Summary: It's a long road.
Characters: Janeway, Chakotay
Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own all rights to the Voyager universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.
Barely a month into the journey that will shape the rest of his life, Chakotay thinks he has a pretty good handle on his captain.
He’s seen her in battle, working tirelessly on repairs, laying a soothing hand on the shoulders of exhausted crewmen. He’s read her file; even the parts of it that aren’t supposed to be read by those of lower rank. Her records are littered with commendations and glowing reviews – though some are tarnished ever so subtly with suggestions that Kathryn Janeway’s penchant for risk-taking and unconventional thinking may lead her into dangerous territory. This does not disturb the newly-minted Starfleet commander. He has already deduced that his new captain would have been an asset on the other side of the Maquis’ fight.
He’s come to consider her a woman of courage and cunning, compassion and intellect.
He expects her to impress him. What he doesn’t expect is that she will make him laugh.
They’re in her ready room discussing shift rotations and she makes a sly comment about one of the Maquis, a crewman who isn’t getting along with his Starfleet roommate, and he laughs because he’s delighted. Surprised that she’s already so attuned to the personalities and vagaries of his former crew – a quiet lower-decks crewman at that –, charmed at her wit, and thrilled that she feels open enough, comfortable enough, to share it with him.
He laughs out of pleasure and out of relief, and because she’s just that funny.
And then he finds that his laughter is in danger of dissolving into tears.
Horrified, hands trembling, he mumbles a strained excuse and bolts for the sanctuary of his office. It takes five minutes of pacing before his heart calms its hammering, and an hour of meditation before he recognises his reaction for what it is.
It has been months since the last time he laughed, and perhaps years since he felt genuinely happy.
She arrives at his quarters that evening armed with a bottle of wine and a gentle smile, keeping the conversation light and easy until he’s seeing her to the door. Then she lays a hand on his chest – it’s not the first time she’s touched him, though tonight there’s something momentous about it – and tells him that she’s sorry they don’t have a counsellor on board, but that any time he wants to talk, her door is open.
It might be simply an offer made by a perceptive captain for her second-in-command. But he chooses to interpret it as an overture of friendship.
He doesn’t understand yet that theirs will become the most important connection of his life.
Falling in love with her is a foregone conclusion; the surprise is how quickly it happens. He tries to resist it, of course, tells himself it’s nothing but hero-worship with a generous helping of sexual attraction. Eventually, though, he can’t lie to himself any longer.
And he tries – particularly after their return from paradise – to accept that whatever possibilities may once have blossomed between them must be transformed back into friendship.
But that friendship is less than it once was, and it hurts. In his more hopeful moments he wonders if Kathryn – he still calls her that, revelling in the exclusivity and the privilege of it – is distancing herself because her own emotions run as strongly as his own. Mostly, though, he believes she’s pulling back for reasons of protocol.
He understands it, even if he doesn’t like it. A captain cannot be seen to share too close a relationship with her first officer, particularly in their circumstances. And the life they’d begun to build on New Earth is lost forever now. They can never realise the possibilities he’d just started to hope for.
Lonely, heartsore, and suffering the wounds of her rejection, it takes him some time to understand that she isn’t only distancing herself from him. She’s pulling away from all of them.
There’s a moment, early in their third year in the Delta quadrant, when Kathryn shines through.
They are in orbit of a planet – its occupants, for once, are both friendly and flush with the supplies Voyager needs – and he has barely seen her for days. She’s been bogged down in diplomacy and trade negotiations, and he’s been supervising the transfer of supplies and the shore leave rotations.
On the fourth night they are invited to a state dinner. She’s seated opposite him, engaged in conversation with their host, but every now and then when he looks across at her she’s looking back, her mouth curved and her eyes dancing as though they’re sharing a private joke. She’s wearing a dress the colour of amber and her hair is caught up in a tortoiseshell clip. In the candlelight she looks incandescent.
After dinner there is dancing, and although he longs to take her in his arms he knows she will refuse. Instead he sidles up to her and tells her how beautiful she looks.
He expects her to smile politely and dismiss him, but she links her arm through his.
“Come on, Chakotay,” she murmurs, a conspiratorial blush dusting her cheekbones. “The minister tells me there’s a garden not far from here. Let’s take a walk.”
