The Captain's Birthday Surprise by D.A. Kent


E-mail:

D.A. Kent

Date:

April, 2001

Code:

Voyager, J/C

Rated:

PG-13

Disclaimer:

Paramount owns Star Trek Voyager, and all the characters therein. I only orrow them on occasion.

Summary:

The crew decides to give the Captain a special birthday treat - a couple of hours off duty for breakfast, for herself and her First Officer. The morning ends up being very special for more than one reason!



Kathryn Janeway pinned her rank on the collar of her uniform and looked at herself in the mirror. She held her head high and stood tall, which she could nearly manage to do with her Starfleet boots on.

Today was her birthday. Somehow, some way, she'd managed to have seven of them in the Delta Quadrant. Where had the time gone? She sighed. Now was not the time to think about that. She had Bridge duty in twenty minutes and she was never late. She'd worry about having another birthday creep up on her another time, privately. And if she were lucky, no one would remember that today was her birthday. She took a deep breath, then left her quarters for her duty shift.

Ten minutes later, Captain Kathryn Janeway entered the Bridge.

"Captain on deck!" Harry Kim shouted formally, and everyone rose as Kathryn continued toward her chair. She shook her head, and berated herself for actually thinking no one would remember. Someone had squealed, and this little moment was in honor of her birthday. And the guilty person could be anyone on board ship, and probably a senior staff member. Maybe even her First Officer, she mused, as she reached her chair and looked him in the eye.

"Thank you, Everyone," she said to the group in general. "I appreciate your recognition, but let me remind you that this is just another normal day."

Better to let them all know right now that she didn't want to be reminded of the inevitable - the fact that she was getting older, and it was outside her control. And she hated it when things were outside her control.

She turned back to Commander Chakotay, as they both sat.

"And whose idea was that?" she whispered.

"Harry's," he said softly, smiling. Kathryn couldn't help but grin back. It was pretty common knowledge that Ensign Kim held his Captain in high regard.

"Well, at least I know his acknowledgement comes from the heart," she said.

"That acknowledgement comes from a lot of hearts, Kathryn," replied Chakotay gently, and Kathryn quickly looked into his eyes. She saw a lot more there than she was prepared to see this morning, and she turned away, but not before she felt an old and familiar tingle run through her body. She silently cursed herself for not being more prepared to fight those feelings this morning, but sometimes these things just crept up on her.

She sighed. Sometimes it was such hard work to control what she felt for her First Officer. She and Chakotay had known each other for nearly seven years. They'd been through hell and back, together, and more than once. It was so easy for her to let her guard down when she was with him, which made it even more difficult to remember that she couldn't afford to allow him to affect her this way. They had a crew to get home, and that was that.

"Have you had breakfast?"

"What?"

She brought her thoughts back to the present.

"I'll bet you had two cups of coffee this morning, and no breakfast," said Chakotay.

Kathryn sighed. This seemed to be a topic of discussion between them lately.

"No, I didn't have time. Chakotay, I promise I'll take an early lunch, all right?"

"No."

"I beg your pardon?"

She wasn't used to her First Officer telling her 'no.' Several of the Bridge crew hid their smiles when they heard the surprise in her voice. Chakotay had taken his life in his hands on that one!

Chakotay grinned at her.

"In honor of your birthday . . ."

"Ohhh . . ." she groaned, and put her head in her hand. She knew something was coming.

". . . Tuvok has offered to handle our Bridge duties this morning."

"Chakotay, I appreciate that, but . . ."

Chakotay stood.

"And the rest of the Bridge crew has kindly offered to assist Tuvok, so that you and I can have a couple of hours off for breakfast."

"Chakotay . . ."

"Just this once, Captain," he said. "We know you don't really appreciate a formal birthday party, so we decided to make it simple this year. A couple of hours off for a special breakfast, as a treat. It's a gift from all of us."

He offered his arm for her to take.

He was good, she thought to herself. They'd arranged for all of this to happen publicly, so that she couldn't decline without offending her Bridge crew, and rejecting their gift. She took a deep breath, then stood and took Chakotay's arm. She grinned and shook her head. Fine, she would go along with it. She could use a couple of hours, relaxing with her First Officer. That would be her birthday gift to herself.

But instead of moving toward the turbolift, Chakotay steered the Captain toward the Briefing Room.

"Chakotay, where are we going?"

"This is the way to our private dining room this morning, Captain," he said, as the doors to the Briefing Room slid open, revealing a warmly decorated, inviting room, that looked nothing like it usually did. They walked inside and the doors closed behind them, as the Bridge crew watched with big grins on their faces.

"So," said Tom Paris, turning to look back at Harry Kim, "I'd say that so far the surprise is working out great!"

"That's because the Captain is exhibiting signs of stunned disbelief, Tom," said Harry. "Just wait until she comes to her senses."

Tom shook his head and turned back to his console, before Tuvok decided to put a stop to the conversation. Harry was totally convinced that the Captain wouldn't like this show of affection being directed toward her this morning. He just didn't get it sometimes. That's why Tom had suggested putting Chakotay in there with her. He smiled to himself. A couple of hours away with Chakotay was her real gift, not the nicely set breakfast table with food prepared by Neelix. No, thought Tom, she was always happiest when she'd had some down time with Chakotay, and that's what the crew was really giving her today. When the Captain and Chakotay came out of there, a couple of hours from now, Tom knew they'd both have big grins on their faces, and they'd be relaxed and joking with each other. And that would make the alpha shift pass like a dream today. They'd all benefit from the Captain's birthday gift this year.

*

Chakotay stood by the door and watched Kathryn take in the Briefing Room's new look. He smiled as he watched her face light up.

The room lighting was slightly dimmed, and various tapestries decorated the walls, tapestries that Kathryn recognized as belonging to some of the crewmen. There were fresh flowers in vases on the conference table, and in larger vases throughout the room. The far end of the table was covered with a lovely beige linen tablecloth, and colorful napkins. There were water glasses and champagne glasses and covered dishes at the end of the table, in the Captain's usual place, and in the First Officer's usual place.

And Neelix stood on the other side of the table, pouring champagne into two glasses.

"Captain! Happy Birthday to you! Good morning, Commander!"

"Neelix," said Chakotay, smiling, and noting the look of absolute astonishment on Kathryn's face. It wasn't often that something surprised her, and it pleased him to be a part of something that had managed to do so.

"Thank you, Neelix," said the Captain, as she accepted a glass from him. "But all of this is hardly necessary."

"Perhaps not, Captain, but it was infinitely enjoyable for all of us to plan!"

Kathryn looked around her, then began to move about the room slowly. The room was lovely, and comfortable. It no longer resembled a Briefing Room. She noted other decorator items throughout the room, items that she knew belonged to various crew members. She turned toward Neelix and Chakotay.

"Everyone has been involved in this then?" she asked. "The entire crew?"

Chakotay smiled, and Neelix nodded excitedly.

"Just for you, Captain." Then he moved to her place at the head of the table and pulled the chair out for her. "We wanted the room to be comfortable and cozy."

