Smoke and Gold
Summary: Space can be lonely, and when you live on a starship, you learn to seize your chances for close contact wherever you can. But what if you meet someone on shore leave, fall in love, and know you only have tonight?
Characters: Narrator, Janeway
Codes: Janeway/Narrator, Janeway/Chakotay
Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own the rights to the Voyager universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.
It seems trite, but the thing about space is that it’s lonely. Oh, I know, I chose this life; I went in prepared for anything, or so I loudly proclaimed when I left my home world. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see things none of my people had ever seen before.
What’s that expression: be careful what you wish for?
It took me a long time to learn to miss my people, and even longer to realise how much losing them had devastated and stunted me. I’ve found a new family, but it’s not the same. I don’t truly belong –
That’s a deceit, and a self-pitying one. I never belonged with my people, either.
I live on a starship now, with a captain and a crew, and all of us belong, and none of us do. And we lurch from planet to moon to asteroid belt, seeking and scavenging and telling ourselves we’re explorers, that we have a mission, that what we do means something, when really all we are is lost and lonely little objects: satellites wandering in a celestial void, occasionally crossing orbits.
Sometimes, of course, the loneliness is too much to bear, and sometimes I’ve turned to a warm body to stave it off for a night or two: an alien trader, a stranger in a bar, occasionally a shore leave transaction. Once or twice, I’ve sought solace in the arms of another lonely crewmate. But that can get complicated, and I have enough complication in my life.
Which is why I’m here now, sitting on this stool at this alien bar, nursing this sour-tasting liquor and pretending I’m not eyeing up the woman with the copper-coloured hair, two seats over.
She’s a transient too: I could see it the moment she walked in. There’s a certain kind of tension in her shoulders, in the way she holds herself. It’s the look I see in my shipmates when we make landfall after too long cooped up with the same faces. Edgy, anticipatory, hungry. Eager to touch strange flesh, to kiss new lips.
It’s the look I saw in the mirror tonight, before I left my ship.
Her legs are slender in leather boots and she’s perched on the edge of her stool with one thigh crossed over the other. She’s wearing a dress the colour of a bruise, made of some kind of shimmery, stretchy material. The cut is modest – it doesn’t show much skin – but the way it skims her body has captured the interest of more than one patron in this bar tonight.
She is aware of that interest; it shows in the arch of her back, the tilt of her chin. It shows in the faint upward curve of her glossy red lips and the deliberate nonchalance with which she holds her glass. She’s playing the room, and she’s practiced at it: this much I knew about her before she’d even ordered her drink. And she’s taking her time, now, to look around, see if there’s anyone who’ll spark her interest, anyone worthy of taking to bed for the night.
I’ve signalled the bartender for another glass of the sharp, bitter brandy I’m drinking when I feel her gaze on me. I give it a beat or two before I add her order to mine.
“Compliments of the gentleman in black,” I hear the barman murmur as he pushes the tall glass of green froth in front of her. A moment later, an exotic scent reaches out to me and the woman with the copper-coloured hair slides onto the bar stool at my side.
“I’m told I have you to thank for this,” she says in a voice that steals under my collar and makes me shift in my seat. “Any idea what this drink is called?”
“If you believe the barman, it’s a Night to Remember.”
“Ah,” she answers, a small smile curving those red lips, “there’s a name to live up to,” and with the slightest shift in her position – a curve of hip, a fractional sway in my direction – she ensures my undivided attention.
Practiced at this, definitely. But I’m no novice.
“Maybe so.” I lower my voice. “But if you’re only here for one night, you may as well make the most of it.”
She matches my pitch and tone. “Oh, I intend to.”
I angle my upper body toward her, studying her openly for the first time. She’s fine-boned, with sharp jaw and elegant fingers, and her skin is smooth and pale and looks soft to the touch. I find myself wanting to touch it and lower my eyes to hide the wanting in them.
As if she didn’t already know.
When I glance up again she’s watching me. There’s something remote in her cool blue gaze, something calculating, as though she hasn’t quite made up her mind about me yet. Maybe she’s still keeping her options open. I’m not the only hunter in this bar tonight, and a woman like her is unlikely to want for company.
So I smile at her, hot and slow and inviting, and watch the colour bloom in her pale skin, watch her eyes go wide and dark, and there’s nothing cold about the way she’s looking at me now.
“I’m told the food is good here, if you’re hungry,” I inform her, satisfied that we’ve negotiated the delicate beginnings. That now we can ease back a little, each of us meting out tidbits like clues in a treasure hunt, like the first courtly steps of a dance. But I already know we’ll dance exquisitely together.
Her eyebrows arch prettily. “Are you offering to buy me dinner?”
“There’s a table for two in that corner over there.” I rise, holding a hand out to help her from her stool. “Join me?”
She eases down gracefully, but hesitates with her hand just barely resting on mine. I watch her glance furtively around the bar. Her gaze lingers on a couple passing toward the exit – a tall, fair man with his arm around the waist of a petite dark-haired woman – and as the man looks back his eyes lock briefly with my companion’s.
I feel tension in her fingers, but the man’s glance barely pauses before he turns away without breaking stride, and she exhales lightly and quirks a smile at me.
As we move toward the table I flick a glance toward the blond man, who’s now holding the door for his date. For a fraction of a second his eyes, meeting mine, are knowing, but then he’s gone, and all that matters is the feel of her fingers linked with mine and the spicy, smoky scent of her as she walks close beside me.
