Icheb stepped through the open door into Maren’s quarters and looked around. The rush of familiarity he felt as he took in the view disoriented him. The Earth art on the walls, the images of favorite places Maren had traveled -- mostly places they had traveled together -- cycling on the viewscreen, the small crucifix beside the bed, and the barely perceptible scent of Maren’s longtime favorite perfume gave him the feeling of stepping back in time several years, to a much happier place.
The door slid shut behind Maren as she entered the room. He turned to face her, and they both froze, staring at each other as silently as they had on the bridge a few hours before.
“Why are you here?” Maren asked, her voice defiant but shaky.
“Starfleet believed my experience in the Delta Quadrant, particularly with the Borg, would be valuable to this mission,” answered Icheb, though he knew it wasn’t the meaning of her question.
“Of course they did,” agreed Maren impatiently, and clarified: “Why are you here in my quarters?”
Icheb hesitated before answering. The difficulty was, he didn’t really have a good answer for that. He wondered about it himself. What had he hoped to accomplish by coming here?
Earlier, he had told himself he would try to smooth things over, appeal to Maren’s sense of duty and convince her they could have a civil and professional relationship for the sake of the mission. Only, he wasn’t completely sure of that himself. Standing face-to-face with the woman he had once asked to be his wife, he was suddenly overcome with the strange feeling that walking away from her might have been the wrong decision.
He shoved the thought aside and forced himself to behave as her commanding officer. He said in an oddly formal voice, “After you left the bridge this afternoon, the Captain emphasized that it is my responsibility to keep things professional between us. I’ve come to ask for your assistance.” Maren’s eyes widened in apparent disbelief, then quickly narrowed.
“With all due respect, Commander,”
she said quietly, “I think we crossed that bridge a long time ago.”
“Maren .... ” Icheb stopped himself from answering as he realized that she was correct. Any attempt to pretend otherwise would be futile. He couldn’t stop looking at her, and what he saw was not a department head -- what he saw was his wife, or at least the woman who should have been his wife. The thick blond hair in which he had so often tangled his fingers while in her embrace was secured with a simple clip at the nape of her neck. Her cheeks were flushed with emotion -- which emotions, he could only speculate. After nearly ten years separated from the Collective and living among humans, he still had occasional trouble navigating the subtleties of human feeling. By now, he was honestly unsure whether this was a Brunali trait or a permanent side effect of his programming by the Borg. He suspected the latter, but there was no way to be certain.
Deciding to try a different approach, he carefully reached out and caressed Maren's cheek. When she didn’t immediately resist, he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. For a moment, she relaxed into him and returned his kiss as passionately as she ever had in their academy days. But then, as suddenly as the kiss had begun, it was over -- Maren pulled away and slapped him, hard. She cried out in pain.
Icheb knew that had hurt Maren more than it hurt him. Most of the left side of his face under the skin was still solid metal Borg hardware, dense as armor, and Maren had struck him with her right hand. Given her detailed knowledge of his cybernetic systems, he was surprised she had made that mistake, but Maren often made tactical errors when she was angry. Wincing, she drew back her hand, cursed, and fought back angry tears.
“What is wrong with you?” she cried. “What makes you think you have the right to just walk back into my life and kiss me like that after disappearing for two years?!”
“I’m sorry,” said Icheb, stunned and embarrassed at his own inappropriateness. “Let me look at your hand. It might be fractured.”
“Don’t worry about my hand, it’s fine,” Maren snapped. “It’s not your concern.”
“It is my concern,” Icheb said insistently. “I’m the First Officer, and you’re part of my crew. It’s my responsibility to ensure your physical well-being.” Maren looked at him incredulously, and he realized how stupid that sounded given the line he had just crossed. He hesitated before continuing. “Maren, please. I care about you. I never stopped caring. I know you’re angry with me and you have every right to be. But I left you because I loved you. Please try to understand.”
Looking as if she would hit him again if not for her sore hand, Maren hissed, “I don’t understand! I didn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now. One day, we were planning the rest of our lives together, and the next day, you decided for both of us that I’d somehow be better off without you. You’re right, I do not understand.”
“Maren, I -- “
She held up a hand to silence him. “Don’t, Icheb. Just don’t. There’s nothing you can say to make this better. I should never have taken this assignment.” Her voice wavered and the tears that filled her eyes threatened to spill over. “I let my curiosity get the better of my common sense -- that and my pride. I was so honored to be chosen as Chief Engineer of such an important mission, and all the stories you and the rest of the Voyager
crew told about the Delta Quadrant all those years ... I just wanted to see it for myself. I figured you might be assigned here in some capacity, but as one of a crew of 1500, someone I could avoid! I never expected you to be my commanding officer.”
Icheb opened his mouth to reply, but Maren wasn’t finished, and cut him off. “When did they make you a Commander,
anyway? I know people with three times your experience who haven’t made that rank,” she exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief.
“You’re aware of the advantages my cranial implants give me, Maren,” Icheb replied. “I can’t just turn them off. I’ll continue to perform to the best of my ability, and if Starfleet chooses to keep advancing me, I’m not going to protest the decision.”
Maren sighed and gave him a wary look. Her voice softened considerably. “Speaking of implants, I assume you haven’t told Starfleet about your prognosis yet, or they never would have sent you on this mission at all.” The tears she had been struggling to keep in finally started their journey down her cheeks. “My God, I’ve worried about you every day. After everything we went through together those last couple of years, I still can’t believe you just --”
Icheb gently laid a hand on her shoulder, fighting the temptation to bring her closer. “I’m sorry, Maren, I am sorry. I should have explained, should have told you -- I was in shock and I wasn’t thinking clearly. But please try to understand, I was only trying to keep you from experiencing something worse.”
“I didn’t need you to protect me, Icheb. I knew what I was in for and I chose to stay. And you of all people should know better than to try and face this alone. When Seven tried it -- ”
“That was different," Icheb interrupted. "There was a clear way to save her --”
It was Maren's turn to interrupt. “It wasn’t a clear way, it was a huge risk and everyone told you ‘No,’ and you did it anyway. And now you’re paying for it. The fact is, you don’t know for sure there’s not something Starfleet could do for you, and -- ” she was cut off by the sudden chirping sound of Icheb’s communicator.
“Captain Oyugo to Commander Icheb.” Icheb and Maren both flinched at the sudden interruption. Icheb reluctantly tapped his comm. badge.
“This is Commander Icheb. Go ahead, Captain.”
“Report to my Ready Room immediately.”
“Understood,” answered Icheb. He looked at Maren. She nodded stiffly.
“Go,” she said. “It sounds like they need you down there.”
“Maren. We have to discuss this -- all of it. We won’t make it through the next seven years if we don’t.”
“Go, Icheb.” Maren was insistent this time. Icheb slowly nodded, rose and headed for the door. As he paused for it to open, he turned back and took another look at Maren. She was staring down at her bruised hand, lost in thought. Icheb left the room and the door slid shut behind him, reminding him too much of the last time he had left her.