"Breaking Through"

by A. Magiluna Stormwriter

DISCLAIMER: I don't own them, as much as I wish I did. Cuz if I *did* actually own them, things would be a lot diffferent, and CONTINUITY would be a given. Thanks.

The morning's meeting was coming to a close, and Kathryn Janeway couldn't have been happier. She'd been feeling so restless and needed to do something. Perhaps prowl the decks, ostensibly to check on the various departments herself.

"If that's all, then we can do this again next week," she said. "Meeting adjourned."

She forced herself to pick up the PADD Seven had given her during the meeting, as everyone filed out. After a few minutes of internal fidgeting, the sound of someone clearing his throat startled her enough to drop the PADD clutched tightly in her hand. Wide blue eyes rested on the face of the EMH, then narrowed as realization set in.

"May I help you, Doctor? Or is it a new subroutine to silently watch me like that?"

"Pardon me for startling you, but there is a matter of utmost urgency we need to discuss."

Janeway motioned to a chair closer to her, leaning back in her own, fingers steepled together in front of her face. She watched the hologram for a long moment before speaking. "What is so urgent, Doctor? Tom not cooperating again?"

The EMH scowled. "The situation with Mr. Paris is as it always is, but that is not the matter of discussion right now."

"And the matter is?" she growled impatiently.

"The matter is your behavior of late."

"I beg your pardon?" Her eyes narrowed even more.

"You have shown signs of increased restlessness, agitation, acute exhaustion, mild paranoia. Frankly, Captain, I am worried, and I'm not the only one to feel this way."

Janeway abruptly stood, began pacing. The EMH watched her carefully: the set of her shoulders, the way she clenched and unclenched her fists, the scowl that seemed a permanent part of her face. After a moment or so, she stopped and looked out at the stars passing by.

"Who exactly feels this way besides you, Doctor?" she asked in a low voice.

"Your entire senior staff, for starters. A number of them came to me after receiving similar reports from people in their departments."

"So they sic you on me?" she muttered. "Interesting. They normally use Chakotay."

"The commander preferred I handle this," the EMH replied, nonplused.

Janeway shrugged. "So what is your recommendation? Take some time off? Ease up on my responsibilities? Delegate? You know damned well I can't do that. I'm responsible for nearly one hundred and fifty people. By destroying the Caretaker's array four years ago, my chances of easing up and delegating responsibility were curtailed. I am the captain of this ship. I can be no less."

"I disagree, Captain. This ship's senior staff is quite competent. Delegation of a good portion of your lesser duties would allow you more time to devote to your own health and well-being. And it would ease some of the tension on this ship."

A hand moved up to rub at her forehead. "I can't do that, Doctor. And as for the tension, now that we're safely away from the Void, moods will pick up."

"And if they don't? Do you realize your impact on this crew?" he asked, standing.

"What did I just say, Doctor? Or weren't you listening? It was MY decision, my actions that stranded this ship and her crew in the Delta Quadrant. It is my responsibility to bring them home safely. I fully realize my impact on my crew."

"Is it your responsibility to kill yourself in your attempt to bring them home?" came the uncharacteristically soft reply. "Captain, I have watched you these past four years rather closely. Yours are not the most efficient methods for stress management, particularly of late. I am worried about you, and I feel that there is a serious problem right now that you need to address."

Janeway whirled about to face him, angry fury blazing in her eyes. "There is no problem, Doctor. And if you have nothing else to tell me, this discussion is OVER. Do I make myself clear?"

Disappointment clouded his features. "As you wish, Captain." And then he left the room.


Nearly an hour later, the EMH looked up to see B'Elanna Torres stalking into his office. The anger on her face stopped his aria mid-word. "Lieutenant?"

"Do something about the bitch queen yet?" she growled. "Because if you don't, I won't be responsible for my actions."

"That is no way to discuss your captain," he replied. "But since you asked, my initial attempt was unsuccessful, but that will not stop me from trying again until I am in fact successful. Does that answer your question?"

She growled softly, but nodded. "Just do it quickly. Please? No one is a saint, Doc, and a lot of tempers are flared right now over this." With that, she left.

