by Delta Story
Disclaimers & Notes: Paramount owns it all, including a lot of canon alluded to but twisted mightily within this piece. I've just had a little bit of fun in stretching those limits of protocol for no profit but lots of fun. So sue me.
by Delta Story
Disclaimers & Notes: Paramount owns it all, including a lot of canon alluded to but twisted mightily within this piece. I've just had a little bit of fun in stretching those limits of protocol for no profit but lots of fun. So sue me.
Only the man behind the bar seemed able to maintain composure with the interruption into the dark solitude. He smiled as his eyes readjusted to the dimness and followed the form that entered, that of a woman, small of stature but determined in movement. The closer she got to him, the more details jumped out at him: petite body but well toned, a strong face with high cheekbones and a firm chin, deep blue eyes and a frame of dark auburn hair, pulled to the back of her neck in a short ponytail. She appeared devoid of makeup, but her cheeks flamed crimson, probably from the heat and her lips pursed into a tight glower. She pealed off the jacket of a dark blue pantsuit as she marched across the room, revealing freckled arms extending from a short-sleeved white blouse.
By the time she plunked herself onto one of the barstools, he was waiting for her, his face flooded with one of the dazzling smiles he was known for - something he hoped would raise her spirits, for he now saw that he had mistaken her mood - her determination was more despondency, something he was all too familiar with in his line of work.
"What can I get you?" he asked brightly.
She slapped her hands down on the bar in front of her, inhaling deeply as she appeared to calm herself. She shut her eyes momentarily, then slowly opened them and looked him at him intently. Her words came out low and soft, but without hesitancy or tentativeness. "Dos Equis, dark - and keep 'em coming until I tell you to stop."
In a single practiced motion, he reached into the cooler to his right, pulled out an amber bottle of the brew and uncapped it, plopping it down in front of her before she could take another breath. "Bad day for you?"
"Bad decade," she snorted, grabbing the bottle and taking a long gulp of the dark liquid, emitting a sigh as it cooled her throat and raging spirit. "Thank God it's almost over - I'm ready for a new century...a new millennium," she continued before taking another deep swallow from the bottle.
He picked up a glass from the rinse basin behind him and began drying it. "Well, at least it's almost Christmas; you can relax and enjoy that, can't you?"
Several shanks of hair fell out of her ponytail as she shook her head with vehemence. "Just another day as far as I'm concerned." She did nothing to hide her bitterness.
"No family or friends close by to celebrate with?"
She took another gulp from the bottle. "Hardly. Seems that I've managed to alienate any so-called friends around here and my only family is a cousin in Florida. It's just me and my trusty wagon, and even it's trying to give me a tough time," she scoffed, tossing her head back towards the door, indicating a vehicle parked outside. "
He placed the clean glass on the shelf and turned to wipe the counter in front of her. "So - you're on the road, I gather..."
"Just barely," she sighed. "I'd hoped to have at least four hundred miles under my belt before sundown, but I just can't seem to keep that junk pile started. Looks like a hundred and seventy miles is the limit for today; forget making it to Vegas tonight."
"Vegas? That's at least another two hundred miles - and it's going to be night in about thirty minutes. You don't want to be crossing the desert during the night in car that's not running well."
"No, I do not," she answered with a sigh. "I probably should have it checked out. But I... I... well, I just hope it doesn't break the bank, if you know what I mean."
Her comments were quickly filling in the holes in the story he was putting together inside his head. "Let me guess - you're in between jobs..."
"That's one way of putting it," she sighed as her fingers ran little zigzags through the cold sheen of condensate on her bottle. She reached for the paper napkin to her left and put it underneath the bottle before looking up at him. "Another way is saying that I got an early Christmas present - two weeks' severance pay and a promise of a good job recommendation, all a week before Christmas. Two and a half years with them and that's all I get. Terrific, huh?" she snorted, her eyes ablaze.
Again he was a couple of steps ahead of her. "The Lockheed Martin layoffs in Palmdale last week?"
She laughed bitterly. "Hey - you're good! How'd you know? You're way out here in the middle of the desert..."
"I may just be a lowly bartender on a back road of Barstow, California, but I'm not ignorant about what's going on in the world," he countered with a hint of a smile.
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I didn't mean to insinuate anything that..." She stopped short and took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders as if trying to pull herself together. "I... I... oh, to hell with it. Yes - I'm depressed and bummed out and ready to take it all out on some poor unsuspecting person." She looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears of anger. "I guess you were just that lucky person."
"Well, lucky me then," he smiled back at her, his smile broadening. "Can't say that I've seen such an attractive miserable person before."
His comment brought a smile to her face and a hint of a blush to her cheeks. "I guess I really should thank my lucky stars that there might be another job down the road. I've just got to watch things till then, but a twenty year old Caprice station wagon isn't exactly good for the bank account."
He took away her empty bottle and, as per her initial request, replaced it with a fresh brew. "And now you're building up a bar tab," he chortled.
"Won't be the first time," she grinned back. "In fact, a bit of high living a few years back is what's led me to this stage - I've been paying off some steep piles of debt ever since."
"Even with a good job at Lockheed?" he asked.
"Even with that. And I guess that's another thing I should be thankful for - I finally managed to pay off the last bit two months ago and I swore to myself 'Never again'."
"And now..." he prompted.
"And now, it's on to Ohio to see if an offered position decides it likes me." She took three long swallows of the beer before continuing. "You would think that by this time in history, age wouldn't be a factor in getting a job. First, there was the whole female thing, scrambling and working to prove that a woman could do anything that a man could." She laughed bitterly. "Been there, done that - and now I'm being told that anyone over forty just doesn't have the motivation or 'creativity' of these kids right out of school."
He wasn't one to shock easily, but his eyes widened in surprise as he looked at her. "You? You're over forty? Why, you don't look a day over..."
"Thirty-nine?" she chortled. "Oh sure - but I turned forty-two last August. This stuff" - she held up her bottle of beer - "does wonders in preserving the body."
"Not too much if it," he responded seriously.
"Well, now I know why you aren't rich and famous," she said, swigging the contents below the half-bottle point. "You turn away customers!"
"No, not at all," he answered. "It's just that I want to see them live to continue coming back." He reached over and picked up a coffee pot behind the bar. "Tell you what - let's substitute some of this for that beer, and I'll call a garage a couple of blocks over to come pick up your car. They can take a look at it and hopefully you can be on your way tomorrow morning. Besides - if you're going to try to make it all the way to Ohio in a vehicle that's having problems in the first couple hundred miles, you're going to need someone to get it in good condition. What do you say?"
"I'd say that you're trying to make me into a responsible, sober citizen," she smiled back.
"Maybe I am - or maybe I just like seeing your smile," he responded.
She shifted nervously at his words.
"Okay then - let's get your car taken care of and you get settled somewhere to spend the night. I get off at seven o'clock - maybe we could grab a bite somewhere."
Her look became more apprehensive and she began to retreat into herself again, when he realized that they were still 'strangers'. " Sorry; I forgot my manners." He held out his hand to her. "I'm Chuck Hogan."
Her face softened with his offer of friendship. She took his extended hand and shook it firmly. "And I'm Shannon O'Donnell. Pleased to meet you, Chuck Hogan."
He poured a steaming mug of the coffee and she picked it up, slowly inhaling its aroma.
"Take anything in it?" he asked.
"Nope, just black," she answered before taking a sip and nodding her approval. "Ah, coffee - nectar of the gods! Beer is good, but I don't think I could ever live without coffee, Chuck Hogan."
Shannon blew her breath against the window by their table. The warm moisture quickly condensed on its smooth surface, forming tiny droplets of water.
"Guess the temperature's dropped quite a bit," she sighed leaning back in her chair. "And this is sure a lot warmer than if I'd broken down on my way to Las Vegas. Thanks for convincing me to stay overnight and get the car looked at."
"My pleasure," Chuck smiled back at her. "I'm just glad you found a motel; the place is filling up with all the holiday travel. But here, off the interstate and the main routes, the long-bypassed motels are still there and clean and comfortable."
