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“Really, Doctor, this is hardly necessary.  I’m feeling much better.”  Kathryn’s actually quite proud of the fact that she manages to keep the grimace off her face as she sits up.  That’s technically “better” than she had been, and the Doctor grimaces enough for both of them.

As she eases off the biobed, wrapping the blanket around her to cover the back in the gap of the medical gown, the Doctor continues waving the hand scanner over her spine.  “Captain, I must insist that you refrain from overexerting yourself.  Your spinal column is still healing from the removal of the Borg implants.”

“I’ve been here for three days,” she says, stretching out stiff muscles.  The pain really will ease up after she starts moving around; it’s just getting moving that’s the problem.  “I’ve been walking around sickbay every two hours and resting in between.  Ask Lieutenant Paris.”

Tom has the startled look of a man unwilling to come between his immediate boss and his boss’s boss.  “She has been doing the stretches you prescribed.”

The Doctor sighs heavily.  “Your pain level?”

“Three.”  Well, getting there.  Give her a few minutes and it’ll be a three.  She heads toward the bathroom.

“Has your appetite returned?”

“I ate some of Neelix’s leola root stew about an hour ago.”

“Have you moved your bowels?”

Kathryn stops in her tracks.  “Excuse me?”

Tom has wisely busied himself with sorting hyposprays, but the Doctor blocks her path. “I’m hardly asking out of prurient interest, Captain.  Constipation is one of the principle side effects of heavy anesthesia, and its relief is a significant milestone in recovery.  Honestly, if you think I would concern myself—”

“Let’s just say the leola root did its job,” she says with a stiff grin, patting the Doctor on the arm.  “Now, if you will please hand me my uniform, I’d really like to get dressed.   I appreciate the care I’ve gotten in sickbay, but your dress code really leaves something to be desired.”

Tom is there with her crisply folded uniform before the Doctor has time to object; Kathryn’s relatively certain she’s one patient that Tom will be happy to see leave sickbay.  Well, she never claimed to be good at convalescing.

“Very well,” the Doctor says.  “But we will continue this discussion when you return.”

Getting to the bathroom is hardly a challenge at this point, but donning her clothes proves to be more difficult than anticipated.  The bra and the turtleneck are especially vexing, as she has to bend in a number of novel ways to get them on.  The majority of her visible injuries run up her spine and down her left arm where the Borg implants had been in the process of fusing to her skeleton.  The Doctor had explained that he felt most comfortable allowing the closed wounds to heal on their own for a few weeks before taking a dermal regenerator to the scars.  The healing skin is still a fresh, angry pink, but it’s all covered by her clothes. 

She does take a moment to check her scalp in the mirror.  A topical follicle stimulator has allowed her hair to grow back over the last few days, almost to its normal length, and though she’s not one for vanity, having her hair against just makes her feel more… human.

She takes a few deep breaths before going back out into sickbay.  Even the simple act of getting dressed has left her a little lightheaded, and she berates herself for thinking the mission to jumpstart the Borg resistance would be simple.  Well, that’s not quite true – she fully expected for complications to arise during the mission itself, but she can admit that she was a bit cavalier about the plan to let herself, B’Elanna, and Tuvok be assimilated if they were caught.  The memory of the implants digging into her skin, tunneling through her flesh one by one, adds significantly to her lightheadedness.  Neither Tuvok nor B’Elanna will ever complain, but it makes her sick to think she let members of her crew go through the same torture.

It won’t do her any favors to remain in the bathroom too long, not if she wants the Doctor to let her out of sickbay any time soon.  Sure enough, when she opens the door, he’s right there with his tricorder again.

“Captain, you still require rest, and I would prefer you get it here, where myself or Mr. Paris can keep an eye on you.”

“I appreciate your concern, Doctor, but you have plenty of patients to tend to, and it becomes rather awkward when their captain is in the same room.”

She’s pretty sure she’s timed this right to the end of alpha shift, so Chakotay should be walking into sickbay right about… now.  “Doc!” he says cheerfully.  “Taking good care of the Captain, I see?”

