Were Stars to Burn
Summary: Taking part in a ritual at an alien harvest festival has devastating consequences for Chakotay, and in caring for him, Kathryn is forced to face both her deepest fears and her feelings for him.
A story with three possible endings. The choice is yours.
Characters: Janeway, Chakotay, Original Female Characters
Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own the rights to the Voyager universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.
Notes: Written for the October Trek Hurt/Comfort fic event.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
- W H Auden, ‘The More Loving One’
“Does it hurt?”
You shook your head once, your smile reassuring. Your hand rested in mine. I didn’t believe you, really, but you wanted to spare me the knowledge that you were suffering. Even this close to the end, to the moments before everything changed, you were taking care of me.
I cast about for something to say. Strange, that I was so conscious of everything I desperately wanted to tell you now that our time was running out, and yet no words would come.
“Would you like me to read to you?” I asked at last. “I could have your books beamed down. Surely the Suhari won’t deny you that…”
“Actually,” you said softly, “I think I’d prefer it if we just talked.”
I nodded, then cleared my throat, then uttered a sigh that was silenced by your chuckle.
“It’s just me, Kathryn,” you reminded me. “You’ve always been able to talk to me.”
The word meant little when we both knew always would span the next few hours, not forever.
So why was I wasting it?
Aloud, brightly, I said, “Did I ever tell you about the time my mother caught me sneaking out of my bedroom? I was fifteen years old …”
As I talked, absently taking stock of your non-verbal responses to my silly, self-deprecating story, most of my attention was taken up with cataloguing the events that had led us to this situation. Had the decisions I’d made, the actions I’d taken, been fundamentally flawed? Were my suspicions too slow to rouse? Should I have paid more attention? Did I overlook crucial clues in my eagerness to shake off the captain’s colours, just for a few days?
Would caution and vigilance have saved you, or was there nothing I could have done differently?
Suha was a jewel of a planet. Lush jungles filled with brightly-coloured avians and fleshy, sweet-smelling flowers; beaches that stretched for kilometres of glittering white sands; balmy ocean waters in shades of indigo and violet. And the people – human-shaped, with skin and hair in a fantastic kaleidoscope of colours – were soft-spoken and welcoming, eager to host the crew for their shore leave.
Over the past months we’d traversed several sparsely populated sectors of space; it had been some time since our last chance for a vacation, and almost as long since our last battle. Perhaps that was why I accepted the Suhari’s invitation so readily. Tom Paris, of course, was immediately enthusiastic, and the Doctor backed him up with a pithy lecture on the wisdom of adequate rest and recreation. Even Tuvok raised barely a token security concern.
You were the only one who cautioned me.
“Doesn’t it all seem just a little too good to be true?” you ventured after the others had filed out of the conference room.
“Oh, lighten up, Chakotay,” I smiled, my mind on the spring in Harry’s step. He was still pining over Derran Tal, months after they’d parted ways, and I was relieved he’d found something to distract him. “Has there been anything in the Suhari data that gives you cause for concern?”
“No,” you conceded, “but we’ve been fooled by first impressions before.”
“You don’t have to remind me.” I held up a hand to halt you. “If it makes you feel better, Commander, I’ll order the ship to stay at yellow alert while we’re in orbit. And,” my smile widened as I rested a hip on the conference table beside you, “we could have continuous bridge coverage if you schedule my leave on different days to yours. That would mean I’d miss the Lethia Festival, though.”
You tugged your ear, and I knew I almost had you: you’d been excited about that festival since you first skimmed the Suhari’s data transmissions. We’d planned to go together. I even had a new outfit.
“I don’t want you to cut your leave short, Kathryn,” you said finally.
“Good.” I leaned in, my hand on your arm. “Then maybe you’ll join me for dinner tonight? I’m told there are some restaurants in Mnimeio City that are out of this world.”
Misgivings still flickered in your eyes as I spoke, but I was in no mood to heed them. Instead I did what I always do when I choose to ignore your counsel: I shifted closer, laid a hand on your chest, and lowered my voice to the whiskey tone I know you can’t resist.
“Besides,” I husked, “I’ve been looking forward to spending some time alone with my best friend.”
At that, your expression lightened and you brought your hand up to squeeze mine. “So have I,” you smiled.
I should have been less focused on the evening ahead, and more on your very reasonable reservations.
But by the time we beamed down to Mnimeio City that night, your hesitation had been overcome thanks to your afternoon meeting with the Suhari minister for trade and tourism. Minister Ahlai had patiently explained Suhari history and taken you to visit the Temple of Sati, the cultural and religious centre where her daughter, Sidika, was a novitiate. Sidika looked of an age with Naomi Wildman but was, in fact, a dozen years older; the Suhari had a delayed aging process, and an elongated life span comparable to that of Vulcans.
It was clever of Ahlai to have brought in the child. I had occasionally enlisted Naomi to soften you up when I wanted your compliance; apparently the good minister had figured that out about you in very short order.
Maybe that was an unkind judgement. I didn’t get a sense that the Suhari were trying to obscure the truth from us, or that their intentions were malicious. Maybe the events that followed the Lethia Festival were entirely down to chance: tragic, but unpredictable.
