Summary: She really should know better by now. It’s not the first time her opening conversation with an alien dignitary has left them with the apparently indelible impression that Chakotay is her partner in more than just command.
Characters: Janeway, Chakotay, Original Character(s)
Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own all rights to the Voyager universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.
The banquet table is draped in richly coloured silks and laden with an array of dishes they’ve already sampled and found delicious. The lights are low and the conversation – what their universal translators manage to catch of it; the Ruaitan language has proved particularly challenging to interpret – has segued from diplomacy into more prosaic and personal topics. In fact their host, Presider Hartani, has just enquired after the plans for a generational voyage that he assumes they’ve made, both for the crew and for themselves, and at Kathryn’s somewhat frosty response has politely excused himself and turned to speak to another guest.
She leans in slightly to the man on her left and lowers her voice. “Have you ever wondered how we always seem to end up in these situations?”
Her dining companion’s fingers stray to his ear, and she bats them away in a gesture as natural as it is habitual. A gesture that’s indicative of all the tiny intimacies they share, and doubtless one of the reasons they do so frequently end up in these situations.
Not wanting to draw her attention to this fact for fear she’ll stop, he demurs, “I’m sure it’s just because we’re the two most senior officers. Why don’t you take a sick day next time? I could pretend to be married to Tuvok.”
She chuckles, as he’d intended, and pats his thigh under the table. “Tuvok would find an eminently logical reason to get out of it. And besides, I think I’d like to stick you with Tom. I’m sure this,” she waves her free hand, vaguely indicating the room, “is his fault somehow, and it would be good punishment for both of you.”
“What did I do?” he feigns dismay.
She ignores him. “And that would leave me to entertain B’Elanna …” at the gleam in his eye, she smirks, “I thought that idea might interest you. Maybe I’ll take her to the next one of these functions.”
“More likely B’Elanna would take you,” he snorts, then at her widened eyes he offers a chastened, “Sorry, Kathryn. That was inappropriate.”
“Yes, it was, Commander,” she replies primly. There’s a sparkle in her eye as she adds, “I’m insulted you think I couldn’t hold my own in that particular situation.”
He laughs out loud, drawing the attention of several of their neighbours at the table. The presider’s second-in-charge, Ordanelle Nuella, smiles indulgently at the way Kathryn’s hand rises from beneath the table to curl around his upper arm, and when her glance crosses Chakotay’s she sends him the faintest of winks.
“Did that woman just wink at you?” Kathryn whispers when Nuella has turned to the person beside her.
“‘That woman’?” Chakotay repeats, his smile widening. “Why Kathryn, you almost sound jealous.”
“Why would I be jealous,” Kathryn leans an elbow on the table, turning her body toward his and lowering her voice still further so he has to lean in to hear her, “when you’re so obviously devoted to me?”
His smile falters for the briefest instant, but it’s long enough for her to sense his change in mood. She draws back instantly, folding her hands in her lap.
“Talk about inappropriate,” she mutters. “I’m sorry, Chakotay.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not. That was thoughtless, especially considering … well, what happens later.”
Kathryn suppresses a sigh, and ever attuned to the slightest shift in her temperament, Chakotay touches her lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he says, his tone gently encouraging. “We’ve done this before. You know you have nothing to fear from me.”
She hesitates, and for a moment he thinks she’s about to say something quite different to the words that eventually fall from her lips.
“Of course I know that,” she says with a smile only a fraction tighter than usual. She leans slightly away so that his hand falls from her shoulder. “Let’s just get through this evening, and then everything can go back to normal.”
Nothing to fear, Kathryn thinks dismally as she pretends to listen to a monologue on Ruaitan scenic attractions from the minister seated to her right, politely humming and nodding at what she assumes are the correct moments. As if it’s Chakotay that I’m afraid of, and not myself.
Of course, her more immediate fear is focused on the activities that will unfold over the course of the evening, no matter how blithe a countenance she wears in front of her first officer.
She knows what’s to come – neither Tuvok nor Chakotay would ever allow her to beam down to an alien planet and be blindsided by whatever tortuous formality she’s expected to perform – but reading it on a padd in dry diplomatic language is entirely different to being there. And the formalities on this planet will be particularly trying.
