Paramount owns all things Star Trek Voyager. I don't. Only borrowing them. Etc. Etc. Etc. Besides, I can't do any worse than you know who. An illiterate snail could do better than him.
NC 17
Kathryn has to attend the engagement of Chakotay and Seven. Written for VAMB Secret Santa 2005.

A Life Sentence

by Kat Lady

I let my feet search for my slippers, my eyes otherwise occupied in their fight for wakefulness. I slept fitfully, unable to find oblivion for even a few hours, my mind tortured by the knowledge of what the coming day and evening will bring. Eventually towards dawn, my exhaustion, both physical and emotional, brought an hour of unconsciousness. But now reality is back and denial is impossible.

Chakotay and Seven are to be engaged tonight and I have to be there to witness it. I think of the Klingons and sigh sadly to myself. Today would be a good day to die. Or at least be injured by some alien...but we're no longer in that kind of danger. We're home now and yet I'm facing the worst day of my life.

I shower and dress on autopilot, not caring what I wear or how I look. No one is here to see me anyway. I'm staying with my sister until I find a place of my own so she doesn't count.

I ignore her look of disapproval as I bypass the pancakes she's made and instead knock back several cups of strong coffee. She says nothing but I learned long ago to read the small sounds she makes at the back of her throat when she's got something on her mind.

After breakfast, I finally meet her eyes, determined to get this over with. "Go on. Say what's on your mind."

She's been watching me. "Do I really need to say it? And don't try and pull that captain's mask bull on me."

I sigh heavily. "I'm afraid the captain's mask and Kathryn's have merged. If I remove it, there'll be nothing beneath it."

Phoebe just laughs. "And who am I talking to now then?"

I merely shrug. "The answer eludes me." I look at her sadly, suddenly fighting tears and I have no idea where they've come from. "I've forgotten who I am, Phoebe."

She reaches across the table and grips my hand. "You're my sister. You're mom's daughter. You're friend and captain and a hundred other things to so many."

I look down at her hand on mine. "Everything but what I want to be."

She answers that one for me. "Wife and mother. Kathryn, you..."

I pull my hand from hers and stand quickly. "Don't say it, Phoebe."

She looks up at me. "You don't know what I was going say."

I laugh cynically. "Does it matter? There are no words for this. The fact is the only one I want is getting engaged this evening to another. And on top of that, they've invited me to attend to witness it."

My sister's sadness matches my own. "You don't have to go."

I laugh again. "If it was only that simple." I move to the window and stare out at the view I fought seven long and hard years to see again. "He still sees me as his friend. Not to attend would hurt him."

I hear the scrape of her chair as she pushes it back and stands. "And your hurt means nothing?" She's standing beside me now, a witness to my tears and pain.

I shake my head, cursing my weakness. "No. I've denied him so much over the years. I hurt him so much already. I've even ignored his messages since we've been home and stayed away from him. If this can make any kind of amends for all that, in any way, then I owe him."

She strokes her hand up and down my back. "No matter the cost to yourself? When are you going to stop sacrificing yourself for others, Kathryn? You're home. You got them all home."

I sigh heavily. "A captain's duty to her crew doesn't end at the docking station."

I sense her anger before she lets it out. "That's bullshit and you know it. You're not their mother. You got them home and now they're responsible for their own lives. You sacrificed enough of your life for them. It's over. Now is the time for you."

I look at her sadly. "Maybe for most of them. Not him though. What I owe him goes beyond captain and crew. This is personal." I look back out the window and trace the span of the Golden Gate bridge with my finger against the glass. "She matters too. She was like a daughter to me. I owe them both and they want me there. If this makes them happy, then I owe it to them."

Phoebe actually snorts at that, despite how unlike her the sound is. My sister is always the lady. "So you'll dress up in your finery and attend this tonight. You'll paste a smile on your face and hide your broken heart." I see no malice on her face when I look at her. "And what then, Kathryn? What happens to you tomorrow?"

I shrug. "I set out to try and find a life for myself. With any luck, I'll be offered an assignment that will ensure I'm unable to attend their wedding. Besides, it's just a small gathering tonight. Senior staff only and some of the former Maquis."

Phoebe moves back to me. "Which will be harder for you. If they were all going to be there, you'd be able to slip away or hide yourself amongst them."

I hadn't thought of that. "Guess I'll just have to try harder then."