Kathryn sat and placed her champagne glass on the table, noting that a nearby wine bucket held the rest of the bottle.

"It certainly is cozy, thank you," she said.

"And the crew unanimously chose your breakfast-mate, too, Captain," continued Neelix, exuberantly, as he winked at Chakotay.

Kathryn noted this with much amusement.

"I don't understand, Neelix. Why would the crew choose someone I see everyday?"

"I beg your pardon, Captain?"

Neelix seemed slightly thrown off guard, but Kathryn was enjoying herself now.

"If the crew unanimously decided my breakfast companion for me, why would they pick someone I see so often?" She leaned back further in her chair. "I mean, Chakotay and I sit beside each other on the Bridge every day, we work on crew reports together most evenings, we share everything it's possible for two people to share, and we make all the decisions regarding this ship and crew, together. So, I'm sure you can understand why I was wondering why the crew chose Chakotay to share my special breakfast with me, instead of some other, different, company."

Neelix just stared back at the Captain, having no idea how to respond to that, but Chakotay saw the gleam in her eye and knew she was baiting Neelix, and enjoying herself immensely.

"I think maybe I can answer that one, Captain," said Chakotay and saw the appreciative look on Neelix's face. "I bribed them."

"Oh?" she asked, with a smile. "And why would you do that, Commander," she said in a voice of sugar and spice. "Don't you see enough of me, too?"

Not nearly enough, Kathryn.

"Given the choice of commanding the Bridge with Tuvok, or having a special champagne breakfast with the Captain in special dining quarters, I'm no fool."

He smiled and raised his glass. Kathryn laughed, and her eyes danced. She raised her own glass and touched his, and when their eyes met, even Neelix felt the electric charge in the atmosphere.

"Uh, well, I'll . . . ah be leaving now . . ." said Neelix, as he edged toward the door. "Enjoy your meal, and if you need anything, I'll uh . . . well, just let me know!"

And then he was gone.

After a moment, Kathryn tore her eyes from Chakotay's and took a deep, steadying breath. Oh, what she wouldn't give to have just five minutes in time that were her own, five minutes that belonged to only her, to Kathryn instead of the Captain. Just five minutes to see what those incredible lips across the table from her tasted like. The mere thought of it was almost more than she could bear.

"So," said Kathryn, trying desperately to put those unnerving thoughts behind her, "let's see what we have here . . . I'm starving!"

Chakotay grinned as she lifted the lid from the plate. He tried to remain calm, to behave normally, but his stomach was full of butterflies. He tried to concentrate on slowing his pulse rate and pulling some fresh air into his lungs. Sometimes just looking into Kathryn's eyes could still make him feel things he'd tried for years to forget. She still moved him more than any other woman had ever done. And he still longed for her in a way that he had no other.

Sometimes he still believed his own lies, when he told himself that he could move on without her when Voyager finally reached home. But sometimes, like now, the truth of the matter hit him hard, and he knew exactly how much those lies were costing him. He sighed softly. He had been thrown back in time once again, to the first time he realized that he was in love with Kathryn Janeway, and how deeply he had fallen for her.

"Well, it looks all right . . ." Kathryn was saying, as she looked over the contents of her meal.

Chakotay forced himself back to the present. It wasn't easy to put thoughts like these behind him, but he'd become quite adept at it over the years. The food on Kathryn's plate actually did look appealing, so Chakotay lifted the lid from his own.

"It does," he managed to say.

"Do you know what this is?" she asked conspiratorially, lifting a yellow wedge of something mushy with her fork.

"No. But it looks okay."

"It does." She agreed, then took a deep breath. They looked at each other and smiled. They'd been through ups and downs over Neelix's meals together more times than either of them could possibly remember. "I say we take the plunge and find out," she said.

"Sounds good to me," he said. "You first."

He smiled at her, and she laughed.

Chakotay was glad the talk had turned to the food, although he'd give up eating for a week just to hold Kathryn in his arms for one moment in time, to taste her lips just once. It was a thought he often had, a dream he'd kept close to his heart for seven years. And seven years sometimes felt like an eternity.

They had both gotten good at knowing when it was time to stop looking into each other's eyes and move back to the present. It was an unspoken agreement between them - when feelings became nearly too strong to control, too dangerously close to the surface, it was time to pull away. Again. It was dangerous, they both knew, but to Chakotay it meant she still loved him, still wanted him. And for him, it was often the last bit of hope he had left.

Kathryn knew that time stood still when they allowed themselves to become lost in each other, and that was why, she reminded herself, they couldn't allow themselves to let go completely. Once that boundary was crossed, there would be no going back. And, damnit, they still had a crew to get home.

Kathryn tentatively tasted the purple glob on her plate.

"Ummmm . . ." she said. She closed her eyes and allowed the sensations to take over. "It tastes like . . . potatoes," she said and opened her eyes again.

"Potatoes?" asked Chakotay, and his voice said he didn't quite believe it. But he had enjoyed watching her face while she was thinking about it.

"Try it, and tell me what you think," she said smugly.

Chakotay did just that, and discovered she was right.

"Yes, and it's definitely one of Neelix's better dishes," he said.

Kathryn leaned back in her chair.

"Chakotay," she said in a low voice, and he felt his heart jump at the sound of it. "This is real champagne, you know."

"Yes, I know."

He held his breathing steady.

"We're not going to be fit for Bridge duty after this meal and that bottle of champagne," she said, nodding toward the bottle.

"I have a feeling we wouldn't be missed if we took the rest of the morning off," he said lightly. "But somehow I think that two people sharing one bottle of champagne over a couple of hours won't amount to much."

He would rather spend Kathryn's birthday in her quarters with the champagne and the food, soft music in the background . . . and other things he couldn't afford to think about right now. He took another deep breath. Why did he keep doing this to himself?

"Computer, play Janeway Selection Number Four," she said suddenly, and looked up at Chakotay. "Well, it's the only thing lacking," she said in a sweet voice. Tchaikovsky began to play softly in the background, and Chakotay was nearly unnerved for a moment. Had she read his mind about the music? He sighed and took another deep breath. Of course she couldn't read his mind. If she could, she would have thrown him in the Brig long ago for some of the thoughts he'd had about her, about them together.

"And this was a collaborative effort?" she asked. "Everyone on the ship was involved in this?"

Chakotay nodded. The food was really pretty good. After all these years, Neelix was starting to develop a knack for preparing foods for human consumption.

"Kathryn, those eggs are going to get cold if you don't eat them, and they're worth eating."

"Are they?" She sat her glass aside and looked at her plate. "Which are the eggs?" she asked.

"Those small round green things." Chakotay took another bite, then saw that Kathryn was staring at him. "What is it, Kathryn?"

She smiled.

"This is nice, thanks."

He swallowed hard. How did Kathryn affect him so easily?

"Even though you've had to settle for me as your breakfast date?" he smiled. He had to change the mood, no matter how much he didn't want to.

Kathryn laughed.

