Crumbling Castles

Summary: “You died ten years ago today, and it’s all I can do to keep on breathing.”

 

Characters: Janeway, Chakotay

Codes: Janeway/Chakotay, Chakotay/Seven

 

Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own all rights to the Voyager universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.

 

Some lines from this story have been adapted from the episode Endgame, and I fiddled slightly with the order of scenes in the episode: in my headcanon, the final C/7 conversation (“If you think I'm going to let you end this because of what might happen, then you need to get to know me a little better”) happens before Admiral Janeway leaves the ship.

Notes: On my last birthday, Ailtara sent me a lengthy and comprehensive email, offering a critique of my story The Bitter End. This is the stuff that fanfic writers’ dreams are made of and I am everlastingly grateful, so this story is for her.

Rated M

we build castles
with our fear
and sleep in them
like kings and queens
― Christopher Poindexter

 

===0===


People will start arriving soon. I have things to do before then: show the servers which linens to use, make sure there are clean towels in the bathrooms, freshen my makeup. But I think I’ll stand here a little longer. Here by the window, where the night breeze is cool and toys with my hair.

I’m trying to remember what it felt like when you played your fingers through it. You always loved my hair. I let it grow long again for you, after … after.

I cut it short again a decade ago, and I’ve let the silver grow in. I have little use for vanity these days. I’ve been old for so long – old, tired, embittered, call it what you will – for the past ten years, and the twenty-three before them. But this last decade has been the hardest.

It shouldn’t be that way, should it? I brought them home, finally – what was left of them, at least. And I can still recite the names of every single one who didn’t make it home. I do, each night before I sleep. As long as I’m still breathing they will never be forgotten.

Durst, Jetal, Strickler, Hogan. Bendera, Jenkins, Tal.

B’Elanna’s baby, who never had the chance to draw breath.

Seven.

You.

I bear a knife-wound for every loss. But some will always cut more deeply than others.

I miss you, Chakotay. I miss you every day.

I’m used to talking to you; I’m used to the sound of my own voice, plaintive and deadened on the empty air. You used to talk back to me. Sometimes your words wrapped around me like a blanket, and sometimes they choked me. But you always answered. You always let me know I wasn’t alone.

It’s been ten years tonight since I last heard your voice, and I am always, always alone.

 

===0===


You’d have been in your element tonight, Chakotay.

I know how to work a room; it’s something they teach you in command school, and I’ve had plenty of practice with diplomacy. But it doesn’t come naturally to me – not the way it always did you. I skim across the surface and say all the right things, I press the flesh and move on. You, though; you were always able to make those deeper connections. You had a way of making whoever you were talking to feel like the only other person in the world.

It put me on my guard, that gift of yours, when we were first learning each other. It’s not in my nature to trust too easily, to bond so quickly. I was suspicious of you and the way you insinuated yourself under my skin.

I was even more wary of my own instincts. How could they be telling me that I could trust you – you, my enemy – with such certainty that within months, I couldn’t imagine living a day without you?

Ten years I’ve been without you now. And I wouldn’t call it living.

“To the journey,” was the predictable toast to which we raised our glasses tonight, and I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t stop myself from reminding them – the survivors, the descendants, the satellites – that not all of us came home.

Stadi. Kaplan. Carey. Gilmore.

Tuvok, trapped in the prison of his own ruined mind.

Seven. Oh God, Seven.

I’ve read Ardon Broht’s book, that awful exposé that masquerades as literature. Broht implies that I was in love with her. The beautiful young woman I liberated from the Borg and single-handedly moulded into my Galatea. Of course, he wasn’t there. The truth was much more complicated than that.

The counsellors would have had a field day with me if I’d let them. As it was, I took a leaf from Alynna Nechayev’s book and allowed them to assess me as a power-hungry, emotionally stunted ice queen. We’ve become quite friendly, Alynna and I; you’d find that amusing, wouldn’t you, Chakotay? Or perhaps you wouldn’t. But she and I are quite alike, as it turns out.