The night before the festival, though, we had no inkling of what was to come. We were shown to a table by the beach, at the restaurant where Ahlai had made a reservation for us. Candles were lit and fresh flowers laid in a bowl in the centre of the table. A sweet breeze curled up from the ocean, carrying with it the muted bell of boats in the distance, visible only by their bobbing lights. Between us and the other patrons was enough space to encourage frank conversation, and gauzy panels hung from the ceiling to further obscure our fellow diners, fluttering gently like bridal veils.
The food was delicately flavoured, the wine refreshing. As we ate, we talked of light and inconsequential things; I felt so relaxed, in such tranquil and beautiful surroundings. After dessert and a drink that I could almost have been fooled into believing was genuine coffee, we walked slowly along the sand. I took off my shoes and felt the breeze lift my hair. When I felt your knuckles brush the back of my hand, I caught your fingers and laced them into mine.
In that alien paradise, on that warm evening, in the seclusion of an empty beach, I wished, not for the first time, that this was all we were: just two people who preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s, free of all other responsibility. Free to make our own choices and take our own risks.
Our steps slowed, and when we reached the rocky outcrop that delineated the beach, we stopped. I looked up at you. Your eyes were full of resigned affection, a faint smile twisting your lips. Your thoughts, it was clear, mirrored mine.
Your expression made me sad, and on impulse I tiptoed up to press my lips to the corner of your mouth. You drew in a breath and I sensed the tightening of every muscle in your body. I eased back onto my heels.
You said, “Kathryn,” then shook your head with a rueful smile. The tips of your fingers traced my jawline.
For a moment I hesitated, and you waited, in case I was about to make a different choice, take the risk I’d backed away from every time we’d been at this point before. But hesitation meant time for rationality and caution to reassert themselves.
So I stepped back, letting my demeanour settle into neutrality, watching you mimic me in the veiling of your own expression.
“We should get back to the ship,” I said, and we walked back along the sand, far enough apart that our fingers wouldn’t accidentally touch.
“Tell me again about –” I could tell you were having to reach for the name – “Tuvok. Tell me how you met.”
I ignored the pang of sorrow that thickened my throat. “He was an ensign who reviewed the mission logs from my first brevet captaincy. He was … not complimentary.”
Maybe the memories were etched in the curve of my lips, because you reached out, the tips of your fingers brushing my jaw.
You’d touched me like that barely more than twenty-four hours ago: a gesture that held the weight of our shared history and the feelings we had never fully expressed. This time, you touched me as if I was a curio you were examining.
It made the breath stutter in my chest.
“I’m sorry.” You pulled back. “I shouldn’t have –”
“It’s all right.”
I tried to smile at you, to reassure you. But my eyes were smarting, and it was hard to swallow around the ache in my throat. I found myself on my feet, hastening away from you, gazing out at the garden below us and not seeing a thing.
Wishing we had never set foot on this cursed planet.
You spoke from just behind my left shoulder, and I jumped, scrubbing quickly at my eyes with the heel of my hand. “You startled me.”
“I’m sorry,” you said again.
Then, tentatively, you rested your palm on the nape of my neck, your fingers and thumb probing lightly into tense, corded muscles.
I should have stopped you, but I couldn’t deny that it felt good: your warm palm, your strong fingers, your solid bulk at my back. My chin dipped forward, my eyes slipping closed. I let myself lean into you, bared shoulder blades brushing the soft fabric of your shirt, and felt you shift your stance to support me. Your fingers worked along the tendons of my neck and into my hair. Your breath tickled my cheek.
I bit my lip until I tasted blood. But I didn’t move away, because after tonight I would never lean on you this way again.
Your other hand settled on my hip, your touch so light it burned. My mind drifted to hours earlier, when we had stood much this way on a balcony, eyes turned to the view below, my thoughts on a future I’d started to hope was still possible for us. Your hand on my shoulder. Your body at my back. Your lips …
I’d slept late – a luxury I rarely afforded myself, even during shore leave – and spent the rest of my morning in B’Elanna’s company, bartering with a series of slippery Suhari merchants. After the third smiling trader tried to convince me to top up my acquisition of an overpriced subspace driver coil by purchasing several badly tuned phase compensators and a portable dilithium converter that would apparently out-perform Voyager’s warp core – B’Elanna muttered something vicious under her breath at that – I delegated further negotiations to Tuvok and dragged my chief engineer off for a long lunch.
Later, sitting at my mirrored dressing table, brushing out my hair and slicking on lipstick, my mind wasn’t on the morning’s successful trading or the afternoon’s museum tour, or even on the unexpectedly gossipy conversation B’Elanna and I had enjoyed, prompted by several glasses of the local wine. I was, instead, preoccupied with wondering what expression I’d see in your eyes when you arrived to escort me to the Lethia Festival.
Shrugging off my robe, I slipped into the dress I’d replicated. It wasn’t showy or especially obvious – just a silky, strappy shift – but you had once complimented me on a dress of similar design, and I hoped you would like this one. And me in it.