"I thought Neelix was going to turn blue!" She shook her head. "I have to apologize to him later for my awful treatment of him. It wasn't fair to put him on the spot like that. But the look on his face was priceless!"

She laughed again.

Chakotay laughed with her. As he watched her, he wondered, not for the first time, how it was that Kathryn Janeway only became more attractive as the years passed by. Today was her birthday, the seventh he had celebrated by her side. She was lovely seven years ago, he recalled. But today she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most engaging, exciting, vivacious woman he'd ever known. And the most stubborn, he reminded himself.

For the next half an hour, the Captain and Commander of the starship Voyager relaxed and enjoyed their meal as Kathryn and Chakotay. They talked and laughed and reminisced, and even discussed how much time had passed them by, and how the past seven years had changed them. But the one thing they steered clear of was the one thing they always steered clear of - their feelings for each other.

The atmosphere was filled with longing, and they both held each other's eyes for longer than would ordinarily be appropriate. But they had clawed their way out of the trenches together. And, Kathryn decided, that was worth a couple of hours of enjoyment, with some real shared feelings between them.

Finally, when the meal was finished, and they were both feeling they'd eaten far too much, Chakotay discovered a dish of strawberries on the small sideboard across the room. Kathryn laughed.

"Ohhhh, nooo, Chakotay, I can't eat another bite. Really." She stood and walked over for just a look. "They do look very nice, though."

"And taste delicious," said Chakotay, testing one of the larger ones.

"Really?"

Without thinking, Chakotay lifted the strawberry to Kathryn's mouth. It felt so natural to do this, so right. And she took it between her lips and bit it at the stem.

"Mmmmm, you're right, it's wonderful," she said, and he felt her breath on his hand and the touch of her lips to his fingers, and he stopped breathing. And then they both stopped, realizing for the thousandth time in seven years just how easy it was to be this intimate with each other.

"Kathryn . . ." he whispered.

"No, don't say anything, Chakotay," she said quietly, and moved away. She stayed with her back to him, and was quiet, and he saw her take a deep breath. Finally, she turned back to face him. "I should know better than to drink champagne," she said lamely, attempting to make a lighthearted comment, but somehow not succeeding.

"Do you think the champagne is to blame this time?" he asked gently. There was always something to blame, it seemed, but he didn't mind. At least she wasn't denying that she felt something for him.

"Chakotay," she said softly and took a step toward him. "It's very important that I have something to blame," she said, and he saw that her eyes were moist.

But before he could get his bearing, Kathryn had collected herself, and continued, trying desperately to change the mood.

"It's been a lovely breakfast, and I want you to know that I'd rather have you as my breakfast date than anyone else on board ship. Even though I do see you every day." And then she grinned. "Just for the record," she added softly.

Chakotay forced himself to calm down, to look her in the eye. He grinned back.

"Even though I've been known to disagree with you on occasion?"

"Even then," she said softly.

Chakotay turned away, and put strawberries onto two plates, then handed one to Kathryn.

"We have to try to eat at least some of these, you know," he said. "Otherwise, Neelix will be disappointed."

"Well," she said, taking the plate, "we can't have that."

"Not after the way you treated him earlier," said Chakotay, and they both laughed at the memory of Neelix's face, and how flustered he was.

"I'll admit it, I was unfair to him."

"Don't worry about it, Kathryn, Neelix will love it when you apologize to him."

She smiled and nodded, knowing that Neelix would positively glow over kind words from his Captain.

They both returned to the table with their strawberries, and Chakotay watched her lift the champagne bottle from the bucket. She turned toward him and nodded toward the bottle.

"It's bad luck not to finish the bottle, you know," she said and poured the remaining bit into each of their glasses. "If I get a headache from this later, I'll have the satisfaction of knowing you drank every bit as much of it as I did."

"I doubt you get a headache, Kathryn," said Chakotay. "I don't think you drank enough to even feel it."

She didn't answer, but she was feeling what could be a slight effect from the champagne, although it could just as well be the company she was keeping this morning. And the ambiance of the room was adding to the comfortable feelings she always shared with her First Officer. No, she really didn't need the champagne today. Chakotay knew how to make her feel this way without it.

"By the way," Chakotay said, as they both sat at the table again, pretending to be engrossed in their strawberries.

"Hmmm?"

"You said you'd rather have me as your breakfast date than anyone else on board ship," he said.

"Correct."

"If we were off ship, if we were home again, who would you choose instead?"

He tried not to sound inane and childish, but he wanted to know.

"Who?" She laughed. "Chakotay, I don't know. Why do you ask?"

You, Chakotay. It would still be you, she thought to herself but couldn't say the words.

"I just wondered."

"Well, I didn't have anyone else in mind at all," she said lightly, hoping to end the discussion.

"Then let's consider it now, just for fun."

"Chakotay . . ."

She couldn't lie to him, and she couldn't tell him the truth, and she didn't want to talk about it further.

"If you could have breakfast with anyone, anyone at all, who would it be?" he asked.

"Chakotay, I can't believe this. I really wasn't thinking of anyone else when I said that," she said, and leaned toward him. "Really."

"I believe you," he said. "This is just a game. If you could share a meal with anyone, anywhere, and at any time, who would it be?"

Kathryn laughed. Okay, she'd play his game, and make him regret it. Just for fun.

"Let me think . . . hmmmm . . . let's see . . ." She closed her eyes and pretended to think hard about it. Chakotay watched her, knowing she was up to something. "Captain James T. Kirk," she said simply, and took a bite of another strawberry.

Chakotay stopped.

"Kirk? Kathryn, you've got to be kidding."

"Why not?" she said. "He was handsome, engaging, energetic . . . an historical figure in Starfleet history . . ."

"And he had an uncanny way with women."

"So I've heard," she said. It was not easy to keep a straight face. "But, of course I've never experienced it first hand, and I don't like to accept anything at face value, as you well know. If I could go back in history, see Kirk for myself, experience his . . . charm . . . well, who knows what might have been."

"Kathryn . . . ." he started, but when she looked at him, he saw the laughter in her eyes. He took a deep breath. "Very good. You got me."

"And it was just starting to be fun . . . ." She smiled at him.

"So, you would choose Kirk over me," he said, smiling, knowing he had forced her to pick someone outlandish.

"Well, it was either Kirk or Q," she said.

"Q? Why Q?" he asked, trying to keep his calm. Just the thought of Q still made his blood boil.

"I know how you feel about him, too, but I thought that would be too obvious," she said.

He refused to discuss Q today.

"You're right," he agreed.

"Now, are we through discussing my alternate breakfast date?" she asked, in a low voice with that crooked smile that drove his heart, and other things, crazy.

"You win," he agreed lightly. "I don't want to get myself into more trouble. I'll just have to believe I'd always be your first choice." He looked at her quickly to gauge her reaction, and caught her off guard. Her smile disappeared and her blue-grey eyes suddenly turned smoky. In that moment, just before she turned away and sat back in her chair, he saw the truth, but he wouldn't allow himself to believe it. "Kathryn?"

