Behind the Stains

Disclaimer: I don't own them and I make no money off them. I just play with them.

Rating: More R-ish I think.

Author's note: Harmless fluff (as fluff as I get) for Jacks's birthday. What happened just before Stained. Thanks to her for enthusiastic encouragement and support, to Chesh for the lovely and patient beta and her support, and Oparu for her indirect inspiration to just write the thing. Oh...and to Gates for the heads up as to what day it was.

Behind the Stains


C


"So do you think Neelix really forgot all this fruit was here…or is it just because it actually tastes good that he didn't want us to know about it?" Paris drawls through garishly stained lips and teeth, and I can only shake my head at him.

Grinning back through my own absurdly sticky, stained mouth.

Being first officer, I may have to hold myself to a higher standard and am unable to agree with him verbally, but I can sure as hell show my appreciation for his effort, I decide.

And I let myself.

It's hot out here. We've been working for hours now in this little grove of fruit trees. Yet looking around at the away team's purple, sticky and smiling faces, as they laugh and joke seemingly without a care in the galaxy right now, I can't recall seeing them being quite this relaxed in months, really. And I know I haven't been. Not since…

Seska.

She's a sobering thought. Even now, two months later. And seeing her lying there on that biobed, her sightless blue eyes staring up at me…was no closure. It's like an open wound, to some extent. One that can't heal properly because now I'll never be able to reconcile what she did. All that she did.

All that I let her do.

It does get a little easier. With time. And I know no one else blames me for the mess that exploded out of all of it, for almost losing the ship to her. It doesn't make it much easier to hide from the real truth…which is that I was, undeniably, at the core of the entire sordid event. My actions and my blindness were what had brought Seska to Voyager in the first place. If it hadn't been for that inexcusable blindness on my part…

A foreign rumble of disapproval roils through my blood. Raises the hairs on the back of my neck and has me lifting my head and looking around for the source of the strange sensation until I realize…it's probably my spirit guide. I bow my head and acknowledge her rebuke.

She's reminded me about fifty times by now how much good it does to dwell on the past. Fundamentally, I know she's right.

If I'm half angry with her for the vision of last week, which has kept me from returning to seek further guidance, I don't think I can be blamed for it. I don't fully understand what she made me see in my last vision, or why she did it. I only know it haunts me, has every moment since. Has done nothing to help me resolve my own demons lately. A full-body shudder passes through me as the memory of that vision overtakes me.

I walk, shrouded in darkness, following the scent and shadowy form I know to be of one person, and one alone. The walking goes on indefinitely. Me trying to close the distance between us and never quite managing it. After what seems an eternity of seeking, trying to catch up with that figure, she finally appears ahead of me, a single shaft of weak light making its way down to the cave floor from a wink of an opening above.

Kathryn appears, visible. She's beautiful, as always, but the look on her face as she stands meters away from me, on the other side of a gaping chasm I can't cross, is heart-stopping. It's an expression of so many emotions, all of them crushing, that I can't help but fear it instinctively. An expression of uncertainty, of vulnerability, of fear. It's sadness, remorse, anguish, doubt. Need.

And the second before I reach for her, purely a symbolic gesture with the chasm separating us, I see the flicker of a plea. A splash of apology that warns me, roots me deep into the cavernous ground beneath my feet. The side of the chasm closest to her suddenly groans and bellows, rock crumbling away from under her. I get one last look at that haunted expression on her face before the deepening, bottomless pit implodes in on itself, swallowing her whole as she falls into it.

Silence fills the air all around me. The silence of loss, her scent as gone as her body. And then she's no longer here. There's no sign of her, anywhere. The chasm gapes pitilessly back at me, having taken her without apology, what my inner soul screams at me is permanently. She's gone. Gone, and quite possibly de–

I refuse to finish that inexplicable conclusion. As I had when the vision had overtaken me to begin with.

I don't usually have precognizant visions. Almost never, in fact. The idea that this could have been one of them, as real as it felt, as deep a sense of foreboding as it flooded through my entire body, fills me with a fear I can't help admitting is damned close to being intolerable. I don't know what it means. When I demanded to know, to be told, I was given more riddles that haven't made any sense.