Dressed and shod, I stood in front of the mirror, examining my reflection. Imagining the way you would look at me when I answered my door. The way you’d stand just a little too close, just enough that my breath would catch. The way your hand would hover over the small of my back as we walked.
And then, naturally, doubt crept in, and I began to think I should make my excuses. Because my anticipation of the evening ahead had nothing to do with enjoying an alien cultural celebration, and everything to do with you.
Too late: the chime rang at my door, and I cleared my throat before calling, “Come.”
I went out to meet you in the neutral zone of my living room. You stopped short when you saw me and your eyes widened a fraction, before you covered the reaction with a veiled smile. But that was the moment I’d been eager for: that moment before you hid behind that steady, supportive persona you wore.
“You look beautiful,” you said sincerely.
“Thank you,” I answered briskly, to cover the extra breath your proximity had compelled me to take. “Ready to go?”
You held out your closed hand. “I have something for you first.”
I stood my ground as you stepped closer, uncurling your fingers to reveal a silver necklace, weighted at two points with unequally sized glass discs.
“It’s Earth and her moon,” you pointed from the larger disc to the smaller, and my eyes prickled as I realised you were right. One glass circle glowed blue, splotched with white and green; the other swirled grey and white.
“Where did you find this?” I asked, hushed.
“I had it made at a jeweller’s stall in the market this morning. Here,” and you touched my shoulder, indicating I should turn.
Your hands were warm and steady as you hung the chain around my neck. Your fingers brushed my nape as you fastened the clasp, and I tried to control a shiver.
“There,” you murmured, stepping back, “now you’ll always be close to home.”
I turned, touching the pendant and then your chest, lightly. “Thank you,” was inadequate, but your smile told me you knew how deeply I meant it.
We beamed down at dusk and were met at the transport coordinates by Minister Ahlai and her daughter. Sidika was dressed in white robes, her face painted with silvery swirls, her dark-blue hair slicked into a coil at her nape.
“She is taking her vows tonight,” Ahlai explained as we walked the short distance to the Temple of Sati. “The rest of her life will be dedicated to serving justice.”
“What does that mean?” I addressed the child. She was so young, even accounting for the slower Suhari aging process. I couldn’t believe she was mature enough to make a choice that would profoundly impact her entire life span, and I wondered for the first time if there was rot beneath the lush surface of Suha.
“She can’t answer you.” Ahlai smiled at me. “From tonight she must be silent. Tomorrow she begins her training, and in a dozen years’ time she will have learned enough to speak in judgement of others.”
Frowning, I tried to puzzle that out, and Ahlai laughed.
“There’s nothing sinister about it, Captain. Novitiates at the Temple of Sati are truth-seekers. When their training ends and they take their orders, they serve the people of Suha as arbiters and negotiators. Some become diplomats or politicians.”
“Yes, like me.”
“Why the vow of silence?”
“Speaking impedes learning,” replied Ahlai. “To know the truth, once must listen. To reveal what is hidden, one must observe. To judge a heart, one must understand with all one’s senses.”
I glanced at you, saw approval on your face, and couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Of course you would enjoy a society that spoke in riddles and allegory.
“What happens if a novitiate breaks the vow?”
“They are guided in a different direction,” Ahlai answered, a touch glibly for my liking. But before I could continue questioning her she segued into an explanation of the Lethia Festival. You had heard it before, I knew, but as my suspicious nature had been roused, I listened carefully.
It was a harvest festival of sorts, held as the Suha reaped the last of the sidero fruit, a rare delicacy they ate only on this one night of the year. Lethia meant ‘unburdening’ – or, as the inscrutable Ahlai put it, “that which is hidden will be disclosed; that which is truth will be forgotten” – a chance for citizens to leave behind petty disputes and bare their feelings to each other. A chance to shed secrets and burdens.
“First there will be a banquet,” Ahlai told us, “then dancing. Then the sidero fruit will be served before the Unburdening Ritual.”
“What happens then?”
“Some people will visit the temple to pray or meditate. Others will gather together in pairs and small groups – however the sidero guides them – to make amends, or make peace after a quarrel. Or make love, if their instincts compel it.”
My head turned sharply. “This is a mating ritual?”
Ahlai laughed. “It’s true that many Suhari children are conceived on this night each year, but the festival is much more than that. Don’t worry, Captain,” she lowered her voice, sending me an impudent glance, “the sidero would never induce you to behave in a way contrary to your beliefs, or to compromise your integrity. It might, however, inspire you to reveal thoughts and feelings you’ve habitually kept concealed.”
Her glance slid over to you, then back again as her smile grew wide.
“The sidero,” you cut in smoothly – rescuing me, as always, from the potential for diplomatic humiliation – “you mentioned it guides the way people behave. How?”
“I can’t explain it,” Ahlai said simply.
“Because it’s a secret, or because you don’t know?”
“For both of those reasons.”
I opened my mouth to question her further, only to be halted by your hand on my arm. Ahlai moved politely ahead as you spoke to me softly.
“Kathryn, I suspect this is one of those things you’re going to have to take on faith.”