I hold her chair for her, and when the waiter arrives I ask for a bottle of this establishment’s best wine, and the shine of her smile as we continue our verbal pas de deux encourages me to lean in close, lower my voice, touch her hand lightly. She’s quick-witted and clever and an adept flirt – all things I’d gleaned about her long before we first spoke – and although we don’t hurry, it seems barely minutes before our plates are clean and the bottle is empty.
There’s a moment of hesitation then, on the threshold of what comes next, and somehow, though by now I think we both know where the evening is going, I don’t want to rush it.
“Should we take a walk?” I suggest.
“I’d love to.”
I toss some of the local currency onto the table and help her with her cloak, and then we’re out of the artificial warmth of the bar and into the crisp night. Our breath puffs in the air like clouds, like smoke, and as we move away from the sounds spilling out of the lit windows, it grows so quiet I can hear the echo and crunch of our boot heels on the cobblestones.
We walk along the water’s edge to the end of the pier, where the faint bell-like sounds of boats bobbing carry across the still, wide bay. Fog blankets the water and curls around our ankles, and when I look down at her there is mist pearling in her hair.
“Are you cold?”
She shakes her head, smiling. “It’s so fresh out here. So real.”
I nod in understanding. “Makes a change from climate-controlled starship air.”
We walk on. The ground begins to grow damp and slippery. Her heel scrapes on the uneven cobblestones and I catch her as she stumbles, her slight weight falling against me. My hands grasp under her elbows, and my instinct is to pull back the moment she’s steadied on her feet. But she seems to linger, to rest against me. And so I don’t let go.
Under the streetlights her hair glints gold, and I’m weakened by a surge of desire for her.
“Are you hurt?”
I can tell she hears the roughened undertone in my voice by the darkening of her eyes and the way she presses infinitesimally closer. She shakes her head.
“I haven’t asked –”
“No names,” she cuts me off, fingers against my lips to silence me. “Not tonight.”
“That’s not what I was going to ask.”
She shivers as my lips move beneath her fingers, and I smile.
“What, then?” she murmurs.
“Your hotel or mine?”
It’s bold, a risk, and there’s a moment when I think she’s on the cusp of walking away. But I turn to bite lightly at her palm, and her sharply indrawn breath tells me the moment has passed.
“That depends,” she says, voice catching. “Where are you staying?”
“Right over there,” I mumble against her wrist, without glance or gesture, my arm secure around her waist.
“Close enough,” she gasps, and she draws her hand away so that her mouth can find mine.
I think about offering her another drink when we reach my hotel room. But as I close the door behind us, she turns and pushes me up against it and kisses me with an urgency that drives all thought from the air. And I can still taste the wine on her lips as we kiss. It’s smoky and rich, a heated contrast to her cold, questing fingers inside my shirt, stealing the words from my throat and the breath from my chest.
Within minutes she has me stripped of both clothing and defences, knees knocking like an eager adolescent’s, and if I want this night to live up to its promise, I know I’ll have to dig deep and find some semblance of control. So I lace my fingers into hers, pull our joined hands to our sides and guide her, walk with her, until my hips are pressed into hers and her back is flush against the wall beside the bed.
Having found something solid to steady herself, she relinquishes the control she’s been exerting over me. Her body melts into mine, her head tipping to let my lips trail across her throat, and the soft sound she makes is at once demand and capitulation.
And it’s my turn, briefly, to waver. To stuff down a surge of melancholic anger, because this – the skim of my lips over her pale throat, the curl of her fingers against my abdomen – this is the extent of the intimacy I’m allowed.
But I chose this life. And so, it seems, did she.
So I pull her close against me and unfasten her shimmery dress, and weave my fingers into her copper-coloured hair, and then we turn and shift until we tumble together onto the bed.
What follows is destined to become a memory I’ll treasure all the more because it will mean everything to us, and nothing at all.
Every starship crewman is familiar with the shore leave romance. You stop somewhere – a nameless planet, a waystation or satellite – you meet someone in a bar. You’re both seeking the same thing – a little contact, a reminder that you’re not alone in the universe. And, beyond all sense or logic or expectation, you connect. You connect so deeply, so strongly, that it feels like love.
And then, the next morning, you leave, never to see each other again. Because that’s the reality. That’s the deal.
A night out of time; a night to remember.
This is what happens, tonight, between us: me, and the woman with the copper-coloured hair. The way we move together, the way her eyes lock with mine and her breath catches like smoke; it’s magical. And as much as we might want it to, as hard as we try to delay the moment when sleep takes us both, it cannot last.
In the morning she’s gone, as I knew she would be. All that’s left is the faint, smoky trace of her presence, her scent lingering in the room, the impression of warmth and desire, and the memories that will have to sustain me.
It’s time for me to put on my uniform and return to my ship.
I rearrange my features into the calm neutrality expected of an officer and take my post on the bridge. The fair-haired, observant pilot returns my glance with an impersonal nod.
Settling beside my captain, I think about the woman I spent my night with, stretched out in the lamplight, her bare skin bathed in gold. I think about the arch of her pale throat, her soft, parted lips, our fingers laced together above her head.
“Captain,” I nod politely. “Did you enjoy your shore leave?”
She turns, and though her copper-coloured hair is smooth and her pale limbs are concealed under her uniform, her voice is low with a touch of smoke in it.
“It was a night to remember,” she murmurs, and then she stands to give the orders that will launch us on our way.
I think about trailing the backs of my fingers over her skin to draw out that shivering sigh, and grasping her firmly in the places that make her moan. I think about the marks I put on her skin last night, the marks that are now hidden beneath her uniform.
It’s getting harder each time we meet like this, the morning after, to pretend the night before didn’t happen. But the alternative is to give those nights up completely, and that’s something we can’t seem to do.
Someday, maybe, we won’t have to pretend anymore.