Still, I've been on the lookout for markers, signs from that vision, ever since. But I haven't seen them. Yet

I have to switch mental gears, now, before I ruin the mood for everyone around me.

They don't deserve that.

So I give silent thanks for all the many blessings I do have to be thankful for right now: gratitude being the natural enemy of regret and malcontent–

A movement, more of a flash, really, catches my attention at the far, outside edge of the grove of trees. Holding up a sticky hand to shield the tops of my eyes, I squint past the bright sunlight overhead, trying to see what it could have been…but can't see anything at all now.

Is this sunstroke? I almost have to wonder. It is uncomfortably hot out here, under this planet's double suns. Glancing around self-consciously to see if anyone else noticed it, I can see that everyone's looking at someone else, busy with their own conversations and tasks.

Sunstroke it is. I frown. I should probably wrap it up soon. And maybe advise the rest of the team to do the same. The fact that advancing age might be playing a part in the tricks my mind is wanting to play on me today hardly even crosses my mind, really–

No. I tense, my eyes snapping back to the edge of the trees. Sitting up straight on the empty, overturned crate I've been using as a seat. Because there it is, again. And this time, it's accompanied by the barest hint of red…

And then I see her. She's standing at the edge of the grove, just outside of it. Watching. And she must have been there for…how long, exactly? It's hard to tell with her. Might have been minutes. Might have been hours.

I hadn't expected her to show. She'd outright shut me down earlier, when I'd tried to get her to join the rest of us. For nothing else than to stretch her legs a little, I'd pleaded. She'd ignored me. Muttered about too many damage reports she wanted to double check the resolutions to. Clearly, she'd changed her mind, unbeknownst to me. At some point.

Her eyes finally catch on mine, catch on me watching her. She stops moving entirely for just a moment. Dips her head in acknowledgment that I've seen her.

I get to my feet. Subtly waving my hand over towards the group, silently calling out for her to join us. Silently encouraging her to and feeling more of the heaviness lift from around my shoulders at the idea that she justmight

She shakes her head, her lips pursed. And even across the distance, now, I can see that thick iron curtain of reservation she still holds herself with since…

Seska.

Although, for her, it's more of a matter of Cullah. Of losing Voyager. She still wakes up in cold sweats about it, she admits – although only to me. And only with heavy prompting on my part.

She needs this, needs the time and interaction with the rest of us. More than she realizes. She's slowly increasing the distance between herself and us. Building more and more walls to keep us from discovering whatever weakness she thinks caused her failure.

And she's already come this far…farther than I expected her to stray back on this side of those walls.

I have to grab her while she's still in reaching distance.

"Kathryn," I mouth, since no one's looking. Tilting my head toward the rest of them, urging her to reconsider. "Come on."

Her eyes are holding to mine. As if she's debating actually coming to me, despite her indication to the contrary. As if she might be willing to let me sway her out here. But at the last moment, she decides firmly against it. I can tell even across the distance when she shuts down against it. Something tiny, deep within me dies a bit as she turns away.

Slowly. She turns slowly. Walking in the opposite direction until I can't see her anymore past the trees closest to me.

But slowly. Slow enough to let me–

I only take a half second to glance around at the rest of the away team. Harry's unofficially in charge of overseeing this one. He organized it, and the rest of us have only beamed down to lend a hand for the sake of getting off the ship. If I disappear for a while, he'll take over until l return.

I won't be missed.

I slip quietly away from the gathering. Heading in her direction.

Almost positive that she'd meant for me to…and hoping I hadn't misread her signs. Intruding on her solitude – uninvited – is something I'd never do. She has so damn little of it out here as it is.

Then again, she's been relying on what little of it she can steal a hair too much, lately.

It doesn't take long to spot her again, once I reach open ground. She heads for the cliff-base about fifty meters away, is already halfway there. And I can just make out the crack of an opening in the rock face to one of the shallow caverns we'd detected there from orbit. But she pauses in her steps to turn back. Sees me. And indicates the cliffbase with a jerk of her head, in case I didn't get her intended direction.