They often are, when first contact results in assumptions she fails to correct.
She really should know better by now. It’s not the first time her opening conversation with an alien dignitary has left them with the apparently indelible impression that Chakotay is her partner in more than just command.
Maybe they’d think differently, she admits to herself in a rare moment of honesty, if you didn’t habitually put your hands all over him as though he’s your personal property.
Kathryn lays down the cutlery she’s been toying with and hopes her cheeks aren’t flushing with shame.
Chakotay had told her once – some time ago now, when she’d been surer of how he felt about her – that these ceremonies were hard on him. She had seen that for herself in his quietness over the days following one of these rituals, in the way he withdrew from her and flinched at her habit of touching his hand or his chest.
Gradually, as they had grown more accustomed to playing the roles so often expected of them after a first contact, Chakotay seemed better able to mute his reactions, or mask them.
Or maybe, she reflects now, it doesn’t bother him anymore because the feelings are gone.
For someone who has spent so long wilfully ignoring the possibilities he embodies and how deeply she longs to explore them, has in fact denied or stonewalled even his most subtle attempts to broach the subject with her, that thought is perversely depressing.
Kathryn forces herself to nod interestedly as the minister beside her drones on about some notable geological formation she should probably care about but can’t. All she wants is for it to be tomorrow already, to be back on her bridge with a cargo hold full of supplies and Voyager’s bow pointed toward the Alpha quadrant.
Back to normal, or whatever passes for it.
She sighs again, almost heavily enough to put the minister off his stride. Heavily enough that Chakotay leans over and murmurs, “Are you all right, Kathryn?”
Luckily, she’s spared the need to answer by a hush falling across the table as Presider Hartani stands and raises his glass, which is filled with a clear purple liquid. All around them, other Ruaitans rise as well.
This is it, Kathryn thinks, hollowness clenching the pit of her stomach, as she and Chakotay stand as well.
Someone places a goblet in her hand, filled with the same violet liquid; it smells appealingly of blackberries. Beside her, she feels Chakotay shift on his feet.
“Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay,” Hartani intones, “as honoured guests of Ruaita, we invite you to undertake the Rite of …” here, the universal translator glitches briefly, struggling to parse the alien word, “Inscription.”
In her briefing with Chakotay and Tuvok that afternoon, Kathryn’s spine had tingled with an unease she couldn’t explain. Now, raising her glass as she mentally revises the prescribed response to Hartani’s toast, she finds herself trying to push away those same misgivings.
“On behalf of my crew, my companion” – on its first attempt, the universal translator had rather alarmingly interpreted that term as mate – “and myself, I thank you, Presider Hartani, and your people for your hospitality.”
She sips the purple drink in unison with Hartani, and the others at the table follow suit.
“In accordance with our tradition,” the dignitary continues, “a declaration must be made. Do you, Captain, Commander, in the presence of these good citizens, confirm that you stand before us open-hearted, sharing one intent and desire for the entirety of your existence?”
That shiver of apprehension tingles along her spine again: the parallel between these ritual words and the Starfleet marriage rite is undeniable. Still, the Ruaitan language can be interpreted in so many different ways; Tuvok’s translation of the declaration, in fact, was a rather insipid proclamation of shared goals and friendship.
Kathryn swallows. “I do.”
“I do,” Chakotay echoes beside her.
Hartani lifts his glass to drink again, and Kathryn and Chakotay copy him.
“Let it be known that a false tongue cannot hide the truth of the heart,” the presider continues, infusing his tone with gravity. “The Rite of Inscription binds you in enduring allegiance, and your lives will be forever given to the safekeeping of each other. Do you wish to renounce the oaths you have already sworn?”
Kathryn hesitates. In her first read-through, the computer had translated enduring allegiance as eternal devotion, and that final phrase had been: do you wish to annul the vows you have taken?
Beside her, Chakotay says softly, “I renounce no oaths. I swear them again in this moment, and in every moment to come.”
She opens her mouth, but her tongue feels thick and her heart is thundering in her chest.