"I'm stuffed," she said, obviously changing the subject. She pushed the dish away and leaned back in her chair. "I think we did ourselves proud. We managed to polish off most of the food in this room."

She smiled.

"And Neelix will pass the word on that we enjoyed our breakfast," he agreed. It was always important that the two topmost commanding officers be considerate and aware of the effect they had on the rest of the crew at all times.

"It's time for the coffee," she said, rising, "now that we've polished off the champagne."

Kathryn walked over to the sideboard against the back wall and poured two mugs of coffee from the still-warm carafe. She brought them back to the table and sat one in front of Chakotay, then sniffed the aroma.

"I do believe this is one of Mr. Neelix's finest recipes," she said.

"It always amazes me that you can tell them apart," said Chakotay, taking a tentative sip.

She chuckled.

"Well it took time, of course, but some blends are better than others."

Chakotay smiled. He watched Kathryn sit back in her chair. She took a deep breath and put her head against the headrest, then closed her eyes. She had a peaceful look on her face, a relaxed look.

"Is it the champagne again?" he asked softly.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. His meaning wasn't lost on her.

"I'm sure it is," she agreed. How could they possibly talk about those other things, the things they always left unsaid? She closed her eyes again. "I've had a wonderful meal, delicious champagne, lovely company, soft music, and now . . . a nice cup of coffee to complete the experience." When Chakotay didn't comment, she looked up and saw that he was staring at her. "What?" she asked.

Chakotay suddenly looked away. He couldn't believe he'd allowed himself to become caught up in her voice and her face to the point he lost track of his command behavior. She'd caught him. He took a deep breath.

"Nothing," he managed to say.

Kathryn laughed.

"Nothing? You were staring at me," she said.

"Yes, I apologize, Kathryn," he said. "I didn't intend to."

But he couldn't look at her.

Kathryn leaned forward, across the table that was between them.

"Chakotay," she said gently, "It isn't like you not to look at me. Come on, whatever it is, you can tell me." She laughed and sat back in her chair. "Maybe I've had more champagne than I realize, and have been making a fool of myself."

Chakotay looked up quickly.

"Not at all, Kathryn." He managed a smile. "But it's nice to see you relax."

"Then what were you thinking a minute ago? Why were you staring at me?" she asked.

Chakotay sighed.

"You don't really want to know, Kathryn. It's not important anyway. Why don't we forget it?"

She paused.

"I don't want to forget it, Chakotay. We're friends, and you can tell me. I've seen you look at me that way before, when you think I don't notice, but I've never asked what you were thinking. I've always wondered, though." He didn't respond. "And since today is my birthday," she continued, "I'll treat myself and ask you about it." She smiled, but he didn't smile back. "Chakotay, why is this making you so uncomfortable?" She leaned toward him again, and placed her hand on his, but was surprised when he flinched. "Chakotay? This isn't like you. What is it?"

He took another deep breath. Why was she doing this? "Kathryn, I don't think we should talk about this further."

After a long moment, she answered him.

"I see."

Chakotay stood and began to move about the room, knowing that Kathryn was allowing him time to gather his thoughts. Finally, he stopped.

"Kathryn, I've enjoyed this time with you more than you know, and I'd like it to end on a pleasant note. I don't think you want to know what I was thinking. So let's just leave it at that. All right?"

To his surprise, she continued to look at him for a long moment before responding.

"What if I promise you I won't be hurt, angry or upset at anything you might say? Will you tell me what you were thinking then?"

"Kathryn," he said in disbelief, "How can you possibly promise me you won't be mad or upset when you don't know what I'll say?"

"Oh, I can easily make that promise, Chakotay," she said softly. "You see, the look that was on your face was kind, gentle, and no matter what you tell me I'll know it is the truth, and I'll know that I asked you to tell me even when you didn't want to. So how could I be angry with you for something I asked you to do in the first place?"

He sighed and looked away. She wasn't going to let this go. And when Kathryn Janeway had her heart and her mind set on something, she refused to let it go until she was satisfied with the result. He would have to tell her, and tell her the truth. He had never lied to Kathryn, and he wouldn't start now. Besides, he already knew he couldn't do it and make her believe him. It had to be the truth.

He turned to her.

"All right," he said. "I'll tell you. But keep in mind that it's your idea, not mine."

She smiled, and her eyes shone.

"I won't forget," she said.

"I was thinking . . . ."

"Yes?"

"Thinking that the first time I saw you, you were seven years younger than you are today."

"Yes," she said softly, and glanced away.

"And that somehow you've only gotten more beautiful over the years." He swallowed and turned to her. He had agreed to tell her, so he had to tell her all of it. She looked up at him, and he saw that her eyes were moist. "And . . . ."

"Yes?" she managed to ask.

"You had a look on your face, when you were describing the food, the music, the champagne, the coffee . . ."

". . . the company," she whispered.

He closed his eyes. He wouldn't think about what she'd just said until he was finished telling her what she wanted to know.

". . . and I was thinking how sexy you look when you smile and laugh, when you relax completely like we've been doing together this morning. When you are Kathryn, and not Captain Janeway." He paused and closed his eyes. He had to tell her all of it. "You said I've looked at you this way before, and you're right. I try not to; I've tried to put my feelings for you away. But sometimes I still think about how you're everything I've ever wanted or needed. You are who I want to share my life with, Kathryn. I know you've never felt it was right for us to begin a relationship with each other - one that involved anything other than friendship. But sometimes I still have trouble accepting that. Sometimes I still dream of more." He drew in a sharp breath. "And that's what I was thinking about when you caught me looking at you earlier."

He turned to her. He had to know how she was taking this.

But she was still sitting, still looking at him with tears in her eyes.

"Is that all of it?" she asked softly.

"No. There is one other thing." He couldn't believe he was going to tell her this part of it.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"I was thinking how good it would be to kiss you," he said simply. "For the thousandth time, I was thinking how good it would be to kiss you."

There. He'd said it all, and incredibly, he felt better for it.

She nodded slightly, then looked away from him. He'd never seen Kathryn Janeway look vulnerable, and he was sure this was as close as she'd ever be to it.

Kathryn stood and walked to the viewport. She looked outside at the stars rushing by, her back to Chakotay. She couldn't speak. All she could think was that he still loved her. He still loved her, after all this time. She hadn't been sure, and she'd needed to know. She'd pressed him, and it hadn't been fair, but she had to know the truth.

He didn't know what to say. Was she upset? He'd never seen Kathryn behave this way before. She didn't seem upset with him, and she hadn't given him the rebuttal he'd expected from her, either. It wasn't like her to be quiet, reflective like this, not after hearing the sort of thing he'd just told her. Right now, he missed the Captain who'd been known to punch her way through difficult situations from time to time.

He couldn't keep still any longer. He had to know what was wrong.