"As if I didn't already know that?" he muttered.


"Good evening, Captain," came the voice from behind her.

"Damnit, Doctor!" she hissed, jumping. "What did I tell you about sneaking up on me?"

"I apologize, but I didn't think you would mind, this being a public place and all. I knew you come here to relax."

"I come here to be alone. Why can no one honor that one simple request?" Janeway began pacing then, still not facing him. "I really don't ask much of this crew in terms of my personal life. Just a few simple hours alone now and then. That's all I ask. Is that so difficult to give?"

"When it means you're pulling away from the crew, distancing yourself for long periods of time, yes, it is," came the soft reply. "Captain, you have honestly worried your crew to the point that it's affecting their ability to follow your orders."

"Are you suggesting mutiny, Doctor?" At his negative movement, her eyes narrowed. "Then do you dare suggest I am unfit for duty?"

"Not at this moment, but it is entirely possible in the future if you won't accept help."

"I should have your program deactivated," she growled dangerously.

"And continue your journey without a fully qualified doctor?" came the somewhat snide remark.

"Then I'll order you be rebooted, start over from scratch again."

"And I can assure you my original programming would have already relieved you of duty, Captain, and I think you know that."

Barely contained emotion boiled below the surface, and Kathryn Janeway utilized every ounce of strength and willpower to hold it in. Deep down, she knew the Doctor was right, but couldn't bring herself to admit it. Her voice was edged with steel when she finally spoke. "Unless you intend to relieve me of duty here and now, I'd suggest you leave, Doctor."

"Very well." He could see she was in need, hurting, but also knew better than to press her any further. "I bid you a good evening, Captain," he replied, backing away.

Janeway didn't answer, barely acknowledged him, eyes trained on the roses before her. She found weeds among them and angrily began to pull them out. She'd have to speak to whoever had taken over the hydroponics bay since Kes' departure. This level of disrepair just was not acceptable on her ship. She wouldn't tolerate it.

And as she continued plucking out the offending plants, reality came crashing down around her. The guilt, the anger, the fear. All crowded around her, closing her in, suffocating her. The weight of it brought her to her knees with a soft cry. Arms wrapped tightly about herself, she cried and rocked back and forth.

And from his hiding place further back, the EMH watched her emotional upheaval in pained silence.


"As much as it pains me to say it, I do believe that Captain Janeway needs to be relieved of duty." The words didn't so much shock the three officers sitting across from the EMH as upset them. They all knew it was inevitable. They'd watched Kathryn Janeway retreat further into herself than she had during their time in the Void.

B'Elanna spoke up then. She knew she was privileged to be included in this 'top brass' meeting. "Chakotay is practically running the ship as it is. What difference will this really make? The Captain hasn't been out of her quarters in nearly two weeks now, and won't allow anyone in but Chakotay. I'm surprised this wasn't done earlier."

"This is not something that should be taken lightly, Lieutenant," came Tuvok's stern reply. "Captain Janeway has done much for this ship and its crew over the past four years. We owe it to her to do what is best."

"And we owe it to the crew to do what is best for them, for the ship," she retorted. "Janeway hasn't done anything lately. Granted, we pulled her out of it when we were in the Void, but no one's pulled her out this time, and she's slipping away from us."

"The lieutenant is right," the EMH broke in. "Captain Janeway is slipping further into this depression of hers with each passing day. She does not yet know it, but I have had a monitor on her for the past two weeks since my last encounter with her. She has steadily worsened. I have been ready to come to Commander Chakotay before, but each time, she showed a bit of improvement, as if she knew what was about to happen and wanted to prevent it. This time, however, there has been no such improvement. It is my recommendation she be relieved of duty until she is once again fit to command. And I would also like to recommend formal confinement to quarters. I don't know that it would be that difficult to maneuver, since she hasn't left her quarters in some time now."

"The question is," B'Elanna interjected, "how do we get the Captain to accept this situation?"

Finally Chakotay spoke. "I will talk to her, explain that we are in agreement on this."