Definitely wanting me to follow her. With a wry quirk of my lips, I acknowledge that she may as well be one of the fabled sirens the way I would follow her under any circumstances, no matter the destination – and she's never so much as had to sing a note for it.

The quirk spreads into a full blown smile as I can hear her caustic response to that thought. She assures me singing's not something she'd ever do to the rest of humanity. At least not sober.

I hold the prime specimen of the fruit I'd snatched at the last second, must've been squeezing it in my palm without realizing, and some of the tangy, over-ripe juice sluices over my fingertips as I continue walking. I ease up on my grip. With just that slight pressure causing the release of pent-up liquid, I know the one I've selected is a good one.

I follow her, keeping the distance between us constant – for now. Turning to look back over my shoulder every so often to see if anyone's observing our trek. But no one else is in sight. They're all still happily working back in the grove.

It's only now, as I near the cave mouth she's already disappeared into, that I'm noticing how hot the suns have really grown over the past hour. It'll be good to get out of the heat. I'll have to remember to comm. Harry to wrap it up in a little while, in case they don't come to the decision on their own.

The opening is a good deal wider than it had looked back at the bottom of the hill we'd just climbed. The second I step inside, I'm hit with a refreshing balm of much cooler air. A dank scent assails my nostrils, overwhelming the tang of the fruit that's been deep in my lungs. The smell of underground water, full of silicates and other rich, heavy minerals filters slowly through the damp air, and with it, a hint of some kind of indigenous flora…but even as I look around, I can't see a damn thing yet in the pitch dark. It's going to take a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the glaring contrast between the bright sunlight I've been working under and the lack of it in here…

I've never been here before, never smelled this particular combination of scents before, I'm sure of it…and yet I have. In the vision quest, just a week ago. My anxiety begins to build.

Another scent catches in my nostrils. A distinct scent, and a familiar one. A scent that goes right through any olfactory senses that may have first detected it and straight through to the most basic and primal parts of me. A scent that makes me ravenous, suddenly…and for much, much more than food. Maybe if I'm honest, it's for something more than just the obvious. Something deeper than even that.

I close my eyes and stop walking completely. And as I do, I can hear the slight rustle of cloth up ahead of me. A little to the right…several, maybe dozens of meters ahead.

The cavern is large, then. But I remembered that now from scanners. There was one that was larger, less shallow than the rest. But what I don't like is the immediate flash of image from that disturbing vision quest. When I saw that haunted look in her eyes, flashing out at me from the darkness. That haunting look of uncertainty, of vulnerability searing into me that paralyzes me just before the groaning chasm swallows her whole, and she's gone…

"Kathryn?" I venture into the darkness ahead of me, throat dry and muscles trembling. "Be careful! There could be a cliff base in here."

"Haven't detected any."

Neither had the ship, from orbit. It hardly makes me feel better.

"Back here," she directs. "There's a smaller cavern just ahead."

"I can't see enough yet..." My eyes are just beginning to focus on the not-quite-moving shape well ahead of me. And the sense of urgency flooding through me warns me that this is the moment I've been dreading. Now – so soon.

Ignoring the lack of wisdom in rushing headlong into semi-darkness, my pace quickens considerably.

"Here. Give me your arm." As I reach her, she takes my outstretched hand, leading me even deeper into the cavern along a narrower corridor of rock.

The contact of her fingers curling around mine lets my heart return to a more normal rhythm. At least if she falls, I'm going with her now.

I shake the negative thoughts from my mind immediately, knowing that kind of thinking only breeds more negativity. It's unnerving how silent my spirit guide was for them. Usually, she's on top of me before I can catch it on my own.

It's another unsettling observation I work not to pay too much attention to. Instead, I focus on Kathryn. Leading me deeper into darkness.

Eventually, we step into a clearing with a single shaft of weak sunlight streaming through from above and she releases my arm. And then I can see her again, and when she turns to look at me under that single, illuminating shaft of light, I'm brought up short by the picture of her face framed under that beam.

