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"I have something for you…But I didn't want to give it to you in front of everyone."

"Traditionally, when one is presented with a Bonding Box, it is customary to give a gift of equal significance, to show that you are willing to accept it."

"Why has it taken you five years to bring me to Venice?"

Before her higher brain functions had a chance to kick in, she found that her hunger equaled, if not surpassed his.

"I don't think I was reading anything into that kiss that wasn't there."

"Voyager might survive the rest of this journey without you, but I wouldn't."

The way you make me feel... the things that move in me when I let myself imagine everything we could have... it isn't a safe love... a love I can control.

"I'm not saying never... I'm saying not now... "

The fuel that would sustain them both was hope.

Excerpts from Isabo's Shirt by Kirsten Beyer

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It happened like a cascade failure or a chain reaction stemming from something so tiny; like a misfiring neutron or an irregular pole in a quantum equation. It was passed twenty-three fifty and she had been sitting in the same chair, in the same green pant suit, wearing the same blank expression staring at the same spot on the floor that she had been for the last two hours.

The past few days had been a triumph, the be all end all to the previous seven years of her life and with her ages of practice compartmentalizing she'd been having a blast enjoying the celebration with her crew. There had been tears, and toasts and conversations with home, preliminary debriefings and disembarkment orders and she had handled it all with her usual decisive manor but ever since she'd come back from the party and begun looking for an old photograph and it had dropped out of the drawer she'd been immobile, her compartments collapsing in on themselves like the lower decks of the Titanic. Unavoidable, inescapable and heart-wrenching.

After all, it was just replicated cedar. Only 2 inches by 2 inches, hardly enough wood to hold in her hand, but from the moment it had clattered out of the scarf she'd hid it in a few years ago that small cube had commanded her attention sending her thoughts into a whirlwind from old memories to very recent revelations. From a passionate miscommunication to a stale and unused friendship. From hours' worth of misspent research to an unearthed truth and a broken promise.

"Captain?" The soft, assertive voice began as a far off echo, barely penetrating the fog of her brain but sending the spiraling thoughts to more recent events and evoking an inadvertent hardening to the set of her jaw. Blondes, always the blondes. "Captain Janeway, are you ill?" The voice was a bit louder and nearer but she still had her eyes fixed on the tiny brown box a few feet away on the floor. A few minutes or more may have passed until her eyes all but glazed over as the subject of her current ruminations grasp the beautifully carved box in her Borg-laden hand and glanced over it with hardly the respect she felt it deserved. This turn of events, however was enough to break the spell and Kathryn shook her head as if to clear away the fog that she'd been under. Her jaw, still set and determined not to show any of the pervading jealousy or tumult that was bubbling just under the surface of a very thin line of emotional control offered Seven a brief and tight-lipped smile.

"I'm sorry, Seven." She stood, smoothed out her pant legs affording herself a moment to walk away and compose herself before turning back to face the girl. "I seem to have lost myself there for a moment. Was there something you needed?" Seven, taking another long and inquisitive look at the object in her hand before placing it on the coffee table just smiled lightly.

"Please forgive the intrusion. When you failed to respond I became worried as the computer plainly stated you were not asleep." The captain waved her hand in refute and gestured to the chair she'd recently vacated. Seven took one last nervous glance at the box before sitting on the edge of the chair while Kathryn sat back casually on the couch. "I wanted you to know I was able to get in touch with my grandmother." For as calm and cool as Seven had appeared when Kathryn first came around, there was a definite edge to her now. "I'll be headed to Sweden after the debriefings are done to become reacquainted with she and her relatives." Allowing all her ambivalence to subside she grasped the younger girls hand in her own and smiled with her whole face.

"That is wonderful news." Her heartfelt sincerity reached her eyes and there was an obvious shift in the formerly tense atmosphere. She released Seven's hand, took a long slow breath and leaned back on the couch, crossing her legs as she went. "The last time you saw Earth, you were a little girl. Do you remember it at all?"

"Not anything concrete. I remember a field, it was a bright summer day and I was running, playing." Seven seemed to stare at some far-off point in the distance as if recalling the image with a dreamy look in her eyes. A moment later it was gone and she was her distant, efficient self again. "I spent the better portion of my childhood in space with my parents; Earth will no doubt be full of surprises."