If the Doctor looks smug, well, she reasons he did just perform a semi-miraculous surgical feat three times in quick succession.  “Indeed, Commander.  As you can see, she is ambulatory, though I strongly recommend that she—”

She is right here,” Kathryn cuts in.  “And she would prefer to get some rest in her quarters.  Not that your company isn’t appreciated, Doctor, but there’s something to be said for a room of one’s own.”

Purely by accident, she catches Chakotay’s eye and a conspiratorial smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.  “Captain, I can escort you back to your quarters if you’d like.  I’ll even carry your personal effects.”  He turns to the Doctor.  “Doc, I assure you that I will make her get some rest.”

“And how do you plan to do that, Commander?” she asks, not realizing quite how… like a challenge it sounds until it’s out of her mouth.  They’ve become more careful with the flirty banter lately; it’s skirting too close to things they don’t say in public.

For Chakotay’s part, it looks like he’s biting back on a mischievous grin.  “Decaf.”

Somewhere in the background, Tom snorts.

“No catching up on reports,” the Doctor says sternly.  “No updates from the bridge.  I would like you to continue performing the stretches and taking short walks, but alternate them with periods of rest.  And check in with me tomorrow morning.”

“That sounds entirely reasonable,” she says, meaning it.  This is the longest she’s been on her feet in days, and while she’s certainly not ready to collapse yet, the possibility doesn’t seem all that remote.

Her eyes fall on Tuvok, still in a healing trance in his biobed, and she takes a few steps toward him.  “Any idea when I’ll get my chief of security back?”

The Doctor’s voice is noticeably softer.  “I still can’t give you a time estimate, but the trance is working.  Considering the extent to which he was assimilated, I’d say he’s doing quite well.”

“Thank you,” she says, brow furrowing at the sallowness of Tuvok’s face.  He is starting to look better, but it’s apparent that he needs to stay here a little longer.  She rests a hand on the bed by his shoulder and whispers, “Heal quickly, old friend.”

While they’ve been talking, Tom has folded her blanket and stacked her books.  His eagerness is encouraging – despite her increasing irritability, if he thought she was anything less than well, he wouldn’t be so keen to see her leave.  She smiles as he hands her items to Chakotay.  “Tom, I need to thank you.  We’ve all had to take on duties that we never would have expected, and I know you didn’t sign on to help a cranky captain recover from major surgery.”

If she’s not mistaken, Tom looks relieved to have it acknowledged.  “Captain, I can say with full confidence that I hope I don’t see you in sickbay again.”

She chuckles.  “I’ll see you on the bridge, Lieutenant.”  She hears a holographic throat clear behind her.  “As soon our ship’s doctor sees fit to restore me to command.”

“And not a moment sooner,” the Doctor says, obviously pleased to have gotten the last word.

Once they’re out of sickbay, Chakotay tucks the blanket and books under one arm and silently offers her the other.  She cocks an eyebrow at him, but takes it.  Her quarters aren’t far away, but she’s grateful for the support.  Balance, too, is proving to be a bit of an issue with the admittedly modest heels on her boots.  She doesn’t care to think just how far into her skull those implants extended.

He’s a warm, solid presence beside her, falling in with her shorter stride as they make their way down the corridor.  It’s dinner time and she remembers hearing that Harry was going to help Neelix grill some kind of hamburger equivalent, so they don’t run into anyone on the way.  Even so, she keeps a tight hold on her composure until after Chakotay has led her into her quarters and the door slides shut behind him.

His arm loops around her back almost before she even has the chance to slump against him.  “Couch,” she manages, embarrassed at how heavily her breath is coming after such a short walk.

She’s not entirely sure how she ends up with her head on a pillow in Chakotay’s lap, but she’s also not inclined to complain.  “I’m not planning to fall asleep here,” she says.  “I just… need a minute.”

“Take as long as you need,” he says, a little too softly for her liking; she’s not frail.  But his fingers are gently combing through her hair, and she’s been in sickbay for days without non-holographic human touch.  And she’ll never mention it to the Doctor, but she swears that somehow his hands are always cold.