Everything I'd been planning to open with, everything I'd been rehearsing to say to her, to ask her about what she wants to talk about, dies on my lips when locking eyes with her up close. It's the look I've been watching for. The same, haunted look my spirit guide warned me I would see. I freeze.


J


I wanted to talk to him. I thought I wanted to talk to him. I thought I needed to talk to him, to someone, and get this off my chest. The endless cycle of self-doubt, self-castigation has been building.

I lost the ship, for God's sake. It's every captain's nightmare – aside from losing it with all hands – and it happened.

In the middle of it, there was no time for regret. No time for chastisement, "should have", "could have". I clung to my command, to the knowledge that I would get Voyager back or die trying, that I would not lose a single member of my crew to the primitive planet Cullah had dumped us on, but the fact remained, and does remain, that I fell for Seska's trap like an entry-level cadet on his first training exercise. I walked right into the middle of her ambush.

The truth of the matter is that I had been ready to give that command – hell I'd given it. The command I've already given once, in another part of time and space, but this time it was the me I live in, breathe in, that had done it.

The truth is that my crew is only alive because Cullah hadn't wanted them dead. He could have hunted them down one by one in their escape pods, if that had been his inclination. And if he and Seska hadn't conspired to disable that secondary command processor…the ship would be gone now, too.

Ever since Suder and Hogan's funeral, I've had nothing but time to think about it – relatively speaking, of course. Life out here is always one series of crises after another. But in the lulls between, I've had time to reflect. To feel the emotional weight of those circumstances closing down on me.

And so has everyone else. I've just been hoping these thoughts would go away, but I'm unable to help wondering if the rest of them have come to the same conclusion that I have.

I'd just needed to know if they still trusted me to command my ship. If they still trusted me not to get them all killed or if my failure had tainted their faith in me – as it had mine.

Mostly, I wanted to know if he still trusted me to lead us. If I should still trust myself or if my uncertainty was the damning stain of truth that answered the question for me.

But now that I've stopped moving, now that I've gotten him so completely alone, I don't even know if I can voice those thoughts to him. After losing the ship, after having him stand by me nonetheless…can I really ask him to bear the burden of knowing just how unsure I am that I'm the woman who's supposed to be in command of this ship? Can I make him live with that same uncertainty – if he doesn't already feel it?

No. I can't do it, I realize, hardening. It isn't fair to him. It's asking too much.

This burden is mine to bear – not his.

Yet as I turn to him, despising myself to the core for the uncertainty riddling what should be solid determination and uncracking resolve, the expression on his face wipes all doubt from my mind.

He looks broken, already. He's terrified of something, of I don't know what, but it's enough to wipe all thoughts of self from my tormented mind.

He needs me. I have to pull it together, to find out what's taken such a strong hold over him that he looks ready to crack himself.


C


I've never seen anything so beautiful, and yet so tormented, at the same time. The doubts flicker across her blue-gray eyes. The regret and the self-recrimination she's been kicking herself with, castigating herself with for weeks all crashes through her expression before she closes it again, and I'm floored. Paralyzed.

I wasn't meant to see it. She must have turned too soon. She was too secure in the cloak of darkness that had covered her vulnerability in that smaller tunnel. When she'd turned, she hadn't yet readjusted her shields, but those few seconds were all I needed to see to know – really know – how bad it is. Panic overtakes me, a sweat breaking out over my skin. It's almost too late already.

"Chakotay," her warm voice jerks me out of my devastating realization. "Hey." Her cool hand comes out to rest flat on my chest, pulling me toward the sound of her voice yet grounding me at the same time, and I blink. Gone is the vulnerability. The anguish and the self doubt. Instead, a deep concern puckers her porcelain brow. "You look positively tormented. Is it really that bad?"

I'd wanted to take that look from her eye. The one the rest of them can't see. Maybe Tuvok can, but he keeps his distance. Watches her from afar. He isn't one to give counsel when she doesn't ask for it, and the emotions from losing the ship, almost losing our only way home, are too raw, too deep for her to trust herself to seek counsel.

