tilted slightly to one side, noting the heightened color in his otherwise smooth bronze cheeks. "Did you take her advice?"

He smiled slightly. "Not yet. But I will." He looked up from the glass and his eyes scorched her face. "You can be sure I will, Kathryn. One day. One day soon."

The intensity of his gaze warmed her, and the meaning of his words was glowingly clear. Her breath caught, and she let his words expand in her heart, and for brief moments batter at the brittle shell surrounding it. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak, he must see the naked longing in her eyes, but it was easier not to answer.

~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~

"I want to know what you've done to my crew!" Kathryn threw down the challenge, and settled back at her desk with a cup of Klingon coffee to await the answer.

"Dum dum.... dum der dum derdumderdum..."

Janeway's smiled crooked upwards, even though there was no one to see it. "So you can't sing, Lisa. What exactly is that supposed to be?"

"Spooky music. That was a challenge if ever I heard one, and I'm waiting for the ghostly warriors to leap out of the dark corners of this cave." A dry cough echoed over the link, and Janeway heard the sound of harsh, rapid, breathing.

"Forget the spooky music. Concentrate on breathing slowly, Lisa." Worry colored her voice. The Doctor had told her that Lisa now required an increased dosage of triox, and there was now only about 36 hours worth of supplies left. If Voyager didn't find a way to enlarge the wormhole in the next 30 hours, then things looked grim for Lisa.

Slow, steady breathing came over the link. "See? I'm fine. Stop worrying, Kathryn."

"You can't stop the concern of a friend." Deliberately she lightened her tone. "So, tell me what you've done to my crew. I have a line of crewmen battering down the door to the ready room demanding a turn to speak to you. Lunch today was wonderful--it seems Neelix is getting recipes from you. Marilyn Abruga is getting married and credits you. Tom had the bridge crew in stitches relating a joke you told him, the one about the duck in Quark's Bar, and Chakotay..."

"Yes?"

"He says you gave him advice and he intends to act upon it."

"Excellent." Lisa's voice fairly hummed with satisfaction. "He's a good man, Chakotay. I'd say that I'm sorry he's not my first officer, but if he were he'd be stranded in this cave with me and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. What's he like, Kathryn?"

Janeway smiled into her cup. "Extremely competent, fair, steady, tactful-"

"So is Marilyn Ambruga's fiancé and I gather he takes care of the plasma manifolds. Tell me what he looks like."

"Short, blue, rotund. Distinctive smell. He's a Bolian."

"Chakotay? That's not what I envisaged!"

"No, Wirrell, Marilyn Ambruga's fiancé, is Bolian."

A dry chuckle that ended in a cough. "Very clever. Now tell me what Chakotay looks like before I run out of triox."

Kathryn's lips curved up as she pictured her first officer's face. "Tall. Black haired, with a touch of gray at the temples that only shows when he forgets to take his hair color supplements. Steady hands, long fingers. Bronze skin. Medium build. He's not slender, but he stops shy of being stocky. Pleasantly muscled. Full lips, large-"

"It sounds like you've spent a long time studying him, Kathryn. Can't say I'm surprised from your description. He sounds like a prime specimen. Now I'm extremely sorry I never had the chance to serve with him--he sounds exactly my type. How come you're leaving him out there, on the market for anyone to snap up? Now I interrupted you. Large what?"

"Nose. He said you were astute."

"I was hoping to hear something other than he has a large nose."

"He has large feet too. Any better?"

"Slightly. I've enjoyed talking to him, Kathryn. You and he are obviously good friends."

"We are. He's my closest friend out here. Not that I have many, so that probably sounds more important than it is."

"Close friends are always important. I'm sure that's a hundred times more important in the Delta Quadrant. Do you wish he were more?"

"More what?"

"Don't act obtuse, Kathryn, it doesn't suit you. Do you wish he were your lover?"

"Who says he isn't?"

A short barking laugh. "The two of you are well matched. That's exactly what he said! However, even if he hadn't denied it, I'd know, from listening to you talk about him."

"So you're an empath as well as a comic!"

"Why is it so hard for you to give me a straight answer?"

"Why do you keep asking questions that you know I don't want to answer?"

"So you do want him as your lover." Lisa's voice fairly hummed with satisfaction.

"Don't waste your breath quoting Starfleet regulations about fraternization at me. It's different out here."

"So Chakotay says. Do you two share a brain?"

Kathryn chuckled. "Sometimes it seems like it. Other times, we're polar opposites."

A moment's silence permeated the room. She took a sip of her coffee, wondering exactly how long it had been since she'd had a conversation like this. One where she could laugh, trade banter, and talk about things important to women. About life, and love, and relationships. When she could speak her feelings and know that a girlfriend would never divulge them. She'd missed the warm camaraderie that exists between women, missed the cosy sharing of secrets. She had no women friends like this on Voyager.

"B'Elanna would be your friend." Lisa's husky voice broke the pause. "She respects you, likes you, wants your happiness. You can talk to her."

"How did you know what I was thinking?"