It doesn’t help that everything about Chakotay seems to be designed to make her drop her defenses.  Perhaps the fact that she still has defenses even now, after they’ve been working together for six years and sleeping together for nearly a year, says something unflattering about her, but she’s just had all her physical defenses stripped away twice in short order.  True, the second time was to fix the first, but that doesn’t mean she enjoyed any of it.

She doesn’t know what she looked like as a Borg.  She isn’t entirely sure she wants to know – no, that’s a lie, she’d probably study her own ocular implants if she still had them just to see how they functioned.  But her stomach still turns at the thought that Chakotay might have seen her like that when they brought her to sickbay.  Hair gone, skin blanched an inhuman gray, flesh still raw and festering where it touched metal.  It’s not vanity, exactly; it’s less about appearance than having her assimilated, invaded body on display.  Of course, if it had been the other way around, she’d have phasered anyone who stood in her way until she could’ve seen for herself that Chakotay was alive, felt his pulse…

“Okay, I have to know.”  Chakotay’s voice, more conversational now, breaks the silence.  “What on earth did you do to Tom?”

“Hmm?”

“You were quite effusive with your thanks before we left sickbay.  I just know there’s a story there.”

She may not be able to suppress the grin that curls at the corner of her mouth, but at least she can hide it in the pillow.  “I may have suggested that the lieutenant could stand to have a lighter touch with the hyposprays.  And that I didn’t always need an escort to the restroom.  And that his medical skills would be better used on a rabid targ.”

“Kathryn, he was terrified,” he reprimands, but there’s laughter in his voice.  “He was looking after his captain and his girlfriend and a Vulcan who could drop him flat on the deck with one hand if he were conscious.  You are three of the most important people on the ship and probably three of the worst patients, too.”

“You’re not wrong,” Kathryn admits.  “I’ll add a commendation to his file.  And maybe give him some extra holodeck time.”

Chakotay replies, “He’ll appreciate that,” and they fall into silence again.  But it’s lighter than it was before, and Kathryn finds herself able to let a little more of the tension out of her shoulders.  It helps that Chakotay’s still stroking her hair, his other hand now resting warmly on her hip.

After a few peaceful minutes, she finds her eyelids growing heavy, but she really doesn’t want to fall asleep just yet.  She needs to wash up and eat something that isn’t leola root, and in sickbay she’d been having actual romantic fantasies about her own bed.

Setting her hand on Chakotay’s knee, she squeezes before using it as a brace to lever herself up.  He doesn’t try to help her, and for that she’s grateful.  “You look like a woman on a mission,” she hears behind her.

“Shower.  Real shower.”  She rarely uses the water shower, but tonight she damn well deserves it.

The few minutes of rest genuinely helped, but as she tugs off her uniform jacket, she doesn’t relish the thought of struggling out of the clothes she so recently put on.  Luckily, one glance at Chakotay and she doesn’t even have to ask.  But she asks anyway.  “Feel like helping me undress?”

He already has his hands on the hem of her turtleneck before she finishes the question. “If I ever say no to that, be sure to check my pulse.”

Despite his flirtatious tone, there’s not much unnecessary touching.  After the shirt, he has the presence of mind to help her out of her boots before her pants.  Once she’s down to her bra and panties, he stops, leaving her that small shield, and again, she’s grateful.

She’d been telling herself to wait until after her shower to get too close to him – she feels disgusting after so long in sickbay – but he either doesn’t mind or doesn’t notice, because he pulls her tight against him and buries his nose in her hair.  As she embraces him back, she feels his lips moving against her scalp.  A silent prayer, maybe.  At the moment, she’s almost inclined to offer up thanks as well, even if she doesn’t know who it’s to.  Less for her own safety than for the man in her arms, whose constant presence sometimes seems more miraculous than any number of narrow escapes.

A little surprisingly, it’s Chakotay who pulls back first.  “Don’t let me keep you from your shower,” he says, kissing her forehead.  “I’ll replicate us some dinner.  Any requests?”

She’s too thrown by the bright sheen in his eyes that he’s trying to blink back to come up with anything.  “Something from home.  Anything.  Surprise me.”