“Captain?” Ordanelle Nuella prompts from her place next to the presider. “Do you swear it too?”
Why am I hesitating? Kathryn pep-talks herself frantically. Haven’t we already sworn allegiance time and again? Haven’t we placed our lives in each other’s hands hundred times over?
“I swear,” she forces out finally.
A sigh ripples around the table, following by smiles and the relaxing of tensed shoulders.
Kathryn, on the other hand, finds herself more tightly wound than ever.
“It is sworn,” Hartani declares with a smile Kathryn reads as just this side of smug. “Drink, and let the rite begin!”
Kathryn and Chakotay have no sooner drunk the remnants of the blackberry wine than they are each surrounded by several excitedly chattering Ruaitans, who guide them in opposite directions through arched doorways at either end of the banquet hall.
Chakotay stares directly ahead as two elderly Ruaitan attendants remove his uniform with speed and efficiency. Naked, his skin warmed by late afternoon sunlight dappling through the leafy canopy overhead, he resists the impulse to cover himself with his hands and tries to focus on the gossiping of his companions, which his discarded combadge is still translating brokenly.
He wonders how Kathryn is coping with this part of her own ritual, and the thought brings a sudden grin to his face.
He studies his surroundings to distract himself from his apprehension over the impending ceremony. It’s a strange chamber they’ve brought him to: not a room but a kind of garden, walled on three sides with an impenetrable thicket woven from tough silvery trunks, and an open archway to his right. Beneath his feet is a carpet of mossy grass so soft he can’t help but curl his toes into it, and above him is a vaunted ceiling of interlacing branches bearing flat, veined leaves, a translucent grey-green in colour. He squints up, trying to make out the sky.
One of the Ruaitans calls back his attention, pressing a goblet into his hand. It’s filled with the same blackberry liquor they’d toasted with earlier, but there’s an extra spice to the scent. Without a tricorder he can’t be sure whether it’s an intoxicant; he sips judiciously and hands it back with a smile.
A third attendant taps Chakotay lightly on one hip, indicating that he should step into a pair of pants made from a loosely-woven, linen-like fibre. He follows hand-waving instructions to tie them closed, then, still barefoot and bare-chested, is led through the archway and into a densely thatched corridor floored with packed earth; almost a tunnel. Darkness gathers as he and his attendants move in deeper, and tiny lights begin to appear, strung through the branches on either side of them.
Moments later they emerge into a cavern. The first thing to catch Chakotay’s eye is a carved pool in the centre of the space, the water rippling gently and smelling faintly metallic. The earth underfoot has given way to a fine, glistening powder that clings to his soles. The walls are curved and striated granite, with a natural lustre that gathers reflected candlelight from the pool and tosses it around the space. It’s disorienting, and Chakotay has to blink before the dancing glimmers of light begin to make sense, before he can determine which way is up.
There’s a hush in the air, only the soft plink of dripping water echoing in the stillness, and a sense of expectancy.
Chakotay’s companions guide him to stand on the broad bank of powdery stone beside the pool. He gazes into it, trying to determine how deep it is, what minerals might permeate the brilliant turquoise water, whether there is any unsuspected danger … and then there’s a soft murmur of voices and the tiny hairs on his nape crawl and prickle, and he turns just in time to see Kathryn appear.
Kathryn’s senses are on high alert as her attendants usher her into the cavern. Her chin is high and her bearing regal, but her eyes dart around the space, as if on the lookout for danger.
It comes in the form of her first officer, standing alone by a shimmering aquamarine pool, straight-backed and bare to the waist and staring at her with an expression of palpable, if quickly veiled, hunger.
He offers her a restrained smile as Kathryn walks toward him.
“Nice outfit,” she brazens it out, keeping her voice low.
His reply is immediate. “I could say the same.”
Kathryn fidgets with the gauzy folds of the thing they’ve swathed her in. It keeps slipping off her shoulders, and she’s pretty sure it’s translucent. “It didn’t look quite so flimsy in the pictures they sent us.”
Chakotay’s eyes are black and hot as they flicker over her form, but wisely, he remains silent.
