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Echoes of Touch

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"Don't pick the bluebonnets now, Riley," he admonished as I danced around him in the backyard, careful not to trip over his pecan-brown cane.

"I know, Grandpa," I said with a giggle. He always seemed to forget that I had learned not to pick bluebonnets before I even knew how to spell my own name.

I didn't pick the bluebonnets. I wouldn't. I had only wanted to touch the lovely cerulean blooms, all stacked up in rows like a rack full of headwear worn by homesteader-women so long ago. I wanted to wave in the wind like those flowers did, moving in unison with that large invisible current which we all feel but never see.

Like the way Jonah and I moved in unison all through that first night when we shared a bed—and so many nights after that—waving in the winds of our perfect love.

Perfect until it became tragic in the light of a star that had long ago been named for a Terran predator. How fitting for Wolf 359 to be the place where the Federation lost so much to those mysterious beasts from the Delta Quadrant.

Wolf 359—the place where I lost everything.

I miss home. This planet where I have awakened is nothing like Texas, and the flowing blonde hair that I used to wear has long been replaced by empty follicles and cybernetic cranial implants that I hide under a wig. But it's not the same. How long was I walking among the living death of the Borg collective before disaster struck inside this endless nebula and set me free?

How did I even get here to begin with?

How long have I been clinging to the pain that these other freed drones and I share innately, only to find myself staring into a strange pair of brown eyes that look so much like Jonah's?

It's not him, I know, this Starfleet commander with dark hair and a face tattoo. He is not the one I love, the one I lost. But it's nice to pretend that he could be. And it's been so long since anyone looked at me like that—as if he was my Jonah.

As if I am his Kathryn.

When I wake, the first thing I register is silence. I stir, turn over, and the second thing I register is myself jerking to attention to see if he's okay.

Wait. What?

"How do you feel?" Riley asks as she leans towards me, her long blonde hair slipping over her shoulders like sunshine folding its fingers over the ridge of a mountain.

My hand flies to the back of my neck.

"Don't worry," she assures me. "It's gone. It looks like the treatment worked. Orum says the degraded tissue has shown marked improvement."

I let out a breath and even as my arm relaxes, my mind reels with the memory of what I experienced. "It was incredible," is all I can say.

She smiles and hesitantly stands from the chair where she had been sitting, watching over me while I slept. "I know."

I raise up on my elbows and the words just start tumbling out of my mouth. "I heard all of you—your thoughts inside my head as if they were my thoughts—and I could see myself through your eyes."

She blushes as she approaches my bedside, and it's completely endearing. "Then you must have caught me staring."

Somewhere I can feel her embarrassment, and the corners of my mouth turn up without a thought. But I'm too caught up in the rest of my feelings to dwell on it just now. I have too many questions. And frankly, I'm used to women staring at me.

"I saw faces," I say. “Planets. What were they?"

She sits on the edge of the bed, and I pull myself upright beside her. "Images from the minds of the people who linked with you," she explains. "Memories of their families, their homes."

"I know things about them," I say. "About you. You like bluebonnets."

Again she smiles. "My favorite flower."

"You used to lay in a field of them every spring back home in Texas, with a man who carried a walking stick."

And for a brief moment, I think I might cry as I see—as I feel—the emotion that wells up in Riley's eyes. "My grandfather."

"I know so much about you," I whisper in wonderment, leaning in closer to her, gazing into her eyes.

Like how she fell in love with her executive officer on the USS Roosevelt. How he loved her, too. How they planned out their future together only to have him order her into an escape pod where she watched the Roosevelt explode with him still on board.

And then she was taken by the Borg.

But I don't say any of that out loud. I don't need to. It's tattooed on my brain the same way it is on hers, forever imbuing those beautiful blue eyes with a deep and unrelenting sadness.

Much like Kathryn's eyes whenever they find mine across the command console, the same mixture of love and loss they’ve held every day since we agreed to leave our short-lived romance behind on New Earth.

Because we can't afford to be distracted from our mission.

Because we’re all that our crew has left, and we have to get them home.

But for now, Riley's beautiful face fills my view, and I know this has affected her as deeply as it has affected me. Suddenly I'm not alone. Someone understands. And if we look only into each other's eyes, we can pretend that the ones we truly love are here with us.

"We shared a very rare experience," she murmurs just before I stroke my cheek to demonstrate what exactly that means, and what I want more than anything to do about it for as long as it lasts, because words cannot express how very much I miss you, my dearest, beloved Jonah.

My hand flies to my cheek at her touch. Except she never actually touched me. "I felt that.”

"What about this?" she asks, and softly brushes her fingertips along the inside of her wrist, dragging them partway up her arm.

The hair on my own arm stands up as my skin turns to goose flesh. Fire consumes my blood, flooding down through dilated vessels to a part of my body that has been ignored for far too long.

I can't tell the difference between my arousal and hers. Nor do I want to. I just nod in reply.