"You're probably right," Kathryn said thoughtfully then she set her jaw and nodded. "Give it some time and give it a chance. Though you're likely stand out, we all will for a while I assume, it's truly a remarkable place." She saw Seven glance nervously down at the cube on the table again and then cast a longing glance at the door. As Kathryn was about to excuse her guest out of self-preservation at the threatening memories Seven reached out and picked up the curious box, turning it over in her hands, fingering each carving as if committing it to memory. The shock of the sight caught Kathryn's breath in her throat and she, hopefully with nonchalance extended her hand in a desperate plea for the object of her loves affections to unhand the offending token of their once mutual affection. Seven however noticed the strain in her captain's expression and carefully passed the box over.

"A curious and beautiful piece of art." Seven was feeling; she wasn't sure what she was feeling but she didn't like it. "Those symbols…look, Mayan." She looked up and the two women unexpectedly caught the others eyes. An older wiser, world-worn and broken bluish-grey met an innocent, uncertain yet knowing shade of blue and in that moment they felt a shift. They knew. What Seven didn't know was that the late Admiral had been extremely forthcoming in her attempts to get her way. What Kathryn hadn't confirmed until the previous evening with a quick check of ships sensors logs though she still didn't understand was that the fledging relationship she assumed had been the reason for the alter of time had actually already begun. She had been certain the Admiral had changed twenty-six years of history, shown up when she did to avoid the coming relationship. With one look at the younger, beautiful woman she gave a small sad nod, taking the box and holding it close to her heart.

"Yes," was the only reply she could give. She cleared her throat and stood, ushering the younger woman toward the door. "We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. We should all get some rest." Seven hesitated for a moment, deciding whether she needed to press further or if further scrutiny of the box that was now being held in close proximity to the captain's heart would be against social protocol. Resigning that she didn't want to offend her host, she bid the captain goodnight and exited only to stop just outside the door. She felt her heart speeding up, breathing becoming slightly labored and there was a knot building slowly in the pit of her stomach, each sensation a new one.

She had chosen to ask the Commander on a date for multiple reasons. He was a capable officer, shrewd and experienced. She more recently had taken an interest in his beliefs and culture as his moral center had been particularly intriguing after their recent away mission. He was, of all the men on the ship one of the more pleasant to look at, and she felt the desire to learn more about him. She had made her decision after extensive perusal of his service record, personality profile in comparison to her own and an exhaustive research into Mayan culture, hoping to find unending topics from which to foster conversation and communication.

Bonding Boxes, like the one she'd just held in her hand were a fairly significant part of his culture. They had seemed to her wasteful and inefficient but her source had told of their being a gift with the intention of marriage and lifelong commitment. They were an outward expression of a deep seated love for the other person. They were not used in arranged marriages, but carefully crafted by a man who had chosen his mate. A man who would dedicate his life to one woman…

Her breath was coming less consistently and the unfamiliar sensations were persisting. She glanced to her left willing her feet to follow her eyes and quickly called the lift while she tried to regulate her oxygen intake with a few deep breaths. The doors opened revealing its lone occupant, Lieutenant Tom Paris. Feeling better in control of her faculties she stepped in and gave him a cursory nod, calling for Deck 8.

"Seven." He nodded back. "You're out late."

"I—yes," she stammered and he looked at her, puzzled. He could see she was, he wasn't sure; not herself.

"Is everything okay?" He had noticed her hesitancy right before she'd boarded the turbo lift—Borg didn't hesitate. There was, however no response to his query, she was hesitating again. His eyebrows scrunched and he began doing a cursory review of her outward appearance searching for illness, distress or damage. His review didn't last long as he heard her call the lift to a stop. "Seven?"

"I would like to ask you a question." She admitted after a moment of emotional reflection and logical debate. As someone who'd been on board from the beginning who had known both the Captain and Commander prior to the ships mission he would obviously be the only choice and she didn't wait for him to respond in the affirmative. "To your knowledge have Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay ever been…" Another hesitation. She knew what she wanted to say but the words just seemed, inefficient. "bonded? Romantically."

Tom was sure his eyes had never been wider, for more reasons than even he understood. He couldn't fathom why Seven, of all people on the ship wanted to know. He also couldn't fathom how, with all of her study of social protocols and personal relationships she would have to ask a question like that. Instead of making an off-handed comment he leaned back against the turbo lift wall and crossed his arms. "I'm not exactly sure how to answer that, Seven." Seven was confused. Her world consisted of black and white; right and wrong; truth and falsehood; logic and unreasonableness. "It's complicated." A strange desire to roll her eyes washed over her like a wave. Human emotions were fickle, she would have to get used to it.

