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"Janeway to Chakotay," the captain snapped for the third time into her comm badge. When they had arrived at the unpopulated Class M planet with hearty foliage and raging storms, the engineering staff had failed to anticipate that mere atmospheric disturbances could disrupt transporter locks, communication, and almost every system the crew of Voyager depended upon. Janeway was rethinking the wisdom of having let herself beam down, with the first officer already off the vessel. The bridge would undoubtedly be fine with Tuvok in charge, but she was behaving selfishly: she had been seized by an impulse to breathe air that wasn't under her command. Her vacation couldn't last for more than a few minutes, for they all needed to return to the ship before another storm burst out of the looming clouds. The away teams were unlikely to finish their surveys, but, with any luck, one of them might find some horticultural samples to add variety to Neelix's cooking. The scent of the sea recalled earlier shore leaves and made her hungry; she reflected that they could all use some new forms of sustenance.

Although she could make out the silhouettes of her crewmembers on the horizon, Janeway did not wish to shout over the sound of the surf, so she strode toward them across the rocky shoreline following the edge of the tide. The beach was littered with what looked like shells but were in fact pebbles: this ocean had no crustacean-type life. Large vine-like plants grew out of rocks which resembled coral. The landing party had noted their hardiness; they seemed an unlikely food source, but might prove useful as a replacement fiber material. But the vines had already rendered one piece of sensitive equipment useless, wrapping tightly around it and crushing it underwater while someone wasn't paying attention.

Her first officer, Janeway noted from a distance, was barefoot and appeared to be enjoying himself as he dug in the sand to take samples--not that she could fault him for that. The atmosphere felt hot and heavy compared to the cool dryness of the ship. Her turtleneck constricted her throat, the pips biting into her skin; she wished that she could take it off. Chakotay spotted her, waving one arm as if to ask why she had joined them on the surface, then nodding when she shrugged elaborately. Even from across the beach, she could see his teeth gleam as he smiled buoyantly. She pulled off her boots and broke into a run, feeling the pebbles catch between her toes.

A slightly winded captain looked around in puzzlement when she reached the spot where Chakotay and Kim were working. "Where are the others?"

"Neelix went off to find some sort of tough root, and B'Elanna went along to do the actual digging." Chakotay grinned faintly. "I'm surprised you're here. When that storm arrives, we may have a problem with communication and transporters again."

"We already have a problem with communication, it's why I ran all the way here from the beamdown site." Janeway half-remembered something she'd read at the Academy about the exploits of Captain James T. Kirk. "Wasn't it transporter use during an unusual electrical storm that caused a Starfleet crew to change places with their counterparts in another universe? I guess we should be careful. I don't think I want to meet your evil twin, Commander."

"Maybe I'm the evil twin, and my better half never would have gotten himself into your clutches." The smile came back, lighting his face. "Then again, maybe in that universe he was trying to arrest you." Chakotay crossed his arms in a very definite parody of his captain's bridge stance. "Think you could be First Officer on a Maquis ship stuck in some other Delta Quadrant?"

"If things had turned out differently, would you have served under me?" Janeway put her hands on her hips as she swallowed her smirk at the echo of the earlier conversation. "I think my evil twin had the good sense to throw you in her brig. Maybe I won't beam up until after the storm hits, so you can see how she treats you."

"But then you'll be stuck in the other universe. Where I might not have such a good sense of humor." Harry stifled a laugh and they both turned as the ensign pretended to be very busy with the equipment he was adjusting. "One of us should go back soon, Captain," Chakotay added seriously.

"I will. I just want to get my feet wet." She crossed the pebbles to the water's edge, knowing she had to hurry or the electrical activity in the atmosphere could make wading dangerous. She could see the large plants swarming out of the rocks and headed toward them curiously. Few opportunities presented themselves to her for firsthand scientific analysis, and it felt so good to be under a sky, exploring a new place...

"Be careful, Captain. The tide's coming in, and the last storm dumped a lot of water--it's coming in pretty high." She nodded without turning as she reached the rocky ledge. The water seemed thicker around her knees and thighs when she pushed against the hardy, flexible stalks; they might be useful for a number of purposes on the ship, she decided, she would have to talk to Neelix about the best way to harvest them. She could feel strong currents in the water around her waist as she moved in deeper.