“That’s never been my forté,” I muttered. “We should at least scan the fruit to be sure it won’t make us sick.”
You opened one side of your jacket to reveal the tricorder in your inside pocket.
“Very forward-thinking of you, Commander.”
And you leaned in and whispered in my ear: “I’d tell you what else I’m thinking, but I’m pretty sure you’d find it too forward.”
My stride faltered briefly, and I pressed my lips closed as I quickened my step to catch up with you and Ahlai.
We’d arrived at the temple and skirted around it to the lavish gardens at the rear, where Ahlai led us up a wide stone staircase to an expansive pavilion. There were white-clothed tables laden with food, enormous urns of colourful flowers, and tiny lights strung between pillars. A group of musicians played an intricate melody that seemed to vary each time I thought I had a handle on it. And the crowd was dazzling: a riotous kaleidoscope of colour and laughter, dotted here and there by black-clad servers and white-robed novitiates.
I felt your hand settle warmly on the small of my back. Not possessive, not quite protective. Just letting me know you were there.
Sidika moved silently away from us toward a cluster of other novitiates, and Ahlai directed us to one of the buffet tables, pointing out her favourite plates while you scanned the food surreptitiously. She excused herself to greet someone, and you nodded at the tricorder display. “I’m not detecting any toxins.”
“Good,” I replied, pitching my voice low, “because I’m hungry,” and I let my gaze linger over your body. You swallowed hard as you registered the direct hit, and I hid the smirk that wanted to break free.
The novitiates’ duty included serving wine to those celebrating, and Sidika seemed to have assumed the role of our personal attendant. I wanted to ask her why she’d chosen the path of the truth-seekers, if she’d chosen it. But when I addressed her directly she only smiled and lowered her eyes.
“Dance with me,” you murmured when we’d eaten our fill. Maybe you just wanted to distract me from my curiosity. If so, it worked; from the moment you led me into the centre of the floor, my attention was wholly focused on you.
I lost track of time. I was preoccupied with your gentleness and controlled strength; with the warmth of your hands, one holding mine, one low on my back; with the feel of you shifting against me. We had danced before – at diplomatic events; never on Voyager – but we had always been conscious of our audience. Tonight, it seemed, nobody was watching.
It could have been three minutes or three hours later that Sidika appeared beside us, bearing a platter of fruit: pink, fleshy, with glossy black seeds that reminded me of a pomegranate. I glanced around and saw that we were almost alone on the dance floor. All around the pavilion people were clustered in small groups, eating the fruit.
I looked at you: you were already scanning the sidero with your tricorder. After several seconds you shrugged and slipped it back into your pocket.
“Seems safe,” you told me, and you picked up a slice of fruit and bit into it. “And it’s delicious. Here.”
You offered me a small slice. The juice spilled over your fingers, and if I tried to pluck it from your hand I’d probably make a mess. I bent forward, intending to close my lips around the fruit, and was stopped by your sharp, audible inhale.
“Kathryn,” you said, part warning and part plea.
I’d skirted too close to that invisible line we’d drawn years ago – or, rather, the line I had drawn and that you helped me not to cross. At least, not on a whim, or because we were alone together on a warm, bewitching night.
I straightened up and took the fruit from your fingers, careful not to touch you. For a moment I hesitated: what if Ahlai’s prediction was true, and the sidero somehow induced us to lower our carefully constructed barriers, step over that line?
I didn’t really believe it, of course. The Unburdening was just a ritual, ingrained over centuries of symbolism and ceremonies. You and I had no history here, and we were scientists. There was little chance we’d be caught up in whatever collective behaviour the Suhari culture encouraged.
Even so, I decided that one piece of sidero was enough to satisfy custom. I thanked Sidika, watching her walk silently away, pretending I wasn’t avoiding looking at you.
“Kathryn,” you said again, somehow managing to convey acceptance, amusement and regret just by saying my name. When I didn’t reply, you touched my hand lightly. “Feel like getting some air?”
The sentiment was redundant, given we were standing in an open-sided structure, but I knew you were giving us the chance to back away and reset. So I nodded, and we moved as one toward the far side of the pavilion where the crowd was thinnest.
The gardens sloped away sharply here, at the back of the pavilion. Before us, under the dark indigo sky, lay Mnimeio City: an array of vibrantly coloured buildings, dotted with lights.
I rested a hand on the pillar and leaned out to feel the night breeze on my face.
“Don’t stand too close to the edge,” you warned, and I couldn’t help sighing as I glanced at you over my shoulder.
“Isn’t that the theme for the evening?”
I could feel your surprise. Usually, when we strayed just a little too close, pushed the barriers a little too far, I was the one who pulled back, and my standard technique was avoidance.
“You know I won’t let you fall,” you said eventually.
We were used to speaking in allusion, but that was so cryptic I puzzled over it for a few moments. Were you saying you wouldn’t let me cross the line, or that you would keep me safe if I did?
So much went unspoken between us. Tonight, something in me wanted to bring it into the open.
“What would you do if I jumped?” I asked you.
You were quiet for so long I turned to face you, and discovered I couldn’t read your expression.