"And cheap," she grinned. "Let's not forget about something that fits into my budget!"
"That, too," he smiled.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, as if avoiding getting any more personal. Finally Shannon asked him "Why have you gone out of your way and been so kind to me?"
"Guess I've always been a sucker for ladies in distress," he mumbled.
"Hmmm - now it's my turn to try to figure out what's being said in between the lines," she said, her eyes relaxed and mischievous.
His head shook with a surreptitious laugh. "Let's just say that I've never been very lucky with the ladies."
She gazed at him, wondering how this could be. He stood a good head taller than her and obviously took care of himself. Probably about her age, but it was hard to tell with that smile and those dimples - how could anyone tell anything beyond that? However, behind the smile his bronzed face showed fine lines that bore out the truth of a life that was probably equal to hers in its ups and downs. His eyes and hair seemed the same color, the deep color of midnight skies, although his hair glimmered with silver highlights. His hair, although longer than hers, was pulled to the back of his neck in a ponytail. Her eyes wandered to his hands - broad with sturdy fingers, weathered somewhat by hard use.
"How come I find that difficult to believe?" she ventured.
Chuck shook his head. "But it's true! I guess that I can be a bit difficult at times. My mother said I was that way from the very beginning, as I was a breech birth. She always called me her 'contrary' - said I couldn't even decide to do something the right way even then."
Shannon's face wrinkled with a stifled laugh. "So - you've always been ready to stir up the pot a bit? Sounds like I could fit into that same category. I've probably rubbed too many people the wrong way, too. I can't ever seem to stay in one place for too long a time, either; guess I was born to be a wanderer." She peered into his deep eyes, sensing some hidden desire of his in reaction to her comment. "Have you ventured out any into the wide, wicked world?"
"I've done some traveling over the years within the States, mainly this side of the Rockies. But I went to Mexico and Guatemala about twenty years ago shortly after I got out of college. Bummed around for almost a year, trying to 'find' myself."
"And did you?" she queried.
His laugh answered her even before his words. "Are you kidding? I'm still trying to decide what I'm going to be when I grow up! Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote... that all I'm doing is tilting at windmills."
"So now you tend bar."
"Yes - and I do it quite well, thank you very much," he answered in a pseudo-hurt tone. "But at least all my bills are paid and my credit card companies don't send me nasty notes!"
"Okay - you have me there," Shannon said, her face suddenly becoming crimson. "I guess I have sometimes broken a few more rules than I should have. That's probably the crux of my problem - I find it hard to operate under strict authority."
He nodded in agreement. "Me, too - I don't like to find myself tied down... by anyone or anything."
A crooked smile crawled across her face. "It sounds like we are quite a bit alike. My sole possessions are packed into that old station wagon; I've never liked to have more than what I can carry with me."
He took a long sip of his coffee. "So I take it that there is no person in your life to complicate your mobility?"
"Nope," she answered with a firm shake of her head. "Never has been and I doubt very much ever will be. How about you?" she threw back at him.
He looked at her with another one of his dazzling smiles. "No, but not that I haven't ever thought about it. There was once - during my last year at UC Merced - that I almost tied the knot. Lived with a terrific woman for six months until I decided that I'd never be happy with the suburban stereotype that she wanted. And - rather than making her unhappy with my being unhappy... I let her break it off."
"She broke it up?"
His dimples got wider and his eyes danced. "That's what I let her believe."
"Good people skills you have there, Mr. Hogan," Shannon grinned.
"Yep, that's why I'm a good bartender. I've worked in at least a dozen of the finest ones within a hundred mile radius."
"So you're from around here?" she continued in her quest to learn more about her Good Samaritan.
"More or less," he answered. He stirred his coffee several times, as if looking into it for answers to his life before continuing. "I guess it's no secret as to my heritage... mostly Native American with a smattering of some Spanish blood back about four generations."
"Are you from a local population?" Shannon continued.
"Well, my maternal grandparents were Mojave, although my father's people came from Mexico about a hundred years ago - some say that my ancestors came from even further south, probably Central America... thus the travels in my earlier life."
Shannon looked at him with surprise. "If you have that much of an indigenous background, how on earth did you end up with such an Anglican name as Chuck Hogan?"
"A couple centuries ago, most of the natives in this area were renamed by priests and missionaries. Even if we didn't accept their teachings, we learned early on that to be accepted by - excuse my politically incorrect words - the white man and to be able to blend into his world, it was easier to keep the names given us. So my family has gone by 'Hogan' for over a hundred years."
This man whose life seemed as dark and mysterious as his appearance fascinated Shannon. "Do you have a tribal name?" she asked.
"Yes, but you never would be able to pronounce it," he smiled back at her. Suddenly his black eyes lit up. "Say - you seem to be interested in my Native American background; would you like to go to a little celebration that the local clans are having tonight?"
"Me?" Shannon asked in surprise. "Do... do you think I'd be welcomed? I mean... we've only met and I'm certainly not going to crash any native ritual..."
His laughter quelled any misgivings she had. "This isn't anything that would be betraying any sacred secrets, Shannon. Today is the first day of winter - the winter solstice - and it's always been a good excuse for a party. Come on! If you're uncomfortable, we'll leave - it's as simple as that."
"If you're certain," she responded, still not sounding convinced.
"As certain as day turns into night," he answered, silently signaling for the check.
She grabbed his hand. "Please, Chuck - you've been so kind to me, at least let me pay for dinner."
"Nonsense," he said firmly. "We still don't know how much your repair bill is going to be." As if on signal, their server handed him the check.
They pushed their chairs back and started walking towards the cashier. "Okay, but I feel that I owe you something," she said.
Chuck handed over a twenty-dollar bill with their bill to the woman at the register. "Tell you what. I'm sure that someday, sometime, somewhere, you'll have the opportunity to help someone in a time of need. Just return the favor with that person. Deal?"
"Deal; that's a promise," she nodded, patting him on the shoulder. "Now - tell me what to expect with this gathering we'll be attending."
Chuck opened the door and the frigid night air hit them.
"Well, one thing that will be good is that there will be a huge bonfire," he shivered. "But I'm afraid we will have missed the Bear Dance," he said, checking his watch.
"The Bear Dance?"
"Yes - that's the first of two major dances of the night. It symbolizes putting the Great Bear to sleep for his winter hibernation. It's sometimes called a 'ghost dance', in that during the early parts of the dance, the bear appears as a ghost and walks around the area to clear it of any bad spirits that might be there. During this, music is played and wood is laid for the bonfire. When the fire is ready to be lit, live dancers begin and dance until the fire is blazing. At that time, it is said that the Great Bear wanders off for his winter sleep." Chuck paused and laughed. "Actually, it's just a break for the dancers and others to make a second round of the banquet that's been going on since dusk."
"So there's more?" asked Shannon.
"Oh, yes! In fact, the second part can go on till dawn," he said. "That dance is called the Circle of Life dance. Its purpose is to give thanks for the cycles of the seasons, symbolizing the loss of light with winter and petitioning for the return of light - and life - with increased game and crops. The dance goes on until the fire goes out."
Shannon shook her head and laughed. "Don't know if I'm ready for an all-nighter; I'm not as young as I used to be!"
"Not to worry - neither am I," he said. "We'll just go for a little while. Ah; here's my truck," he said opening the door for her to climb into it. "Oh - and there's always lots to eat and drink," he added.
"Why didn't you tell me before dinner?" she smiled. "I don't think I could eat another bite!"
His eyes ran from her head to her feet. "Don't take this the wrong way, Shannon, but you look like you could stand to eat a bit more."
"Now you sound like a lot of others who don't understand that sometimes I get so involved with work that I forget to eat."
"Well, maybe there will be something there to tempt you. Don't want you blowing away in the wind!"
"I'll be careful," she said. "Besides, I can always grab ahold of you."
"That's okay, too," he grinned back at her.
A thirty-five minute ride, much of it off road, brought them to a wide clearing sheltered by pediments and escarpments. The lights from town grew smaller behind them, allowing the waning moon in the west to playfully bounce shadows off the dark rock surfaces like ghosts playing hide and seek in the desert night. Suddenly Shannon wondered what she was doing - out in the middle of nowhere, with a man she had barely knew. But there was something about this man... that he was someone she could trust.