"Kathryn?" he asked softly. She didn't answer, but shook her head softly. She wouldn't answer him, or couldn't, and she didn't turn to look at him. "Talk to me, Kathryn. Be angry with me, pretend you're shocked at what I've told you, recite protocol and regulations to me, anything. Just say something. Please."

Finally, after what seemed an ungodly amount of time, he heard her take a sharp breath. Then she turned slowly toward him. She looked pale, and he saw that her eyes were still moist, but she didn't look angry. In fact, she was looking at him with a strange, but peaceful, look on her face.

"Chakotay, thank you for telling me. I didn't make it easy for you to do so, I know that. But also know that I heard every word."

Then she took another deep breath and walked back to the conference-table-turned-dining-table, and sat. She took a sip of her coffee and glanced quickly at Chakotay. He hadn't said a word about her response to his statement.

"Chakotay?" she whispered. And then she saw that his eyes had become clouded. "What is it?"

He forced himself to keep his voice calm, steady.

"I just told you my deepest secret, the thing I wish for most, something very close to my heart, and very difficult for me to tell you. Yet you asked, and I did tell you. I told you everything."

"Yes," she said.

Please let it rest for now, Chakotay.

"And now it's back to 'business as usual' - is that it?"

"Chakotay . . ."

"No, Kathryn. Don't placate me, don't tell me about protocol now. I want to know how my words have affected you; I want to know what you're thinking, what you're feeling inside." He took a step toward her. "Right now, I don't want to know what Captain Janeway has to say, I want to know what Kathryn Janeway is feeling."

After a moment, she tried again.

"Please, Chakotay, this has been a lovely morning . . ."

"I've just confessed that I love you, and now you want us to return to the Bridge, sit next to each other and discuss tactical advantages and the best route home?"

She didn't respond, and she didn't look at him. He knew she was waiting while he played through his anger, wore it out, then became her commanding officer again. Well think again, Kathryn. Not this time. All the times before, but not this time.

She waited. She'd seen him angry before, heard him run the gamut of his emotions. And she suddenly realized that she was one of the few people who'd ever heard Chakotay really angry, heard him vent his rage - often a rage that she had caused to boil within him - heard him wear it out, talk it through, bury it. And not only was she one of the few who'd heard his anger, she'd heard it more times than she could remember right now. Well, she had a way of bringing out a full range of emotions in others. And she nearly smiled to herself, but didn't. They were a good match, she and Chakotay. She was stubborn as hell, and often unyielding, and he was strong and defiant, yet honest. He was also relentless, a trait she shared with him, but rarely found in others. They were good for each other, she thought to herself, really good for each other.

And he had taught her to listen, really listen, more than any Starfleet training had ever done. He'd taught her it was all right to be human, to make a mistake. What wasn't all right was to not admit to the mistake, not try to right it. He was her rock, her sounding board, her strength when she needed to be made stronger. And he could make her angrier than anyone she knew, as well.

But now, at this moment, she loved him more than she'd ever loved him before. And if she hadn't heard wrong, he had just told her he loved her. He'd said the words, actually said them.

She still wouldn't look at him. Long ago, Chakotay had stopped trying to read her mind. No matter how hard he tried, or how convinced he was that he knew what she was thinking, he'd turned out to be wrong more times than not. But now he had to know what was going on inside her. He'd just told her he loved her, said the words though he hadn't meant to, and she still hadn't reacted. She was sitting still, and staring at her coffee cup. After seven years, he'd finally told her he loved her - even if it wasn't the way he'd always imagined it being - and she hadn't said a word. Well, he deserved some sort of response.

But try as he might, as he stood and watched her watch her coffee cup, his anger began to leave him. It wasn't her fault that he loved her unconditionally. She had made her position clear to him a long time ago, and he had tried to fall out of love with her, but he couldn't. She was everything to him, his lifeline. She was beautiful, kind, caring, passionate, smart, strong, relentless and stubborn as hell. And no matter what happened to them when they reached home, which would more than likely happen sooner than later now, he would never forget her.

And he would never regret spending seven years of his life sitting beside her on the Bridge, in their command chairs on Voyager, while they roamed the Delta Quadrant, trying to find their way home again. He had been home all along, beside her.

The Angry Warrior had indeed found peace within himself.

He sighed, and she waited - waited for his anger to dissipate.

Finally, his heartbeat began to slow and his breathing began to return to normal.

Kathryn immediately noticed the change in the atmosphere, the cleansing, the anger subsiding. The storm was nearly over. And she could only wait it out.

"How about a refill on your coffee?" he asked softly.

She nodded, but didn't lift her eyes.

"That would be nice, thank you," she answered just as softly.

Chakotay slowly moved to the table and took her cup. He stayed as far away from her as possible, knowing that at times like this when he felt most vulnerable, his body, and his soul, always reacted to Kathryn Janeway. It was frustrating enough not to be able to fall out of love with her, but it was nearly unbearable that he didn't feel in full control of himself when he was near her. After seven years of seeing each other every day, sharing all the things they'd shared, she still affected him like no one else ever had.

Chakotay refilled her cup and returned to the table. He leaned over just far enough to sit the cup in front of her without spilling it, which was a considerable feat since he still felt weak and tired from his outburst.

He had no idea what she was feeling, what she was thinking, but that was all right. He had given up on knowing, and he knew that when they walked out those doors and onto the Bridge together a few minutes from now, everything would return to normal. The Captain and Commander Chakotay would go about their duties and no one would be the wiser about what had happened behind closed doors. And they would never speak of it again.

But as Chakotay began to straighten, she suddenly looked up at him, into his face, and he froze. Her face was centimeters from his, something she was always quick to rectify whenever it happened, but this time she didn't move, and she didn't turn away.

Her lips were so close to his, he could feel the warmth from them, from her skin, feel her soft sweet breath on his face, smell the faint scent of jasmine she always wore, the subtle scent that one was only aware of when she was close, so close. Too close.

His breath caught in his throat and he stopped breathing. He couldn't move, either.

"Thank you, Chakotay," she whispered, and they both knew she wasn't speaking about the coffee. "You've given me a beautiful gift today, the one I've wanted most."

He still couldn't move, and he couldn't speak, either.

She tilted her head slightly, ever so slightly, and their lips were in perfect alignment for a perfect kiss. She grazed his lower lip gently, so gently he wasn't sure she had actually touched him, but he felt her nearness throughout his body, through every inch of his flesh, and his soul.

But she didn't move away.

Chakotay forced himself to breathe, to experience her nearness, to burn this moment into his mind, his very being. She was his, she'd belonged to him for a moment, for one complete moment in time.

But she wasn't moving away.

Chakotay had never called the shots between he and Kathryn; he'd never been in a position to take the lead. She was the boss, the Captain, the one who spouted protocol. But right now, as he looked into her eyes, she wasn't the Captain. This was Kathryn Janeway, the woman he wanted to hold, to love, for all eternity.

And she had just kissed him.

And, still, he couldn't move away from her. But she hadn't moved away, either, he suddenly realized.