"Perhaps I should do it, Commander," the EMH replied. "She has already expressed her anger with me. I wouldn't want to have any of you involved in that, beyond your support of my decision."

The three other officers nodded grimly, none of them wanting to be in the doctor's holographic shoes.



"Come in," came the dull voice as the EMH walked into the darkened quarters.

"Are you busy, Captain?"

"Of course not," she replied, turning to face him. In the dark, her face was barely outlined by the stars passing by, but he could still see how haggard she looked. "What would you like to discuss? Or are you here to relieve me of duty?"

The EMH shifted slightly. "Actually, yes, that is the reason I'm here." He didn't receive the reaction he'd expected. Instead of exploding in anger, threatening to destroy his programming, she simply nodded once, then lowered her head. "Captain?"

"Just get it over with, Doctor. I'm really in no mood to prolong this any more than absolutely necessary." A heavy sigh shook her tiny frame. But still she made no effort to turn and face him. "Say what you have to, then leave me to my solitude."

A frown creased his already deeply lined face. This was going too well...and yet horribly wrong. "Captain, I have discussed this with members of the senior staff, most notably your first and second officers, and all are in agreement that your emotional well-being has seriously deteriorated over the past several weeks to the point that you are currently unable to perform your duties as captain of this vessel." He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders for what would come next. "Captain Kathryn Janeway, it is in the opinion of the senior staff of this ship that you be relieved of all duties and responsibilities given you for the commanding of said ship and her crew until such time that you have shown suitable progress toward a more stabilized level of emotional stability. Therefore it is in my authority as Chief Medical Officer of this vessel to hereby authorize the ship's computer to remove all command code authorizations from you and transfer all command functions of said ship to Commander Chakotay, who will become acting captain until such time that you are able to return to your duties, or until it is determined by the Chief Medical Officer that you will be permanently unable to return to said duties. Computer, please state compliance with the aforementioned changes to the command structure of this vessel."

Neither realized they'd been holding their breath until the computer's bodiless female voice replied, "Command transfer sequence complete. Command transfer verified. Captain Janeway's command codes will no longer be accepted until reversal of this transfer is authorized by the Chief Medical Officer. Commander Chakotay is now in command of Voyager."

The EMH watched Janeway carefully. As much as this was necessary for the continued functioning of Voyager, he was not happy to have done it. And then there was the matter of the woman's reaction to what was happening. In fact, it was her very reaction that made him realize just how crucial it was to do what he had, that she was so deeply into her depression, her ship, her pride and joy, was of little or no consequence to her anymore. If he was human, he'd be chilled to the bone at that realization.

"Doctor," she finally said, "I would appreciate if you would leave now. I need to be alone." Flat. No emotion whatsoever. Resigned. In fact, beyond resigned. It almost went into a vocal level of a catatonic state.

For the first time in his existence, the EMH felt true rage and pain. "Why are you doing this?" he spat, reaching out to touch her shoulder, turn her about, force her to look at him for once. He looked at her lowered head, her hands on her hips.

"Doing what, Doctor? Reconsidering my decision to destroy the Caretaker's array and save Kes' people?"


"Because I have to. I've denied myself this chance for four years now." She moved away from him again, headed for the viewport. Leaned her forehead against it. "For once in my life, I believe I made the wrong decision."

Suddenly, he launched himself at her, grabbed her and slammed her hard against the bulkhead. His dark eyes bored into hers. "Do you know what you're saying? Have you so little faith in yourself and your crew? Do you realize that had you not done as you had, we'd not be where we are now?"

"I fully realize that, Doctor," she growled softly, meeting his eye. Fire flashed within her blue-grey eyes, the first real sign of emotion in weeks. "And I also realize that if I had done differently, you'd still be an emergency program, rather than the pompous ass you are now."

"I also wouldn't have the sentience I now possess," he replied. "Do you have any idea what that has meant to me? To have exceeded what Dr. Zimmerman programmed into me? To have a life, feelings, opinions....none of which have anything to do with medical knowledge. You have given me a life, and I fully intend to see to it that you do not give up on your own."

"And how do you propose accomplishing that?"