They rounded a low mesa and a small bright light in the distance flickered into growing flames as they approached the gathering. She breathed easier - at least it looked like a desert party of some sort - there did appear to be other people in the area. By the time they arrived, Shannon gasped at the flames that reached upwards towards the stars.
"Aren't they afraid of the fire spreading?" she asked.
Chuck shook his head. "Nothing to worry about. We modern day Indians come with fire protection. Over there," he pointed. "See that dark rounded form? It's a portable water tank, brought especially for fire control."
"My, you folks really do know how to rough it, don't you?" she smirked.
"Just because we're traditional doesn't mean we can't play it safe." He steered the truck over to an area where almost fifty vehicles were parked - vehicles from road-worn pick-ups of indiscriminate age and color to a shiny, pearl-white 2000 Lexus SUV.
"No horses?" Shannon kidded him.
"Only what's under those hoods," he smiled back.
A crowd of at least one hundred people gathered several dozen yards away from the parking area, their bodies milling around the large fire. Folding chairs were scattered at various places around the fire and the people weaved in and around them, with a few of the older attendees sitting in a small group by one of the long tables. As Shannon and Chuck got closer to the gathering, a cacophony of conversation, chants and a constant drone of drummed rhythms surrounded them. The sea of faces represented just about every race and ethnic group that she knew of - her earlier apprehension of being an outsider quickly dissipated.
"I told you that you'd be okay here," she heard Chuck say as she felt his comforting hand in the small of her back.
Without realizing that she'd been holding her breath, Shannon sighed with relief. "Good; I was worried that I'd be treated like one who had been sent out to conquer, only with those being conquered now surrounding me, and your being my lone protector."
"And what makes you think I am your ally, 'white woman'?" he grinned.
"Ever since you managed to pull me out of my funk back at your bar," she said, her eyes relaying her thanks as much as her words.
They had arrived at the perimeter of people and several faces turned as their voices rang out to greet Chuck.
"Chuck - we wondered where you were; expected you earlier."
"I think I see why he's late..."
"Where have you been hiding this gorgeous woman?"
Shannon felt the heat rising in her face and saw that Chuck was just as embarrassed.
"Okay, you guys - enough already! This is Shannon O'Donnell, lately from Palmdale," he finally managed to say. "Shannon, these unmannered animals are Tim Pasquat, Henry Kite and Travis... just Travis."
"Pleased to meet you all," she answered, shaking the welcoming hands extended towards her. "This is quite a big gathering you have here!" "Actually, the group has thinned out a bit," said Tim, wrapping his arms around himself and shivering in the night air. "Even around the fire, it's been a bit brisk tonight - everyone's freezing!"
"Except for the dancers." Chuck nodded to seven dancers gathered around the table, gulping down cup after cup of liquid. Their faces gleamed with a sheen of perspiration, even in the cold, while gold glints of firelight bounced off the decorative beading and bear teeth that ran down their sleeves and pants; their bodies appeared to still be caught up in the rhythmical sway of the dance.
"I don't know that I've ever been this close to tribal dancers before," Shannon said, her eyes wide with wonder. "Are they going to do the Circle of Life dance, too?"
"No, they're finished for the night," Chuck shook his head. "Each dancer chooses early in life which dance will be 'his' or 'hers'. Most spend a lifetime working on just one dance. It's a form of discipline and meditation for each one."
"So do any of you participate in any of the dances?" Shannon asked, addressing any or all of the four men.
A collective laugh answered her. "Remember -- it's a discipline," Travis finally said. "I doubt than any of us would last more than a week as a dancer."
"How about something to drink - or some dessert?" Chuck asked, gently taking Shannon's elbow and leading her towards one of the tables. "I know there's coffee and probably some cake and cookies."
Shannon's eyes lit up. "Cookies? Did you say cookies? That's probably my number one weakness!"
"Oh, yeah - there's always a good spread." He waved at his friends as they made their way to the table when his eyes lit up with a thought. "Help yourself - and would you please get a cup of coffee for me? I'm going to run back to my truck and get a couple of chairs and blankets for us."
"You really came prepared, didn't you?" Shannon smiled back at him.
"A good Boy Scout and a good Indian always comes prepared," he winked at her.
Shannon watched him disappear into the shadows and then followed her nose to the large urn of coffee weighing down one end of the table. The aroma wafted around her as she filled two of the earthenware mugs by the pot. Holding a mug in each hand, she wandered down the length of the table, amazed at the bountiful spread of breads and cakes and cookies.
She wanted to ask someone about some of the delicacies, but no one was around the table and she didn't want to interrupt any of the conversations. Her eyes lit up when she saw a towering plate of cookies - and they were chocolate chip, her favorite! She put down the mugs and picked one of the cookies closest to her. One bite told her that it was one of the best cookies she'd ever eaten - moist, chewy and loaded with chocolate chunks; the cookie disappeared almost immediately. Next to the plate of cookies were several bowls, some filled with different varieties of dried fruit, a couple more containing nuts. She sampled the contents of a several of the bowls, marveling at how good everything tasted. By the time Chuck came back, his hands full of chairs and blankets, Shannon had made her way back to the cookies and was working on her second one.
"I see you managed to find the cookies okay," he grinned.
"Shuwr dirnsd," she mumbled through a mouthful. "Really good, too," she declared after a few swallows.
Chuck unloaded his arms and reached for the coffee she held out for him, warming his hands on the mug. "Mmm - this feels good already. It's really turned cold tonight."
"I'll second that," she said, picking up one of the blankets and wrapping it around her small frame. "I'm really glad you had these."
The drums pick up their beat and became louder and the crowd scurried back to chairs and a hush descended throughout the ring of people. Chuck found a place for their chairs and opened them. Settling down into the chairs, swaddled in their blankets, they looked like two giant cocoons perched on metal frames.
Two older women shuffled their way to the fire, their arms laden with more wood. They chanted to the drumbeats as they laid the new wood onto the fire, each addition shooting a pillar of sparks high into the sky.
Shannon leaned back in her chair, watching the sparks fly up until they disappeared. "It looks like the sparks are trying to reach up to the stars," she sighed.
Chuck turned to her. "You sound rather wistful, almost like you envy them."
She issued another long sigh, leaning her head back against the top of the chair. "I do. I almost made it there myself."
"Oh? How's that?"
She turned towards him, her eyes glazed with a fire all their own. "I was an astronaut, but I was cut from the program before I ever got to go up on a shuttle mission."
Chuck sat up interest, his face filled with amazement. "You're kidding! What happened?"
"Too many systems engineers, I guess," she sighed, still focused on the skies overhead. "Or maybe it was my age, or my hair color or the way I looked at the deputy director one day... who knows? It happened, and now I'm trying to reinvent my life."
"And now you've been cut out of another job. No wonder you're at loose ends."
"Guess it's my type A personality - always wanting to go everything one step better. But you're pretty easy going and laid back, with nothing constantly nagging at you." Her voice became bitter with self-pity.
He shook his head. "You'd be surprised. You really want to know how many jobs I've had... how many partial books are on my hard drive, waiting to be finished? I've never quite gotten it all pulled together, either."
Shannon shook her head. "Sounds like we're both pretty pathetic excuses for..."
A swirl of color interrupted their conversation as the dancers came leaping out from the shadows. Swirls of color blended with the background flames, creating a kaleidoscope of light and dazzling hues. Arms and legs moved in time with chanting voices from the other side of the broad circle; the sounds of the drums called and echoed the eddying movements.
All the color and motion and sounds began to mesmerize her; she felt consumed by all the sensations. The aroma of the pinon pine recently added to the fire engulfed her, its invigorating and stimulating scent adding to the assault on her senses. Chuck's voice was in there somewhere, but he began to sound like a distant echo.