Afterwards she could not remember a precise moment when she knew that the plants had grabbed her; she became aware that she could not move her ankles, and embarrassment at her stupidity prevented her from telling the others as she fought to get free. The water rose in tiny increments and the plants expanded with it, gripping higher on her legs. The sky grew increasingly dark while she worked to extricate herself, largely ignored by Chakotay and Kim, until a distant rumbling brought them all sharply to attention.

"Captain. I don't mean to be out of line, but you should probably get out of there now." She nodded at Harry and went back to fighting the plants. Chakotay turned.

"If you don't get back to the ship soon, Captain, we're both going to be out of communication for the duration of the storm."

"I know that, Commander. My leg's stuck." Her grin offered the kind of humor that serves as a last defense against humiliation. "I can't move."

"Hold on." Chakotay raced quickly to the water's edge, caught both her arms in his hands and tugged hard. Her upper body pulled easily away, but the plants remained twined around her calves, digging into her skin. "Can you climb out of them?"

"I've been trying. Have we got anything we can cut them with? The tide's rising, I can't stay bent over to push them off." Kim was hitting his comm badge as she spoke, attempting to summon either the ship or Torres, but having no success. They weren't going to be able to beam her out of the stalks, let alone off the planet.

"Let me try." Chakotay dove under the surface before she could stop him, struggling to pull the vines away. Grasping at his cropped hair until she managed to clench a handful, Janeway yanked hard. He spluttered upright in sudden fear, and she glared at his relief as he realized it had been her fingers rather than one of the plants which had caught him.

"What were you planning to do if one of those things wrapped itself around your neck? Now get out of the water. Don't make me make it an order." Chakotay gestured to Kim, who had been looking for something to cut through the stalks, to join him on the rocks above her. Together they fought to clear the vines with the jagged edges of the stones, though Janeway knew that they weren't going to be able to remove them all without something sharp enough to slice through the thick stems. The water rose inexorably.

"Get help," the first officer finally ordered. "I assume B'Elanna and Neelix are going to be looking for us, so get outside of the storm perimeter where you can communicate. Fast." He sounded uncharacteristically annoyed, which made Janeway suspect he was getting as worried as she was. Kim nodded at him, at her, then fled down the rocks, racing towards the dark line of cloud that split the sky. Chakotay turned back to Janeway, who was pushing the tangle of vegetation down one leg and then the other as the plants crept back up the first, coughing when the waves smacked her nose and mouth. When he moved to help, she met his eyes steadily, though she felt cold enough to shiver from the water.

"You've got to get out of here. When that storm hits, you have to be away from the ocean..."

"I'm not leaving." His tone told her not to bother to make it an order. "Listen to me. Harry can get back here in ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I can keep you alive under water that long, or however long it takes."

Spitting water, she shook her head. "What are you talking about?" The surf crashed hard and he climbed to the rocks above her as her words dissolved under the sound.

"Artificial respiration. I'll breathe for both of us, you'll get enough oxygen from me. Just don't panic. Don't laugh or cry even the least little bit, or you could start choking, understand?" The sea was rising over her neck, she had to strain to keep her ears above it. "Give me your hand," he called. When she opened her mouth to speak, Chakotay snapped, "Don't talk now, breathe. But try not to hyperventilate or you'll be dizzy when you go under. This will work. If you get any water in your mouth, swallow it right away. You have to trust me, I'll get you enough air."

The sky flashed behind her first officer and the first large, heavy raindrops began to fall. He scarcely appeared to notice--his concern was completely concentrated on her as he struggled to grab her other hand. "Chakotay...the ship. You can't..."

"I'm not leaving," he shouted again over the storm and the sea which was fast separating them. "If you need air, just squeeze, dig your fingernails in, don't worry about hurting me. And don't let go." The last thing she heard, as the water closed over her head, was his voice begging urgently, "Hang on, Captain...don't give in to it..."

****

The quiet underwater seemed unreal after the jumble of frantic noises above. The sea stung her eyes, but not intolerably; it wasn't as saline as it had smelled. She couldn't hear much, even the thunder was muffled, and she couldn't see anything clearly. If it hadn't been for the huge plants scraping and digging into her legs, she might almost have felt at peace for a moment, floating there outside of space and time with his hands holding hers.