The path is dotted with lamplight and silvered by the moon. Before they’ve followed it very far, she rests her hand on his arm as she bends to remove her shoes, swinging them in one hand as they amble onward. She speaks of the planet’s history and the inhabitants’ appreciation for beauty, and he listens, interjecting only to encourage her, and lets his gaze wander over soft lips and bared, moonlit shoulders.
And then they reach the walled garden and her breath comes on a gasp, her hand sliding into his.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispers.
Chakotay drags his gaze away from her, toward the colossal white-blossomed tree, bowed and gnarled, which bends gracefully over a small clearing in the centre of the flower-filled garden.
“The minister called it a zelja tree.” Kathryn steps forward, tugging him along with her. “There’s a story about it.”
“I love a good story,” Chakotay smiles as he follows her into the glade.
Kathryn touches one finger to a blossom and it unfurls and drifts slowly to the ground. Another follows it, and another.
“Supposedly,” she says, hushed, “lovers come here to ask the blessings of the gods. If the flowers fall, it means their hopes will be granted.”
She releases his hand, her arms raising to the slowly-falling blossoms as she turns in a circle. She comes to a halt in front of him, white petals like snowflakes in her hair, her eyes and smile lit up like stars. Her face is upturned and nothing is hidden between them.
If he is ever going to kiss her, this is the moment.
But as he dips toward her, her smile falters and she steps away.
“We should get back to the ship.”
In the years that follow, he sometimes dusts off the memory of her dancing in a drift of zelja blossoms. It’s the last moment he can remember seeing her so happy.
Her seclusion in the Void is the inevitable outcome of a pattern that he watches developing gradually over the years. Declining invitations to the holodeck, ending their weekly dinners before the padds have been put away. Retreating to the ready room ever earlier in her bridge shift. Her appearances in the mess hall dwindle, and her replicator rations are increasingly spent on cups of coffee.
She begins to wander the ship late at night.
She no longer touches his chest, and he can never seem to catch her eye.
The first time she isn’t there when he wakes in Sickbay, he begins to fear that he’s lost her. She has always made a point of visiting her sick or injured crew as soon as practicable; for him, though, he knows the Doctor has had to order her away from a bedside vigil more than once. It’s one of the things she does that keeps him hoping.
He reasons it away – he’s not seriously injured; she’s busy coordinating shuttle repairs; something more important has come up – but when the Doctor has given him his hall pass and he makes his way to the bridge, he finds her in her chair, staring at stars on the main viewer. And when he takes his place beside her, she enquires perfunctorily after his health and turns away.
But at least, when they’re in the Void, she talks to him.
I made an error in judgment, Chakotay. It was short-sighted and selfish, and now all of us are paying for my mistake.
He watches her as she rails at him, her eyes luminous in the shadowed room. She’s brittle in her pain, and achingly beautiful, and he wants to enfold her in his arms and kiss her guilt away.
He also wants to shake her.
He tries to reason with her, defend her decisions, make her see that she’s saved as many people as she’s lost – more, she’s saved him – but she tunes it out like so much static. So he leaves her shrouded in darkness without and within, and hopes she’ll be able to save herself.
She does, but once the crisis is over he settles back to watch her again as she closes herself off, holds herself apart. She’s so cold, so remote, that he wonders if she’s angry with him for stopping her attempt to sacrifice herself.
And he lies in wait for the day he knows is coming: the day she’ll need someone to save her.
It comes in their sixth year, the night of Tom and B’Elanna’s surprise wedding.
She performs all the functions a captain should. She smiles, gives the perfect toast. She embraces B’Elanna and pats Tom on the shoulder, offers them a gently teasing benediction. She circulates, she laughs, she drinks champagne.
She is, he intuits, in agony.
Chakotay watches as she slips out of the holodeck – not so early it would be remarkable, but not a moment later than propriety demands. He gives it half an hour, makes his farewells to the happy couple and heads for Kathryn’s quarters.
Her door opens on his second chime and he enters, stepping cautiously in the dim light.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
Squinting, he makes out the shape of her curled into the corner of the sofa, her profile stark against the stars.
“Are you all right, Kathryn?”
“If you thought I was all right,” she responds, over-enunciating with bite, “why did you come?”
Instead of answering he takes rapid stock of her: jacket tossed aside, boots kicked away, tension and exhaustion written in her silhouette. As he moves closer he detects the sickly-sour tang of liquor.
Her eyes gleam as she turns her head. “There’s a second glass there. Help yourself.”