She got up and walked towards the fire, like a June bug drawn to a porch light. Her arms opened wide, with the outstretched blanket draped over them, forming wings. Somewhere, she heard her name being shouted, but the only thing that seemed to matter was to join in with the dancers. She raised her arms to touch the stars, climbing aboard the shooting flames and riding them to the heavens.
Voices and hands shot out towards her, but she couldn't feel them; her body didn't exist anymore. She and the other dancers were leaping high, becoming rivers of color and motion, jumping from star to star, leaving shimmering trails of fractured light. They all became one, only to spin out again into fiery paths. Music surrounded them, music that came from the planets and the stars... music too ethereal to be heard by ears but only by the spirit. She reveled in being freed by her body, allowing her to finally dance among the spheres.
Somewhere, she still heard someone calling her name. But it was too late; she would never go back. All of that was far behind her - why should it matter when the universe beckoned to her, where she knew she was meant to be?
The voice became louder and she struggled to open her eyes. As light registered, she cringed with sudden pain and quickly shut them again. "Unghhh; the light... it's so bright. Whe... where am I? What happened?" Shielding her eyes, she blinked them open as she pushed away a damp cloth that covered her forehead.
"You're back at the inn in Iapetus on Tethys Prime," a male voice answered. "You went for a walk outside and became overheated."
She pushed herself into a seated position as her glazed eyes looked around, trying to focus her thoughts as well as her eyes. She suddenly clutched her head between her hands. "Chakotay, I think I'm going to be sick..."
Her companion reached down and picked up a small metal container beside the bed she was on. "I'm not surprised; that's one of the things that happens with too much heat."
He barely got the bowl to her lips before she retched. A cold sweat broke out on her face and she fell back onto the pillows behind her. "I'm sorry, Chakotay - this isn't how this trip was supposed to be."
He took a small towel laying across her forehead and gently wiped her mouth with it before he offered her a straw leading into a tumbler of water. "I know, I know," he said with a smile. "You never mean to do half the things you take off doing so impulsively - it's the story of your life. A walk out into the desert, during the midday hours at the peak of the summer season - I agree that you should have known better."
She slowly sipped the liquid, but her face remained a pallid gray. "But the xerophytes that the ambassador told us about are very short lived and I wanted to try to find them before they disappeared."
"And you should have remembered from Academy training that one never goes into an unknown environment without at least one more person. You should never have gone alone, Kathryn!"
"I had my comm badge with me; we were never out of communication range," she retorted weakly.
"So why didn't you use it?" The exasperation in his voice was evident.
"Well, there was this six legged lizard that I was following back to its..."
Not willing to listen to any more or her weak defense, he held out her canteen. "And your water supply is almost intact - you didn't even watch your fluid intake! Kathryn, just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you throw away all sense of survival!"
She struggled to a sitting position again. "And you don't have to watch over me like a baby! I'll admit I made a mistake; can't we forget about it?"
He shook his head and sighed. She rewarded him with a weak smile - she knew that he knew it was a lost cause to try to out-reason her.
He stood up from his seated position on the bed, carrying the small basin with him. "I'm going to go clean this up and check on the bath water - it's best that we get you into some cool water for awhile." He began a quick pace towards a small anteroom but turned to her with a grin. "Promise me you won't wander off while I'm gone?"
She could never deny him anything when he smiled at her like that - that smile had been her downfall just about every time for almost six years, and this time was no different. "I'll be here when you get back." Now it was her turn to give him a trademark smile, a crooked little smirk. "A bath, huh? You always know my weak spot, don't you?"
"Standard treatment for heat exhaustion," he called out as he left the larger room.
She sank back into the pillows while taking measured sips of the water. Of course, he was right - she should have known better than to go out alone. She had dressed appropriately for the trek: loose long sleeved tunic, long pants, sturdy boots, and a wide brimmed hat. She had given herself an anti-ultraviolet radiation inoculation and taken a filled canteen. But the intense desert sun and low humidity quickly made her forget that the temperature was approaching 50 degrees; she had been foolish to do it.
His voice came from the bathroom area. "All right - I think it's ready. Don't want it too warm or too cool." He brought a large towel with him as he came back out to her. "Let's get you into it and get that body temperature down."
She pulled back the sheet that covered her and realized for the first time that she was completely naked. A light blush rushed to her cheeks - not that it really mattered; he had seen her naked several other times. But those times were so far in between, and it had been almost a year since they last had managed any real time alone - most of these rarities were when there was a need for them to go together on a mission. And since it was always a bad idea to risk both a starship captain and first officer leaving the ship at the same time, it was difficult to justify many such excursions. This time, the gods were in their favor: the protocols for trade agreements on Tethys Prime required that the two highest-ranking officials from each side sign the agreements. Thus, she and Chakotay were both necessary for all the formalities on the planet, including a lengthy formal celebration.
He wrapped her gently within the massive towel and led her to the bathroom. "I hope this helps you to feel better. If not, we'd better transport you back to the ship and have the doctor look at you."
"I'm sure this will be fine," she answered, taking his arm to steady her rubbery legs. "You know how baths always seem to revive me."
He led her into the bathing area. The tub, made of material that looked like variegated gray granite, resembled a small pool, almost three meters long and equally as wide. Spigots on each of the four walls fed quiet streams of water into its basin, over a half-meter deep. A light mixed floral fragrance filled the room; diffused sunlight coming through a large frosted stained glass window that filled one wall gave the room all the light it needed. The atmosphere took on almost a reverence, as if being in a shrine or temple.
Three steps led up to the wide walls of the tub; he helped her ease herself into a seated position along the tub's edge and then gave her a hand to slip into the gently flowing water. She shuddered slightly as she entered the tub.
"Too warm?" he asked.
"Quite the opposite - it feels freezing!" she said, her teeth almost chattering.
"Trust me - it's tepid; it's just your body temperature..."
"Are you saying that I'm hot-blooded?" she grinned, slowly immersing her body into the water until only her head remained above its surface.
He leaned down and kissed her upturned face. "Sometimes." His eyes danced with a dark gleam.
She let out a yelp as he dipped a sponge into the water and dripped it over her head. "Hey - no fair!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him close to the water's surface. "Unless you want to play around a bit..."
"Believe, me, there's nothing I'd rather do, but let's get you feeling better first. Need I remind you that the treaty signing ceremony is in three hours? I want to make sure you're cooled down, rested and hydrated before we have to spend several hours being 'official' and making nice."
"The price one must pay for diplomacy's sake," she sighed. "It's just so rare that we can have time like this..."
"You mean for you to put on your explorer's hat and wander around a strange desert in the midday sun..."
"Well, you were so absorbed in reading those padds of the planet's history..."
"Touché," he smiled. "I guess we each got involved in our own things." He leaned down and brushed several damp tresses back from her face before tracing her lips with his fingers. "Now, relax awhile; I'll get you some juice to drink."
"Chakotay, why are you so good to me?" she asked as he began to leave the room.
His turned at the sound of her voice; the love in his smile warmed the room. "Because you're good to me... because that's what love is all about - that we look out for and take care of each other."
She sensed the longing and desire in his words and his face. "You know as much as I do that we can't 'go public' on Voyager - not yet."
He took several steps back into the room and sat along the broad edge of the tub. "Kathryn, it's been years now - don't you think half the ship knows already? And the other half probably has a pretty good idea! I've seen the glances and looks when we appear together socially. Any one of the senior officers can check on where we are any time, day or night. It wouldn't surprise me at all if at least Tuvok didn't know that we didn't sleep in separate beds last night."
"And that's why our truly private times must be limited to these off-ship occasions. Besides - it makes these excursions all the more meaningful." She reached up to him, pulling his head down to hers and kissed him.
"Spirits - you make it so hard on a man," he moaned, slowly pulling out of the deep kiss.
Her hand wandered over to his lap, and gently cupped a growing part of his anatomy. "And I know how to make a man hard," she grinned. "Oh, gods -not now, Kathryn," he groaned, slowing rising and taking a deep breath. "We've got to get you back into a normal state first - not that I don't want to join you right now, but..."
"I know, I know - the ambassador, the prime minister and a treaty to sign." Her shoulders and arms sank into the filled tub again, immersing her so that her mouth barely was above the water's surface. "But I am feeling better, Chakotay - truly I am!"