“Are we having the conversation I think we’re having?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “This is the Unburdening Festival.”
You gave me a penetrating stare. “Do you think the sidero could be affecting you, Captain?”
Stung, I turned my back to you again.
“I’m sorry,” you ventured. “Kathryn, if you want to talk about this – about us – I’m all ears. I just don’t want you to regret it in the morning.”
You laid a hand lightly on my shoulder, your thumb rubbing mesmerising circles on the tense muscles of my neck, and despite myself I sighed and let my chin dip forward to encourage your touch.
You obeyed my silent signals, your strong fingers working up around the base of my skull and melting me so that I leaned into you. Your other hand rested on my hip to steady me. I found myself covering it with one of my hands, fitting my fingers between yours. Dragging our joined hands across my stomach, feeling the quickening of my heart and your breath. You bent to nuzzle lightly into my hair, and I tilted my head to the side in wordless invitation, anticipating your breath, your lips …
… tracing so lightly along the bared line of my neck, your breath warm on the dip between my neck and my shoulder …
Between memory and reality, I was trembling, my breath gusting through parted lips. Your hand was spread on my hip, warm and steadying, and I twined my fingers into yours and tugged your palm flat and low across my abdomen. I wanted to wind back the clock, pretend the past few hours had never happened and that we were still standing on a balcony in the warm night air, poised on the edge of everything.
Then you said, “This feels familiar … have I touched you like this before?”
And I remembered that the sweet potential of hours ago had burned down to nothing.
I slipped out of your grasp, smoothing out my expression before I faced you.
There was a wrinkle between your brows. “Did I hurt you?” you asked. “I didn’t mean –”
Your words faded into a gasp; you paled and swayed on your feet, and I hurried to support your weight, to help you to the cot. I eased you down and you hunched over, elbows on your knees, fingers splayed into your hair.
“Does it hurt?” I asked, perching beside you. “Should I call someone?”
“No,” you said faintly, “I’m just a little dizzy.”
“I’ll get you some water.” I jumped up, only to be stopped by your hand on my wrist.
“Stay,” you asked, looking up at me with eyes shadowed with pain you wouldn’t admit to.
So I sank back down next to you, saying, “All right,” and laid my hand between your shoulder blades, rubbing your back gently until you straightened up and gave me a faint smile.
“I’m fine,” you assured me. Your gaze dropped to my silver necklace, and you reached out a curious finger to touch the larger disc on the chain. “Earth,” you murmured.
“It’s beautiful.” You searched my eyes. “It means a lot to you. A gift from someone important to you?”
“Yes,” I husked. “Someone I have to learn to live without. And I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that…”
“Don’t be sad. I promised you I’d always stay by your side,” you paused, frown deepening, “didn’t I?”
“You did,” I rasped. “And you’ve always kept that promise.”
“Did we make it?” For a moment I thought you were talking about the two of us, but you saw my confusion. “Home,” you clarified. “Did we make it home to Earth?”
I shook my head, mute.
You touched my jaw lightly. “We will, Kathryn,” you assured me.
Then your eyes shuttered and you turned away, rubbing your temples, and I used the moment to push up from the bed so you wouldn’t read my reaction.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the last time I stood by and watched you gradually lose your mind.
Then, in chaotic space, I had to be the captain. The ship was at stake, and the Doctor had assured me your condition was temporary. Even so, manipulating you into ignoring your deepest fear – that you would lose your grip on reality – was a choice that had haunted my nightmares ever since.
This time it wasn’t temporary, and I wasn’t the captain. I was your closest friend, whatever the unspoken possibilities that had once lain before us, and all I wanted was a miracle.
I turned from the window. You’d raised your head from your hands, and your expression was bleak.
“What is it?” I hurried over to crouch beside you, taking your hands in mine.
“I don’t remember ...” You swallowed. “How did we get here?”
What might have happened on that balcony, if we hadn't been interrupted by the chirp of my combadge?
If you’d kissed me, if I’d melted into you; if we’d allowed ourselves to be caught up in what we both desired, might everything have gone differently? How might the night have ended in another, kinder life?
In this life, it was pointless to speculate. Tuvok commed me with a banal report on ship’s status, and when I closed the channel I turned to you, and whatever you read on my face made you step back from me, muttering that you needed a moment and hastening away through the pavilion. By the time I unglued my feet from the floor and went after you, you had disappeared.
You didn’t return for over an hour.
“Where have you been?” I whispered when you slinked up to attach yourself to the group of Suhari ministers I was politely pretending to listen to.
You looked ruffled and a little dazed. “I went to the temple,” you murmured. “I needed to meditate.”
Throwing diplomacy to the wind, I grabbed your elbow and pulled you away from the politicians. “Are you all right, Chakotay?”
You nodded, then gave a brief shake of your head. “I’m a bit disoriented,” you admitted. “Maybe the temple wasn’t such a good idea.”
“What happened in there?”
“I had to clear my head.” You frowned, fingers straying to your forehead. “The novitiates were in there, sitting in front of the altar in pairs, each with a hand on the other’s head. An elder was there. She called it the daeva rite –”
You paused, leaning a hand against a pillar.