She looked deeply into his eyes. Had she taken a risk she shouldn't have taken? Was her timing wrong? As a Captain, she was the boss and it was a job she knew how to do, a role she was comfortable with. As a woman, she felt less in control, more vulnerable, and sometimes completely unsure of herself. It wasn't a good feeling. She wasn't nearly as sure of herself when she couldn't control everything around her.

This was it, he realized. It was now or never. Kathryn had given him a taste, a moment, a hint. She had touched him, kissed him, and he wanted more. He needed more. Carefully, slowly, he lifted his hands to her face. She didn't move, didn't pull away. He brushed his thumbs over her lips gently, reverently, and she continued to look into his eyes, even when he sensed her body reacting to his touch.

She didn't move, couldn't move. She was trapped in his lair, but she had never felt so completely free. She could only look into his eyes, the eyes that spoke of his love for her.

Chakotay slowly touched her lips with his. He brushed her lower lip with his mouth, then her top lip, then he moved his mouth over hers completely. She gasped when he continued on, kissing her chin, and moving up the side of her face, but he wanted to know all of her, he wanted to touch her completely. He had to feel as much of her skin beneath his lips as she'd allow.

Kathryn closed her eyes and allowed the sensations to flow over her. She was on a cloud, high above everything and everyone, naked and alive. She felt every muscle and every nerve in her body react, burn through her body from the inside out. She moaned softly in the back of her throat, and he thought he'd never heard a more arousing sound in his life.

He leaned over further, and she allowed him to kiss her jaw line, then dropped her head back to allow him to kiss her throat. She felt a jolt run throughout her body as his mouth, his lips, his warm breath tantalized her, made her entire body react in a way she was completely unprepared for.

"Chakotay . . . ." she whispered.

He couldn't stop, didn't want to stop, didn't want her to tell him to stop, so he moved his lips back over hers, stopping her words from continuing.

Suddenly, her chair began to tip backward, and Chakotay grabbed her before she fell, pressing her body to his to protect her from the fall, but they tumbled to the floor together anyway, almost in slow motion, only centimeters away from the chair that had crashed to the floor beside them. But they didn't part.

Chakotay continued to kiss her, as she lie on the floor beneath him, to move his mouth over hers, over her neck, her chin, her face, and she closed her eyes and allowed the feelings to overwhelm her, and she kissed him back, tentatively at first, then she began to react with all the passion she truly felt for him, for the man she loved.

*

The crash was heard on the Bridge. Tom and Harry looked up from their consoles simultaneously, and Tom threw a quick glance over his shoulder at Harry, and they grinned at each other. Tom shook his head and turned back to his console before Tuvok could reprimand him. Either the Captain and Chakotay were in a heated argument, which had certainly been known to happen, or . . . well, he wouldn't speculate about the "or" part since he'd been proved wrong about that on more than one occasion. Still . . . with those two, it was hard to tell. Someday they were bound to come together in - well, in a romantic entanglement rather than in one of their fights. All that passion between them had either been going to waste all these years, or it was building up to some great big finish. Tom grinned to himself again. That might be worth a good bet . . .

Commander Tuvok experienced a split second's hesitation about interrupting Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay, yet his tactical training, and his sense of duty, quickly took charge. He tapped his comm badge.

"Tuvok to Janeway," he said, calmly. There was no reply. "Tuvok to Janeway," he repeated. "Is everything all right, Captain?"

"Fine, Tuvok," came the Captain's voice over the comm line. "We're fine, thank you. Janeway out."

"Well, that was interesting," said Tom Paris, as he continued to work his console. "No explanation, nothing."

"Mr. Paris," said Tuvok, in his usual Vulcan manner. "It is not your duty to question the Captain's response. If she had needed our assistance, she would have asked for it. And it is not her duty to give you, or us, any explanations."

"Yes sir," said Tom pleasantly, accepting Tuvok's standard answer for everything. But that didn't stop him from wondering just what in the heck was going on in the Briefing Room between the Captain and Chakotay. Whatever it was, things seemed much quieter. Tom grinned to himself! Oh, what he wouldn't give to be in the Briefing Room right now!

*

Kathryn lay on her back on the floor and looked at the ceiling, breathing heavily. She noticed that a ceiling panel was a bit out of alignment, and wondered absently why she hadn't noticed it before and asked B'Elanna to have it repaired. Then she brought herself back to the present and reminded herself that she'd never quite seen the ceiling in her Briefing Room from this angle before. Funny how the mind tried to bring order out of chaos.

Chakotay was right beside her, on his back, trying to get his breath, too. Who would have thought he and Kathryn would be lying side by side, gasping for breath, on the floor of the Briefing Room? He grinned to himself, wondering what Kathryn would say now that their intimate moment had been brought to a halt by Tuvok's interruption. No matter what she said, he didn't really care. It had happened. He had kissed her, and she'd kissed him back. And those kisses had been the most incredible thing he'd ever experienced. Now they were lying on the floor, side by side, trying to remember how to breathe.

After what seemed like minutes, Kathryn turned her head toward Chakotay, and he instinctively turned to look over at her.

"I can't believe I'm this out of shape, Chakotay," she said in her normal tone of voice, and very nearly in control of her breath again.

He grinned. Leave it to Kathryn to immediately put both of them at ease and make the situation less embarrassing.

"I for one think you're in excellent shape, Kathryn," he said in that soft voice that she'd always found so exciting. "I'm breathing much harder than you. That'll teach me to gloat the next time Tuvok insists that you attend all his Battle Drill fitness training sessions while I handle Bridge duties."

They smiled at each other, and suddenly Kathryn's smile faded.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Tuvok. What in the hell am I going to tell him happened in here?"

"Do you have to tell him anything at all?" he asked.

"No," she said staring at the ceiling again. That ceiling panel was really starting to bother her. "But if I don't tell him something, he'll look at me in a strange way for the next several days and I'll feel guilty that I wasn't forthright with him."

"Kathryn, I think you imagine that he looks at you differently. Tuvok always has the same look on his face."

"No, he has different expressions - but if you tell him I said that I'll deny it." She sighed. "But I'll feel guilty either way."

"Then tell him the truth."

She looked at him incredulously.

"Tell him you kissed me and we fell flat on our backs on the floor, along with the chair?"

"No, tell him we were engaged in a passionate embrace that got a bit out of hand and we knocked a chair over."

She laughed. And the more she thought about it, the funnier it got. She laughed again, and this time Chakotay joined her.

"Well, I could tell him that," she said. "He wouldn't believe me, and I'd be right back to feeling guilty - this time because I'd know he thought I'd lied to him."

"You do have a guilty conscience where Tuvok is concerned. It's even worse than I thought."

She laughed again, and then they both grew quiet. They were each beginning to wonder where to go from here. She moved her hand over to his and covered it with her own. He turned his palm up and they laced their fingers together.

Kathryn continued to stare at the ceiling. That entire damned ceiling grid was starting to look crooked, and it annoyed her.

Finally, she forced herself to sit up, then turned to look at Chakotay.

"I say we put this room back the way it was and have a last cup of coffee before we face the Bridge crew again. What do you think?"