She's so close, I can smell her. Breathing the same air. This is the closest we've ever stood, with one of her small hands on my chest, the other brushing at some smudge of dirt on my face as she tries to get at the root of what's bothering me.

In the concern for me, the last thing she needs to be worried about right now, I see something else. Something I'd agreed not to see again when Tuvok's voice broke so unexpectedly over that comm. channel three months ago.

My eyes are on the new, almost unnoticeable lines etched into her face. On her eyes, begging me to tell her what's troubling me. On the wisps of sun-kissed hair that are always shaking loose of the steel bun to caress her sculpted cheeks and jawbones. On the lips forming a moue of confusion, deep concern. Those might be my undoing. All I'm aware of is not wanting that other look to return, of not wanting that chasm to open between us and swallow her whole.

Of knowing maybe we both need what we don't allow ourselves to need. I don't know.

I just know that I move, before it's too late. That my lips are on hers, that my hands are in her hair, on the side of her face, that I'm holding her with me, before I can lose her. That the stiff second of surprise is the only resistance I encounter before her hands and mine are ravenously roaming forbidden territory, striving to limit contact to gentle, exploratory, and failing utterly. Before her tongue is sharing the annexed space between our mouths, and mine is doing the same.

Before she's on the ground, and I'm on top of her.

And once it's started, gets this far, it can't be stopped. Her shirt is off, over her head and discarded in the dirt. Mine is ripped past my head, blocking my vision and frustrating the need to see small alabaster breasts framed in black lace as her second shirt slides like butter over her cooperating limbs and joins the first. The stubborn clasps of her pants give more trouble, but instead of giving me time to stop, to think about what's happening, it only solidifies the need to get them off. Now. There might be a ripping sound, but it could be mine as her nails graze the heated flesh of my abdomen, tearing my pants away from my hips.

I just don't want to lose her. And right now, this minute, she's with me. There's need in her eyes. Deep need, masking the deep pain that rivals it. Sorrow and fear of failure needs to be chased back, and just for this minute – I need her to know what she means to me. That she hasn't failed anyone, that she's needed far too much to lock herself up in some impenetrable fortress where we might never reach her again.

I need her. As much as she needs me.

I need her soft, sensitive breasts under my lips, her hips open and cradling mine. Her legs, bare and wrapped around my waist, her openness, this connection of our bodies as I slide home into her hot, welcoming depths. I need her eyes on mine, her trust, need for her to see mine in her. I need the erotic sight of her bare white neck, the taste of it as our hips grind together, as slickening lubrication from both our bodies eases the friction of frantic, desperate motion and the smell of sex and her fills the air around me.

Her eyes directly on mine, a lifeline, a connection between us. She needs this as much as I do.

I need her arching back, the low sounds of encouragement, pleasure pulled from her open mouth, her steady hips. Her fingernails imprinting themselves in my back as she claws it, my buttocks, painful and welcome like no pain ever inflicted on me before.

I need the release that overtakes me in no time, pulling my devotion to her out of me in hot, powerful spurts to fill her full. I need the close follow of her molten hot, contracting waves of pleasure clamping down on my body, and I need to swallow the resulting moan of ecstasy before it betrays her, us.

I ride the aftershocks, to continue the slow, steady motion of rocking my hips into her, letting her come down slowly alongside me.


J


We lie together, him half on me and half off, catching our breath and thoughts alike. After only a moment, he tenses, suddenly remembering something, his eyes darting up above me. He shifts a bit, sitting up. Poking around in the pile of discarded clothing above my head. "Damn," he mutters, after a full minute of rustling.

I crane my neck, looking up past my head at where he's lifting his heavily-stained jacket with a grimace. As I watch, a huge, squashed berry succumbs to the greater force of the planet's gravity and plops free from the cloth into a messy splatter on the cave floor below. A small chuckle might escape my throat as he glances down at me, rather forlorn.

"That was supposed to be for you. Must've dropped it when we…" He trails off…much to my amusement.