Even in this supposedly enlightened century, if you’re a woman who doesn’t flaunt her romantic life in the public eye, you’re automatically a sexless old bitch. If only they knew, hmm?

Well, perhaps it’s best that they don’t.

Do you remember the first time we fucked on my ready room desk? It was well into Beta shift – not that shift rotations mattered; I’m pretty sure neither of us had slept in days – and Seven was regenerating, and I looked up from my padd and you were staring at me. God, your eyes: hot, ravenous, so naked with want that I lost my breath.

And then we crashed together and in matter of heartbeats you were taking me, our clothes still half-on and your hand clasped around my wrist. It was fast and wild and desperate, the way it so often was with us. The way I pushed it to be, because when it was dreamy and slow and tender, those were the times when I struggled to bite back the words I wanted to say to you.

The words I did say to you, finally. When it was too late.

So much time wasted, Chakotay. So many regrets.

I’m alone again now; it’s well past midnight and all my guests have gone home. My lipstick has worn off and I’ve kicked away my shoes. I’m tired to the bone – age wearies the best of us, after all – but I have no desire to sleep.

Sleep is when I dream, and my dreams are best avoided.

You might think it strange that there’s a glass of whiskey here for you, untouched, on the coffee table beside the bottle that’s already half-empty. You might think it sad that whenever someone mentioned you by name tonight, my lips froze into a rictus and my stomach hollowed out.

But you died ten years ago today, and it’s all I can do to keep on breathing.

 

===0===


Stepping off the landing ramp and onto Terran soil for the first time in twenty-three years should have been a wondrous, joyful event.

The sun was setting over the bay. It stung my eyes, and I used the burn to camouflage my tears. My quest was complete, but I was not.

I had just lost you.

We were all in a state of shell-shock, disbelieving that we were really, finally home, distraught that it had cost your life. I remember answering questions on autopilot, addressing the press, pasting a smile on my face and posing for photographs. I remember the way admirals decades younger than I was deferred to me, stared at me with stars in their eyes. And I remember looking for you – standing at my shoulder like a bulwark, silent and watchful, your hand never far from the small of my back.

It was inconceivable that you weren’t there.

I moved through the days like I was wrapped in cotton wool. I smiled for the press, I hugged my family, I contacted the loved ones of those crew that hadn’t survived the journey. Starfleet debriefed and promoted me. And each night I went back to the soulless apartment they had allocated to me and drank myself into a stupor.

If it made facing each morning even harder, at least it dulled the nightmares.

But eventually, one night, no matter how much I drank it wasn’t enough. The crew had dissipated; those who still had families had returned to them and those who didn’t drifted away from Earth. The doctors had pronounced Tuvok’s condition incurable, not that it was a surprise. Harry was immediately given a captaincy. Tom and B’Elanna left Starfleet to pursue other interests. The Doctor stayed, but I avoided him. He was the only one left who knew me well enough to see past my façade.

There was a hollow scoured in my chest. All the losses piled upon me, all the bad decisions, all the cruel and vicious things I’d seen and done and had done to me.

I broke.

And then – when I was lying on the bathroom floor, empty and hopeless and destroyed beyond tears – you were there.

I felt you, Chakotay. I felt your hand on my shoulder, warm and supportive and there, just as you had always been, even when we were so far apart I couldn’t see how we’d ever find our way back.

I pushed myself upright and felt you settle beside me, your fingers enclosing mine. And I began to talk to you.

About Sandrine’s and purple fruit and mating behaviour. About peace roses and candlelit dinners, and bathtubs built by hand. Laughter and holding hands and talking long into the night. Making love under the sun of an alien sky, in a place that felt like forever.

About Klingon tempers and first contacts; transwarp flights and time travel and Q.

Seska, and Ransom, and dashed hopes when a way home was denied us.

The Borg. The Hirogen. The Devore.