"Are our two hours over already?" he asked.

"Nearly," she said softly. She found herself looking at his mouth and she couldn't allow herself to do that, not now.

He looked at her. She was flushed, and her hair was mussed. There was laughter in her eyes, the kind that didn't come easily, or often. And, amazingly enough, she seemed truly comfortable about the fact that he'd kissed her, that he'd nearly ravaged her, if the truth be known. It was probably a good thing the chair had overturned and Tuvok had interrupted them, because he suddenly realized he might not have been able to stop himself. She was everything he'd always wanted, yet so much more. He sighed, then lifted his free hand to her face. She hesitated only a moment before turning her cheek into his hand.

They looked at each other, and he stared deeply into her eyes, those eyes that had filled his days, and his dreams at night, for years.

"Chakotay . . ."

"Shhhhh . . . not right now."

She nodded, then removed her entwined hand from his and forced herself to rise to her feet and dust herself off. Chakotay stood as well. He moved away from her, and went in search of their forgotten coffee cups filled with cold coffee. He took them to the sideboard against the wall and slowly poured fresh coffee into new cups, then took one to her.

"Thank you," she said softly.

Chakotay nodded and sipped his own coffee.

"That was quite a . . . breakfast," she said, and when he glanced at her he saw that she was smiling. There was no figuring Kathryn Janeway. He thought she would be angry with him now, or disappointed, and he was still waiting for the protocol lecture.

He nodded. He didn't know what else to do. What he didn't want to do was forget about the past half an hour, or what they'd shared together. It had been the most incredible morning of his life, finally touching her, kissing her, tasting her, holding her body next to his, even for such a short time. He already ached for more. Yet he knew she would soon tell him that it shouldn't have happened and couldn't happen again. She would make him promise to forget it, to never mention it again. After all, they had a crew to get home, a job to focus on.

They stood near each other and sipped their coffee in silence, thinking separate thoughts.

Chakotay prayed that she wouldn't ask him to pretend they'd never kissed, that this morning hadn't happened the way it had. Because he knew he couldn't make that promise. He would promise Kathryn Janeway anything, anything in the universe, and he had already promised her more than she knew, but he wouldn't promise her he'd pretend his lips had never touched hers.

And Kathryn didn't quite know how to proceed from here. It wouldn't be fair or right to pretend this morning had never happened, but she couldn't allow them to change the rules now, not when they were so close to home. She had to focus on getting them there, safely and soundly, and not on a new relationship - not now. They weren't out of the woods yet.

But this wasn't a new relationship, was it? Kathryn suddenly looked up into Chakotay's face, startling him. Theirs was an old familiar warm relationship that was merely growing, maturing, more slowly than might have been if she'd allowed it to continue before now, but growing all the same. There was nothing really new here, she was just finally admitting to herself that it had been here all along. In her own way she had nurtured it just as much as Chakotay had, for seven years.

Maybe it was time a few new ground rules were added. After all, they were close to home now. And because it was up to her to do it, she could and would. She smiled at him and saw the confusion in his eyes. Ah, he was expecting a lecture on Starfleet protocol, she realized. And her smile grew a bit bigger.

Chakotay didn't know what she was thinking, but he would give anything to know. The look in her eyes was soft, warm, inviting - definitely not the look that accompanied a lecture. And it made him uncomfortable somehow. And then she smiled. He forced himself to take a deep breath. Something was wrong. Just when he thought he knew her well, she did something completely out of character.

"How much time do we have left, Chakotay?" she whispered.

He forced himself to glance at the chronometer.

"Four minutes," he said softly. Just enough time for her to remind him of their duties, he thought.

She nodded, then took his coffee cup from him gently and carried them both to the table. Then she turned back to look at him.

Now she was going to give him the lecture on protocol, Chakotay knew it without a doubt. He took another deep breath and steeled himself for it.

But she walked back to him, and stopped only when she was toe-to-toe with him. His breath caught in his throat, and he willed her to walk away, move back. He could smell her, see the look in her eyes that always made his heart beat faster, and he wanted to touch her. He didn't know how long he could stand this close to her without touching her. He could even feel the warmth from her body even through all the layers of clothing that stood between them, and his heart was beating so fast he could hear it pounding in his ears.

"Kathryn," he barely managed to choke it out.

"Shhhh . . ." she whispered softly. She was so close he felt her breath on his neck. He was feeling all kinds of things he shouldn't be feeling right now. "Chakotay, we need to go out there and pretend this never happened."

"Kathryn," he tried speaking again. He had to tell her he wouldn't pretend, not anymore.

"Listen to me carefully," she said softly, then continued slowly, allowing her words to sink in. "We need to go - out there," she said, stressing the last part. "And pretend this never happened."

He listened to her words.

"Out there?" he managed.

"Yes. Out there," she said.

He looked at her. Something was different. Her eyes told him that things had changed somehow. Every other time in the past seven years when something had very nearly happened between them, he was rebuffed and reminded of protocols and parameters. But she hadn't mentioned either word today.

He nodded. He couldn't speak, and he didn't dare think what he was thinking. Yet he was thinking it anyway.

"And, I was wondering . . ." she continued.

"What?"

His voice sounded like a squeak when he heard it, but she didn't seem to notice.

"Do you have plans for tonight?"

"Tonight?" His tongue felt tied and his throat was dry. "No."

He was gratified that his voice sounded fairly normal.

"Since it is my birthday, I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me tonight."

He swallowed.

"There's nothing I'd like better, Kathryn." Nothing. "Just tell me when and where, and I'll be there."

He thought she might pick one of her favorite holodeck dining establishments, ones that he frequented with her on occasion.

"Nineteen hundred hours," she said in a voice that rocked him to his very soul. "Your place."

She was still standing far too close to him for comfort.

"My quarters?"

"Yes. I like the way you make pasta alfredo." She smiled. "I'll bring the wine."

"Sounds good to me." He managed to smile. It sounded like the best idea he'd heard in his entire life.

"Good." She turned toward the exit doors, and he instinctively started to follow her. She stopped suddenly and turned back to him, and he barely caught himself before stumbling over her. "And nothing untoward happened in here today," she said, looking him straight in the eye.

"Nothing untoward. Nothing at all," he said.

"Good." Then she turned back toward the doors, but stopped and turned to him once more just before they opened. "Chakotay?"

He managed to stop again, without running into her.

"Yes?"

"Since it is my birthday . . ."

"Yes?"

He couldn't help but grin. Leave it to Kathryn to take her advantages where she found them.

"Might I indulge myself a moment?"

She could do anything she wanted. Anything at all.

"Of course, Kathryn," he said.

She immediately lifted her face and kissed him full on the mouth. Then she pulled back, but only slightly. After a moment of consideration, she closed the distance again, slowly. She pressed her lips gently against his, then slipped her tongue inside his mouth in the most deft manner he'd ever known. He gasped into her mouth, and she stifled him with the most glorious kiss in all his experiences. He brushed her tongue with his own, tentatively, and felt a jolt of electricity that rivaled any description of a kiss he'd ever heard or felt. He moaned when she deepened the kiss.