She shakes her head and looks down at her hands. "Why do you really feel you owe him so much?" She locks eyes with me, challenging me.

I can never be dishonest with her. "Because I pushed him away so many times and I hurt him."

She raises her eyebrows. "And?"

This woman knows me too well. My voice is soft when I answer her. "The truth is I was afraid."

I see her frown at that. "Afraid of what?"

I hold her eyes. "Of loving him...and being hurt because of that."

If I expect sympathy, I'm going to wait a long time. "Kathryn, you already love him. I can see that very clearly. You love him and that's hurting you even more."

I look at her with my death glare. "You always did like to state the obvious." I see her about to say something else and raise my hand. "Enough, Phoebe. Going over this is just hurting me more. I'll attend tonight and get it over with. After that..."

She's not willing to be shut up. "After that, you'll sink into a deep depression and slowly fade away."

I hate it when she's right.

The party is held in a small function room at a hotel outside of the city. The location puzzles me and also bothers me. There's really nowhere to run and hide here, apart from the room which has been booked in my name.

I take my time in bathing and dressing, delaying as long as possible. When I can put it off no longer, I make my way downstairs. Tom and B'Elanna see me first and come over immediately, engaging me in small talk. I barely hear them as I scan the foyer for him but he's not here yet. I see Mike Ayala with his wife and several others of the former Maquis, some with their partners.

There are obviously several other parties being held here tonight. It's Christmas and people want to be together. I swallow the lump in my throat and smile my thanks at B'Elanna's admiring comments on my dress. I turn away with the excuse of getting another drink and blink back the tears I felt coming. They blur the lights on the large tree beside the reception desk and I bite my lip hard to control them.

And then I see him and it takes everything in me to hold my ground. He locks eyes with me and I see him frown. I turn and grab a fresh drink from a passing waiter and when I turn back to him, I'm in control again. I just hope he hasn't noticed.

He greets me with a kiss on the cheek and I fight hard to hold myself together. Seeing Seven over his shoulder helps me. She looks radiant in a dark green dress which falls to the floor. Her hair is loose and I've never seen her look more beautiful. No wonder he fell for her.

In no time, the others join us. Harry and Libby, who waited for him after all, and the Doctor with his latest escort. He's had no shortage of admirers since our return. Tuvok has sent his apologies. He's still recovering.

We're such a small group and I feel out of it, attending alone. I know I'm not the only one without a date, but I feel the absence keenly. A waiter shows us into a small function room and I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that this isn't going to be a formal affair. The food is laid out in a buffet and a bar lines one wall. A three piece band softly serenades us and the lighting isn't too bright. I'm grateful for that.

We mingle and chat for about half an hour and so far I've managed to avoid Chakotay and Seven. I'm monopolizing the Doctor but I don't care. Besides, his 'date' seems more intent on chatting up the barman.

Finally the moment I've been dreading comes and Tom calls for our attention by tapping a spoon against his glass. I flashback to him doing that on Voyager once, the night of Prixim when we'd almost lost Neelix. I miss him. He'd have made me feel better tonight.

I look around at all the happy faces and wonder how they can feel this way. And then I scold myself. They're happy for their friend and I should be too. I've no right to expect them to feel as miserable as I do.

Tom makes the toast to the happy couple but I'm barely listening. I see Chakotay take her hand, the diamond ring he holds catching the light. I hold on with super human strength as he places it on her finger and softly kisses her.

B'Elanna calls for another toast and we gather around a centre table. We clink glasses, some of the liquid spilling onto the crisp white tablecloth. The red wine spreads on the fabric, soaking through it and making strange shapes. No one else seems to notice it in their merriment, but I find myself staring at it, mesmerized by it. It makes me think of blood on snow.

I shake myself out of it, the smile still plastered on my face for their sakes. Ever the captain, ever the strong one, while inside my heart is breaking. I've stayed as long as I can, but I can't take much more. The outward defences hold as I make my excuses, citing tiredness and an early start the next day, with reports still needed and demanded by Starfleet on our return.

I see Chakotay watching me, still trying to perform his art of reading me. God love him, he'll fail. I've reinforced my shields since I first heard his news. I smile again, just for him this time, attempting to reassure him, and I see him reluctantly accept it. This is their night, their engagement and I relinquished any right I had to him a long time ago. Mea culpa. The motto by which I've lived these past seven years.