"When we were going at it on the floor like a pair of rabbits in late March?" I supply archly.

His dimpled grin, even purple-stained, has never failed to lighten any burden I've carried. I just haven't seen much of it lately. Not nearly enough of it.

"About then, yeah," he agrees. The grin fades into a faint frown as his gaze returns to the squashed mess on the same cave floor. "I brought that fruit all the way up here because I wanted you to taste one. They're amazing. Almost washed the leola root out of my mouth completely."

"I know," I agree, pulling him back down beside me.

His brows crease together as he rejoins me on the surprisingly comfortable stone, now that it's warmed a bit by our combined heat. "You tasted it?" he wonders.

I smile. Run an index finger over his full, berry-stained lips. "I did – on you. Quite thoroughly, in fact. It's delicious."

He laughs, his eyes coming to focus on my face. My mouth to be exact. At my questioningly rising brow, he supplies almost sheepishly, "Your lips are purple now, too."

"One guess how that happened," I drawl.

He shrugs. "At least you can describe how the fruit tastes, if questioned on it."

"Hmm." I murmur general agreement. It was good. Just the sweet/tangy uplift the crew has needed in their diet lately. Namely, since Neelix, bless his dear Talaxian heart, has taken over in the kitchen.

At least he's efficient, makes every precious foodstuff last, which is why I won't take the job from him despite our collective, suffering palates.

If I can't help the fleeting thoughts of self-recrimination over this latest break of protocol, too, from settling over me now that the franticness of the moment has passed, then he can't help seeing those thoughts the instant they pull my face into the worried lines of a frown.

I need his reassurance of, "We didn't do this lightly, Kathryn. That was more than just some…raw…animal lust, and you know it."

His words make sense. A sad sense.

An exciting, thrilling sense, just the same. His fingernail grazes the flat tip of my hardening right nipple, and the shards of nerve-tingling arousal, still lingering in the aftermath of that first frenzied coupling are bolting through me at that simple action. My mouth drops open in a breathy gasp that makes him grin what has to be smugly, to have him looking that pleased with himself.

Just like a man, to take that as a signal of his own prowess, instead of a normal biological response to specific stimuli. I'll be more impressed if he manages to actually get me across the finish line the second time, but…

"You're saying you don't feel raw animal lust for me?" I have the presence of mind, somehow, to pout through the teasing grin forming despite my attempts to mold my expression into a coy, offended one.

Damn. I never have been all that good with coy.

His growl is the only answer to that question I receive, anyway. And it would give an alpha lion a run for his latinum, I decide, perfectly aware of the thrills of desire his emphasis is causing to course through me now when his mouth latches onto my neck, his tongue sweeping a trail of warm sensation across the ultra-sensitive nerves there, his teeth descending on the heels of his growl and nipping a grazing, teasing bite.

I groan, arch into him. My entire upper body arching up from the cool cavern floor to press against his broad chest to encourage more of this kind of exploration on his part.

He stops suddenly. And as he draws back a bare centimeter away from me, I utter a growl of my own as he demands, "Why? Are you saying you don't feel it for me?"

A lazy smile forms on my lips. Taking his still-sticky hand, resting on my shoulder, I pull it down the altogether different kind of stickiness left between my thighs, slipping his fingers over me, letting the heel of his palm rest flat over my lower abdomen. Pressing over his fingers, I slide him slowly down, closer to his target.

"You tell me," I challenge, holding his gaze.

His fingers start to slide, to tease back and forth over the hot, swollen flesh I've invited him to feel. I'm losing myself in his eyes, which never leave mine.

"This can't be a regular thing, Chakotay," I have to warn him, as my head drops back listlessly on the floor. Before I give myself to the heat of molten pleasure he's building for me so carefully right now. "Right now…is good. We've got the ship back, and it's smooth sailing. But the next crisis…"

"I know," he murmurs. His hand continuing to rub in slow, gentle back and forth motions. "You can't afford to be distracted by some ship-board romance. Neither can I. I understand that."

"I don't know how much I can promise you. Or if we'll even get the chance to do this again…"

"Can you promise me right now…this moment?"