"For starters, this," he replied, then leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.

At first she was shocked, angered, and began to fight against him. Still he held tightly to her, lips never leaving hers. And then his persistence paid off as her body began to respond....though not exactly as he'd thought. Tears began to course down her cheeks and she clung desperately to him, her body almost convulsing at the intensity of her sobs. Finally he pulled back from the kiss to stare into her eyes again.


"Don't let go," she whimpered softly.

He enveloped her in his arms, letting her cry. He wasn't exactly sure what else to do, but didn't want her to feel alone at all. "Captain," he finally asked, "why don't I give you something? Allow you to get some sleep? It's obvious to me that you are greatly in need of rest right now." It was a cop-out, but the only thing he could think of doing at the moment....besides attempting to rekindle what he'd felt during his impromptu kiss.

She shook her head, clinging more tightly to him. "No," she murmured. "No sleep. It'll only bring the nightmares....and I won't do that again."

"Nightmares?" he asked, carefully leading her toward the couch. "What nightmares? Have they been affecting you for long?"

"Long enough," she replied, curling into a corner of the couch, legs tucked up under her chin. She looked more vulnerable than he'd ever seen, and it pained him to see her thus. "They started before the Void. Actually, I've had them for years, but they were never this bad." She took a deep breath. "They're always the same. Me letting someone down, someone I care about. First Daddy and Justin, then Mark and Molly, and finally this crew. Look at all the people I've let down, Doctor. What sane, rational person could do that?" Her chin trembled, and a tear slid down her cheek unheeded. "I guess I should be grateful that you relieved me of duty. I certainly wouldn't want to let anyone else down, or kill them because I'm not fit to do my job. Maybe I never was."

"Now that's enough, Captain," he said sternly. "I simply won't stand for that. It's not true, and you know it. You are more than worthy of your job. Yes, currently you aren't fit to do your duties. But that doesn't mean that you've never been fit to fulfill them. If that were true, we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we?" He paused, knowing that if he continued, he'd be treading on thin ice, but needing to do it anyway. "You are a very strong, intelligent, capable woman, Captain. You are someone I pride myself in knowing, someone who has allowed me to exceed my programming. In fact, I believe you have encouraged it, have you not?" She didn't respond. "And you are the person that this crew looks up to. They are willing to do anything for you, Captain, don't you understand that? If they didn't believe in you, in your abilities as an effective leader, they'd never have followed you as faithfully as they have. They care about you, all of us do, and they are terribly worried about your current state of health."

"And what am I supposed to do to rectify the situation? I don't see a counselor to help me. And I don't see anyone to let in. The only people I ever trusted enough wouldn't understand."

"I highly doubt that. You just wouldn't allow yourself to see that they would. I know I can speak for Commanders Tuvok and Chakotay when I say that we are all extremely worried about you and wish you would open up to someone, anyone." He paused again, took a deep breath, then made the decision. "I would go so far as to offer myself for that service. You know that I would never betray what you say to me in confidence unless it grossly affected your person or this ship. And I think that you need to talk to someone who you do not spend so much time with on duty, like you do with the commanders." He held his breath, waiting for her to speak, do something.

Finally she looked up at him, eyes searching his face for something. And then she cocked her head to one side. "Tell me something?"

"If I can, I will."

"Why did you kiss me?" It was soft, tentative, but he saw a bit of a light in her eyes, genuine interest for the first time in quite a while.

What could he say besides the truth? "It got you to focus on something other than your depression, didn't it?"

A wry grin barely registered on her face. "I don't think that's the only reason, Doctor. Try again. The truth this time."

He looked at her for a long moment, debating. "Alright, you want to know why I kissed you?" She nodded. "Permission to speak freely, Captain?"

"Always. And if it would suit the situation, you may call me Kathryn."

He blinked, surprised by that. He knew Chakotay was allowed to call her by her first name, but no one else to the doctor's knowledge was allowed that privilege. He frowned then for a moment before speaking. "If you would like the truth, I kissed you because I wanted to. I have wanted to for quite some time now, but I never would acknowledge it or anything like that."

"Why now?"