"I can tell," he winked back, his stance a bit rocky as he attempted to leave the room a second time. "Much better!"
After the long soak and a couple more glasses of water and juice, Kathryn settled down into a darkened room and sank into a dreamless sleep that lasted almost two hours. When she awoke, she felt like her usual self - no more cramps or clamminess or nausea. However, she cringed thinking about the heat on Tethys Prime and having to wear her Starfleet uniform through several hours of endless politeness. Even though the Tethysians had excellent indoor environmental systems, they typically adjusted their levels several degrees higher than what she and Chakotay were used to - thankfully, they had individual room controls at the inn.
But she was determined to make the best impression on her hosts. Not only had they allowed Voyager to collect some rare vorilium, always in short supply on the starship, but they also had provided the travelers with several metric tons of fresh food. In return, Voyager would give their new allies expanded star maps from their travels in the outer regions of the Delta quadrant and a vaccine that Voyager's doctor had synthesized against a particularly virulent retroviral infection on the planet.
"Need some help with your boots?" Chakotay asked, coming into the room as she struggled with the unwieldy footwear. He was fully dressed in his formal Starfleet attire, looking freshly scrubbed, properly groomed and ready for official duty.
"I hate these things," she frowned. "Even after all these years, I never know whether to put the boots on first or the pants." She looked up at her first officer. "And you men can always get away with at least one less layer of clothing that women."
"Not my fault," he grinned, helping her tug at the tight boots. "Actually, it might be fun for you to go without that last layer every now and then..."
Boots in place, she hopped up from the side of the bed and pulled on the high-necked jacket of her formal uniform. "Not at my age! Besides - what if I got injured and the clothes had to come off?"
"All the more fun," he leered at her.
"You know - you're incorrigible when we're together like this."
"And you love it," he said, pulling her towards him. "I just wish we could be like this more often," he murmured, a sudden seriousness in his voice.
She leaned into him, feeling the solid rhythm of his heartbeat echoing his words. "Me, too. Maybe - just maybe - the time is coming soon when we can."
They stood in a close embrace, silently luxuriating in the intimacy they could experience away from the ship, escaping into that timeless world only lovers know.
Kathryn broke the spell and pulled away from the safe harbor of his body. "Guess we'd better think about transporting to the Grand Hall; the witching hour is rapidly approaching."
"You're the captain," he sighed, offering her his arm.
A small hovercraft, sent by the ambassador, waited for them at the entrance to the inn. As soon as they were inside, the driverless vehicle swooped twenty meters into the air and headed towards the more populated area of the city, cutting a wide swath over the open desert.
Kathryn gasped, seeing the area from this view. "It's even more beautiful from up here than it was on my walk. Look - more and more plants have sprung up."
Chakotay glanced out onto the cacophony of colors scattered below. "It's like deserts back on Earth - give them a bit of rain and sun and they spring into their brief lives within days."
"It's a shame that they live for only a week or so."
He took her hand and squeezed it. "But that makes their existence all the more precious, all the more reason to appreciate that brief time. The full circle of life plays out within those short spans."
She leaned against his shoulder, the true meaning of his words filling her heart. She felt his slow deliberate breaths buried in her hair. "Do you remember the first time we made love?"
"On or off Voyager?" came his muffled words.
"The very first time, on Voyager."
His shoulders rolled with a laugh he tried to suppress. "Oh - that time! Spirits... what were we ever thinking?"
Images flew across her mind with the memory of that desperate time. It was right after their experience with the 37's, when she had given the crew of Voyager the choice of staying on a habitable planet with other Terran refugees who had developed a good life, or stay on Voyager and face the unknown journey back to Earth. Tears still formed in her eyes as she remembered that fateful outcome - how, unanimously - the crew voted to continue their voyage through the Delta Quadrant.
Poignant relief became sudden desire. His hands grasped her arms, pushing her backwards towards the closed doors. "Then we'll have to create our own world here," he said huskily. His bronze face became burnished with rising desire and his eyes smoldered as he pushed her against the metal doors.
Her body, so recently languid with relief, tensed under his touch. His broad torso held her against the doors as his hands pulled her arms over her head, immobilizing her small frame. But his desire quickly inundated her and she knew she wanted what he wanted. If they couldn't create a new life on the planet, they would have to grasp at moments like these.
Raw need flamed through each of them; her mouth hungrily opened at his urgent insistence, offering him an entrance into her being. His body and his heat consumed her; she wanted to meld into him, to feel all of him, to be one with him - she needed his strength and spirit.
He released her arms and her hands fell to his face, holding him, exploring him, pulling him into her. Finally the need to breathe overcame them and they pulled away, gasping for air in shallow desperate gulps. The heat and desire of his expirations singed her face like the winds from an erupting volcano.
Their hands ran frenzied trails down and around their bodies; they frantically grabbed and tore open their tunics, tossing them onto the floor like rotting refuse. His hand traced the surface of her turtleneck until it found the swollen mound of her breast. He cupped its heaviness, his fingers searching for the small aroused swelling at its center. Kathryn gasped as he rolled and rubbed the sensitive flesh within the fabric that enveloped it, the friction lighting a fire that flamed through her body.
Her hands began their own search, inching down his torso between her quivering breaths. Her fingers felt the heat from his body, the ripples of his torso, through the thinner fabric of his shirt. A sudden bump of firmer fabric and the disappearance of warmth told her that she had reached the waistband of his trousers. Her fingers and hands took on minds of their own, feverish in their need to be closer to him, clawing their way to rid the barrier that so rudely stood in their way. With uncontrolled movements, she tried to push back the thick material, only to give way to chaotic fumbling, finally pulling and tearing at his clothing.
His mouth replaced his hands on her breast as he took over from her and pushed his trousers to the floor. As soon as his hands freed themselves of discarding his trousers, he yanked up the hem of her shirt, brusquely pulling its tight neck over her head. In an equally abrupt movement, he freed her breasts from the constraints of her bra. Purplish nipples arose from their dusky areolae, standing erect and firm, but one glowed brightly from his earlier attention. His mouth kissed and licked its angered flesh while his fingers began rolling the other one. The heightened sensation blazed through her, raising her already aroused body to a higher plateau. As if to make sure that the rest of her body wouldn't deny his presence, she felt him lean into her, the hard heat of his erect pillar burning into her, urging her legs further apart.
Her hand slithered into an almost non-existent space between their bodies, stealthily slipping its way behind the fabric of his undershorts. The engorged tower of his manhood throbbed against her hand as her fingers encircled it, its throbbing movement inviting her with its silent beat, teasing her with its dance. Her thumb brushed across its swollen head, anointing her hands as two or three thick drops of pre-cum escaped; she massaged the viscous substance into his length, and his body shuddered in response.
Without a word, she knew that preliminaries were over. As if reading each other's mind, they clamored out of their confining trousers and ripped off the final layer of clothing separating them, kicking the obtrusive garments out of their way. He pushed her firmly against the wall and grasped her around the waist, raising her several inches off the floor. Instinctively, she circled his neck with her arms; her legs wrapped around his and she crawled up his body, finally tightly wrapping her legs around his lower torso.
She felt his heat growing closer and closer until it entered her, filling her with all she could ever want. He flexed his legs and she groaned at losing him, only to have him jerk up and enter with even more force. A repeat... and another... and their bodies began to move in a dichotomy of synchronized but syncopated movements. The friction of the metal door against the bare skin of her back angrily grabbed and pulled, but soon a layer of perspiration lubricated the surfaces and she slid up and down with ease, each new thrust throwing her into a new level of being.
He shifted a bit to get a firmer footing, pulling her away from the wall by a several millimeters. With the loss of support, her body arched backwards a few degrees, allowing his angle of entry to become shallower but more demanding. Her legs grasped tighter and her muscular interior walls tensed, gripping and holding him, daring him to pull out from her. His body rose to the challenge and his strokes became shorter and more frequent, pummeling her in exquisite agony until her body surrendered in a rumbling orgasm that swept through her in waves.