"Go on." Tom rested his head back against the wall and tried to think of a concise way to effectively sum up the command teams relationship without betraying confidences and, though it'd never stopped him before, spreading falsehoods.

"To my knowledge the answer to that question is no. There was a time when I was certain it was going to happen but they've had a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders for the last seven years." He began. "Over the course of the journey they've each had their dalliances but never anything serious. Never anything that held a candle to even the friendship they've shared, because I don't think B'Elanna and I have a connection that deep." She was having a hard time understanding, the whole emotional aspect being brand new to her, even with her attempts over the years to understand just that. Tom could see her struggle and he changed tactics. "From the first month after we got stranded the Captain and Commander developed a healthy respect for each other and you…we all could see chemistry there. We started betting pretty early on how we imagined them turning out. Then after they got stuck on that planet it just solidified our beliefs that they were going to end up, well, together." His face scrunched up and he shifted uncomfortably with a sudden realization. "How honest would you like me to be here, Seven?" She just nodded for him to continue. "They were close after they got back, they were close until…well until you came along," he said gently, truly hoping she wouldn't be offended by it but wholly uncertain as to where this line of questioning came from. Her eyes grew imperceptibly and he could see confusion behind her usually aloof expression.

"Please. Explain," she stated. He took a centering breath and cut to the chase.

"It's not easy being in love with someone you shouldn't. It's even more difficult when you have nowhere to run. The Captain has always been distant from the crew, but never Chakotay. Their relationship has always been constant, in spite of some pretty huge disagreements. They always managed to work out their differences because there was a bond," he rubbed a hand over his chin searching for the words. "I'm not sure how to explain it to you. He would have given her the Alpha Quadrant if it had been in his reach and though she stayed stoic for the most part, we all knew she felt the same. Everyone used to call me Janeways' reclamation project, like she needed a project. Until you came along. You know the captain is plagued by guilt, about everything. Every skirmish, every lost life, every mistake she's made, and even logical choices?" He waited for her to nod in the affirmative before continuing. "She felt guilty for severing you from the only life you'd known even though she knew she'd done the right thing. She needed to prove to you and more so to herself, and Chakotay who had fought her from the second your collective beamed onboard, that there was more to you; that you could be more, better. So she threw herself into just that with everything she had. You were her recompense, her justification—in a weird way you were the child that the Delta Quadrant had stolen from her and she loves you, probably more than any of us—"

"Lieutenant, I fail to see how I became a wedge between the Captain and the Commander…" the hour was late and her churning emotions were becoming more and more exhausting. Human interactions were sometimes so irrelevant.

"If you don't feed a fire Seven, eventually it goes out. The Captain couldn't continue to be what she had always been to Chakotay because she couldn't be more. Your presence and her interest in you gave her the outlet she needed. None of us have ever seen her so passionate than when she was defending you. Their friendship remained, their bond I think is just as strong but it stagnated from lack of use." He looked at her thoughtfully, seeing her recognition—her understanding. He placed a careful hand on her shoulder compassionately, feeling her jump a fraction at the unexpected contact. "It's not your fault, Seven. If it hadn't been you, she would have found something or someone else. There were certain things she felt she couldn't allow herself out there. It's the reason why Chakotay is the only one on the ship to call her by her first name. She made few allowances for herself and in turn denied rest of us."

"She has been punishing herself for seven years." Seven wondered aloud, bringing her hand up to rub her forehead. Tom noticed and decided that the conversation needed to come to a halt. B'Elanna would have his head if he wasn't home soon to take over and let her sleep.

"Look, I need to get home and I think it would be best if you went to regenerate. You look like you could use some rest." He called the lift to resume as she nodded in agreement. "I hope I didn't upset you. You're an invaluable member of this crew and a good friend." He offered her his trademark grin as the lift doors opened to his deck.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. For the compliment and for your candor," she replied with a faint smile as he gave a small wave and the doors closed. Before calling her deck she took a deep breath and leaned back against the walls processing the deluge of information that had just been imparted to her. Tom had been very forthright with his knowledge and she wondered again how she herself had not realized the depth of the Captain and Commanders relationship before choosing to begin a relationship of her own with him. However if the pilot had been correct, there wouldn't have been much for her to observe due to her own unintentional hindrance of it. And now she was more than a hindrance. She was the proverbial 'other woman' and she chided herself for not consulting any other crew members before finally selecting the Commander as a worthy mate, for she was certain that given the knowledge she now had, upsetting the Captain would have been a primary reason to forgo her original proposition. The cold and defeated look in the Captains eyes when she'd handed her the box came back to her in a rush with new insight and understanding, causing her to gasp aloud. Suddenly she felt a strange prickling sensation in the corners of her eyes coupled with an ache that began in the pit of her stomach. She was certain that her tear ducts were malfunctioning when moisture began to gather and a drop fell along the curves of her face. Emotions, she decided, left much to be desired. She hastily wiped the offending tear, cleared the catch in her throat and stood upright and resolved.