When she finally moved away, she did so slowly, and Chakotay knew he'd never be the same again. He watched as she smoothed her hair into place, and quickly took a deep breath to collect her thoughts. As Captain Kathryn Janeway readied herself to face the outside world again, Commander Chakotay was trying to remember where he was, and who he was.

"Shall we return to the Bridge?" she asked, and he wondered how she managed to sound so business-like to his ears.

"Anytime you're ready, Captain," he said, surprising himself at how normal he sounded. He smiled. Starfleet training ran deep.

She nodded, but her eyes still shone with affection, and with something else he couldn't quite identify, not yet. But he'd figure it out. He would learn everything he'd yet to know about her - and there were still plenty of things, even after all these years.

"By the way," she said, and her voice was Kathryn's again, for one more moment. "That was the most wonderful kiss I've ever experienced. Thank you."

He could only stare deeply into her eyes, but he knew she could see the depth of his emotion for her in his. He wasn't sure he could ever hide it from her again.

"And I love you, too," she said softly, so softly it took him a moment to realize she'd said the words. Then the Captain turned back to the doors that opened in front of them.

Out of long habit, and protocol, Voyager's First Officer managed to follow his Captain onto the Bridge, and move directly to his seat. She loved him . . . she loved him. Her words reverberated in his mind, sending shivers throughout his entire body. He was glad to sit; he wasn't sure his legs could support him much longer without effort.

Kathryn walked with purpose to her command chair. She took in each of her Bridge officers quickly, one by one.

"Thank you, All," she said. "I've had a delightful birthday breakfast. And you couldn't have chosen a more suitable companion for me," she said, as they all snickered good-naturedly. "I'll send a 'thank you' memo to the entire crew later, but I wanted to thank my thoughtful senior staff publicly first. So, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It was a lovely gesture, and most appreciated."

They all looked at her, and listened to her speak. They noticed the glow about her, and the sparkle in her eyes, and they wondered. But mostly, they were glad they had given her a special birthday surprise.

Then they looked at her First Officer, and wondered again. Chakotay seemed unusually . . . quiet. And serene. And really focused on that display in front of him.

'He looks like he doesn't know what hit him,' thought Tom Paris. But then he immediately dismissed the other, crazier thoughts that ran through his mind. He'd been wrong about that before, and he was surely wrong this time, too.

The Bridge crew nodded at the Captain, and smiled back at her. They were pleased they'd been able to give her something she seemed to truly appreciate. Then they returned to their duties, positively glowing from their Captain's praise and appreciation.

And Chakotay continued to stare at the display in front of him. She loved him. She loved him, and she'd told him so.

Captain Janeway sat in her command chair and smiled. It was the best birthday she'd ever had, and she was already thinking that the evening might just turn out to be the icing on the cake, so to speak, the crème de la crème, of birthdays. She glanced sideways at her First Officer and smiled to herself. Yes, she was already imagining a very nice evening in Chakotay's quarters, with soft music playing in the background, his delicious pasta alfredo, a nice bottle of wine . . . and winding it all up in the arms of the man she loved. It was time.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on her duties as ship's Captain. Whoever it was that said, "Anticipation is the thing that makes it all worthwhile," must have been crazy. He certainly wasn't a terran philosopher, nor was he as impatient for what he most wanted, as was Kathryn Janeway.

She loved him. He heard her words in his mind again and again, and felt his heart swell. The past seven years had all boiled down to this morning, this moment. They loved each other, and he suddenly realized he wouldn't have to worry any longer about what would happen when they finally got home, to Earth. They would work out what they had to work out, and then they would spend the rest of their lives together. He wouldn't lose her, after all. If they could manage to love each other for seven years in the Delta Quadrant on Voyager, spend seven years filled with hopes and dreams and not much more, then they could survive anything. He looked up and saw her trying to concentrate on her monitor, determined to be very Captain-like.

And he smiled. She loved him. She'd told him so.

Kathryn noticed B'Elanna across the Bridge at her console.

"B'Elanna?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"When you get a moment, check out that ceiling grid in the Briefing Room. Some of the overhead panels are crooked."

"Captain?" asked B'Elanna, not sure she'd heard right.

"I'm sure they're simply out of alignment, but they should be checked."

"Ah . . . sure, Captain. I'll get right on it."

B'Elanna threw a quick glance at Tom and he shrugged slightly, so that no one but his wife would notice it. Well, maybe Harry noticed it.

Chakotay looked up at B'Elanna and saw her staring directly at him with a grin on her face. He looked away quickly. Kathryn never let information slip unintentionally, and never gave away secrets that she didn't intend to. And he couldn't help it that a grin was beginning to spread across his face.

The Captain smiled to herself. Why should Tom Paris be the only one to wonder? And she also knew that no one, not even Tom, would have the nerve to ask her about it.

"Uh . . . Captain?"

"Yes, Mr. Paris?" Well, no one except Tom, she corrected herself.

"How exactly did you notice that the ceiling panels were crooked?"

The sudden and immediate silence on the Bridge nearly made the Captain smile.

"A Captain often ascertains things about her ship that others miss, Mr. Paris."

"Okaaay . . . but . . . ."

Tom decided to try again. This opportunity was just too good to miss.

"Yes, Mr. Paris? Did you have another question?"

Her tone told him what the answer to the question had better be.

"No, Ma'am."

He knew that tone, and he certainly didn't want to spend the night in the Brig. He might be braver than most when it came to cajoling the Captain, but he wasn't a fool.

Kathryn glanced back at the display in front of her. She had a lot of work to do before dinner tonight, so she'd better get to it. She raised her head and found herself looking directly into her First Officer's eyes. She grinned when she saw the smile on his face. He knew she'd deliberately stirred the pot with her comments to B'Elanna, and then had quickly shut Tom up. So be it. He knew everything else about her, too. Well, most everything, she mused. Her smile grew larger and her eyes twinkled with mischief.

Chakotay didn't know what she was thinking, exactly, but he didn't care what it was. He was still numb from all that had happened this morning. But he knew one thing. She loved him. And his smile grew larger, too.

Kathryn shook her head and forced herself to look back at the screen in front of her. The Captain and her First Officer couldn't afford to stare at each other with big silly grins on their faces while on the Bridge, and on duty. She knew he was wondering why she'd baited B'Elanna about the ceiling grid, and truthfully she'd done it to let Chakotay know that she didn't want either of them to pretend they'd not shared a lovely morning together. They had kissed and held each other close, finally.

And it was most certainly as wonderful as she'd imagined it being. She took a deep breath and tried to force her heart rate to slow. Kathryn Janeway intended to initiate several changes in her relationship with Chakotay, starting tonight.

Just the thought of it made her grin that silly grin again, so she stared hard at her console and hid her smile by placing her chin in her hand. Happy Birthday, Kathryn, she thought to herself.

THE END


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