Then pressure began in her chest. She exhaled a little, watching the bubbles float away, and the tightness increased in her nose and throat, it hurt fiercely, and just when she thought she wasn't strong enough to fight it, his torso plunged level with hers, his mouth covered her own, forcing his breath into her lungs--a little too gently, she sucked at him and then clamped her mouth shut. She felt an almost painful tug as he surfaced. It was not quite enough, her chest still ached, it was just going to get worse and worse, she was going to get lightheaded...then he was there again, breathing for her, more forcefully this time, his fingers tightly gripping her own. Water crept into her mouth and she forced herself to tear one of her hands from his, to hold her nose and swallow. Just don't let go, she thought, to herself and to him.

She was cold to the bone now, not from the water but from the deep terror rising within her; she ordered herself not to think, simply to focus on when he was returning. "I'm not leaving," he had promised. And he wouldn't, not even if he feared for his own safety--she had to believe that, to trust him with her life in his hands. Her nails dug hard into the flesh around his knuckles, and he was there again. She tried to concentrate on what he must be feeling--command responsibility seemed like nothing next to this absolute, terrible dependence. The storm could electrocute him, she knew she should tear herself away and free him (her fingers twitched and he returned once more, she wanted to cling to him on an absurd chance that she could rise to the surface with him by will alone, but that was madness) no, if she let go now she would die and he would blame himself, better to hang on a little longer, the others would find them. One of the vines was tangling toward his arm and she swatted it away in a sinking panic as he dropped beside her, edging her mouth open with his.

So much was at stake in the way they read one another's tiniest facial movements, it was far more intimate than kissing. He was trying to gauge how fully he was filling her lungs by pressing his arms against her sides as he exhaled into her, expanding her. Or maybe he just wanted to give her a hug, with whatever comfort he could. Gratitude flooded her; she thought she would cry, but that would probably kill her, so she suppressed the feeling, there would be time for it later. There would be time to think about what it meant that he would risk his own life to keep her alive in this manner, sharing his breath, later he would probably tease her about it, she almost chuckled, water dripped into her throat and she forced herself to swallow, swallow, no don't cough, wait for him, her chest was going to explode, and just then there was a terrific disturbance in the water, bodies all around her and him there in the middle, forcing life into her body when she was ready to give in to the red darkness, suddenly she shifted upwards and realized that they were cutting the plants. Her head broke the surface and she gasped, sobbing, his face next to hers, "One more minute, they're almost through the stems," and then her legs were free and his arms dragged her up out of the waves, toward the shocking light and noise of the storm.

****

Chakotay did not realize how drained he was until Janeway's passive weight crashed down on him. Not from breathing in that horrific rhythm--that must have been a thousand times worse for her--but from the consuming terror he had not allowed himself to feel until the moment her face emerged from the dark water and he knew that he had not really expected to see her alive again. He choked on the salt in his throat, wiping at the rain running down his face.

"We can get a transporter lock at the perimeter of the storm," Torres was shouting at him. "Carey's team is bringing down a pattern enhancer, we just have to wait for them." Chakotay tried to nod, tried to help Janeway who was gagging as she struggled to breathe, her soaked hair covering her face. It took less time for the crew to arrive than she had spent underwater, only a few minutes, but it seemed like hours.

B'Elanna had had the good sense to summon Kes along with the engineering team, and Chakotay started to turn Janeway over to the medic when he discovered that his hands were refusing to detangle from the captain's. Her fingernails still dug into his flesh and had drawn blood in a couple of places. Kes flashed him an unreadable look, her nostrils flaring as she ran a medical tricorder over them both. "Would you hold her up for me, Commander?" she asked quietly, keeping her eyes on Janeway, and he closed his own in guilty gratitude while the Ocampa turned her full attention to their senior officer.

It took mere seconds to set up the pattern enhancers, too quickly for Chakotay to get his heaving chest under control so he could take command of the situation. "I think we should beam both you and the captain to sickbay," Kes suggested. He nodded, knowing that he should just change his uniform and report to the bridge-- there was nothing wrong with him except for the numbness in his fingers which he still couldn't uncurl from around Janeway's cold skin. Shifting, he picked her up, one arm under her legs, the other wrapped across her body holding her hand. Her head lolled on his shoulder, resting against his neck. "I'll help you with her," Carey offered, but he shook his head, shivering from being drenched, while Torres snapped out the transporter commands. Depleted as he was, Chakotay did not release Janeway until the doctor informed him that the readings from his body were interfering with those from hers, and insisted that the first officer deposit the captain on a biobed.

Hours later, after a bridge shift which left him frazzled and upset although nothing of note occurred, he slapped his comm badge to find Kes in sickbay. "Is she still there?" he asked, beyond protocol or pride.