It’s as clear an invitation as he’ll get, and he takes it. Whiskey in hand, he settles onto the couch. Not too far away. Never too close.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re hiding here in the dark?”
She turns back to the stars, silent.
“I don’t remember the last time I laughed, Chakotay.”
He’s transported back in memory to the beginning of their journey and his own, identical realisation. His hand lifts to reach for her, but she stands in a rush and sidles away, arms wrapped around her body.
“Don’t,” she whispers with her back to him, “please, don’t.”
“You can’t go on like this, Kathryn,” he tells her quietly. “I’ve watched you build this wall for years, but you don’t have to isolate yourself this way.”
He rises, observing the tension in her shoulders as he approaches her.
“You have always been there for me,” he continues. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”
She huffs a bitter laugh. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Try me,” he suggests, circling round to face her.
“All right.” Kathryn lifts her face and he sees the faint shimmer of moisture in her eyes. “I’m jealous.”
“Of B’Elanna and Tom.” She looks away, arms dropping to her sides. “It’s pitiful, isn’t it? Everything I’ve done, every choice I’ve made has taken this crew away from their loved ones. And yet I’m envious of the only two people on this ship who’ve managed to find happiness in spite of me.”
There’s so much wrong with it that he barely knows where to start.
“Not in spite of you,” he tries. “Because of you.”
She huffs, tapping her foot.
“And they aren’t the only two.” It’s vital that she understand him, so he steps closer and catches her hand, holding fast when she tries to pull away. “You still don’t get it, do you? Most of us are still alive because of you – the Maquis, the Starfleet officers who would have died in the war at home. And as for happiness…”
“Yes?” Her shoulders hunch as he pauses, and she raises her eyes to his, intensely bright and blue.
He comprehends that in spite of her off-hand, almost callous attitude, what he’s about to say really matters to her. It matters.
“As for happiness,” he continues slowly, “most of us have learned to take it where we find it. And I’ve found it with you.”
Her face is frozen and for long seconds he thinks she’s going to reject what he’s saying. Then she blinks and the mask crumbles. She struggles to control it, but the trembling of her lips betrays her.
“I can’t –” she clamps down hard on her lower lip, “I can’t take it anymore.”
Impulsively he tugs her hand and she tips forward into him. His arms fold around her and he feels her take a deep shuddering breath.
He’s imagined this moment many, many times – the moment she’ll turn to him, the moment he will finally hold her. He’s imagined the scent and softness of her hair, the feel of her lithe and warm against him. He’s imagined her tilting her head just so, her hot mouth seeking his, the taste of coffee and malt and her. Their breath mingling. The searing current that suffuses his entire body as her arms curve up and around his neck, locking them together.
Never did he imagine that he would be the one to pull away.
Her sharp inhale hurts his own lungs, and her face flushes as she wrenches away and fails to meet his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she forces out. “I – clearly I misunderstood.”
“You didn’t,” he says, urgent. “I just – it wouldn’t be right, with you like this.”
She flinches, backs away. “I think it’s best if you leave.”
It’s the white-knuckled clench of her hands at her sides that convinces him to move for the door.
Twenty paces to the turbolift. Sixteen seconds to the bridge. Uniform smooth, rank bar straight. Expression blank. Step out of the ‘lift, ten paces to the command centre.
“Good morning, Captain.”
Is it? Will it be?
It all depends on her.
After last night, he no longer knows what to expect.
The mask she turns toward him is nothing but professional, and he feels his heart squeeze and shudder. Still, looking closely, he notices the reddened edges of her eyes, her pallor, the small tremble in the bow of her lips. It would be undetectable to most. But not to him.
He has spent years cataloguing her tells, after all.
“Take your station, Commander,” she says. And because he senses the slightest note of pleading softening the crisp edges of her voice, he does.
It’s late, well past midnight, when the chime rings on Chakotay’s door. There’s only one person who’d dare disturb him at this hour, and he certainly hasn’t been expecting a visit from her.
“Can I come in?”
Her hands are twisted together before her, but it’s the only visible sign of anxiety in an otherwise smooth and ordered façade.
“Of course,” he steps back, waves her to a seat. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No. Thank you.”
She rests her clasped hands on her knee and stares at the floor. He has no idea why she came here tonight or what she’s intending to say, but he has the feeling that it’s something momentous.