I think about it. And nod, reaching for him with my hands, wanting to feel the hot, hard warmth of him in my own palm. "Mmm hmm."

"Then it's enough for me."

It is for me, too. It will have to be. And our second joining, lazier than the first, ends with me on top of him, melting bonelessly onto his sweat-slickened, powerfully muscled bronze chest. Sated in more ways than one.

One thing is certain, however, as my thoughts re-solidify: I needed this. More than is flattering to admit for a woman who prides herself on being self-sufficient…on needing nothing. From now on, I'll be admitting to needing less to make up for this lapse, more than likely.

But to deny that a crucial part of me has been fortified by this joining of two souls protesting the necessary separation between them…that would be as pointless as it would be demeaning to what he just gave to me. What we just gave to each other.

I need the next few minutes of steady silence as I roll reluctantly off of him to curl into his side. I need the fortification of his faith, his devotion to our common goal, which is to get our ship home to Earth. I need his belief in me right now. The human connection that is missing for me out here. I need the scent of him, male and comforting, all around me.

I need the absence of constant worry, the absence of threat to my ship and crew, the lack of fear that I'm going to lose my ship again to unknown dark forces. That I'm going to fail them, in the end.

I need the time to fortify myself, to begin regrowing the steel and the iron will that will coat every step I take from here on out. I need to be, to escape those thoughts of self-doubt for a time, and bless him, he's just let me have it. All of it.

When he breaks the silence, it's only after I've had my fill of it, somehow.

"These are the times we have to remember," he seems to decide solemnly, his dark, observant eyes taking in my hair, splayed out all over the moss under me, my bare body and slightly-smiling lips. He brushes strands of hair back from my face, his dry-stained fingertips lingering to stroke my cheek when he's finished. "The good times," he clarifies, settling on my eyes. "These are the times that will see us through the worst that's yet to come."

I think about that, too.

And decide that I agree with him.

"That's a rather inspiring piece of rhetoric, Commander," I have to acknowledge, to his spreading purple-stained grin. Folding my arm to rest my head more comfortably, I turn to him, prepared to enjoy the last lingering minutes of our stolen interlude. "Mind if I steal it?"

"After you just called it rhetoric?" he teases. More relaxed than I can remember seeing him in ages, and it warms me.

"Inspiring rhetoric, I believe I said."

Leaning back, he frowns at the fruit, which has ended up closer to us with our recent motion. Picking it up, he tosses it across the cave, out of the way, then grimaces at his newly-sticky hand. I contain my huff of amusement, looking away before he can see it as he shifts beside me, getting a better angle against the cave floor.

"Well?" I prompt.

"I'm considering," he stalls, stretching out beside me and pretending to think long and hard. He rolls his head over in my direction, pretending to eye me furtively. "What's in it for me?"

He makes my eyes sparkle. I'm fairly sure of it. "You did ruin my fruit, remember. By my count, this is a fair trade."

"All right. You can steal my sage wisdom," he grins again at my spreading smirk, "in exchange for the thoughtful gift of fruit that you helped me squash…and…dinner."

I arch a brow. "One dinner? In exchange for 'sage wisdom'? Deal."

He shakes his head, amending, "That was too easy. Sage wisdom and mutually squashed fruit…in exchange for many dinners – five dinners. And you're replicating." He's making this up as he goes along, clearly.

I frown. "Chakotay–"

"That I'm replicating, I meant," he smoothly corrects. "On your rations. Five dinners," he repeats, satisfied. "Final offer."

"More than fair," I immediately agree.

We'll ignore the fact that he leant me more than five rations last week for coffee. Rations that I still owe him. That he hasn't asked for. That he isn't going to ask for – that he never does ask for and half the time refuses to take back. He extends his hand over my reclining body, waiting for me to reach out and shake on it.

One glance at his newly-sticky hand has me sitting up to avoid contact with it. Planting a firm palm on his warm shoulder, I push him back to the cave floor and, to his unabashedly guilty grin, opt to seal our "deal" in a much better form entirely.