"Captain Janeway is in her quarters, Commander," came the low, comforting voice with the trace of a hum in it. "She refused to stay here, and the doctor didn't think she was incapacitated enough to declare her unfit for duty. Hopefully she's asleep."

Not very damn likely, he thought as he approached the living decks. She was probably filing a report, or reading over the information on those storms, or doing some other nonessential work. That would be just like her, putting on the scientist face and retreating into business as usual. He told himself he would check in quickly to tell her that he'd take her morning shift, of course she shouldn't exert herself for a day or so.

Janeway answered the chime at once, as if she'd been expecting someone, which made Chakotay feel as though he were intruding. But when he stepped inside, he found her curled on one of the couches, boots and turtleneck off. "I was hoping it would be you." She gestured a request for him to approach. "I wanted to thank you--thanking you isn't enough, but it's..."

"You don't have to thank me at all," he cut her off, moving to sit beside her. "Just doing my duty. I'm glad it worked." He tried to smile, but the dark circles under her eyes and the stiffness of her posture unnerved him. "How are you feeling?"

The captain looked away from him and then, at his scrutiny, elected to tell the truth: "Terrible. Sick to my stomach. Every time I start to relax, I get hit by a wave of panic."

"I felt the same way on the bridge," Chakotay admitted. She gazed at him for a long, assessing moment and then reached for his hand. A current of searing emotion surged through him at her touch: he had not wanted to know that it was there, lurking under the professional concern he had come to express.

Glancing down in surprise as her fingers contacted the scabs where her nails had gouged him earlier--Chakotay had not bothered to have anyone in sickbay look at them, they were so minor--Janeway flinched and released his hand, then swiveled abruptly toward him. "I know you must be tired, but I really wish you'd stay for a few minutes...we don't have a counselor on board, and I don't want to make you feel responsible..." Her voice shook. He put his arms around her to silence her, wondering whether he had an obligation to tell her about the turmoil which threatened to engulf him as he tried to keep from clutching her too tightly. The room felt unaccountably cold, like the water earlier, and he knew he was trembling just as she was.

"I wish I could sleep," she whispered.

"Why don't you lie down and try to rest? I'll stay with you if you want." He wanted nothing more than to sleep himself, to drop off in her presence and wake with the evidence that she was all right there before his eyes. Nodding, she shifted against him, and they climbed to their feet without looking at one another. She pulled her hair down as she crossed the room, fluffing it with her hands, and sat hesitantly on the edge of her bunk, then pulled her legs underneath herself and turned against the pillows, her back to him.

Chakotay lowered himself slowly onto the edge of the mattress, letting his arm press against her spine. The tight knot of agitation in his gut unwound a little, but the turbulence in his mind refused to diminish. As he shifted, her hair caught under his palm. Janeway cried out, more in startlement than pain. "Sorry," Chakotay whispered, untangling the strands between his fingers. He intended to flip the hair over her body in front of her, but his hands once again disobeyed him: they would not relinquish their hold on the soft waves, which still smelled faintly of the sea. She was going to get the wrong idea, and what was he going to say--I'm sorry, Captain, I just can't seem to let go of you? How could he tell her that, and how could he tell her that if she had drowned, he would never have come out of the dark water himself, he would have stayed under, trying to breathe life back into her until the vines claimed him too?

Voyager's captain was clearly unprepared to find her second-in-command clinging to her hair like a lifeline. She looked up at him with a bemused smile, but one glimpse of his expression overwhelmed whatever reserve she had left after the events of that day. "Chakotay." Her composure dissolved with his. Pulling him down, she drew his length against hers, teeth chattering as though she were still cold. He wrapped himself around her, conscious of his swelling arousal yet knowing that it didn't matter, what mattered was the torrent of need which had swamped them both. Besides, he doubted whether they could share any physical intimacy while panicked memories threatened to sweep them under.

Then she lifted her head and her lips brushed across his, tasting of tears, salty as seawater. He moaned softly into her mouth; she shuddered at the exchange of breath but stayed with him when he returned the kiss, not letting up until they were both spluttering for air. Keenly aware of how much he had longed to be held like this, by this body which housed a spirit that touched his own, Chakotay felt suffused with warmth. The woman he lay tangled with--whom he still feared to think of by name--billowed over him and drifted back as their mouths met again and again. One of her legs anchored him to her, her pelvis pressed firmly into his. Afraid of violating her, he did not fondle her, so he was taken by surprise when she suddenly bucked against him. Her face and neck flushed darkly as her head tossed, lips curling like she wanted to form words but had forgotten how to speak. A quivering cry escaped from her throat.