But she says nothing.
“Kathryn,” he leans forward to catch her eye, needing to cut through this thick, weighted silence between them, ‘if you’re here to apologise for last night, there’s no need.”
Kathryn smiles faintly. “Actually … I think I will have that drink after all, if you don’t mind.”
Chakotay bites back a sigh. “Tea?”
“No-o,” she drags the word out, “I mean a drink.”
By the time he returns bearing two tumblers sloshed with a generous helping of scotch, she has turned toward the viewport. The stars streak past her like falling blossoms and he stops short, picturing her with her arms held wide, laughing, spinning in a dress the colour of amber.
An ice cube cracks and Kathryn turns.
“Thanks,” she says, taking her glass from him. He settles back down beside her.
She holds the liquor in her mouth, swallows and says without looking at him, “Do you remember that planet we stopped at a few years ago? There was a garden and a tree that rained white blossoms, and there was a legend that went with it?”
Chakotay goes still. He tells himself sternly that her memory coinciding with his means nothing; it’s pure coincidence.
“The zelja tree,” he answers finally. “The flowers fell on those whose wishes would be granted.”
“Yes.” Kathryn smiles, still gazing into her glass. “Back then I still had hope, and when those petals drifted down over me I could almost believe…”
“Believe what, Kathryn?”
“That my hopes would come true.” She raises her eyes to his.
The way she’s looking at him, he can almost believe she means what he so badly wants her to mean. But they’ve been down this road before, and experience has taught him caution.
“If you’re talking about getting us home, I haven’t given up hope –”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, Chakotay.” She places her glass on the coffee table. “At least, that’s only part of it.”
And when she takes his hand and holds it in her own, all he can think is that this woman is still, after six years, a mystery to him.
“I should have kissed you that night,” she says. “If I had, maybe everything would be different now. Maybe I would still have hope.”
“Kathryn…” He swallows hard. For once in his life, the words he needs won’t come.
“I see.” She slips her hand from his, rising and backing away. “I guess it really is too late. I’m sorry to have bothered you, Chakotay. Good night.”
She is halfway to the door before his tongue unsticks itself from the roof of his mouth.
“Kathryn, wait a minute.”
She quickens her step. Chakotay rockets to his feet.
“Kathryn, stop, damn it!”
His hand catches her shoulder, spinning her, and she barely has time to draw a breath before his lips are on hers.
The conflagration is immediate. Her body sags into his, soft and yielding and so hot he wonders, while he still has sense enough, whether she’s ill with fever. But her lips part under his and she utters a sound so redolent, so needy that it drives every rational thought from his brain.
He pushes a thigh between hers as he backs her up against the bulkhead, and as her hands find their way under his shirt he breaks the kiss to groan aloud. His mouth latches onto the pulse point in her throat and she gasps, one hand flailing for purchase on the wall beside her.
Her hand catches on the bottle of scotch, set on a small table against the bulkhead, and knocks it to the floor.
Maybe it’s the heavy thud of glass on the carpeted deck that brings them to their senses. Maybe it’s the faint laughter of a passing crewman, so close to the wall that separates them.
Maybe it’s simply the knowledge that this is not their time.
Chakotay raises his head and stares into her wide, shocked, starlit eyes.
Incredibly, a smile breaks over her face, and then she starts to laugh.
“What?” He isn’t sure whether to be offended or give into the grin that’s spreading of its own volition.
“I don’t know,” she says, laughing harder, and before long it’s so infectious he’s wiping tears from his eyes.
When eventually they calm, Kathryn cups his cheek in her hand and he tips his forehead to hers.
“Thank you,” she says softly. “For giving me hope.”
Chakotay pulls back a little to study her. Her expression is soft, her eyes clear and peaceful. She’s no longer static, trapped in a cage of her own making. The walls he’s become so used to seeing have come down.
She is so alive.
One arm still wrapped around her waist, he indulges a long-held desire and strokes the fingers of the other through her hair, his thumb coming to rest on her cheekbone.
“I still have hope,” he murmurs. “And when we get home –”
“Yes,” Kathryn’s smile widens, “when we get home.”
Reluctantly he loosens his arms and steps back, and she smooths her hands over her hair and clothing. At her nod, he keys open the door.
“Good night, Chakotay.”
“Good night, Kathryn.”
That night he dreams of stars falling like blossoms on her laughing, upturned face, and of home.