He stopped all his motion as the movements trembled through her, as if sharing in the resonating delight. With a shudder, she sighed in satisfied relief, only to suddenly sense that it was not over yet - she felt him still firm and hard inside her.
He shifted her body against the wall again and in one final push, he plunged into her, calling her name and holding her still as his release came, holding her tightly as his own reverberations throbbed to a final conclusion.
He eased her down, pulling out of her as her feet neared the floor. Each of them was drained, physically and emotionally, and their legs lost all structure - they slid into a spent pile of flesh on the floor.
A tweep from her comm badge drew them back into reality. "Captain," came Tuvok's voice, "is all well? We await you on the bridge."
Unspoken looks of horror flashed across their faces - of course they were expected on the bridge, with the crew waiting for orders to lift off from the planet and resume their long journey! Adrenalin overtook them as they moved as fast as their depleted bodies would allow them, stumbling to the replicator for something to use to quickly clean up from their lovemaking.
He shook his head. "No, I don't think so. I think everyone was so excited and thrilled about the decision that they figured you were flushed with excitement, too. Although sometimes I've wondered about Tuvok. How does he always managed to contact us at such inopportune moments?"
"I think it's a little game he plays with us," she responded. "Sort of daring us to accuse him of something."
"I halfway expected him to contact us last night - we were about as out of control then as we were that that first time."
"Maybe all of that is what had me so drained when I went for my walk today," she grinned, giving him a small jab in the ribs. "Just in case - I think we should always have our comm badges in our separate rooms."
"There are always short range sensors," he razzed.
"He wouldn't dare!" she said with mock horror.
A sharp jolt shook them from their playful repartee. She glanced outside the hovercraft, noting the change in their direction and motion. "I think we're arriving at the Grand Hall - the fun's over; time to put on our official faces."
"I just hope it's cool enough for these uniforms inside. I'd hate for you to get overheated again," he said as they climbed out of the vehicle. He helped her out and then let her take the lead of their delegation of two but she stopped short and pulled him down to her.
"Right - let's save all that heat for later," she whispered wickedly into his ear.
The formal elegance of the Tethysians proved to be as breathtaking as the floral beauty of their desert. The room in which the parties were to sign their treaty was long and narrow, lined with walls of cool cream-colored marble. Kathryn and Chakotay sat at one side of a square table of dark carved wood, while the Tethysian ambassador and prime minister sat across from them. Members of the planet's governing body sat in chairs in several short rows, but the great room was almost empty and every sound echoed off the walls.
Although the Tethysians were every bit advanced as the Federation, they used ancient means of authenticating their formal agreements. The ambassador laid out large pieces of paper, each page carefully hand written in a calligraphic style while an assistant proffered a silver tray to each of the signers: each person had his or her own pen with which to inscribe his name. After each signer added his name to the three copies of the document, the assistant came behind with a blotting pad to prevent any ink from smudging.
A round of applause arose from the audience at the conclusion of the paperwork. After a brief round of congratulatory handshakes, the ever-efficient assistant rolled up each set of documents, securing each roll with a gold band. With a deep bow, he gave one to Kathryn, one to the prime minister and one to a woman on the front row of the observing delegation.
The prime minister turned to the gathering and clapped his hands loudly. "And now - a time of celebration!"
His actions precipitated a flurry of changes in the room. The ambassador whispered to Kathryn and Chakotay and led them to the wall behind the signing table. As they moved, the rest of the attendees shifted to the far end, lining the wall with doors that lead to the outer hall. The two walls perpendicular to them rose into the high ceiling, opening the room into a huge chamber three times the size of the document signing area. The floor of the former room dropped several inches, allowing a new floor to move in, complete with tables covered in embroidered linens and laden with silver and gold dishes and bowls of fruit and flowers. The business-like lights of the former setting slid into the walls as sconces of dimmed lights emerged in their places, casting shimmering shadows onto the tables. Linen covered chairs lined the U-shape of the table. To Kathryn and Chakotay's amazement, the entire transformation took less than five minutes; Voyager's representatives stood in awe.
"Come - join us, my friends," the ambassador urged, leading them to two places of honor between him and the prime minister.
As the Tethysians took their places, the place filled with the sound of lively talk. In the background, music like wind chimes in a soft summer breeze floated through the air, backed by the soothing sound of waterfalls.
The prime minister leaned over to Kathryn as servers placed bowls of chilled fruit at each place. "I do hope our hospitality meets with your approval."
Kathryn shook her head in awe. "You have been most gracious, Prime Minister; I only wish you would allow us to return the favor on Voyager."
"While I am sure you have a magnificent ship, laws forbid me from leaving the planet."
Chakotay's eyes widened. "Is there a cause for concern about your safety? I can assure you that..."
"No, no - nothing like that" cut in the official, his eyes twinkling. "It is merely an old rule to make certain that our ruling elders don't decide that there's something better off world and desert our people."
"I can't believe that," Kathryn said. "Why, Tethys Prime is a lovely planet! Your people have done marvelous things with minimal resources, something that we admire and hopefully can emulate."
"Thank you, Captain; but, as you have seen with our need for help with replicating the vaccine, we still have much to learn, too." The man eagerly began eating the fruit, barely clearing his mouth before continuing with the discussion. "I trust your rooms are comfortable?"
"Oh, my, yes," she answered. "And the view - the view is spectacular! Although our journey is thrilling, one yearns for solid land, to be able to wake with the sun and smell life from the outdoors."
"Once upon a time, all our people wandered the land," the ambassador chimed in. "For thousands of years, they traveled from place to place, following the sun and the seasons, relying on the animals and plants of wherever they went to fulfill their needs. It has been only within the last five millennia that we have learned to live together in our cities and towns."
"Your history is much like ours," Chakotay added. "Even today, some descendants of my Terran ancestors still live off the land, revering the sacred in nature."
The ambassador nodded his understanding. "It is a good philosophy... a good life. Although there are times when it is good to enjoy the pleasures of modern life, too," he continued, helping himself to the roast fowl being served.
"A balance of everything," Kathryn concurred, raising her freshly filled wine glass in a small toast. "To planetary life... and to exploration of space."
"And to sharing of ourselves and appreciating time together," the ambassador responded.
A broad smile spread across Chakotay's face. "I couldn't have said that better, Ambassador." While taking his glass with his right hand to his lips for a celebratory sip, his left hand, hidden from all eyes, found the inner surface of Kathryn's thigh and his fingers began to dance along its clothed surface.
Surprise that lit up her eyes quickly segued into mischievous delight as she spread her legs, inviting and daring him to venture further with his exploration, teasing him into anticipation of what was to come.
Five long hours after they entered the hovercraft to go to the Grand Hall, Kathryn and Chakotay climbed into the vehicle for the short trip back to the inn. Good food, good wine and good company left them in a light-hearted mood, allowing them to relax in an all-too-rare manner.
Kathryn leaned her head back against the high seat, staring out into the night sky. "The Tethysians are a delightful people - and what storytellers!"
"I thought we were going to have to revive you from laughing so hard at the prime minister's tale about the lost regrumkat," he grinned.
"Well, you weren't so serene and dignified either when he started in on the trials and tribulations of meeting his future in-laws!"
"That's a traumatic time for any male, no matter where they live in the galaxy," he shuddered in fake dismay.
"Oh? And just how do you think you'll react when I introduce you to my family?" she queried.
"With universal fear and trepidation, I'm sure." His hands ascended to hold her face, rosy and glowing from the good-natured evening and one glass too many of the wine; he kissed her deeply before continuing. "But you'll be there with me, so I'm sure I'll survive."
A wistful look descended upon her, drawing her away way from the present. "Oh, Chakotay - sometimes I think that day will never come. We are still so far away from Earth... from the Alpha Quadrant."
"But we are getting closer, Kathryn. And now that we're in frequent contact with Starfleet, who knows what's around the next parsec corner?"
She returned his kiss, taking time to delight in his wonderful lips. "As you once told me, whatever it is, we'll face it together; you're not alone."