"It's a residual effect from the link," she tells me.

"How long will it last?" I ask, wanting nothing more than to dive into those blue eyes—as much hers as they are Kathryn’s.

"An hour. Maybe two."

This has always been inevitable, Kathryn. You and I. Ever since the day you embraced my crew as your own—

—Ever since the day you walked into Roosevelt's mess hall at 0200 only to discover me, the new Chief Science Officer, nursing a long-ago emptied cup of coffee. I had entirely lost track of the time while working on my dissertation.

"Long enough," Riley whispers. Then her words turn to thoughts inside of my own head instead of sounds put forth from her mouth. "Can you still hear what I'm thinking?"

"Yes," I answer aloud.

"Then you know I want to be closer to you," I tell him as I touch my hair the way Jonah used to. "I want us to know everything about each other." Bring my fingers up to graze my cheek the way he used to. "I want you to feel everything I feel."

Join our hands together and kiss them, the way they used to.

And we fall into a dance of memory.

That crooked smile tilts at Kathryn's lips as tears shine in her eyes. "Is that really an ancient legend?" she asks.

No one can fool Kathryn Janeway. I smile and shake my head. "No. But it made it easier to say."

Somehow our hands find their way to each other across the table. Our fingers weave together as the tears begin to spill over Kathryn's eyelids and onto her cheeks. I trace the edge of her hand with my thumb.

Jonah’s fingers weave their way in and out of the three pips on my collar, pausing over the newest one that marks me as a lieutenant commander now that I have been awarded my Ph.D. He smiles at me in the dim light cast across my quarters, and my hand finds its way up to his.

My lips and Riley’s beat parallel paths along the backs of our hands, pausing at the tips of our fingers. In perfect sync, our eyes lift and our gazes lock onto one another. Hot breath mingles in the middle of the aching void left behind by those who had once made us whole.

The touch is electric, but it’s those eyes that sink me—a brown so deep and dark it’s almost indistinguishable from his wide, black pupils. When I look into them, I’m with Jonah once again, my hand tugging his from my collar to my lips. His own lips part on a breath.

Slowly, Kathryn comes to her feet and rounds the table towards me, never breaking her grip on my hand. When she stands directly in front of me, she pulls at our joined hands—

Without a word, Jonah tilts my chin upward—

—dragging me to my own feet and pulling my body into hers. Then she's floating up onto her toes, lifting her lips higher, her blue eyes fluttering closed—

—and dips his head—

A hundred touches converge into one as our lips lock onto each other, moving in counterpoint,

clenching and sucking,

parting and inviting,

gasping and moaning,

every touch and taste and breath existing in perfect, infinite unity.

"Kathryn," I whisper into Riley's fingertips.

"Jonah," she purrs against my lips.

"I love you, Kathryn," I say with twisting, shattering agony, my emotions pressing relentlessly against the inside of my chest like a swollen river against a dam. This could be the only time we get to be together like this, Kathryn and I.

And it's not even real.

And it's as real as anything in my life has ever been or will ever be again.

Riley cries, and I kiss her tears away. "I've missed you so much, my Jonah," she whispers, lost within the the emotional memories that have engulfed us both. "I miss you so much."

"I'm right here," I promise with words not my own. "I always have been, and I always will be."

She presses her hand against the center of my chest at the impulse of another. "You've always made my burdens lighter."

"I wouldn’t have it any other way, Kathryn.” And it’s as true now as it has always been, ever since the day I accepted my place as her first officer. The agony of our star-crossed love is at the absolute forefront of my mind now, hand-in-hand with the tragedy of Riley and Jonah’s, and there’s a very real chance that I might break into a million tiny pieces.

Or maybe I'll finally be able to put myself back together again.

Together, Riley and I relish the echoes of those bittersweet halcyon days when we were allowed to simply be humans in love instead of duty-bound commanders or faceless drones. We funnel our memories and broken hearts into achieving a sense of closure that we have been so cruelly denied by circumstance. In the same way that Riley and her cooperative combined their neural energies to repair my wounded brain, she and I intertwine our every thought, emotion, and measure of skin together into one single being.

If only for the next hour, maybe two.

Eventually the echoes fade away, and they haven’t left me broken the way I feared. If anything, the silence gives me space to notice that I might finally be whole again. I pull Riley closer, asleep in my arms, and silently thank her for all she has done.

Not that she can hear my thoughts anymore.

This wasn’t the resolution I’d wanted for Kathryn and myself. We never had the chance to share this much and, with a seventy-year journey ahead of us, we probably never will. What Riley and I experienced was merely an illusion of closure for two stories that were left suddenly unfinished, and we both know it.

Still, it’s real enough to ease the pain. Real enough to answer the question, “What if we’d had more time?” Real enough to find some semblance of healing for our wounded souls.

And real enough to think that maybe radical ideas and echoes of touch could do more than I’d expected.