Safety protocols on the shower only let the water go up to 40°C, which never feels quite hot enough, but it’s still miles better than the sonic.  If the stall were bigger, she’d have invited Chakotay to join her, but as it is, she barely fits alone.  There’s a fantasy she rarely allows herself, since it involves the Alpha Quadrant, but she once stayed in a hotel on Casperia Prime that had huge, waterfall-like showers.  If they—when they get back, she’ll take Chakotay there, press him back against the warm tile wall, slick him from head to toe with soap…

The computer helpfully reminds her that she’s been in the shower for ten minutes now.  The water will only run for 15, so she finishes washing her hair.  Her healing skin is sensitive to the water pounding on her back, but the heat has managed to relax and loosen the muscles enough that the overall effect is resoundingly positive. 

Honestly, she feels so good after the shower that it’s a little like being tipsy, that relaxed, floaty feeling before the real drunkenness sets in.  She’s able to twist around to dry off without much pain at all, and her old robe feels like silk on her skin.

When she walks into the dining area of her quarters, still towel-drying her hair, Chakotay is just setting out two plates, and the smell nearly brings tears to her eyes.

“Spaghetti bolognese!”

Chakotay grins.  “I wish I could take credit, but Lieutenant Genovese’s family runs an Italian restaurant back home.  He’s the one who programmed it.”

She’d lost most of her appetite while in sickbay, but she suddenly finds herself famished.  It doesn’t occur to her to be self-conscious about the way she dives into the food until she’s a few forkfuls in.  Even then, it’s truly hard to care, and Chakotay’s doing a masterful job of eating his own pasta – covered with some kind of pesto sauce – to keep from laughing.

At least she waits until she swallows to say, “You will speak of this to no one.”

Chakotay clears his throat and makes a poor attempt at maintaining a straight face.  “Kathryn, you have sauce on your nose.”

It feels good to laugh again.  She hasn’t had a good laugh since… well, long before this most recent endeavor.  That doesn’t bear thinking about for too long.

After that, she forces herself to slow down on the spaghetti.  It also affords her the opportunity to watch Chakotay’s mouth purse to slurp up a long noodle, and it’s always worth taking the time to watch Chakotay’s mouth.  But she can’t keep her mind off of ship business very long.  “How’s the crew’s morale?”

“They’re riding pretty high after a victory over the Borg, as they should be,” he says.  “But that’s the last question I’m going to entertain about Voyager.  I did make a promise to the Doctor.”

“I just…  I had a lot of time to think in sickbay.”  It’s not often that she expresses doubt in a decision, not even to him.  And it’s hard to voice even now, but the days of enforced convalescence right next to crewmembers whose lives she risked gave her more opportunity for reflection than she wanted.  “The Doctor’s serum didn’t last as long for Tuvok.  He was almost fully assimilated.  The desire to go after the Borg, it seemed like righteousness at the time.  Now I’m wondering if it was mostly hubris.”

He slides his hand across the table to cover hers. “Kathryn, the entire crew knows exactly why you did what you did.  If there’s anyone onboard unwilling to take a risk to put a dent in the Collective, I haven’t heard about it.  It’s not like you to question yourself when everything turns out well.”

She avoids his eyes, concentrating instead on scooping up the last of the pasta.  She has doubts, of course; she always does.  But she made a choice early on in this mission to keep them to herself no matter what.  “In some ways, being a captain was simpler when we were 75,000 light years away from home instead of 30,000, and in actual communication with Starfleet.”

“Are you worried about the brass second-guessing your decisions?”

“No, it’s not that.  I guess I’m saying the decisions were easier to make when the stakes didn’t seem as high.  Now that we’re within reach of home, and we know we’ll likely get there within our lifetime…”

“It would be like leading the whole game and then losing in the bottom of the ninth.”

“Yes, exactly,” she says, a little caught off guard as always at how well he understands her.  Perhaps she shouldn’t be surprised – after all, it’s how he managed to pick up her message about shutting down Unimatrix Zero – but she’s wondered since the day they met whether she gives away more about herself and her thoughts than usual while she’s around him.

“If it helps,” he begins, raising her hand to his lips and kissing her knuckles, “I think everyone on board is feeling that same nervous hopefulness.  But I’m afraid I can’t continue this conversation right now…”

“Look, Chakotay, I know what the Doctor said, but—”

“…because you still have some sauce on your nose.  Really, it’s disgraceful.”