Mind control and mutinies and memory-wipes.

The Fen Domar.

Seven.

About all the little ways you loved me, and all the ways I pushed you away.

And when day dawned and my throat was hoarse with talking, I started to plan.

 

===0===


Well, I’m ready, Chakotay. It’s hard to believe it after all these years of preparation, but finally, it’s all falling into place.

I’ll be leaving soon, but before I do – any final words of advice for your old captain? Wait, don't tell me. I'm being impulsive. I haven't considered all the consequences. It's too risky.

But I have considered the consequences, Chakotay. And the biggest risk, I think, is that I’ll fail. So  thanks for the input, but I've got to do what I think is right.

And I know this is right. I’m going to save them – as many of them as I can. Sofin, Nicoletti, Ayala. Tuvok. Seven.

But most of all, I’ll save you.

You’d call me selfish if you were here, and maybe you’d be right. You’d say I’m doing this to salve my conscience. You’d remind me of the one hundred and seventeen survivors, of the children born on the ship, of the people whose lives we impacted along the journey. You’d tell me I can’t possibly predict the outcomes of my actions. That everything might change for the worse.

You’re right – I am selfish. I’m doing this because I can’t bear to live without you any longer.

The irony is that even after everything changes, I’ll still be alone. Because if she lives –

Believe me, I know it wasn't easy living all those years without her, Chakotay. And when I’m through you won’t have to. I can’t help hoping, though, that things might be better for all of us. So many things will have been erased from history, and we’ll be home, and you’ll be free to choose.

I’ve always trusted you to make the right choices, Chakotay, even when it didn’t seem that way. All you have to do is trust me now.

The way you trusted me once.

 

===0===


Your lips brushed mine, and with barely a moment’s hesitation I melted into you. Our first kiss tasted of salt and promises, and nothing had ever been so sweet.

I was the one who took your hand and led you to my bed. I was the one who began to remove my nightgown – the one you called my ‘Starfleet body armour’, do you remember? – and when we were naked and you hesitated, unsure, I was the one who wrapped my arms and legs around you and pulled you into my body.

I remember afterwards, you lay there with me, still clasping my hand, the tears in your eyes mirroring the ones still sliding down my cheeks.

“I didn’t tell you that story to make you cry,” you said, your lips curling upward at the edges, and something that was half a laugh and half a sob echoed from my chest.

Your hand squeezed mine, gently.

“I didn’t intend to pressure you, Kathryn. You can trust me on that. I just wanted you to know how I feel.”

“I do trust you,” I whispered. And I almost, almost, told you how I felt too.

Oh, that first night; it still sends a shiver along my skin when I think of it, even all these years later. I’d never believed making love could be so powerful, but over the few golden weeks we stayed on New Earth, you showed me just how we could be.

You are not the only one who sometimes regretted that we were retrieved from that planet. You don’t know how many nights I cried myself to sleep, how many times I forced myself to keep from touching you because I knew that if we made love again, I’d never be able to walk away from you, and damn the regulations to hell.

Instead I built a castle of my own fears and armed its battlements with Starfleet principles. And every time you tried to breach its walls I shot you down.

I regret that now, as I regret so many things. I regret not telling you I loved you until you’d lost so much of yourself that you could no longer love me back.

Look at me, all bitter and maudlin. There’s nothing more pathetic than an old woman bemoaning the choices she’s made.

I’m going to change all that, Chakotay. As soon as I get the device from Korath I’ll be on my way.

I’ll see you soon.

 

===0===


I wasn’t prepared for this.

There you stand, straight and clear-eyed, your hair dark and your skin barely weathered. There’s still a light inside you, the light I saw extinguished when Seven died in your arms.

I can’t stop staring at you.

I’m sure my face is naked with the longing that almost doubles me over – I know it is, because my younger self tightens her lips and tries to hustle me past you. I stand firm, drinking you in. I’m trying to read your eyes. Are they lit only with curiosity? Are they bright because you’re a man newly in love? Are you looking at me and wondering, with an involuntary recoil, what became of the Kathryn Janeway you know?