“I tried to meditate, but … The next thing I remember is sitting on the floor with Sidika’s hand on my head. I think I entered a trance.”
“You think you did?”
“I can’t be sure. I don’t remember –”
“Commander Chakotay.” Minister Ahlai glided up beside us. “I’m glad your captain found you.”
I hadn’t told Ahlai I was looking for you, but I wasn’t surprised that she’d figured it out. “He went to the temple to meditate with the novitiates,” I told her.
Ahlai nodded in approval. “I guessed you were a spiritual man.”
“They put Commander Chakotay into some kind of group trance,” I forged on. “The diva ritual. What can you tell us about it?”
“The daeva rite,” Ahlai corrected. “You commander is fortunate – not many off-worlders have the opportunity to participate in it.”
“He says …” I caught myself, pressing my lips together. “What happens during the daeva rite? What’s its purpose?”
“After taking part in the Unburdening, citizens sometimes experience residual emotions, or even new ones if during the ritual they have discovered truths they find disquieting. The daeva rite offers the chance to restore their equilibrium and prepare for the year to come, armed with their new knowledge.”
“Do your citizens usually have no memory of the rite?”
For the first time since we’d met, Ahlai’s smooth forehead creased in a frown. Instead of answering me, she turned her attention to you. “You remember nothing at all, Commander?”
You shook your head and your voice sounded strained. “I remember watching the novitiates meditating and asking an elder about it. And I remember Sidika guiding me to join them, but after that … nothing. Not until I was walking up to Kath- the captain just now.”
“Minister.” My voice cooled several degrees. “If Commander Chakotay has been injured by taking part in a rite you didn’t warn us about, I need to know right now.”
Ahlai’s eyes assessed me thoroughly, then fixed on you. “Both of you should come with me,” she decided.
“Where are we going?”
“To see the temple elders.”
Your eyes met mine as the minister began to stride in the direction you’d come from. You looked feverish, bewildered, and I felt apprehension trickle down my spine. “Whatever is going on, we’ll get to the bottom of it,” I assured you, and you mustered a smile and a nod as we moved off after Ahlai.
As we climbed the steps into the temple, you stumbled, barely catching yourself on a pillar. Alarmed, I took your arm and helped you up the stairs. By the light of a lantern just inside the temple doors I scrutinised your face.
Your skin was waxy; sweat beaded on your forehead and your breathing seemed fast and shallow. My anxiety ratcheted up a few notches.
Ahlai appeared at your other side, taking your arm. “We need to get him to the elders.”
“No, I don’t think so.” I glared at her and tapped my combadge. “Janeway to Voyager.”
~Tuvok here,~ came the blessed response.
“Tuvok, I need a location on the Doctor. Is he still on Suha?”
“Please have him beamed to my coordinates immediately. Commander Chakotay needs medical treatment.”
Tuvok closed the channel, and I returned my attention to Ahlai. “We need a private space where our ship’s doctor can examine Chakotay.”
“Medicine won’t help your commander.” Her voice was firm, but tinged with regret.
A chill crawled over the back of my neck at her words.
“If you don’t mind,” I ground out, “I’ll let the Doctor be the judge of that.”
Ahlai inclined her head, keeping hold of your arm as she led us purposefully through the temple’s antechamber and through a series of stone corridors until we reached a rough wooden door, crisscrossed with iron and bolted shut.
Everything inside me went to red alert, and I halted abruptly, my arm tightening around your waist. “What is this place?”
Ahlai hesitated briefly. “It’s the place where you wait.”
I had the sense she was choosing her words very carefully. She unlocked the door and swung it inward, and after a moment I helped you inside.
The room was plain with whitewashed walls, one with a cot bed against it, a table and two high-backed chairs. A mullioned window looked out onto the stars in the purple night sky. We could almost have been in an old convent on Earth, I thought, but was immediately distracted by your soft groan as you swayed against me. Staggering under your weight, I manhandled you to the cot and you slumped onto it with relief, tipping your head back against the wall. Your face was sallow and pinched.
We looked up; Ahlai stood in the doorway, and her expression made my stomach clench.
“None of us could predict this would happen to you,” she said quietly. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Then she stepped into the corridor, pulling the door closed, and I heard the heavy bolt slide into the latch.
I went over to the table and poured out two glasses of water, stalling for time.
“Kathryn.” You pushed up to your feet, steadying yourself against the wall. “Whatever it is, we’ll get through it together. Just tell me what we’re doing in this room.”
I handed you a glass, sipping from my own as I tried to decide what to tell you.
“Something happened to you,” I began, “something that’s changing you. This is where we have to stay until it’s over.”
“Over?” You watched me warily. “Am I sick? Will I get better?”
How could I answer that?
“Kathryn, please. Tell me the truth.”
“You’re not sick,” I husked, “not exactly. But you’re not going to get better.”
“I don’t understand.”
I swallowed. “What do you remember before this moment?” When you stared blankly at me, I tried again. “Do you remember where you live?”
“Voyager. I’m your first officer,” you answered immediately, then, “Why aren’t we on board?”