Kathryn snatches her hand back to grab her napkin and finally wipe away the offending condiment, but she can’t stop herself from smiling.  Without thinking, she grabs the dishes to take to the recycler, but when she stands up, the room starts to spin.  It’s over in a second and she didn’t actually suffer the indignity of dropping anything, but she’s left with a pounding heart and the reminder that she’s still healing.

She does manage to get the dishes to the recycler, but it’s clear when she turns back that Chakotay didn’t miss her momentary vertigo.  “Fine,” she says, holding up her hands in surrender before he can say a word.  “I’ll go lay down, but only if you join me.  And lose the pants.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” he says with a grin.

The bed, complete with a seven-year-old sagging Starfleet-issue mattress, feels like a delicate cloud after so many days in a biobed.  She makes an entirely undignified groan as she stretches out on top of the covers, and it earns her a heated look from Chakotay, belt buckle in hand.  But by the time he’s down to undershirt and boxers, carefully lying down next to her, the expression on his face is all tenderness.

“What hurts?”

“Nothing.  Everything,” she sighs, turning away from him so she can press herself back against his chest.  His arms go around her automatically, folding across her waist to keep her close.  The heat from his body acts on her like a drug, slowing down her thoughts and relaxing her muscles until she can take a deep breath for the first time since she heard the words “Unimatrix Zero.”  She’s exhausted but not sleepy now, and she threads her fingers through his where they rest on her stomach.

The annoying thing about conversations with Chakotay is that when he asks her a question, he can always, always wait her out.  Finally, she relents.  “My left arm and my back got the worst of it.  Apparently the implants went down to the bone in some places and connected all the way through my spinal column.”

She feels him suck in a quick breath at that.   

“But the shower helped,” she continues, not wanting him to linger too long on pity.  “And the food.  Did I even say thank you?”

“You would have,” he says, nuzzling into her still-damp hair.  “But your mouth was full at the time.”

“Well, thank you.  I don’t know how long they can spare you from the bridge with Tuvok out of commission—”

“Until alpha shift tomorrow.  Harry’s under strict orders not to bother me unless—”

“No,” she cuts him off.  “Don’t even propose an ‘unless.’  As soon as you say it…”

“If I didn’t know you any better,” he says, his weight shifting behind her until he’s able to kiss her just below the ear, “I would say you’re becoming superstitious.”

She chuckles, closing her eyes to focus on the trail his lips take down the side of her neck.  “If there is such a thing as fate, who am I to tempt it?”

The laugh he lets out stirs the hair at the base of her neck, making her shiver.  “You’re the woman who tracked down and invaded a Borg ship.  Fate’s got nothing on you.”

She smiles at that, arching her back a little as she stretches languidly against him.  Immediately, Chakotay reacts, his hand closing firmly on her hip and his teeth replacing his lips against the nape of her neck. 

He’s turned on, and suddenly she realizes that she is, too.  Like the hunger for food a few minutes ago, the need for him burns through her in an instant, making her feel suddenly hollow and ravenous.

Meanwhile, he’s gone completely still behind her. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to—”

“Keep going.”

“Kathryn…”

There’s more regret than reproach in his voice, but he doesn’t get to play the “you need to rest” card.  Not here, not when they’re tangled in bed and aroused and alive.

It suddenly strikes her that she hasn’t even kissed him tonight, she’s been so damned intent on proving that she’s not helpless.  A hot stab of guilt pierces her chest, and she intends to remedy that right now.  Probably expecting a lecture, he gives her room to turn on her back without having to twist her spine, and she doesn’t let him get a word in before pulling his mouth down to hers.

If she expected him to require some coaxing, she’s wrong.  He kisses her greedily, a hand behind her head the only thing keeping her from being pressed right into the mattress.  He’s been following her lead all night, responding to whatever she gives him, and that doesn’t change now.  At the soft touch of her tongue to the seam of his lips, he opens to her, groaning against her mouth in a way that sends a delicious bolt of heat down her body.