Hartani and Nuella, followed by several other dignitaries, enter the cavern through a tunnel hidden in the shadows on the opposite side of the pool. With measured pace, they make their way to where Kathryn and Chakotay are standing and fan out until they’re arranged in a rough semi-circle around the command pair.
“Presider.” Kathryn tries to sound composed, as forced as it feels. “Ordanelle.”
Nuella steps forward. “Captain, you will be first to inscribe. Here,” and she hands Kathryn a shallow wooden bowl filled with the same lavender-coloured liquid they’ve been drinking.
Kathryn frowns. “What should I –”
“Just paint what is in your heart.” Nuella’s smile turns impish. “I’m told you’re an artist, Captain, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“I don’t usually paint with my fingers,” she mutters, but steps closer to Chakotay. “Commander, if you would…?”
He turns obligingly, presenting her with an expanse of naked, bronzed back that makes her set her teeth. She dips a forefinger into the liquid and raises her hand, then hesitates.
Her audience seems to lean in. The air grows dense with anticipation, and she can tell from the way he stiffens his neck that Chakotay feels it, too. That same foreboding she’s been sensing since her first reading of this ritual seems to swell in her chest.
Chakotay turns his head just enough to catch her eye. She can almost hear him asking if she’s all right, and it strengthens her backbone. She nods slightly and he faces front again, and when her finger skims across his shoulderblade he only quivers a little.
Kathryn breathes out slowly, trying to take Nuella’s advice. Paint what’s in my heart, she repeats to herself, as the clear purple liquid leaves luminescent trails across Chakotay’s skin. Her fingers dip and trace in random patterns until her hand drops of its own accord and she looks questioningly at Nuella.
The ordanelle picks up her cue. “Your turn, Commander,” she murmurs, taking the dish from Kathryn and handing it to Chakotay.
Kathryn presents her back, shrugging the muslin from her shoulders as Chakotay turns.
She hears him draw a slow breath, and clutches the fabric closer to her chest. Just get it done, Commander, she orders him silently.
As though he’s heard her, one wet finger trails from her nape to a point halfway down her spine, and now she’s the one sipping air and trying not to squirm. She holds as still as she can while his fingertips caress her bare skin, and when he’s finished she sighs out her relief.
She’s forgotten the next part, so when Nuella takes her hand and leads her toward the shimmering pool, Kathryn resists.
“The proper time for” – annulling your bond, attempts the translator, before correcting itself – “dissolving your alliance has passed, Captain,” the ordanelle whispers. “If you wish, we can call a halt. But you and your people would be asked to leave immediately.”
Without the supplies we came for, Kathryn deduces. She shakes her head. “I meant no offence, Ordanelle.”
“And none has been taken. Please.”
She slides the gauzy robe from Kathryn’s shoulders then helps her step into the pool. Kathryn’s cheeks burn, but she doesn’t flinch from the eyes on her. Nor does she shy away when Chakotay, equally naked, steps into the pool beside her.
Presider Hartani waves his hand, and Kathryn and Chakotay dive.
The water feels like champagne foam on her skin, like the stroke of a thousand tiny fingers. It’s rapture. She stays beneath the surface until her lungs sing, then propels herself upward in a shivering gasp.
Chakotay emerges a moment later. Bubbles are massed like glitter in his hair and on his skin, and his eyes are shining; she wonders if her own are, too. A smile breaks over his face when he sees her, so wide it makes her heart crack open, and she reaches for his hand.
Their fingers twine together and her body drifts toward his, every part of her wanting to touch every part of him. But something – a scuff of feet, or a clearing of throat – reminds them both of where they are.
Kathryn’s fingers loosen and Chakotay lets her go, and then Hartani and two other dignitaries are reaching to help them back onto solid ground. Kathryn shrugs quickly into her robe. It feels heavy and irritating on her skin; strange, considering how airy and insubstantial she’d thought it just moments ago.
She centres herself as Nuella touches her shoulder and hands her another goblet of lilac-coloured wine.
“It is time to reveal your inscription,” Nuella says, guiding Kathryn to bare her back to the assembled dignitaries, who begin to nod and murmur amongst themselves. Hartani and Nuella exchange pleased glances.