"Lucky guess. That and the fact that during my first captaincy, I too didn't let myself get close to anyone. On my second ship I formed close friendships-and they never betrayed me. On my third ship, I took lovers. It's allowed, Kathryn. You know that."

"I do. It's just…"

She found that even with her newfound camaraderie with Lisa, she couldn't articulate it. The barrier was too high, too engrained, too much a part of her to see a way over it. Her coffee had gone cold. She dumped it into the recycler and ordered another cup.

"I know what you're thinking Kathryn." Lisa's voice was uncharacteristically sombre. Gone were the bantering tone and the laughter. Lisa sounded serious, as if the words were weighty things of importance. "You're thinking you can't do this-take a lover from your crew. Take Chakotay. But I believe that the two of you would be stronger together than apart. Tell me this. If our positions were reversed right now, if you were down here in this freezer with your triox running out, would you want to have the memories of nights in his arms? Would you want him to know that you loved him?"

Kathryn could hardly breathe around the constriction in her throat. Lisa was simply a voice on a comm line, and a set of Starfleet records. But her words shafted straight and true to the point.

"You think I haven't thought of this a hundred times? A thousand? You think this scenario hasn't run through my head every time one of us comes close to being wrapped in a Federation flag, laid in a torpedo casing, and shunted out of the airlock?"

"Oh, I know you've thought about it. But equally, I'll bet you my remaining supply of triox that each time you nearly lose him, after things calm down, when your heart has stopped pounding , you let reason reassert itself and those same old tired arguments push themselves back into soldier rows, barring the door to your heart.

"You only live once, Kathryn. And the end is never predictable. Promise me that you'll think about it again, and this time go beyond the point where you start chanting that it's for the good of the crew. The crew would love it-believe me, I know, I've been talking to them, remember? Consider it my last request." In spite of the overlay of weariness in her voice, the sparkle and joy that was Lisa Cusak shone through. "Promise me you'll let your thoughts take a step further next time."

Kathryn hesitated for a moment, before committing herself. "I promise."

~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~

"We're ready, Captain. I'm targeting the wormhole with proton bursts." Torres' voice came over the comm to the bridge.

"On screen." Janeway stood, paced closer to the helm. "Tom, stand by to move us out of the way fast if anything goes wrong."

For a few moments nothing was visible. Torres' steady voice came over the comm relaying the expansion. "We're at 300 microns, Captain, all is good so far."

"Full magnification, Harry. I want to see this."

"Two meters diameter, and still stable."

"Can you hear us, Lisa?" Janeway whirled and returned to her chair. The bubble of hope rose in her throat.

"I can. I have my fingers and toes crossed for you, Kathryn."

"Fifteen meters and stable."

Janeway could see the wormhole now. She kept her eyes fixed on the screen, willing B'Elanna's magic to continue.

"Twenty meters and-Wait! It's collapsing! Joe, shut down the targeting scanners. Vorik-"

A brief flare of light on the viewscreen, and the wormhole was gone.

"Harry, scan for any traces of it," Janeway said tersely.

B'Elanna's voice came over the link. "It's no good, Captain. It's gone. It became unstable and collapsed. We've lost it."

Janeway's eyes met Chakotay's. The same fear was mirrored in his dark eyes. "Lisa…"

"Lisa, are you there?" Chakotay asked.

But there was only silence.

~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~

Two weeks later, Kathryn stood outside Chakotay's quarters. It was late, and Voyager reverberated with the silent ghostly feel of the graveyard shift. She clutched a PADD in her hand, the latest communiqué from Starfleet. Ringing the chime, she waited for his reply. The seconds ticked by.

Another minute, she told herself. And if he didn't answer, she would return to her quarters and subdue her impulse in a mug of Irish coffee. The seconds stretched. Too long. She turned to go, at the same moment as his door slid open.

Chakotay appeared from his sleeping quarters, bare-chested, an old pair of tracksuit pants hanging low on his hips. His hair, mussed from the pillow, stuck out at odd angles. But when he saw her, he smiled. "Come in, Kathryn. My replicator is your replicator. Even at 02:00."

His skin was warm and golden, even in the dim lighting. She studied the curve of his spine as he stood at the replicator, eyes tracing the bulky shoulder muscles and the way they led down to the trim curve of his waist. A slight dusting of fine dark hairs covered his lower back, and his buttocks seemed taut and rounded underneath the loose pants.

Chakotay turned from the replicator, a mug and a glass in his hands. He set both down on the table in front of her, then picked up a tunic from the chair and covered himself, before returning to the replicator to order the same drinks for himself.

"A mug of coffee, and some Grand Marnier for sipping," he explained, and waited while she tasted, and smiled her approval.

Kathryn sipped her coffee and thought about how to begin. On her left, Chakotay leaned lazily back against the couch, studying her through half-closed eyes. What a patient man he was, she thought. Obviously, there was something pressing bringing her to his door at this hour, but he was content to let her tell it at her own pace. For a few moments more, she savored his undemanding company.

"The messages from Starfleet arrived an hour ago," she said. "I think you'll find this one interesting. It concerns Lisa."