Without actually resting his weight on her, he pushes a thigh between her legs, giving her something to grind up against.  It’s a good start, but not nearly enough.  She can feel the tension running through his whole body as he tries to keep himself in check, and it never fails to boost her ego, feeling how badly he wants her.  But as much as she wants to tell him to let go, to wrap her legs around his waist and take him inside her, she knows she isn’t ready for it yet.  She’ll ignore any pain that she feels in the moment, and afterward, if he thinks he’s hurt her, he’ll never forgive himself.

They break apart but he stays close, resting his forehead against hers, the air he exhales ghosting against her wet, sensitive lips.  “Anything,” he breathes.  “Anything you want.”

“I want to feel like myself again.  And I want to feel you.” And then, because she knows he loves to hear it: “Please.”

He kisses her again – a brief, hard press of lips – and works his hand down her body to the tie of her robe.  When he helps her pull her arm free of one side of it, she expects him to lower his mouth to her breasts, but instead he rolls her back on her side where she was before, his body molding closely behind hers.  His lips return right where they left off on her neck, continuing down.  After a moment, he hesitates, and she realizes that he must be looking at the patches of healing skin, still raw and ugly.  But then he licks from the base of her neck all the way up to her hairline, and the delicate new tissue prickles with sensation.

His arms come around her again, one hand firmly on her hip to hold her steady.  Two fingers press against her lips, and she draws them into her mouth, glad for the taste of his skin.  His lips continue their gentle assault on her neck and shoulder, and she lets herself sink into the feeling of him surrounding her.

When he pulls his fingers away, her mouth feels so empty that she bites back on a whimper.  But then his wet fingertips are trailing down her chest, delicately circling a nipple, and the whimper comes out as a moan instead.  She feels the skin tightening under his touch and an answering clench between her thighs, and she tries to push farther into his hands to get more of the sensation.

But he moves his hand away, and with his hold on her waist, she can only shift so far.  He chuckles hotly against her shoulder, bringing his fingers back in to flick lightly against her stiff nipple.  “No teasing,” she huffs, her voice far from commanding.

“Is it really teasing if I fully intend to follow through?” he asks, sinking his teeth into the junction of her shoulder and neck at the same instant his fingers close around her nipple in a tight pinch.  With a groan, she bucks in his hold, grinding back against the solid heat of his body behind her. 

“Easy,” he whispers, his soothing voice at odds with the way he rolls her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.  “You’re still on bed rest, Captain.  Better let me do all the work.”

She flushes at his use of her title – he doesn’t do it often when they’re in bed, but he knows the effect it has on her in that gentle, playful tone.  Without giving her a moment to recover, he begins toying with her other nipple, and she squeezes her thighs together at another hot rush of desire.  It’s such a sweet, blooming ache, and it makes her feel too big for her own skin.

Chakotay told her once that he’d never make her beg, but she’s getting perilously close when his hand finally skims down her stomach.  She sighs with relief as his fingers brush gently through her curls, and she lifts her leg to twine back over his to give him more room to work.  The sound that rumbles up from his chest is half chuckle and half growl, and it makes her smile even though she knows he can’t see her face. 

All the heat in her body seems to pool immediately at her center when his fingertips dip into her.  To her great frustration, he avoids her clit, drawing irregular patterns over the wet, achingly sensitive flesh of her opening.  She feels exposed in the best way, body throbbing with every heartbeat as she opens up to him.  It strengthens her to know she can still give herself over to this kind of vulnerability, this wholly welcomed invasion.  His fingers push in slowly, letting her savor the sensation of being filled.  They both stop breathing for a moment as she clenches her inner muscles tight around him and shivers.

It’s more than enough to make her writhe against him, and his other hand spreads out across her belly again.  Through the fabric of his boxers, she feels the hard line of his erection pressing into her back, but her efforts to rub against him in any kind of stimulating way are thwarted by the tight hold he has on her lower torso.  It’s keeping her spine from bending in uncomfortable ways, but all she can do is reach blindly behind her to touch his side, his back, anything she can get a hand on.

And then his wrist flexes, starting an unhurried, deliberate rhythm with his fingers, and she feels compelled to look down and watch the muscles of his forearm work.  Without much room to move her hips, the heel of his hand only occasionally bumps against her swollen, neglected clit, and it’s quickly driving her out of her mind.  There’s no doubt he’s doing it on purpose; he knows exactly how to make her come fast if he wanted to.

