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"Ready to wake up?"

The low query pulls her from her half-sleep. She was not quite dreaming, though she might as well have been; she'd seen him, and the monkey, and the mess he'd been so angry about until she laughed and laughed. Small disasters cannot distress her any longer, nor him either really, though the monkey can drive him to fits of disbelief. She half opens her eyes, squinting at the brightness.

"Are you ready for me?" she asks now, tracing a lazy arc on his belly which rises directly in her line of vision, keeping the sun from striking her face. He twitches as her fingers tease the sensitive flesh near his ribcage.

"Always. Come here." His voice vibrates with humor and love. She tries to remember if it was always so as he draws her into his embrace. It's a tight hug, not seeking passion but comfort: beneath the affection she can feel fear.

"What is it?" she asks.

"I had a nightmare." His reply is nonchalant, but there is something in his voice...she shields her eyes from the glare and looks up at him. He rests on one elbow looking down at her, the long grass tickling his naked arm. A small cloud drifts over the sun, and he comes into focus. "I dreamed they came back to get us."

"What did they want?"

"The usual. Us."

It is an old fear, but an unfounded one: she gave an order, which she has no doubt they will obey. Her own dreams are not much different from her waking hours. Occasionally they take her far, far away, into her past across great distances, but always they return her to this sphere with him.

"They can't have us," she says lightly. "They can't take this away from me."

He begins to hum, a very old Earth song, and the clouds are gone again. They never come for long. She nestles in the shade of his body, thinking, it is impossible to imagine a life without this. Even though she knows it cannot last forever--one day, one of them will die, and leave the other--she thinks the link will remain unbroken. He pulls her to her feet, trying to get her to dance with him, until they trip together down to the water.

He steps in first, turns and pulls her into his arms. "What do you think would have happened if they came back for us?" he asks her.

"We'd have gone with them." She smiles at him. "Back to work. Things would have been different."

"Between us?"

"No, on the ship." She imagines glancing over his shoulder to find Tuvok watching them--his senior officers naked in the river. "It would have taken a little adjusting, for the rest of them. But, you know, I think it might have been good for morale, in the long run."

"Me too." His smile is buoyant. It bothers her momentarily that he believes it possible this relationship might not have been inevitable, immutable. He sees her frown.

"You've changed," he reminds her.

That bothers her too, in some less definable way. She wants to believe that she was always becoming the person she is now--and that she is not diminished now that she is no longer the captain of a starship, that the work they do matters even if no one else sees it, that they are connected to the universe.

She is getting closer to a cure, but they are in no hurry to board their shuttle and leave. Life is good here, though it would also be good traveling among the stars together. Different, without the rhythms of day and night and the moderate changes in season. Easier than life on a Starfleet vessel, though--the hours regimented, the air always recycled, with almost no chance of setting down anywhere. She had not realized how much gray she accepted before she arrived on this planet and saw the colors blooming.

And him--she can no longer picture him outside this setting, in a uniform he discarded once before, like a trapped wolf prowling the corners of a cage, staring out at the stars. "You've changed too," she points out.

He lifts her chin, studies her expression for a moment, and says, "I love you."

"I love you," she replies automatically. She knows he likes to hear it, even when her mind isn't fully on the words. Now she brings him back into focus. "I do," she adds deliberately, both to emphasize her previous words and to echo the ceremonious use of the phrase. A smile softens his features, and his fingers stroke her face, just barely.

"Let's swim and then go eat," she suggests, and pulls him with her into a channel of sun, splashing him in the new light.