It would have to be Christmas. I think I shall forever hate this damn season. And I used to love it. The joy is now replaced with pain.

I walk outside into the chill night air, not wanting to return to my room just yet, knowing I could be found there if anyone looked.

I feel my tears cold on my face. Damn everything and everyone. Damn the timing in our getting home. How was I to know we'd return to the Alpha Quadrant so soon...or at all...despite what I made myself believe.

"It's your own damn fault, Janeway." I chide myself. "What the hell did you expect? Did you think he'd be able to read your mind? Even if he knew how you felt, did you think he'd wait forever? Anyway, you can't compete with that. She's everything you're not."

A rustle in the bushes makes me jump and I spin around. He's there, staring at me, emerging from the shadows. Did I speak aloud? Did he hear me? He moves closer to me and a faint smile spreads across his face, giving me my answer.

I turn to run. Me, the fearless captain. I can't face this. I don't get far though and he's in front of me, blocking my escape. He grips my arms and holds me in place. "I knew the real you would come out tonight. Once we were back and you saw this. I knew your shields would eventually have to fall."

Anger wars with pain. "Is that what this was? Was asking me here some sick way to hurt me?"

I see how much I've hurt him with my words, but he pushes it away. He shakes his head slowly. "I heard what you said. And you're right. She's everything you're not."

His words cut deeply but he's not finished and he holds me more tightly when I struggle to get away. "And no offence to Seven, but you're everything she's not." He looks deeply into my eyes. "Don't you know me at all, Kathryn? Don't you know my heart? When I love, I love forever. I could have been with any other woman, but I'd always have loved you. Had you not felt the same way, I'd have gone on with my life, sharing it with another, but I'd always have loved you. They'd always be second best to me and they'd know that."

I stare at him. "Is that what she is? How can you do that to her? Why would you? If you feel this way..."

He shakes his head. "I'm a man who can't face the rest of my life alone. I want and need a family. You can't blame me for that. I'm only human, Kathryn, and a damn lonely one at that. Surely you of all people can understand what that feels like."

I feel my tears falling. "I'm sorry."

He smiles at me now. "Don't be. Now I finally know that you love me too."

I can't believe what I'm hearing. "There can't be anything between us. What I feel isn't important..."

I don't get to finish as he presses his hand over my mouth. "Do you love me, Kathryn? Would you be ready to come to me now?"

I pull back. "Chakotay, this can't..."

He silences me again. "Just answer the damn question, Kathryn. Yes or no."

I can't help it. The word just comes out as he removes his hand. "Yes."

He smiles. "Yes, you love me?"

I nod. "Yes."

He takes that in. "And yes, you'd be ready to come to me now?"

My answer is the same. "Yes."

He nods slowly at that. "Tell me. Say the words."

My heart is breaking here. "Chakotay, we can't..."

His grip on my arm tightens. "If you mean it, say the words."

Despite the pain it causes me, I say them. I even manage to hold his eyes for a moment. "I love you." I pull away from him finally. "Are you happy now? I've said it. And you've just condemned me to a life of more pain..."

He grabs me again. "I love you too, Kathryn."

My heart convulses at his words, words I've longed to hear for so long, but instead of joy, I feel myself losing it. "What is this? Half a loaf is better than no bread?"

I've hurt him again. "That's cruel and unfair, Kathryn."

He's right but I can't let that sway me. "So what? In case you've forgotten, your future wife is inside."

He pulls me to him. "No, Kathryn. My future wife is in my arms."

I stare at him as if he's lost his mind. "You can't do that to her. I won't be a part of that. We can't..."

He leans in quickly and presses his lips to mine. That shuts me up, but not for long. I pull away, pain ripping through me. "No. You can't hurt her like that. I won't let you. And I won't be a part of anything else. All you're doing is hurting her and hurting me, and I can't..."

He laughs then and I feel I'm losing my mind. I don't understand any of this. I look towards a shaft of light that cuts across the ground and see the door to the function room open. They all stand there, Seven amongst them.

I cry out and pull away. "Oh God..." I need to explain this. I need to talk to Seven and tell her I'm not going to take the man she loves.

Chakotay is still laughing and I look at him. He's not a cruel man so I don't understand. I understand even less when I see them all smiling at me and then they begin clapping and cheering.

Chakotay is beside me now. He places his hands on my shoulders, facing me fully towards the door. "Look at them, Kathryn. They're all in on it. Even Seven."