A contemplative mood enveloped them. They climbed from the hovercraft, which opened and closed and left in silence; they walked to their room.
The twin moons of Tethys had set, leaving only the stars to light the midnight blue skies. The same light flooded their room, eliminating the need for any artificial light. Chakotay went over to the two large doors leading to a private patio and opened them, allowing the cool desert breeze to fill and freshen the room. He turned and looked at her, as starlight painted a halo around her.
They each knew that within the first few hours of daylight, no more than eight hours from now, they would have to forego all of the peaceful sanctuary they had had for almost two days. With their return to Voyager, they would retreat into the pact they had made long ago - that when on Voyager, they were Voyager's; only when the fates granted them brief times off the ship could they allow themselves the rare freedom of loving each other openly.
But tonight was theirs and tonight must last until the next time. Last night's frenzied couplings had calmed ravenous passions into tonight's more focused needs. Tonight would be for savoring, for appreciation of each other, allowing them to store up the loving touches, the shared delights, for future times when only memories could nourish their love.
Kathryn walked over to him; there was no need for words. He stood motionless as she undressed him, neatly folding each piece of his uniform and placing it on the low bench at the foot of the bed. Each time she moved to place another piece of clothing in the tidy stack, he eased himself more and more out of his boots and socks. By the time she got to the last piece of clothing, he had managed to discreetly maneuver them out of the way.
The light came from behind him, giving him an even darker appearance than his normally deep toned skin. His silhouette reflected the outline of a body no longer young but not old either, a body molded and honed by more than six years of arduous life in the Delta Quadrant.
He barely moved as Kathryn pulled his head down to meet hers, his silence telling her that he was hers. Her warm lips found his and devoured their richness, delving into the warmth of his wine-sweetened mouth. From this initial vantage point, her mouth and hands began a journey over territory familiar yet ever new, delighting in each discovery: ears, ripe for nibbling; the curve of his neck, beckoning for her touch. Her hands ran down his arms, followed by gentle kisses and nips to their soft undersides, igniting a cascade of sentinel goose bumps along the smooth surface.
Her face moved over to his chest and she allowed herself the pleasure of being tickled by the smattering of hair that covered its central surface. After that brief delight, she sought out his hardening nipples, taking each one in turn between her lips, her tongue and teeth playing tug with the dimpled tissue. He whimpered his pained delight with each new motion.
Her mouth released its treasure but she didn't completely desert that area, letting her hands replace the attention while her mouth sought new areas of enjoyment. Lower and lower the kisses fell, leaving a trail of her warmth and breath. She felt his body grow more tense and more sensitive to her touch the lower she went. Her own body adjusted into a lower position and her hands fell to his waist as her knees folded into a kneel in front of him.
As if in respect to her actions, the phalanx of flesh that was now in front of her face raised into an acknowledging salute. She welcomed his response and took him between her hands as he spread his legs further, securing his footing while allowing her more space for her motions. She held the growing shaft and began a series of slow movements of combined kisses and nibbles, working her way up towards its burgeoning tip. While cradling his hardened sac with one hand, she steadied the increasing tremors of the pillar with the other and gently circled the warm flesh of its head with her tongue, savoring the salty musk exuding from its center.
His stoic moans escalated into guttural cries as she continued her actions. He pulled her head towards him and she began taking him into her mouth. Her hands reached behind him, cupping his taut, flexed buttocks. With recalled skills and pleasure, she allowed him deeper and deeper access, delighting in his thrusts, teasing him to new heights, until he could no longer bear any more pressure. With one final cry, he spilled into her and she gratefully took his gift.
She eased him over to a chair as his body trembled in several aftershocks. He arrived none too soon as his legs, weak with release, collapsed from underneath him and he fell back into the chair. She wiped a sheen of dewy perspiration from his face as he regained his senses. "I love you so much," she whispered, kneeling once more in front of him, resting her head in his lap, delighting at the diminishing movements of his organ as it fell into a resting state.
His fingers fondled the tangles of her hair. "Give me a few minutes and I'll show you how much I love you," he murmured in short breaths.
"And I'll be ready when you are," she said, slowly pulling herself to an upright position. She kissed his forehead and turned towards the bathroom in her suite. Suddenly, as an afterthought, she twisted around and faced him, as an impish smile crept across her face. In a repeat of her earlier actions, she began taking off a Starfleet uniform - this time, her own. First came the shoulder fastening of the high-necked jacket and she sighed with relief as she pealed off the cumbersome garment. Next came the high-heeled boots and she allowed a similar sigh with them off.
Chakotay began to shake off the sated stupor of his post-climatic state as she edged her trousers over her hips, slowly inching them down her legs and easing them over her feet. She managed to pull off the knee-high stockings in the same movements. Clad only in the gray regulation undergarments of a tank top and underpants, she arched her back with a sigh and pulled fingers from each hand through her dark auburn tresses, shaking the shoulder length hair with gleeful abandon.
Life quickly infused through the man in the chair with each new movement that she made. With a wink and a smile, she began raising the hem of her tank top, inching it up her torso, tugging at it as it caught on the fullness of her breasts. Slowly she rolled the material over the obstacles, revealing swollen flesh overflowing the shallow cups of a very low-cut, very non-regulation ivory satin bra. With a final flick, the tank top fell to the floor.
In like fashion, she shimmied out of the gray underpants, revealing a 'V' panel of satin barely covering the front of her nether areas, the small bit of material held in place by thin bands of fabric skimming the curves of her hips and disappearing into nothingness.
Chakotay managed to stand, although he appeared barely able to move, his body rapidly responding to the show she performed. "Kathryn," he gulped weakly.
She sauntered over to the man in three thrusting steps. "Yes?" she purred.
He backed her over to the side of the bed, peeling off the bra as they moved. She felt the side of the bed hit the backs of her knees and her legs gave. He jumped at the opportunity and pushed her onto the bed, pulling off the flimsy excuse for panties and jerking her legs up onto the bed, opening her fully. His fingers began a dance on the sensitive insides of her thighs, teasing and pleasing her into chilled anticipation of what was to come. She caught her breath as his touches became more erratic and electrifying.
Suddenly he fell to his knees, pulling her legs even further apart. His fingers no longer rested on her legs but found the warm swellings of her labial lips and began stroking the delicate tissue. There was no resistance as one finger then two entered her - she was wet and waiting for him. His breath felt hot and dry in comparison as he leaned down to her. Fingers from each hand opened her and he dipped his tongue into her softness. Mimicking the earlier action of his fingers, he twirled and twisted, bringing every spot he touched to new heights of sensation. She felt the familiar spasms beginning, and pushed against him, wanting him to take her to the mind-blowing conclusion. But just when she thought she would explode, he quickly pulled away from her.
She groaned in dismay, reaching out for him, but he had scooted back from her and stood up to his full height. Her body, caught in mid-explosion, refused to move; she remained in her fully opened position, facing him, gapping with fevered desire. Through dazed eyes, she watched as he held his semi-rigid organ and began fondling himself to full erection. Slow motion alternated with rapid strokes until he reached the peak of tumescence. He attempted to rein in the angry quivers of his hardened flesh and ran one thumb over its swollen purple head. Several gleaming drops of liquid spurted through the tip; with a groan, he smeared the substance over the upper areas. Just when he seemed to be taking himself over the edge, he released his hold on himself, grabbed her knees to either side of his hips and drove into her.
Although wet and waiting, she was nonetheless surprised at his swift action, unprepared for the intensity of his onslaught. He raised her feet to his shoulders and continued his rapid pummels, aiming deeper and deeper with each entry. The stimulus quickly raised her to the heights again and her thrusts began to match his.
He broke their union just long enough to let her slip down to the bed. He pulled her hips to the edge of the bed. Standing within the angle of her legs, he held her in place with one hand, slid his flaming rod into her and with his other hand, found her swollen nub buried within the love-soaked circlet of curls surrounding her engorged lower lips. A few flicks of his finger and thumb triggered her into one... two... three staggering full-body spasms of orgasmic relief. She trembled as the thunder roared through her, ending where it first began, around his hot firmness. Just as her body began to come down from its climatic summit, he rammed into her several more times, riding on the ebbing crest of her fulfillment, and taking himself over into dizzying completion.