“Because we took shore leave,” I explained, “on Suha. Do you remember the Lethia Festival?”
Your lips curved upward. “I remember dancing with you.”
“Yes. And then you went to the temple to meditate, and something happened to you there. Something the Doctor can’t explain or cure.”
“So what does that mean?”
It meant you were going to forget everything you were and everyone you loved, and that your deepest-held fears were going to become reality.
How could I tell you that?
In the end, I didn’t need to. You read it on my face; I saw it in the way your eyes changed.
“Crazy old man,” you said softly. “I’ve always known that was my fate.”
I wrapped your hand in both of mine and bent to press my lips to your knuckles. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I know how much that frightens you … I wish I could save you.”
“I’m not afraid, Kathryn.” You cupped my cheek with your free hand. “As long as you stay with me.”
I closed my eyes to hold in the tears. “I’m here,” I promised. “And I won’t leave you.”
“Minister!” I pounded my fist. “Unlock this door!”
You watched me wearily from the cot as I prowled the room, tried to unlatch the window, snatched up your tricorder and scanned the vicinity.
“Someone’s coming.” The tricorder had picked up three lifesigns approaching the other side of the door, all Suhari. I glanced around for a weapon, but there was nothing, unless I planned to throw a chair at them. I took up a protective position in front of you instead.
The door opened and Minister Ahlai stepped in, followed by an older woman in scarlet robes, her face decorated in the same white swirls the novitiates wore. Ahlai pushed the door shut behind them and I heard the bolt scrape into its housing.
“I’m Captain Janeway –”
“I know,” the old woman said, not unkindly. “I’m sure this must be very confusing, Captain. If you’ll sit down, I will try to explain what has happened to your sevgili.”
“Please, Captain,” Ahlai entreated me. “The elder won’t hurt you or your commander.”
I sat reluctantly. “You said you’d explain,” I addressed the woman in red. “I suggest you do it quickly.”
She pulled up a high-backed chair and turned dark-green eyes on you. “My name is Atmina,” she said. “How are you feeling, Commander?”
“I’ve been better.”
“The dizziness will pass,” she assured you. “And I can help with your headache if you’ll allow me.”
She lifted her hands, clearly intending to place them on your head.
“Don’t touch him,” I said harshly. “I want my ship’s doctor to examine him immediately. He should be here by now. Please bring him in.”
Atmina glanced at Minister Ahlai, who nodded and rapped on the door. It opened just enough to let her through the gap and to offer me a glimpse of the guard posted on the other side: a white-robed novitiate.
The sound of the bolt sliding home set my teeth on edge.
“There’s no point locking us in this room,” I said to Atmina. “One tap of my combadge and my chief of security will beam us both out of here.”
“I’m sure he would,” the elder conceded. “But it’s imperative that you remain here until dawn. I assure you we’ll make you both comfortable while you wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“The ritausma lithi. Please, Captain,” Atmina held up a hand as I started to speak, “I will tell you what you need to know, but you must be patient.”
The scrape of the door interrupted her. Minister Ahlai had returned, bringing the EMH with her. My relief at his entrance caused him alarm.
“Captain, are you hurt?” He hurried over, medical tricorder already out and scanning me.
“No. It’s Chakotay. He joined in some kind of communal meditation and came back complaining of dizziness, and he seems to be having trouble with his memory.”
“It’s the lithi,” Atmina spoke up from behind us.
“And what might that be?” The Doctor’s tone was tart. I watched his frown deepening as he waved the scanning wand over your head.
“We consider it a divine mystery,” the elder answered. “But you would most likely call it a medical anomaly.”
“I’m detecting traces of a toxin in your upper digestive tract,” the Doctor muttered, “but not in quantities that should be causing you any pain or nausea, Commander. What have you eaten this evening?”
“The sidero,” I blurted. “That fruit. It did something to him, didn’t it? To us both,” I trailed off, remembering my uncharacteristic willingness to open topics I usually kept tightly sealed. But I wasn’t faint or disoriented, and I certainly hadn’t lost any memories.
“The sidero is part of it,” said Atmina. “The meditative trance is, also. But the key is in your sevgili’s genetic code.”
“Sevgili?” I repeated, then in unison with the Doctor, “What do you mean, his genetic code?”
“Tell me, Doctor,” Atmina addressed him, “does the commander have a family history of neurological disorders? Have any of his ancestors suffered from delirium, hallucinations or dementia?”
The Doctor stopped scanning you and turned to glare at the elder. “I don’t make it a habit to divulge my patients’ medical information.”
Atmina held up a hand. “In that case, I suggest you try a microcellular scan. You’ll find that the aberrant gene in his hippocampus has been reactivated.”
“Impossible,” the Doctor scowled. “I neutralised that gene three months ago and disrupted the nucleotide sequences. There should be no way to reactivate the genetic bonds.”
“Nonetheless, you’ll find that the molecular bonds are in the process of reforming. The process is rapidly degrading the commander’s synaptic pathways, causing sensory aphasia and accelerated global amnesia. In a few hours’ time his cognitive functions will be irrevocably altered.”