His eyes opened fully, and he sat forward, reaching for the PADD. "I was thinking about her. When that wormhole collapsed, to us it was a failed shortcut home. To her, it may have been her life. If she wasn't found in the next 24 hours it might have been too late." He studied her face. "Somehow, I don't think this is good news."

She waited while he read the PADD, watching the play of emotions over his face. At the end he thumbed it off, and threw it down on the table.

"She had been dead for approximately three years when Starfleet found her."

Kathryn nodded.

"Her ship, the Olympia, was declared missing in the Gamma Quadrant three years ago. They never found her until we were able to send her location. And then Starfleet sent a ship, only to discover her skeleton." Dark eyes stared into Kathryn's. "We were talking to a dead person."

She nodded again.

"We took advice from someone who had been dead for three years. We laughed, talked, bantered… we CARED for someone who was only bones."

"The atmosphere on that planet, the one that was impossible to transport through, was somehow deflecting our signature. We were talking in real time to her, but we were three years into her future. A time shift anomaly that distorted our comm signals in each direction. Any other Starfleet ship that picked up her signal would have known when the Olympia disappeared, and realized that something was wrong, but we didn't have that information."

Chakotay sat back against the couch, twisting his glass in his hands. "At least her family will know what happened to her. At least they'll have some closure."

Kathryn sighed. "I know. And I know too that there was absolutely nothing we could have done to save her. At least I don't have her death on my conscience. But…. " She turned to face him on the couch, impatiently dashing the moisture from her eyes. "I miss her, Chakotay. She was a friend. A good, true friend."

"She was," he agreed. Sliding closer to her on the couch, he picked up her hand. Sliding his palm over hers, he said, "Kathryn, I made her a promise." His lips twisted. "Or should I say she forced one out of me."

Kathryn's nerves jangled a brief red alert. Here it comes, she thought. There had been hints enough: from Lisa, and from Chakotay himself, but even though she had been expecting some sort of move from him, she still had no idea how to answer him. And then too, there was her own promise to Lisa: not to rein in her thoughts, not to force the barrier back into place. To at least think about the possibility of a relationship with Chakotay.

She looked over at him, at his dear face, his calm demeanour, even, as she suspected, when he was about to put his heart on the line for her to trample on. He was doubtless expecting her to turn him down flat, maybe even refuse to hear him out-there was nothing she had done to give him hope that she had reconsidered-but here he was, holding her hand, his emotions written on his face. Warm. Loving. For her.

Lisa's words rose up in her mind. "You only live once, Kathryn. And the end is never predictable."

When Lisa had said them, she had been dead for three years. How unpredictable was that?

Kathryn closed her eyes and concentrated on the feel of his hands, let his warmth and caring enfold her far more closely than her Starfleet uniform ever could. Lisa had died alone; she wouldn't wish that on anyone. And while she needed to be strong for her crew, for herself, would that strength be compromised or enhanced by having this man at her side and in her heart?

Lisa's words rose unbidden in her mind: "I believe that the two of you would be stronger together than apart."

She opened her eyes to find Chakotay still looking at her, caressing her face with his eyes. But now, his expression had a shuttered quality, as if her moment of reflection was an act of withdrawal. Guiltily, she remembered that she had often diverted him when-rightly or wrongly-she had thought he was about to nudge a way over the lines around her heart.

Gripping his fingers, she began, "Chakotay, she forced a promise out of me too. Her last request. Who am I to deny someone that?"

His fingers gripped hers so tightly that she could barely feel them. A tingling spread through her body, expanding, warming her. She could see on his face that he could guess what Lisa's last request had been.

She couldn't say which of them started the slow lean, the gradual shifting of their bodies into alignment, moving closer. But his knees bumped hers, and his hand raised, hovered, and then touched her cheek with incredible tenderness, his thumb stroking over her lips. Then his face moved closer-or was it hers?-and his clean scent filled her nostrils, and his other hand stroked down her back.

She delighted in the slow build to the inevitable, even as she longed impatiently for the conclusion. And then, she waited no longer, as his lips touched hers, once gently, twice persuasively, and the third time… Ah the third time forcefully, his lips moving firmly on hers, opening them, and his tongue moving inside her mouth with assured confidence. For long moments they kissed, tongues tangling, breath mingling moistly.

Passion rose, a slow burn of embers fanned into flames, and white heat suffused Kathryn's mind. Only him, only her, only the two of them and what they could do together. Only his body, on hers, in hers, only his mind, his warmth, his love. The images rose and danced in her head, scalding out the doubts and the worry that this was not for them.

When they finally broke apart, he pulled her down with him on the couch, aligning their bodies and wrapping a heavy leg over hers. His lips nuzzled her hair. "Lisa was a good woman."

"She was. I'll miss her, miss the sound of her voice."

"I wish I could thank her. For this. For us."

Kathryn settled her head on his chest. Their bodies were already settling, fitting together. "I think she knew this was inevitable," she said.

She felt him nod into her hair, felt the slow rise and fall of his chest under her cheek.

"I think we knew it too, deep down where it counts." His voice rumbled underneath her cheek. "But it took a voice from the past to show us that our time is now."

((FIN))

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