She looked breathtakingly beautiful in the grip of the tides which pulled at her, like she had that first moment when she came up from under the water, fighting for breath, her hair floating around her face. He was also rising toward a crest too powerful to control. Damning himself, he hissed, "We should stop this until we can both think straight, don't you think?"

His abruptness humiliated and frightened Janeway. "I didn't mean to pressure you," she whispered. Torn between the need to console her and the urgency of his own desire, he stroked her reassuringly while she closed her eyes, apologizing. "I'm sorry..."

"Don't be. It's all right. I'm just worried about you." Distress gave his voice a ragged edge. Her hands kept him pressed against her, his hips jerking, in another minute he was going to lose his restraint and give in to the feelings which broke over him like waves, he had to get away, he couldn't bear to go.

"Help," he blurted.

Her eyes returned to his, with a trace of empathetic humor underneath her chagrin. "I didn't mean to embarrass you, either."

"Too late," he tried to smile, his face twisting in concentration. "I'm sorry." He felt her arms move. She pulled his uniform open so quickly that he didn't realize what she was doing until her fingers were under his clothing, wrapping around him.

She murmured, "Do you trust me?"

"You know I do," he gasped. And surged into her hands, groaning in shamed pleasure. When the deluge released him, he rested his face in the hollow of her throat where her pulse pounded, warm and alive, her hair sheltering his cheek. He felt her rub the flood from his body into her skin like balm.

Long minutes passed before his eyes fluttered open, and he realized that they had both nearly drifted off, lulled by the slow rise and fall of one another's breathing.

"As long as we've said to hell with protocol for the evening, will you let me stay with you?" he asked drowsily. When she didn't reply, he twisted his head to look at her with a wistful grin. "Do you trust me?"

"With my life." She smiled back faintly. The animation was fading from her cheeks, replaced by the pallor of exhaustion. "All right. Stay until we're awake enough to talk about this."

"I'll stay as long as you want," he mumbled, his head falling back. She elbowed him until he turned against her, burying his face in her hair, inhaling her deeply as they finally fell asleep.

****

Janeway woke gradually to the sensation of her ear being nuzzled. She could feel her first officer's chin tickling her neck and smell the familiar closeness of his body, intermingled with the permeating scent of the sea and the barely discernible aromas of sex. The warmth of his chest against her back was deeply comforting.

She could not afford to get used to leaning on anyone like this.

From the moment he had entered her quarters, she had wanted to reach for him, and had been ashamed of herself--was she going to start clutching at him every time a crisis came up? How blind she had been not to realize how much she had come to depend on him. And not to notice how she responded to him--intoxicated now while he stroked her, his fingertips creeping up her body. The entire exchange seemed far more carnal than anything which had transpired earlier; that had not felt like making love, too many outside forces still held both of them in their grip. This was different, she was sharply aware of his groin stirring against her backside, her own hips rolling in answer...

She heaved back into his chest, letting Chakotay know that she was awake. He murmured an apology and she turned, expecting frustration or desire or annoyance or regret...anything other than the raw emotion evident in the depth of his stare, his flared nostrils, the set of his jaw.

The revelation spread slowly from his features to hers as she drank it in.

Janeway closed her eyes to keep from dissolving in it, and Chakotay kissed her, rocking her in his embrace so that she was reminded as much of being cradled like a newborn as of the rhythm of sex. Were he inside her, moving to that ebb and flow, she would never be able to separate herself; perhaps she already couldn't, not after he had breathed his life into her. They were on the verge of getting trapped so that neither would be able to break loose. If they collapsed this critical barrier--not merely between their bodies, but to the communion toward which they had been rushing since those desperate minutes in the sea--could she ever go back to commanding him, consulting with him, figghting with him, ordering him into danger, all the while nurturing a feeling which made such roles fluid and indistinguishable?

"No," she said aloud, and he stopped without releasing her, his lips still brushing hers. "Chakotay, we can't do this."

The painful hesitation dragged out before he spoke. "I guess you're right. Captain." Yet again he could not seem to unclench his hands. She willed him to think about the ship, how it had to come before anything--anyone--else. The passion drained from his body; she felt him tense as he released her, his expression numb. Sitting up slowly, he pushed off the bed.