That’s it, isn’t it? Oh, God. You see me as I truly am: a brittle, hardened shell that hides nothing but ire and loneliness.

I let my younger self pluck at my elbow, leading me away, and despite all the promises I made to myself before I embarked on this fool’s errand, I take pains to avoid you. You try to talk to me the next day when we’re briefly alone in a turbolift, but I brush you off as if you mean nothing.

You don’t try again for a couple of days. And when you do track me down – alone in my guest quarters, staring out at the Delta quadrant stars – your voice is glacial.

But your eyes are hot.

“Admiral,” you seethe. “I want to know what you said to Seven.”

 

===0===


Old habits die hard, Chakotay. When he confronts me like that – all dark-eyed, broad-shouldered fury – my instinct is to fire back at him. I have to bite down on my tongue to curb the vicious words I used to throw at you.

I have to remember that he isn’t you. He isn’t the Chakotay I know. They have history, of course – these younger versions of you and me – but their worst days are yet ahead of them.

I can’t help a small, bitter smile at that thought – I’m sure each of them would be appalled to know that things can get much, much worse – and he notices.

“Is something funny, Admiral?” he all but spits at me.

“No,” I answer. “Not at all.”

I break the weight of his stare, turning to sit and indicating the seat beside me. He’s wary and so, so angry, but he takes it. Ingrained obedience? Perhaps. A need, despite himself, to know me?

I can only hope so.

“You asked me what I said to Seven,” I begin. “I’ll tell you, but I want to warn you first: you’re going to have questions. And I will answer them all truthfully, and completely. But you won’t like what you’re going to hear.”

Some of the fury leaches from his eyes. I watch him as he considers what I’ve said, and finally nods. “Go ahead,” he says.

“In a little over two years’ time,” I tell him, “you’re going to marry Seven of Nine. Four days before your wedding, you’ll begin an affair with your captain.”

His chin jerks back as though I’ve punched him.

“It was an act of utter selfishness, and it resulted in a terrible weight of guilt that both he and I carried for the rest of our lives,” I continue, and even to me my voice sounds weak, enervated, paper-thin. “But Seven didn’t live long enough to regret it.”

And so I go on, telling him everything and sparing him nothing. He sinks lower into his chair as I talk on and on. Gradually he stops looking into my eyes and stares unseeingly downward, and after a while, he raises one hand to scrub at his face. By the time my voice has grown rough and my throat sore, he’s bent over, elbows on his knees, head in his hands.

“Chakotay,” I tell him, softly, laying a hand on his hunched shoulder, “everything I’ve told you tonight – I came back to prevent it. I came back so that Seven and twenty-one other crewmen would live, and Tuvok wouldn’t lose his beautiful mind, and Naomi and Icheb and Miral could grow up with grass beneath their feet. And I came back,” I can feel my voice wavering, thickening, “so that you and she would never become what we were in my lifetime.”

He raises his head and turns to look at me. The tracks of tears are drying on his face, and I can hardly force the words out around the ache in my throat.

“I’m not here to force your hand, Chakotay. I want you to be free to choose the path you take. But I need to tell you this: I came back for us. Because I love you. I have always loved you.”

So many emotions flit through his eyes, almost too quickly to name. In the end, he takes my hand and lifts it to press against his lips.

“I don’t want you to die,” he whispers.

“I can’t stay,” I say gently. “I don’t belong here. And this is what I came here to do.”

In answer he draws me into his embrace. With his arms around me I remember, finally, what it’s like to feel safe.

“Thank you, Kathryn.” His voice is low and muffled against my hair. “And I love you.”

The walls around my heart begin to crumble, and a sense of peace drifts in. I know now beyond all doubt that I’ve made the right choice this time. I no longer fear what I know I have to do.

I’m ready.