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The whispers start as I walk further away from the group huddling around a table in the mess hall. On the table next to that Chakotay sits, now by himself. He seems happy, I know, but I also know that he's trying to hide that expression of disappointment he so often gets when I leave him.
It's the same whenever I depart to get some work done or read a report. I can't do it while he's there; he's too much of a distraction. But the reaction from the crew is always the same.
I pass another table and they think I can't see them when their heads bow down towards each other to talk, whisper, conspire.
"What's wrong with her?"
What's wrong with me? Perhaps if they understood my position, my responsibility, then they'd realise that there's nothing wrong. I'm doing my job. I'm the Captain. I can't always be a friend, not even to him.
I cannot be distracted by anything, I cannot allow myself any luxuries until I get my crew home. Romance, love, is a luxury. Something I can't afford. I don't have the right after getting them trapped here.
I make it through another shift, spending most of the time in my ready room. Two hours into my off-duty time I'm reading another report and sipping another cup of coffee. Neelix hails me.
"I seem to remember inviting you to a gathering in the mess hall, Captain."
Shit. "I'm sorry Neelix, I'll be right there."
"I expect to see you in two minutes. Neelix out."
Since when did he started giving me orders? Tipping my head back I gulp down the last of my coffee and deposit the cup back in the replicator. As it dematerialises I leave the ready room and enter the bridge. Nodding at Tuvok, who's been left in command, I depart and head towards the mess hall.
They greet me with smiles and kind words as they always do and I find it so hard to hide how tired I am. I don't want to celebrate anything, I just want to do the work that has to be done. I don't even know what we're celebrating. I'm sure Neelix or Chakotay must have told me at some point but it's so hard to keep track with so many Birthdays, religious days and general celebrations to remember.
Everyone who's there settles down and the laughter becomes a low murmur as Neelix stands and makes a toast. "Six years ago to the day, this ship was thrown into the Delta Quadrant."
My throat immediately tightens. I had no idea, no idea. No one told me, no one prepared me. I didn't forget about the celebration - it was a surprise.
Neelix continues, raising his glass. "Through it all - the Borg, Species 8472, the Hirogen - we had a leader who would fight if she had to, but knew when to give compassion. A wonderful leader and a wonderful Captain...I give you Kathryn Janeway." They start clapping then raise their glasses in salute.
Oh God, I'm going to cry.
Motor control takes over and I find myself standing, a smile appearing on my face. What the hell am I going to say? And the words come. "Neelix graces me with his kind words, as you do with your applause. But we never would have made it this far without a contribution from each other. Working together is the only way we've managed to succeed. Thank you."
As I sit, it occurs to me how ironic the words sound.
More applause follows, but I don't really remember the next few minutes. Everyone seemed to pass by in a blur with their good wishes, more like the memory of people than anything else.
Until a soft voice speaks from behind, close to my ear. "You look like you're ready to scream."
I smile, not wanting to but unable to stop. "I thought I was doing a rather good job."
He chuckles and I close my eyes.
"Come on," he says "let's get you out of here."
Protecting me, as always. It annoys me sometimes but I'm too tired to fight him this time. Besides, he may be right.
We make it out of the mess hall without anyone stopping us and I'm too relieved even to thank him. It's an extremely short journey to my quarters but I'm touched he chose to walk it with me.
"Well, goodnight Kathryn. Sleep well."
"Thank you. You too." I feel something then, a new sensation. I grab his hand and hold it tightly. "Chakotay..." he stares at me "...thank you," I repeat, knowing they're the right words even though they sound inadequate.
He smiles deeply, sadly, and places his free hand on top of the two of ours that are linked. "Happy Anniversary."
Before I can respond he tugs his hands away, turns, and goes back to the mess hall. I turn to the doors to my quarters and they open, but then I notice them. Hesitating in the corridor are two young crewmen who have clearly witnessed what just happened. I nod to them and as I walk into darkness I hear one of them whisper.
"Is she out of her mind?"
I didn't lose my mind.
I gave it freely.
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