"You needed it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You needed it," he repeated. "And I guess I needed it, too. You are a person who needs the closeness of another person. You don't allow yourself that. Commander Chakotay is a very close friend for you, and you need that, too, but even more you need to have someone there for you who will unconditionally support and care for you."

She stood and began to pace again, hands on her hips, chewing the inside of her cheek. "And you feel you are this person? How do you come to such a conclusion?"

"Hear me out, Captain?" he asked, motioning to the couch. "Please sit down, so that I can better explain myself in a more intimate environment." He waited while she sat down again, exactly as she had before, curling in on herself again. His frown reappeared at that. "This is what I meant, Captain. You close in on yourself, shut out anyone who would offer you help. But you need that help, you need to allow others into your life, your inner sanctum so to speak."

"How do I know someone will even want to come in?"

Now he allowed himself a deeper frown, moving to frame her face with his hands. "I would think that kiss would show you that I'd like to be allowed in that inner sanctum you guard so closely." His eyes implored hers for a long moment, then he dropped his hands and stood with a dramatically heavy sigh. "Then again, I am only a hologram. What do I know? It doesn't matter that I'm the Chief Medical Officer, no one follows my recommendations there either. So it wouldn't surprise me that you disregard what I'm saying to you right now either. After all, I'm just a series of algorithms. Why should you believe anything I say? It was just programmed into me at some point or another."

He started to walk away, was stopped by a hand on his arm. "You're wrong, Doctor," came the soft whisper behind him. "I never said I wouldn't follow your recommendations. And if I ever made you feel as if you were simply a series of algorithms, I apologize. You are a vital member of my crew, and I am very grateful that you have offered yourself as you have. I just--" She moved into his line of sight, eyes downcast as she spoke. "I just don't know if I should allow you in, if you would still be around afterward if I did. I need to know that I won't be taken for granted, dismissed if it gets to be too much."

He lifted her chin, gazed into her deep blue eyes. "What would be more permanent than a series of algorithms? I'm not prone to the emotional extremes of normal humans, nor am I one to easily back away simply because you are uncomfortable. Yes, I would worry about you, care for you, but I wouldn't coddle you as some might. Like Commander Chakotay, for instance. What would be better for you, Captain? Coddling or honest diligence in helping you, being there for you?"

Kathryn Janeway closed her eyes, allowed the tear to slip down her cheek. She knew he was right. Could she admit it? Did she have the strength to admit this weakness, this failure? Swallowing audibly, she leaned in closer to him, burying her face in his chest. "I can't do this anymore," she barely whispered. "It's too lonely."

Her few simple words, painfully uttered, were more than his resolve could stand up against. He tipped her chin up again, saw the tears and felt the deepest ache ever known to a hologram. Gently he leaned down and brushed his lips across her cheeks, ineffectively trying to stop their flow. She whimpered at the touch, so completely un-holographic, unprogrammed, the simple beauty of his lips against her skin. Moving her head slightly, her lips were the next recipient of the velvety soft touch of his. Her arms wrapped themselves around his neck, moving closer to him.

"I won't let you be lonely anymore," he murmured. "But I can't do that if you won't let me in."

Opening her eyes, she stared up at him, naked trust and need emanating from the blue of her eyes. "Please?" came her soft cry. Taking a single step back, she stretched out a hand toward him. Beckoning him to take her hand, she took another step back. Feeling his hand in hers, she tightly gripped it, then slowly walked toward her bedroom.

He was a bit hesitant, but followed her. He'd made his promise and he couldn't very well back out now. He wasn't sure what would come of this down the line, but he would be there to support her just as he'd promised. *I wonder if it will matter to her that I've never actually....* he mused silently as he watched her stand before him almost shyly.

Once again, he moved down to kiss her, pulling her close. His hands slid up to cup her face as he took his time exploring her lips with his own. Shock registered first as her lips parted to allow his tongue, then a second time when she pulled his hands down to the swell of her breasts. He looked into her eyes, caressed her cheek with the back of his hand, then gently unzipped her jacket. Pushing it off her shoulders, he heard it fall to the floor at her feet, but his hands were on her shoulders, gently massaging, easing what tension he could. His eyes never left hers, tho' words failed him for the first time in his existence.