"Deck Three."

/\

Chakotay sat alone in his quarters, his medicine bundle still spread out on the floor in front of him. For the third time since they'd returned his guide had eluded him, her evasion adding to the tumult within him. He had so many emotions vying for top billing and all he'd wanted was to unravel them with his spirit guide and find some clarity.

The word from Starfleet had been no surprise, but liberating at the same time. No jail time, thanks for coming back into the fold and praise for seven years of loyalty in the face of insurmountable odds. They still hadn't heard word if the former Maquis would be allowed to rejoin Starfleet, though he wasn't sure if he would if it were offered. One of the issues plaguing him.

His next area of distress was the distance he'd noticed between himself and Kathryn over the last week. Though he'd made a great many attempts to get her alone during parties or in between debriefings she'd firmly held her Captain's mask in place, brushing him off with apologies, rain checks and unnecessary distractions. They'd travelled 30,000 light years in a matter of minutes, such a paradigm shift that his head was still spinning; he was sure hers was too and he needed his friend. He'd tried to search his recent memories to decide what he'd done but he just couldn't place it. Or he didn't want to place it, though he was sure she was none the wiser.

The last being his final source of unrest. He had always considered himself a proud man who knew what he wanted but his behavior of late had even him scratching his head in confusion. Had he actually groveled in a fight to keep Seven by his side? He had never found himself as lonely in his life as he had at times in the Delta Quadrant. He'd never wanted something or someone so much only to repeatedly be shut down and perpetually delayed. Their arrival in the Alpha Quadrant had always been imminent and yet unattainable. Like Kathryn. Potential with no promise.

"I'm not saying never. I'm saying not now." Her words of years ago echoed somewhere in the back of his mind, almost an afterthought that he was purposefully suppressing to war with his own guilt. He brought his hands up and ran them roughly through his hair.

"What am I doing?" He wondered aloud, gruffly; his voice haggard with disuse. His ruminations were interrupted by the sound of the chime and he glanced at the chronometer. It was now after midnight and he breathed a sigh of relief. Only one person dared call on him at this hour. "Come," he called, surprise filling his features as the doors slid open to reveal a very weary Seven. She entered with a purposeful stride contrasting the emotional upheaval that was plainly written across her face. Concern for her quickly squelched his shock and he took several large steps to her side. "What's wrong, Seven?" He pulled her into a hug and offered her the chair once he released her. She shook her head quickly and smiled at him.

"I won't be staying," she stated matter of factly. "I believe I was in error when I chose you as a suitable mate for me and I now believe that although you may be well-suited to me I may not be all that you need." Though he could see the truth of her intentions he knew there was a tiny bit of doubt written in a slight sheen on her eyes. She'd told him previously of her operation to remove her fail-safe device and though he'd been in favor she had been more tender and vulnerable, and apparently more prone to insecurities. He knew she was smart, beautiful, witty, generous and innocently naïve. He had enjoyed their time together and was certain her assumptions were unfounded.

"I don't understand," he began again motioning her to sit so they could talk more. She held firm, taking his hand in hers with a gentle squeeze.

"Circumstances were different in the Delta Quadrant; some things may have been possible while others could never be. Our arrival here has changed the nature of many things and made the previously impossible possible. I want to afford you the freedom to embrace them." He'd never ever known Seven to be cryptic and he couldn't help but marvel at her carefully chosen words. Not because of their meaning, which was still eluding him but because it meant that she had developed more than he'd ever realized. He took her other hand in his and faced her, hoping he wouldn't have to spend more time convincing her of the relationship's merits.

"Please," he urged. "What is it you're trying to say?" Seven looked down at their joined hands; enjoying the warmth she felt both physically and emotionally at the gesture. A wistful smile passed her lips as she again chose her words with precision and called upon every social protocol she knew for how to 'let someone down gently'.

"I am certain that if I'd been more diligent in my research before beginning this affiliation I never would have." Her words were almost a whisper when she brought her eyes to meet his, "you are bonded and I have the utmost respect for you both. I could not entertain a relationship at the expense of someone I care so deeply for." His gasp was audible, his immediate release of her hands unintentional but somewhere in his psyche he knew it was necessary. He met her eyes and took a step back, her words echoing along layers of indecision and guilt and somewhere in the recesses of his being, hope. She took a step closer, kissing his cheek hastily and turning for the door.