The starlight from the opened doors washed over them as they fell into a satisfied post-coital sleep.
Kathryn awoke first and stiffly moved out from underneath his body. She stretched, limbering up her exhausted muscles. He reached out for her from within his sleep, and she quickly grabbed him before he rolled off the precarious position he was in along the edge of the bed. She nudged him, urging him to get into bed; he did so, but never awoke. She smiled at him - he looked drained yet relaxed; it was amazing how therapeutic a round of healthy sex could be!
She went into the bathroom and washed up, then climbed into bed next to him, pulling the sheet over each of them and fell into her own peaceful sleep, only to awake before the early dawn.
She pulled out her short robe and wrapped it around her satisfied body and walked over to the open patio doors, gazing out into the wide expanse of the Tethysian desert. Different star patterns had moved into position from those seen in the earlier skies, but she was still drawn to them like a moth to a flame.
Lost in her thoughts, she jumped at his touch - he had come up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her head. "Beautiful, aren't they?" he whispered.
"Yes, they are. But - they aren't my stars... our stars, Chakotay. I long to see the ones from Earth, the ones that I grew up with."
He pulled her hair back, nuzzling her behind the ear. "We'll get back, Kathryn - I just know we will. And when we do, we can look out onto the stars together, safe within a warm distance from a familiar medium yellow star."
"It's been quite an adventure, hasn't it?" she mused. "And yet - I can never shake a nagging thought in the back of my mind... that all of this was meant to be... that I'm fulfilling some long-distant legacy lost in the sands of time."
She heard someone calling her name but it sounded muffled, as if the sound were coming through a thick pillow. Her eyes felt heavy; she wanted to open them but didn't want to leave behind the... what was it she didn't want to leave behind? There had been golden flames mingling with the silvery light of the stars; transport away from this world and into another one, one filled with a desert in bloom and travel among the stars; one filled with hope and beauty - and two lonely lovers.
Her eyes fought against a heaviness and her nose was inundated with pungent smells, not the smoky outdoors she last remember fully.
"Ch...Ch..." Her voice fumbled for the name.
"Yes, that's me - Chuck; I'm right here."
She jumped as he placed a cold cloth on her head; her eyes jerked open, attempting a focus on the world spinning around her. She licked her lips; they felt as dry as paint peeling on an old barn. A faint metallic taste clung to the insides of her mouth. Chuck urged her back against the pillow she now realized was under her head.
"Take it easy; you're going to be feeling dizzy for awhile," he said.
She leaned back, closing her eyes again. "What happened? Where am I?"
"You're in the tribal medical clinic, about ten miles from the solstice celebration. Tell me, pretty lady - did you eat something other than that cookie?"
Shannon's thoughts still tumbled inside her head, as she tried to separate the reality of now from the shadowy remains of dreams. "I... I... don't remember." She licked her lips again, her brow furrowing in the effort to recall.
Chuck offered her a straw leading to a cup of water and the sips of liquid seemed to help her memory. Her eyelids flitted open a bit as she replayed her actions in her mind. "There was a bowl of nuts... I ate some of them." Her eyes focused on Chuck and also Tim from the earlier festivities. "Yes - I ate a few of those pinon nuts."
The two men shook their heads. "That's it," Tim said. "I had an idea that might have been the problem."
"Problem?" she asked weakly.
"Yeah," Chuck nodded. "Seems that one of the shaman left some of their ritual ingredients where he shouldn't have. We think that you ate some ololiuhqui seeds, Shannon - vision inducers used by tribal holy men."
"We're running a full toxicology scan on you," Travis said. "Preliminary screening results indicated a hallucinogen but we've got to send it to another lab for a definitive answer."
"You seem to know a lot about this," she said, trying to focus on Tim and keep her world from spinning.
"I should," he laughed. "Unfortunately, I've seen it before... with a couple of shaman!" He reached across Shannon and adjusted an IV drip that she suddenly realized fed into her arm. "I'm one of the physicians here at the clinic."
Shannon managed a weak smile. "Well, it's good to know that I wasn't far from good care." She tried to move but found it took an effort. "Will everything be alright?"
"You shouldn't have anything more residual than a bad hangover," he smiled. "Have you ever had a hangover before?"
"More times than I care to admit!" she groaned.
"Tim wants to keep you here for a few more hours," Chuck said. "Then I'll take you back to town. We can pick up your car and you can go to the motel and sleep it off."
She nodded her understanding.
"By the way - any interesting dreams or visions with the seeds?" Chuck added as an afterthought.
Shannon closed her eyes, trying to capture the fast-fleeting images of her bizarre experience. "Too many things to remember clearly. Maybe some will come back to me later."
Tim nodded. "Sounds about right; most of these things fade quickly. Maybe it'll come back to you someday... just sort jump out of nowhere." He dimmed the lights in the room and motioned to Chuck. "Now - let's let you get some more rest and we'll check on you in a couple of hours."
Shannon didn't need to be told twice; she rolled over onto her side and fell into a dreamless sleep.
True to his word, Chuck came back for her at seven in the morning. Shannon waited for him, as alert as she could be following such an experience. A clinic nurse insisted that she stay in a wheelchair until Chuck helped her into his truck. "Hospital policy," the woman said firmly as Shannon squirmed in the enforced invalid position.
"I've got the early shift at the bar again today," he said as they bumped along the dirt road leading to the highway and town. "Why don't you sleep, then we can have dinner?"
"And then I really must be on my way."
"So soon?" His voice sounded a bit discouraged.
"Yes," she answered, more determinedly than she'd meant. "I've really got to get to Ohio within the week, and no telling what the weather will be like on the roads between here and there."
"And depending on any other problems with your car," he added.
"My car," she sighed. "That's a whole other story. I wonder if I'll ever have a vehicle that's not always causing me grief?"
"So you're saying that they're worse than men?" he quipped.
She laughed heartily. "Yes - much worse! I doubt that any man will cause me more headaches than whatever is my form of transportation."
Her diminishing funds lightened by slightly more than six hundred dollars, Shannon gratefully let Chuck pay for their supper. But she felt refreshed by seven hours sleep and a long shower - she was ready to resume her trip.
"Are you sure you're okay to travel?" Chuck asked one more time.
"I'm fine," she said. "Besides," she continued, flourishing a large container in her hand, "I've got a thermos full of coffee to keep me company."
"Something tells me you live off that stuff," he smiled.
"I should probably just inject it directly into my veins," she grinned. "It's gotten me through many tough times and I'm sure it will see me through a few more."
He walked her to her rickety station wagon. She unlocked the door, looked in to check any shifting of her few possessions and turned back to him. "I can't even begin to thank you for everything, Chuck. You went well beyond the call of duty to help a fellow human being."
"While I can tell you're one independent woman, Shannon, we all need a little help every now and then."
"You're right," she nodded, opening the door. "You've taught me an important lesson in the past couple of days." Words were becoming difficult for each of them, but she really had to leave.
"Don't be a stranger; let me hear from you every now and then," he smiled.
"I promise," she answered, pulling him down into a long hug.
He planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "Remember - you're never alone."
She blushed as she got into the car. "Thank you; thank you for everything."
She sighed with relief as the car started smoothly. She gave him a silent thumbs up then released the brake and slowly edged out of the parking lot. She watched him in the rear view mirror until he disappeared in the distance and darkness.
Interstate 15 was quiet. Though it was a Friday night, cars and trucks were few and far in between. Everyone is probably at a Christmas party, she thought with a sigh. Oh, well; I can make good time this way.
The sun and even the moon had long since settled below the western horizon, leaving nothing but a carpet of stars unfolding their stark brilliance into the dark eastern skies. In the still of the desert, with only the rare passing vehicle and the wispy shadows of the desert landscape to accompany her on her journey, Shannon's spirit reached out to the celestial wanderers, knowing within her deepest heart that they were her legacy... her destiny.
Somewhere, sometime, somehow - she would be there to meet it.