But this is perfect, the way he’s working her up, refusing to rush.  She’s rarely this still, this passive, when they’re in bed together, but something about being held tightly and subjected to inescapable, mounting pleasure feels like exactly what she needs right now.  Kathryn feels more solid, more grounded in her body than she has in days.  She can feel the blood pulsing through her veins, the air rushing in and out of her lungs, the sweat breaking out on her skin.

She’s so lost in it that she doesn’t feel his other hand sneaking lower on her belly until his fingers nudge her clit.  The sensation is so startling, direct touch after so much teasing, that she yelps.

“I’ve got you,” he murmurs, easing up on the thrusting to focus on external stimulation. 

“I know,” she breathes, grasping his forearm just for something to hang on to.  She fights the urge to direct his fingers, press exactly where she wants it the most, in favor of trusting his knowledge of her body.  Maybe it should be harder, with as little control as she’s had over her own body lately, but it feels so good to give him this, to know she’s not only safe with him, but cherished.

She’s already so close, stretched around the width of his fingers, that it doesn’t take much.  Some steady pressure, a circling fingertip, and she’s gone, swept up in a deep surge of pleasure.  Each wave leaves her shivering and breathless with Chakotay’s name on her lips.

When she remembers how to breathe again, she takes his hands in both of hers and presses mindless, grateful kisses to his palms, his knuckles, his fingertips, tasting herself everywhere.  She can feel his smile against her scalp, and he submits to her ministrations while nuzzling into her hair.

Turning over to face him makes her flinch, suddenly aware of the stiffness in her spine, and of course he notices and catches her hands before she can reach for him.  “Not tonight,” he says with a rueful grin.  “I already got everything I wanted.”

She manages not to groan at the corniness, but she still has to say, “Rain check.”

“Believe me, I fully intend to collect on that,” he says, drawing her close to kiss her.  “Later.”

It takes them a few minutes to get rearranged.  Kathryn’s robe is tangled under both of them, and she decides to give it up altogether in favor of sliding naked between the sheets.  She eventually settles with her head on his chest, an arm around his waist to keep him close.

“How are you feeling?” he asks, hand stroking gently up her back.

She grunts.  “Tell me to give my pain a number between one and ten and you’ll be sleeping on the floor.”

He laughs quietly, and she can feel him relax into the bed.  “I’ll take that as an I could be better, but I’m too stubborn to ask for anything.”

“Mmm, not quite,” she sighs into his skin.  “More like an I could be better, but I’m feeling very satisfied just now and I can’t be bothered to move.”

“I’ll take that,” he murmurs into her hair.  “Do me a favor?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t get assimilated again.”

His tone is light, but she hears the pain behind it.  She still forgets, sometimes, that the consequences of risking her own life aren’t limited to her.  Voyager could go on without her, even Chakotay could go on without her, but she doesn’t want to force him to find out what that’s like.  It’s not something that comes easily to her, prioritizing her own safety for the benefit of someone else, but she’s learning.

“Trust me, I have no plans to put myself or any member of this crew through that again.”

He doesn’t answer, just kisses the top of her head.  She wasn’t lying – despite everything, in this moment she does feel good.  Her arm and back are still sore, but in a way that she can push to the back of her mind.  She’s more focused on the way her body feels like hers again, all the way down to her fingers and toes.  Chakotay’s always been good at bringing her back to herself, reminding her who she is beneath the Starfleet uniform.  Though it’s usually in a less literal sense, she thinks, smiling against his chest.

Just when she suspects he’s starting to fall asleep, he whispers, “Kathryn,” saying her name the way only he can.  There are words they almost never speak aloud – it would be too easy to forget, to say them at the wrong time in front of the wrong people.  The rules they’ve set for themselves might seem arbitrary, but they’ve been forged over years of struggle, both internal and external, and somehow, it works.  They work.

It’s not exactly a romance holonovel, but she hears what he doesn’t say.  “Me too, Chakotay,” she says into the warmth of his skin.  “Me too.”