She felt walls falling away from her, baring the hidden pain and need. Her head rolled forward, allowing his hands complete access to her shoulders and neck. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes at the painful knots he slowly kneaded out of her painfully tight muscles. "Yes, please," she groaned softly as his fingers slid up to work their magic along the base of her skull. Her head lolled back, cradled in his hands, and she met his eyes again. She didn't bother to hide the hurt, the loneliness...the aching, all-consuming need from him. Her eyes begged him to do what no one else had: fill the loneliness in her soul.

One hand still cupped her head steadily as the other slid around to trace lightly over the contours of her face. He watched her eyelids flutter shut, a small smile lifting the corners of her lips. His fingertips gently smoothed away the remaining lines of stress on her forehead, her temples, then slid down to trace along her cheekbones to her soft lips. Once again, he felt drawn to those lips, laved them with his tongue before taking possession of them again.

Of their own volition, his hands moved down to pull the dark hem of her turtleneck out from the waist of her form-fitting pants. He pulled back from her lips long enough to lift the shirt up and off her body, revealing the tight tanktop sculpting her upper body. He lightly touched her cheek, causing her to open her eyes. "Lie down on the bed," he murmured. She sat down, then leaned backward. "No, on your stomach." She rolled over, reaching for a pillow to lay under her head. Folding her hands on the pillow, she rested her head on them, closing her eyes. A soft sigh escaped her lips as he removed her boots and socks. She shivered almost violently at the gentle touch of his hands against the soles of her right foot. He continued with the same tender thoroughness he'd shown on her shoulders and neck. Only this time, her entire body relaxed, not just her feet. She felt more relaxed than she had in such a long time; all she wanted to do was drift off to sleep, safe and cared for.

"Hey," he said softly, seeing the completely relaxed set of her body. "I'm not done with you yet." She mumbled something he couldn't understand, prompting him to move up next to her. "What?" He leaned in closer to hear her.

"What're you gonna do?" she mumbled again, trying to lift her head to look at him.

"Nothing much," came his slightly sarcastic reply. "Just ensure that you're completely relaxed and feeling better about yourself and your life."

"Well, you've got me relaxed, that's for sure."

"And the rest?" His hand slipped up to caress her cheek again.

"Don't think you can do that. I don't know if anyone can," came the forlorn reply.

He stretched out next to her, pulled her into his arms. He watied patiently as she adjusted her body to his, resting her head against his chest, her ear where his heart would be. She felt the even, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest; felt the gentle strength of his arms around her waist. Her eyelids fluttered shut again and she let out a soft sigh. "I'm not sure, but I think I could get used to this," she mumbled, nuzzling her cheek against his chest, a hand creeping up around his neck.

"I wouldn't want to stop you," he replied softly. "If it makes you feel better about yourself, I'll do whatever I have to....if you'll let me."

He tilted her head up again, brushed his lips across hers, his other hand splayed along the small of her back, forming her body to his even more. As the kiss deepened, he trailed his fingers down her cheek and along the line of her throat, fingertips barely touching her skin. Her shiver goaded him on, his fingers continuing their trail along her bare arm. And as she gripped at his neck with a soft groan, his lower hand balled into a fist, pulling the taut material of her tanktop with it, exposing the creamy softness of her lower back. Releasing the shirt, his hand crept underneath it to follow the expanse of her back. Blinking hard, he suddenly realized that he was at her shoulders, having never encountered resistence along her back. *No bra?* he mused. *Is this a normal occurrence, I wonder?*

As if reading his mind, she chuckled softly. "If you're wondering, I don't like the confining feeling of a bra." He swallowed hard then as she sat up and pulled the tiny shirt off her body, tossing it behind her. A slightly amused smile lit up her eyes as she took in his gape-jawed staring. "I take it you approve?"