He turns me to face him. I see his lips move and I hear his words but my brain is slow. "I'm sorry to have done things this way, Kathryn, but I tried every other way. I love you and I was sure you loved me, but something always got in the way. Starfleet, principals, regulations, getting the crew home. You always kept that distance, refusing to let yourself be happy. I saw it all in you. It sat on your shoulders like a brick wall pressing down on you, but you never let me in or let me ease your burdens. What you did expect me to do was watch you suffer and suffer along with you. I tried that but I couldn't do it anymore. Yes, I dated Seven, but there was nothing there. We both felt it and knew it. It just wasn't meant to be. I saw that you believed it though and knew that nothing I said to you would make you think differently."

His eyes are so steady on mine. "I was so happy when we found our way home. I really thought we could finally work things out. However, you still stood back. You barely talked to me, were even more distant. You were still sacrificing yourself. After seven years, I don't think you know any other way. Maybe I was wrong to date her, but I was lonely and she needed someone too."

I think I'm going into shock. "But tonight..."

He smiles at me. "Seven and I are friends. We stopped dating before we got home. I couldn't ever get a chance to tell you that though. You were pushing me away, locking yourself away. Starfleet and debriefings took over for a while but I still tried to get to you. You avoided me though. In desperation, I arranged this tonight. I knew you'd come. You cared that much. It seemed the only way to get through to you, break down those damn defences and make you admit the truth."

I look from his face to the smiles at the door and back again. It registers with me somewhere that they must be cold. I suddenly realize that I am. The thought makes me shiver and he takes his jacket off and drapes it around my shoulders. "Here. You must be freezing."

My brain slowly begins to work again but my emotions are like a shuttle wreck. I claw for some part of the captain to get me through this.

Slowly parts of my mind begin to move and I have just one thought. He'll freeze in just his shirt. "Inside." I take off and hear him follow. I avoid the function room door and make for the main entrance. I can't face anyone else until my mind is functioning again. At the moment, I think this is how madness must feel.

He catches up with me. "Kathryn, please."

I glare at him, not sure what I feeling. "Not here."

He nods at that. "My room?" He smiles at the shocked look on my face. "It's just my room, Kathryn. I'm not sharing with anyone." I'm sure I look as embarrassed as I feel at that one.

I nod my head. "Lead the way."

I hadn't realized how cold it was outside. It feels good to be warm again. I watch him as he draws the curtains, the room lit by three lamps. It's cosy and comfortable for a hotel room. Warm colours and spacious.

He interrupts my musings by handing me a coffee. "It'll warm you up."

I nod my gratitude but don't drink. Suddenly the liquid has become fascinating. I stir the coffee and watch it swirl around the cup, keeping pace with my thoughts.

"It won't drink itself."

I look up at him and for a moment can't remember where I am or how or why. He sits down beside me on the bed.

"Kathryn, just drink your coffee and then we can talk. I'll explain everything."

Finally I lift the cup to my lips and drink. The taste snaps me out of it, the caffeine kick starting my numbed mind. I hand him the empty cup and study him. "I don't understand any of this."

He nods slowly as he places the cup on the night stand, then takes my hands in his. "I tried talking to you, Kathryn. You refused to admit your feelings."

I pull my hands from his and stand up. I need to pace. "You tried? Really?"

His eyes follow my movements. "Yes, Kathryn. You know I did. Think honestly and you'll remember how many times I tried, how many messages I left and how many times you had some meeting or some report due. There was always some damn reason. Every reason except the real one."

I glare at him. "What the hell would you know?"

He calmly sits back. "You forget how well I know you, Kathryn. No one can run from her emotions faster than you can."

I stop pacing and stare hard at him. "So you made sure I..." I close my eyes a moment, trying to control those same emotions. "Do you have any idea of the pain you've put me through since I got that damn invitation? And what about...?" I advance on him. "They were ALL in on it?"

He doesn't bat an eyelid. "Yes, they were. They knew and they agreed."

I don't believe this. "You all discussed my private life...my feelings...behind my back? You plotted and planned all this?"

He stands now. "Kathryn, I could see no other way. You were still running at full speed. I needed to shock you to stop you. I needed to know your real feelings and I needed you to face those feelings. I saw no other way."

I close the distance between us. "You could have just talked to me."