"Seven?" Her name came out strangled between a sob and a groan. She smiled, nodded and bid him goodnight. He stumbled backwards into his chair and his head found its way to his hands, leaning forward onto his knees hoping to settle every part of his body that was threatening to overthrow him in that moment. 'You are bonded,' she had said. That wasn't entirely true. If he'd truly been bonded he never would have accepted her offer in the first place. If he'd truly been bonded there would be more than a passing greeting or cursory smile, there'd be fire and heat and a sharing of hopes and ideas. There would have been an open affection that had been missing in their relationship for years.

He thought back over his actions of the past few weeks with fresh eyes. Quiet dinners in secluded parts of the ship, secret rendezvous in the privacy of astrometrics or his quarters. His suggestion that they keep it to themselves to avoid prying eyes of the crew… He'd been acting like he was having an affair, all the while quelling his conscience with whispers of her withdrawal and the unlikelihood of ever making it home in time to make good on their hopes and dreams.

'You are bonded.' She'd said it with confidence, with foreknowledge. 'Go get her' would have sufficed but she'd chosen 'bonded' as if some new revelation had revealed itself to her. As if she knew… He groaned audibly and rubbed his temples. Finally he launched himself upward, exhaustion settling in and retreated to his bedroom, afraid sleep would not come easily. For however jumbled his thoughts had been, they were now ten-fold.

/\

Kathryn released a sigh, leaning against a pillar to gaze out at the view before her. She wasn't sure why she'd come, closure perhaps though it felt as though her heart was fractured still with no mending in sight. Their debriefings had ended, the parties were over and leave had been demanded. She'd spent weeks being fawned over by every relative she'd left behind, her mother more so than anyone and though it was welcome she'd decided to escape for a weekend of solitude and reflection. She was positive that if she allowed herself some time of introspection and release then she would find the peace she so desperately needed.

She'd never planned on Venice.

She took a deep breath of salty air and watched a few gondolas passing before her place on the Rialto Bridge. It was nearly dusk and the lit shops and restaurants painted a glorious landscape, the wake of the boats, the music in the air. It could have been magical, this last thought bringing a fresh bout of tears to rest on her lower eyelids, threatening to fall. She was certain she should leave, a trip to Ireland, Spain, anywhere but Venice. In spite of her propensity for flight she stayed, rooted to her spot, willing herself calm and assuring herself that if she could endure it wouldn't hurt so badly.

She hadn't spoken more than a word to Chakotay in a month. Her sister called it a clean break but it felt less like a break and more like a messy, disorderly heartache that kept her up at night, secluded and longing. Home was supposed to be Earth, with her family, her old friends reunited. She was supposed to be enjoying the lack of red alerts, stale replicated coffee and the barrage of weapons fire from unknown hostile aliens. Instead she found herself on a beautiful bridge in an enchanted city alone and wishing she wasn't.

"We always said we'd meet in Venice." The voice was soft and if she were honest she wasn't sure if she heard it or thought it until the familiar footsteps grew closer and she felt a distinctive and soothing warmth at her back when he stopped close. She couldn't turn herself to face him, her face still heated with unshed tears.

"I wasn't sure you remembered," she whispered—the catch in her voice betraying her emotions. He heard the catch and the implications, hanging his head low in shame.

"She said I was bonded," he explained, neither of them moving. "I'd love to say I forgot but I could never forget. I was lonely." He leaned in so slightly, his breath close enough to tickle her ear. "Please know I never wanted to hurt you." She exhaled and relaxed back against his solid chest, nodding, her eyes still fixed on the calming waves.

"I know." At her response he tempted fate and reached to snake his arms around her waist, pulling her more firmly to him and breathed in deeply the scent of Kathryn. She turned her head and relaxed it on his shoulder, twining her fingers with his. "I'm sorry you were lonely." The admission spoke volumes. She knew he was lonely for her and lonely because of her. She'd never asked him to wait and yet she expected it because he always had. He brought one hand up to her chin, tilting her face up so close they were sharing breaths.

"Now?" He breathed, his fingers slowly tracing and retracing her jaw as his lips grew nearer to hers. He saw a single tear escape her eyes and a shy smile grow on her lips.

"Now," she agreed as he closed the small distance, meeting her lips with relief and desire.