"Chakotay." He turned, caught by the intensity of her voice. Her mouth opened and then closed again, the silence escaping like bubbles. Did she want to thank him? Lecture him? Tell him not to go? She reached out her hand, and after a moment he took it--fighting to keep his face a mask, trying to force a grin.

"Don't you ever go drowning on me again. Someone will start a rumor about us if they catch us mouth to mouth too often." Janeway smiled ruefully as he took back his fingers, his lips twisting into a grimace, and he headed across her quarters. It took effort for her not to call him back when the door opened, but she kept her mouth tightly closed until he had gone.

She lay curled in a ball, fingers clenched over her communicator. Shivering despite the blankets, so cold without him there. She comforted herself with the certitude that she could put her life in his hands and he would give it back to her.

****

Chakotay stumbled his way down a corridor which seemed too brightly lit, despite the night-cycle dimness. He wondered whether Janeway had fallen back asleep--she had to be exhausted, even more so than himself, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so wiped out. But his thoughts spun in a whirlpool, down over rapids, bubbling back to the surface, too agitated to rest.

What the hell had just happened to them?

Difficult to pick a moment to start reliving, he might as well go back to that first moment she'd appeared on his viewscreen. Or later, but still at the beginning, when he'd thought she might leave him to die in the Ocampa cavern, before she sent Paris down after him--the specter of death haunting them right from the start. Too much. That very morning then, when she waded out through the waves--an inordinate risk, but she hadn't been down on the planet on business-- she'd beamed off the ship to escape for a few minutes. In hindsight it almost seemed that she had been testing him. It had to be a dare because there was never going to be a moment when they could both freely step aside from duty...if she wasn't acting as captain, that meant that he was...

Rubbing his eyes, he palmed the lock to his quarters. Probably they were going to fight about protocol in the morning. Once her head cleared, she might condemn him for weighing the possible risk to himself against certain death for her and finding the odds within acceptable parameters, as she or Tuvok might put it. His eyes rolled; he was already rehearsing his defense for an argument that hadn't begun. He assured himself that saving her life wasn't personal, he would have done the same for any crewmember. What happened later was an accident from being tired and upset and lonely. He could tell her that, it was all true.

Except it was also not the truth.

Sitting on the bed, Chakotay tried in vain to meditate. His medicine bundle was within easy reach, but he didn't know whether he could summon his guide. When he tried to picture the piercing eyes, the long face surrounded by fur, she kept transforming into a human woman, tawny mane, eyes blue enough to drown in. Chakotay lay face down into the pillow, wishing he could blot out the image of the woman's face transfigured while he held her. The memory shook him profoundly, not only exciting him but causing goosebumps to rise on the back of his neck. Magical, almost spiritual, her body and mind so completely in rapport with his that she could melt in rapture merely from embracing him. He supposed he had remained attuned to her from those minutes underwater, when he'd had to notice every twitch of a cheek, every curl of a finger--

or had he been so focused on her already, so hungry to press his lips to hers to share his life with her that what transpired in the sea represented the fulfillment of that desire, rather than its source?

Remembering the water closing over her face, his stomach lurched. Maybe he had taken advantage of her. Probably if anyone else had gone in to see her that night, Tuvok or Kes or even Paris, she would have asked that person to stay, cried out her fear on someone else's shoulder. Lying beside her while she slept, he had tried to put names to the feelings he had for her: respect, loyalty, allegiance were not enough, and the remaining possibility terrified him. No matter how damaged his capacity to believe in Starfleet promises, he had trusted her from the very beginning. What he hadn't known--or what he hadn't confessed to himself, not even when Seska leveled her parting accusations--was why.

There was another possible factor. That he had had to save his captain's life just to prove that he didn't want her ship. Not to convince her--she had trusted him all along, as well. But to demonstrate to himself that he could not, could never have thought the unthinkable, mutiny murder--it was always idle speculation, what if he were in command, if the decisions were his to make, never a plan at all--

Whether or not he had entertained the possibility no of course he hadn't, he must have been aware on some level of the conflict he was repressing. Had he secretly dreamed of ending the feeling by putting an end to its source? He'd have control of everything, even himself, if she weren't there.

Nobody beside him.