“It is as you vowed,” Hartani declares. “Your bond is eternal.”
Before Kathryn can question him, Nuella takes her hand and places it in Chakotay’s, closing her own palms around them.
“Your hearts have been revealed,” she intones. “The bond can now be consummated.”
Kathryn’s eyes snap to Nuella’s. “Can be … what?”
She can feel Chakotay’s surprise in the tightening of his fingers on hers.
The ordanelle’s eyes are wide and guileless. “I believe your culture has an expression: sealed with a kiss.”
“That wasn’t in your briefing material, Ordanelle,” Kathryn says tightly.
Nuella gives a small shrug. “Surely this is a small demonstration of fealty for an affiliated pair such as yours.”
She releases their hands and steps back, eyebrows raised in polite expectation.
“Right,” Kathryn mutters. “Of course.”
Her gaze strays reluctantly to Chakotay’s and finds him looking down at her. His expression is smooth and his eyes show only mild amusement.
“Would kissing me be such a chore, Captain?” he asks her, smiling faintly.
A myriad responses leap to her lips, and Kathryn presses them closed. “Of course not, Commander,” she says, tone crisp and chin lifted. “Let’s get it over with.”
At her tart words his composure seems to falter, the veneer of unconcern slipping to reveal something dark and heated that makes her lips part in a gasp. Before she can – apologise? demur? call for a beam-out? – he uses their clasped hands to tug her in close against his body. Then his other arm winds tight around her waist and his lips are on hers.
In the few seconds she’s had to consider the impending reality of this kiss, she has catalogued her own anxiety and her private lament that this – their first kiss – is to occur under such awkward circumstances. She has determined to treat it as just another diplomatic requirement: staged, symbolic, and ultimately meaningless. But when Chakotay’s mouth captures hers, she spares barely a moment to wonder how her plan has gone so disastrously, thrillingly wrong, because nothing else matters. Nothing but the softness of his lips on hers and the exploratory stroke of his tongue and the contained fervour of his hands on her waist and tangled in her hair.
When her own arms rise to wind around his neck and deepen their contact, however, he breaks the kiss and steps back, his face shuttering into the impenetrable façade she’s become used to. He folds his hands behind his back and looks away.
Kathryn’s lips feel swollen, and she wants to touch them. She wants to be alone and off-duty so she can recall every moment of that too-brief kiss, replay it until every detail is locked into memory. But now is not the time.
Nuella steps forward again, eyes sparkling.
“Are you ready?” she asks.
Kathryn remembers the rest of the ritual, and thinks, I’ll never be ready for this.
“Ready,” she replies instead, her voice commanding – if a little huskier than usual – and Nuella turns to lead her toward one of the many tunnels in the cavern wall. Kathryn looks back to see Chakotay trailing them.
They emerge into a chamber carved from rock. A sunset sky, shaded in vermilion and mauve, is just visible through the partial ceiling. The floor is swept even and covered with a mat of woven reeds. A hollow in the far wall appears to lead to another, smaller room – Kathryn can just see a small round pool glimmering through the opening; a bath, perhaps – and to her right is a large, opulent, incongruous bed.
Beside her, Chakotay goes still. Kathryn’s heartrate picks up and her skin feels hot. She rolls her shoulders, trying to dissipate the sweet tension building inside her.
“This alcove will provide you with food and wine,” she hears Nuella informing them. The ordanelle waves a hand toward the smaller room. “You may perform ablutions through there, and,” a smile lightens her voice, “we will return for you at dawn.”
“Thank you,” Kathryn answers, preoccupied. How could it not have occurred to her that there would be only one bed?
“It’s been an honour to witness the marking of two souls who so evidently belong together,” the ordanelle says. “Take pleasure in these moments.”
With a final, wide smile, she disappears back into the tunnel, and Kathryn looks up to find Chakotay’s eyes on her.
The breath sticks in her throat when she interprets that expression in his eyes: raw, unmistakable want.
She had thought that the feelings he once had for her were gone. Now she knows that he’s simply grown adept at concealing them.