He nodded dumbly, taking in the sight of her fair skin, lightly freckled below her exquisite collarbones. His trained medical eye took in the sight of those freckles ending just above the soft rise of her breasts. And then he let his eyes rest on those breasts, on the dusty rose of her pebbled nipples capping the creamy, rounded fullness. Again, as if reading his mind, she reached out a hand to grasp one of his, bring it to rest on her right breast. Involuntarily, his hand tightened around it, the nipple brushing lightly against the rough of his palm.

She whimpered softly, deep in her throat at the touch, moved to lean into him, brush feather-light kisses to his jaw. Her hands moved up to the zipper on his jacket, began to slide it down, but stopped when his hand covered hers. "You seem to be forgetting something," he said gently. At her confused gaze, he lifted his left arm, motioning with his head toward his holoemitter. "I lose this, you lose me. And I highly doubt you'd want to move this to the holodeck."

She shook her head. "No, somehow I don't think so." She lowered her eyes then, blushed lightly at the sight of her taut nipples straining toward the man. *What on earth are you thinking, Kathryn?* she chastized herself suddenly. *He's a damned computer program, for goodness sakes.* And her wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees, suddenly feeling cold and self-conscious.

He saw the change in her, how rapidly she turned in on herself, let the walls build up around her fragile soul again. He stretched a hand out, tenderly touched her cheek. "Hey, don't do that," he gently admonished. "Don't pull away again. You have no reason to hide."

"Yes, I do," she replied. "I'm not worthy of any of this."

"That's enough of that!" His voice startled her, but not as much as what he did. Roughly he pulled her to him, took possession of her lips, and let his hands roam the contours of her bare back. She stiffened slightly, then pulled herself closer to him, unwilling to let go of him, even as his hands moved lower to rest on the waistband of her pants.

She knew what he wanted, realized she wanted the same thing. "But how?" She didn't even realize she'd voiced the thought until he responded.

"Very slowly and tenderly."

She looked up into his eyes, confused, almost shy again. "It's been--"

"I know," he replied, a finger over her lips. "I have done your exams, remember? I know every centimetre of your body, I know your medical history." He caressed her cheek, continuing softly. "And I know it's been quite a while for you. Let me make this count for you, let me show you that someone cares enough for you to make you happy."

She nodded, let him guide her back down to the bed. He fanned her hair out around her face on the pillow, then kissed her lips tenderly. His hands caressed her breasts, soon replaced by his lips. Tenderly, he took a nipple in his mouth, showering it with the sweetest attention. She arched her chest toward him, wanting more from him. A soft whimper escaped her lips as he transferred his rapt attention to her other nipple.

His fingers deftly, gently removed her pants, the last shred of clothing she wore. And then he leaned back to look down at her. In awe, he saw the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. "My god," came his soft exclamation. "You are truly beautiful, Kathryn."

Tears sprang to her eyes at his heartfelt admission. She felt absolutely naked under his scrutiny, her very soul laid bare before him. A shaking hand reached up to him in need. "Please?" she whispered.

Leaning down, he brushed her lips with his, stretching out next to her. He covered her body with tender, almost reverent caresses. And then he stopped as her hands slipped down to fumble at the fastenings of his pants. He knew perfectly well what she wanted....even needed at this point. And he was willing to give it to her, to help her see that someone was willing to be there for her completely, unconditionally. And so it was with complete love and trust that he moved over her and gently entered her. He took great pains to go slowly, ease into her as gently as possible so as not to hurt her, stretch her beyond what her body was capable of anymore.

She whimpered softly, clutching at him as he began to move within her. Her arms and legs wrapped so tightly around him, as if she feared he would disappear, now when she needed him the most. And pain be damned, she needed to feel him deeply within her, needed to feel his arms around her....needed to feel period.

And the tears kept coming. They came as she held him close. They came as his hands gently framed her face. They came as his lips brushed tenderly across her cheeks, trying to stop the tears. They came as his hips moved faster, in rhythm with her own. They came as her climax overwhelmed her, pulling him tighter to her body. They came as she cried out her pleasure and release. They came as he came deep within her. They came as the wall around her heart came crashing down around her. And in the dust rising from the rubble, they came to remind her that she was alive, and needed....and loved unconditionally.