His chest heaved so violently that he threw himself to his feet, strode out into the hall. But there was nowhere to go. In the morning he was going to have to sit next to her on the bridge, nod during the staff meeting, await dismissal. Now he found himself in front of her quarters again, unable to swallow past the lump in his throat, barely able to breathe. He fumbled for his comm badge, desperate to hear her voice at least. "Chakotay to--"

Janeway. Captain. Kathryn. Her names tangled his mind, he hardly knew which to think, let alone what to say--if the dam weren't back in place, if it weren't already too late. The ship was hers, she was everywhere. Yet he couldn't touch her, any more than if he had let her die...

Grief washed over him hard, almost knocking him down. Like in the ocean, no time to think about risk or consequence. His hand shot out for the wall, to the panel, keying in the command code to open her door. Momentum from the breaker propelled him inside, where darkness surrounded him.

****

In and out of sleep so fathomless it was like being trapped. Unable to wake up when the nightmare threatened, unable to stop from drifting off afterwards. Every time she almost escaped, Kathryn Janeway found herself suffocating, face down in the pillows, blankets knotted like vines around her legs.

If only she hadn't...

How much of the past did she want to take back? If she hadn't beamed down to the planet? If she hadn't ever put herself in danger? If she had not accepted this assignment, she would never have known what it was to be alone in the dark--

The door to her quarters swished open. She sat bolt upright, calmer than she had been the instant before. Tangible threat, command response, hand on her communicator, phaser within reach. Who in hell had the authorization to override her security lockout? Tuvok, but he would have contacted her first, and the bridge officer on duty, and sickbay.

And her second in command.

That much she would not take back. If she had not taken this mission, she would never have known him; she would not even recognize the absence conjured by his name. She was not alone in the dark. Clarity stung her eyes like a beacon.

He had stopped in the doorway between the living and sleeping quarters, putting his hands on the frame while his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He might simply have stood there watching her, had he not looked up to find her awake. She started to crawl across the bed, her instinct to touch him, and he made a gesture as if warding off a predator or a ghost. She thought that she should contact someone--Tuvok? Kes?--but if he could have gone to anyone else he would have...

He stumbled forward again as she shivered, unaccountably frightened, but he stopped inches from her, his hands held out to her like a question. They stared at one another for a long minute, and then he crushed her in his arms so forcefully that she couldn't breathe. He collapsed against her, sobbing her name; it took her a moment to grasp that he was not using her title, then a moment as the significance of that sank in, stripping the last of her restraint away.

They fell back in a ferocious embrace, causing one another pain with their tightly locked limbs, her fingernails digging hard into the knotted muscles of his neck and back, his arms squeezing the air out of her. She thought he might suffocate her in his grip yet didn't struggle, she clutched him back. Nonetheless it came as a new shock when he began to kiss her, hands moving over her body taking possessive inventory. His breath was still coming in shudders, his eyes closed. She remembered dimly that she should stop him, but didn't know why--he was lost, he was being dragged under, she couldn't push him away when he needed her like this.

She did not want to.

She was so tired of resisting.

After a few moments, he seemed to realize that she wasn't going to push him away: she could feel him trying to slow his clutching while he strained to look at her. Her own eyes shut and she pulled his shoulders down to hers. They locked together fiercely, they were both going to have bruises around their mouths. Neither protocol nor guilt interfered because the contact seemed as necessary as breathing; they did manage to pull most of the clothing out of the way, but that stemmed from a hunger to confirm that the flesh was warm and solid underneath the uniforms. The intimacy they strained towards had little to do with the snare of arms and legs they had become, the urgent motion, the heat they generated. She could not have defined a moment when she became conscious of him rubbing into her belly hard enough to cause friction burns, was unaware of softening and spreading around him. They had been joined for several moments, their hips moving in counterpoint, before she comprehended with a jolt that they had physically closed the distance between them, attempting to crawl inside one another's skin.

He's giving himself to me, again, she thought. And spasmed very suddenly, slamming the muscles of her abdomen into his while she let out a moan that turned into a scream. The vibrations set him off, he jerked her up to him as if he wanted to pull her through him, or push himself through her, the sound from the back of his throat like an animal in mortal fear. They lay still for the first time since he had come into the room, then he caught her in another wrenching embrace. Neither moved to end it, so they held each other, shifting position only when one or the other of them became numb from the pressure of their bodies.

Eventually they dozed, still knotted together. Towards morning she opened her eyes and realized that finally she had slept deeply, comfortably; she had rolled to lie with her back pressed to his chest, his arms were around her, his groin rested against the small of her back. His touch, as gentle as his breath, stirred her hair while his lips passed over her neck, across her shoulder; that was what had awoken her. She grew aware of his nakedness and her own--of the irrevocable fact that she and he had become lovers, even if they had not been thinking in such terms, stripped of rationality and inhibition.