“How can this happen?” The EMH was aghast.
“More to the point,” I grated, “how do we reverse it?”
Atmina’s expression was sympathetic. “You don’t understand, Captain. There is no reversing this condition.”
“Doctor?” I snapped.
The EMH looked up from his tricorder readings, his eyes distressed. “Captain, I don’t understand how this happened, let alone how to cure it. The synaptic pathways are degrading at an astonishing rate. Maybe if I had weeks and the best scientific minds of the Alpha quadrant at my disposal, I could find a treatment. But by all rights, Chakotay’s condition is impossible.”
“No.” I turned my back on him, moving swiftly to your cot. “We have to get you to Voyager, Chakotay,” I softened my voice. “Can you stand?”
“Wait,” you rasped. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“When the ritausma lithi has run its course, you will still be able to function, perhaps for years,” Atmina replied gently. “You’ll retain your ability to understand language, your muscle memory, your skillset. But you will have no memory of your circumstances, your personal connections, or your identity, and your short-term memory will be severely impacted. In time, you will be unable to form new long-term memories and you will increasingly suffer from hallucinations, delirium and paranoia. It’s likely that you will eventually pose a risk to your own safety, and you’ll have to be confined.”
My knees wavered and I sat down hard on the cot beside you. I could feel my breath, knotted in my chest like a solid thing, agonising and sharp.
“I see,” you said. Your voice was steady, but I knew you were afraid. I felt for your hand and grasped it tightly.
“We’re getting out of here.”
“Captain,” said Atmina, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”
“Try and stop me.”
“Kathryn,” you murmured, then to Atmina, “Why can’t I leave?”
“Not just you, Commander. The captain, too.”
For the first time your voice grew shaky. “Is this going to happen to her, too?”
“No,” assured Atmina. “But the ritausma lithi must be honoured.”
“You said that before – ritausma lithi. What does it mean?”
“The dawning of oblivion,” Atmina said. “It only happens in the rarest of circumstances, and only to those with your genetic affliction, Commander. We don’t know why it happens, but our custom demands we respect it.”
“Those blessed by the daeva rite spend their final knowing hours here in the temple, tended by their sevgili. The wise ones use the time to bare the truth of their souls. And, although only one of them will remember, they will be bonded until death. The lithi brings sorrow, but we Suhari believe –”
“Forgive my bluntness,” I interrupted, “but we aren’t Suhari.”
Atmina’s expression chilled. “Is it your custom to ignore the spiritual traditions of other races, Captain?”
I fell silent, but you squeezed my hand and said, “No, it isn’t. And we don’t intend to ignore yours.”
“Chakotay, no!” I rounded on you. “I won’t let this happen to you. Not this …”
My voice cracked, and you lifted your hand to my face; your touch was so tender that my fragile composure almost dissolved entirely. As one, the Doctor, Atmina and Minister Ahlai withdrew politely to the other side of the room.
“I can’t let this happen,” I insisted through the ache in my throat.
“We don’t have a choice.”
“The Doctor –”
“Can’t fix this. And I won’t spend my last hours in sickbay when I could be with you.”
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I whispered.
“Then go,” you said gently. “I won’t make you stay.”
“No. I’m not leaving without you.”
You hesitated. “When this is over, that’s exactly what I want you to do. Go back to Voyager, set a course for home and leave me behind.”
“Didn’t you hear Atmina? She said we’d be bonded until death.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to you,” you insisted. “Promise me.”
“No. Never.” I pulled my hands away from yours and stood. “Don’t ask me again.”
You nodded assent, and I turned to the trio on the other side of the room.
“All right, Atmina. What do we do now?”
The elder glided over to us. “This is your chance to say all the things you’ve left unsaid and do all the things you’ve always longed to do.”
I glared at her, but Atmina only smiled.
“He is your sevgili,” she reminded me, and although the universal translator failed to decipher the word’s meaning, I felt sure I could interpret its spirit. “Make the most of this time.”
I felt your presence at my back and your fingers enclosing mine. You said, “We’re ready.”
Atmina turned for the door, gesturing to Ahlai and the Doctor. The latter stopped beside us. “Your orders, Captain?” His tone was infinitely kind.
“Inform Commander Tuvok of the situation,” I said. “Chakotay, is there anyone you want to say goodb-“ I caught myself – “to speak to?”
You shook your head. “I have some pre-recorded messages in my personal database. If you could see that they’re delivered after …”
I nodded briskly, not trusting myself to speak.
The Doctor clasped your hand briefly. “It’s been an honour, Commander.”
He moved toward the door, and before it closed behind him I caught sight of the novitiate who was guarding it. I was unsurprised to recognise Sidika. Her face, so serene each time I’d seen it previously, was pinched with unhappiness.
But I had no time for her distress, not when a lifetime of grief and misery lay ahead of me.
I felt your hand on my shoulder and turned to look at you. It hurt to breathe.
You tipped your forehead to mine, and I closed my eyes and pretended it was hours ago, when I was still dancing in your arms. When time was just a series of moments, each sweeter than the last, and not this swift and silent march toward the end.
How should it end? You choose ...