He's not accepting that. "When could I have done that, Kathryn? We've been through this. I've tried to talk to you so many times. I've invited you to lunch, to dinner, and you were always busy. You were running from me and you know it."

We're inches apart and I just stare at him. He's right and we both know it. I just find it hard to admit at the moment.

He sighs and shakes his head. "Kathryn, we could stand here for years and trash all this out, but in the end, in my mind, it boils down to one thing. We love each other. Do you accept that?"

I can't deny it. "Yes."

He's happy with that. "Then nothing else matters. The how or the why or the way. We're finally at this place where you know I love you and I know you love me. Does anything else really matter?"

I think about that for all of ten seconds. Suddenly I know he's right. Part of me still wants to rip his head off for all this, for all he's put me through, but maybe... No. He was right. I don't think there was any other way for him to get through to me. I'm my own worst enemy where my heart is concerned.

He sees my surrender and I openly allow it. It's time I stopped running from myself and my life. "What about the others?"

He moves closer to me. "What about them?"

I shake my head and I want to laugh. "You can't just leave them down there."

He shrugs and smiles. "Why not? They're all good Starfleet Officers. They're not stupid. They know what tonight was about. They saw enough. They're adults with rooms of their own here. They're quite capable of looking after themselves. They'll party for a while and then go to bed. We don't need to tuck them in."

I have to accept that. "And what will they think is going on up here?"

He smiles down at me. "That depends on you."

I draw in a deep breath. "I'm angry at you."

He moves a little closer, his hands stroking up and down my arms. "How angry?"

I punch at his chest. "Very angry. It may involve brig time." My smile gives me away this time.

He slowly moves his hands up my arms and plays his fingers over my neck. "Am I going to be punished then?"

I shudder at his touch. "Maybe..." My breath catches in my throat. "You might enjoy it too much though..." His touch is doing wonderful things to me.

He leans down and brushes his lips across my cheek. "To be fair though, you're really the one who should be punished."

I look up at him but I can hide nothing. His grin tells me that. "So, Kathryn...how should I punish a naughty girl?" His hand slides down my back and caresses my backside. "Is a spanking in order?"

I don't know whether I'm more shocked or turned on by his words. The answer presents itself when he playfully slaps my rear and I see by his face that he's seen the answer in mine.

He pulls me towards the bed and sits down, then in a sudden movement pulls me down and across his lap. His hand rubs across my bottom a moment before he delivers a few smacks of his hand.

I can't believe what's happening or what I'm allowing to happen. More so, I can't believe how much I want this. When did I become so wanton?

I slide off his lap to kneel on the floor in front of him. He reads me so well. "Kathryn, there's nothing wrong with this. Are you afraid I'll think badly of you for enjoying this?" He slides down beside me and cups my cheek. "I'm sorry. Maybe you're not ready for this. I'm moving too fast."

I study him for a moment, my mind making whirlwind decisions I know I won't regret. I shake my head. "No. We've waited long enough. I'm sorry. I just thought for a moment that..." I look down at the floor. "I don't want you to think badly of me."

He places a finger under my chin and raises my face to look at him. "I love you, Kathryn Janeway. You're stubborn and you've driven me crazy at times, but you're worth everything. You were damn hard work, but the prize was well worth it. Never be embarrassed to be yourself with me."

The path before me is so clear now. This man loves me and accepts everything about me. I never have to hide anything from him or pretend with him. He's here before me, his heart open, willing to accept all that I am and never judging me. What's more, he waited for me, never giving up on me. He fought hard for me. I'm wise enough to know how rare a gift that is.

I know he sees my answer in my eyes before I give it. "I love you. All that I am is yours."

He gives me just three words before letting his actions speak for him. "I love you."

We need no more words now. He stands slowly and pulls me up to him, studying me as if committing the moment to memory. He lets go of my hand and moves around behind me. I feel his hands on my back as he lowers the zip on my dress. He moves around to stand before me before he slides it off my shoulders to pool around my feet.

His eyes sweep down my body and I wish I'd worn nicer underwear. It's black to match the dress, but there's really nothing sexy about it. His sharp intake of breath and the caress of his hands on my body tells me he thinks otherwise though. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

I badly need to see him too and reach out to unbutton his shirt. His jacket still lies on the bed where I discarded it.