Now there was no going back, ever.

The knowledge trickled slowly through her body, burning her more than the silent tenderness of his fingers where he stroked her. Her blood began to sing in her arteries. She felt a pulse begin to pound through her and was unsure whether it echoed her own heartbeat or his against her back; her breathing falling into sync with it, her hips rocking to it, she became the rhythm. He moved both his hands over her, caressing whisper-soft, she exhaled through her mouth, the hands moved lower as her thighs spread apart. One finger dipped across to test the water, immersed itself slowly, bobbed out and in, was joined by the other hand which remained on the surface, treading in light circles. Her leg moved back over his body to arch her forward into his hands, the tide roaring in her ears, rising over his fingers as he continued to stroke her, all of her moving with it.

"Ohhh," she breathed, the sound resonating in the still room, then louder, coming from deeper inside her. It was definitely his heartbeat, faster as her knees bent to raise her legs and she gave herself up to it, her entire self trembling with the rhythm until the final percussive blow tore through her, reverberating while she came and came in his hands shrieking with the joy of it. Her body jolted against his chest, pressed possessively to her upper back like the night before, and she could hear the wheezing catch in his breathing. She felt his hand move and caught it in one of her own, kissing the inside of his wrist, rubbing her face into the curve of his palm.

Her legs shifted, expecting him to move down and enter her, but he lay still. Reaching behind her, she brushed her hand against his wet cheek. He was crying silently, holding her.

What a coward she had been--trying to put a stop to his feelings as well as her own, as if distance could keep them safe. If his instincts had caused him to isolate himself behind a protective barricade like her own, she would have been dead, submerged in the dark water. She was worse than a coward: she was a fraud. This time when she turned, she was ready for her own response.

His lips were working as if he needed to say something but was afraid of the words. She slid over him with a moan, pushing him down when he moved to intercept her. Dropping between his legs, she took him into her mouth, arms and hands splayed across his belly and chest, breasts crushed against his thighs. His fingers wove gently into her hair, pulling it over his chest like a blanket while she rocked slowly, bending his knees apart with her own.

In the dark, in the silence, entangled in her own hair, opening her mouth to welcome the moist, salty taste of his skin, for a moment it was so very like being in the water with him that elemental need rushed through her anew. She was alive, he was alive, they were together, that was what mattered, not the thousand minor complications which had been keeping them apart. She locked her arms around his waist and devoured him hungrily until his hands slid through her hair to catch under her arms, lifting her over him.

****

Her hands on his chest, her legs pressed against his sides, her weight centered on him, the connection electric. His eyes did not leave hers as she undulated, beginning to convulse again in quick violent bursts. He barely moved, oblivious to physical sensation, studying her rapt face. Never did he permit his eyelids to block his view of her rising and falling, like the waves. Earlier it had been inchoate like the sea, he had known only that his body and hers depended on the contact. A state too dangerous to sustain, yet he ached incomprehensibly when it was over, when they surfaced independently. He heard an unexpected sound and then realized that it was her voice. Neither of them had spoken since he stole into her room hours before.

What he had been trying to tell her, before it was too late--outside of reality, no distractions, nothing but himself and herself and what they shared. Her voice, giving him back the words which had been consuming him. The dark water parting to let the light through.

His immediate climax took him by surprise, but he would have cried out in joy nonetheless.

He did not want to let go even when she sagged against him in surfeit, he caught her to prevent her from rolling off of him, tracing the requital against her ear. Turning, her hair spilling forward to frame his face, she smiled at him. He felt his spirit surging as his chest expanded with the gasp her radiance evoked. Unimaginable, that he had ever managed not to let himself see. Her head lowered to meet him, she held his mouth open with hers, breathing his breath as the kiss went on and on.

"Chakotay," she murmured. He felt the name, carried on her voice, seep into his pores as if it had been drained out of him. Coming back finally, or emerging from the water reborn. As though his thoughts had drifted into her mind, she added, "I feel so...new."

"It's all that fresh air. Clears the head." Their chests shook together. His own voice sounded different, sticky and warm, sated with happiness like his body. Transformed, the terms changed irrevocably yet without diminishment.

They lay silently holding one another until roused to duty, bathed in the light of the stars outside the viewport, millions of points of possibility.