Suddenly the buttons are taking too long and I pull at them. He smiles at my urgency. "Patience, Kathryn. We'll only ever have one first time." He takes over for me and pulls his shirt from his body. My eyes now have something to occupy themselves with as he slips the rest of his clothes off, leaving just his boxers.

He reaches for my hand and I step out of my dress. He gently pushes me down on the bed and slips my shoes off, my stockings with them. Before I know it, we're both naked.

He straddles me then and stares down into my eyes. "You're so beautiful." I reach up to play my fingers over his face. "Are you sure you're ready for this, Kathryn? We can wait or..."

I shake my head. "I want nothing more. I love you. We've waited too long." I think I see tears in his eyes as he leans down and kisses me deeply. My arms go around his neck and I pull him to me, never wanting to let go.

Time loses all meaning and nothing else exists in the world as we finally come together. His fingers trail over my skin and his tongue laps at me, building my arousal to dizzying heights. It's as if we're in a cocoon of bliss which cradles us and I feel I'm floating on air. He worships at my breasts and holds my wrists, refusing to let me move. I know this is for me, that he needs to give of himself completely but I want to worship his body as he's revering mine.

As if reading my mind, he looks deeply into my eyes. "Next time, Kathryn. Let me do this please." I can't refuse him and really it's no hardship, but I've never been a selfish lover and I want to share with him something of what he's giving me.

He moves lower now, his lower body sliding between my open legs. He licks and nips his way down, taking his time. His hands slip from my wrists and his fingers hold mine for a moment before he lets go. He kneels on the floor and gently presses my thighs wider. I feel his eyes on me and then his breath as he leans forward, blowing softly on me. I shudder at the sensations which stir within me and my hands grip the bed spread, needing to hold onto something.

And then I cry out as his fingers part me and his mouth descends on me. His gentleness fades as he feeds from me, his mouth and fingers working me like no other ever has. Nothing I've experienced with any other has prepared me for this. This man is a true master. He discovers places even I never found in my sole endeavours.

I can feel my fluids flowing like never before and no other part of my body seems to exist except where he's concentrating. His hands slip beneath me and he pulls me towards him, my legs over his shoulders now. His fingers continue to work me up, spreading my juices. I'm lost here, completely at his mercy, as I feel one of his fingers enter me. He's gentle again, just for a moment, testing my readiness. Satisfied, he withdraws it only to force three together into me almost violently. I scream out in ecstasy and he stills for just a moment, letting me stretch and adjust to the invasion.

And then it begins. He pumps in and out of me as I moan and groan, communicating in the only way I'm capable of. He slows then, but doesn't withdraw. His mouth lowers over me again, licking and sucking at me, adding to the ascent. I feel another finger press at me from behind but he has all the control now. I care for nothing but the wave which waits to crash down over me.

He sucks hard on me then, his fingers spearing my body, and I fly. An explosion erupts within me, creating a fire I think will never be doused. Every muscle in my body seems to lock as I arch off the bed, my legs tightening around his neck. I hear my scream from somewhere in the distance and I truly see fireworks behind my tightly closed eyes.

While still in the throes of this rapture, I'm vaguely aware of his fingers leaving me and his body covering me, coming down over mine. The emptiness barely has time to register before I'm filled again, his rock hard shaft surging into me, stretching me beyond what I ever thought possible. I long to wrap my arms around him, to pull him into me even more, but they refuse to move. He takes care of that though and raises my arms above my head, gripping my wrists again and pinning me down.

His body seems to merge with mine as he plunges and withdraws, his pace increasing, driving me back to the apex. As he pushes into me, each powerful thrust pushes the breath from my body, making me light headed, not just from lack of oxygen, but with pure passion. I feel the wave again, threatening to drown me as it consumes my body, igniting every nerve as I explode once more. I scream again and his shout joins it in a harmony as old as time.

Real time is slow to restore itself. I'm aware that I'm lying on my side, cradled in his arms. When I can see again past the tears which flow from my eyes, his smiling face is there, his love for me shining from it. "Are you all right?" He whispers softly to me, his hands stroking up and down my back. "Did I hurt you?"

I just about have the power of speech, but my voice sounds hoarse. "I'm fine. Beyond fine. I've never felt safer or happier."

He pulls me closer. "So I'm forgiven?"

I pretend to think about that. "That's hard to say. I might need more convincing. That could take some time."

He kisses my cheek. "So this could be a life term?"

I snuggle against him. "Oh, I think a lot longer than that."