Summary: When Voyager returns to the AQ, the crew finds out that Chakotay's been keeping a secret-and its repercussions are far-reaching and unavoidable. J and C friendship. Post-Endgame
"Belle Colony" by Mizvoy
Kathryn Janeway scanned her messages a final time before she shut down her computer and stretched her arms over her head in a vain attempt to get the kinks out of her back. It was well after midnight and time to make her way to her temporary quarters and crawl into bed for a few hours of sleep before the debriefings began again the next day. She pulled on her uniform jacket, drained the last of the cold coffee from her cup, and walked quickly to the office doorway, hoping to embarrass the ever-present Starfleet security officer by finding him dozing at his post. No such luck.
"Calling it a night, Captain?" the ensign asked, obviously wide-awake and disgustingly chipper in spite of the late hour.
"Calling it a morning, actually," she quipped, noticing that he had, at least, been slumping against the wall. "What did you do to deserve this assignment, Ensign . . . ?"
". . . Ensign Peters?"
"Just lucky, I guess." He gave her a shy grin, and she immediately regretted teasing him. He reminded her of Harry Kim at the beginning of Voyager's Badlands mission, dutiful and unquestioning of his orders, so very green and naïve, so happy to do even the most trivial of duties. None of this was Ensign Peters' fault, she told herself, and he didn't deserve to be belittled for doing his duty.
No, she thought, her temper flaring, it was Chakotay's fault that she and the rest of the senior staff were being held in protective custody and under constant scrutiny. All of them except Tuvok were spending the first weeks of their return home in this minimum-security facility in Illinois, and Tuvok was only excused because of the treatment he needed for his debilitating illness. If only she understood why Chakotay disappeared, she might be able to forgive him. As it was, she'd like to shove him out an airlock.
She nodded at Peters, giving him a weak smile, and headed down the hall, out of the one story office building, and into the deserted quadrangle. Her head was pounding and her stomach upset because she'd forgotten dinner again. She'd have some soup when she got to her quarters and some Vulcan tea. There was a high full moon, and so the shadows were starker than usual as she walked through the gardens. For a secure facility, this "camp," as they called it, was at least aesthetically pleasing and climatically very much like her home in Indiana. And it was earth, after all, instead of the Delta Quadrant. She stifled a yawn.
"What time is it, Ensign?" she asked, realizing that she had been so focused on her work that she hadn't checked the clock in hours.
"Nearly 0200, ma'am." He was behind her, at the proper distance to avoid being surprised by her if she should try to escape. She smiled at the thought of it. Why would she try to escape? And where would she go? Even though he had to be a foot taller and outweigh her by a hundred pounds, he was being diligent, and she smiled to think that Tuvok would approve of his dedication to duty.
They arrived at the low apartment building where her quarters were located and found all the windows dark. She groaned at the thought of the hour. Her debriefings were scheduled to begin at 0900, so she would be short of sleep again, if she could sleep, at all. She feared that like most nights she would lie in bed and go over those last days and hours on Voyager again and again, sifting her memory for something, anything that could explain what had happened, that would allow her to understand Chakotay's baffling actions.
She was staying in a fourplex, its entrance situated on the corner of the tiny apartment, allowing Peters an unobstructed view of the door and the windows on the two exterior walls. They arrived at her door, and Peters took his usual post across from the apartment entrance in the shadows of the garden. "I hope you get some sleep, Captain," he said, giving her a small smile. "I know you have a lot on your mind."
"Thanks, Ensign," she answered as she opened the door, appreciating his kindness. She hoped he never faced the unhappiness this situation had created in her-the feelings of betrayal by one's best friend and the helplessness to do something about it. "Will you be on duty again tomorrow night?"
"No, ma'am," he replied, his face splitting into a brilliant grin. "I'm going on leave starting tomorrow. I'm going to see my folks in Arkansas, and then I'm being posted to the Harbinger."
"Well," she said, envying him his obvious excitement, his chance to enjoy the simple pleasures of home and then space duty. To be young and innocent again would be such a blessing. "Have a safe trip, and good luck on the ship."
"Thank you, ma'am. Sleep well."
Kathryn pushed the door shut and leaned against it heavily, suddenly feeling as if she were Atlas carrying the world on her shoulders. One short month earlier, when Voyager had burst into the Alpha Quadrant from the inside of a Borg sphere, she'd imagined that she would be at home in Indiana by now, her worries about her crew long over. She'd dreamed of being given parades and receptions, of being hailed as a hero for bringing her ship home against insurmountable odds. She'd thought of reconnecting with friends, family, fellow officers as she reclaimed her life and career.
How quickly those happy visions had evaporated.
She pulled off her jacket, noticing that the ensign had activated the security panel, effectively locking her in the apartment until her departure later in the morning. There were invisible force fields on the windows, a transporter dampener, and, of course, a lock on the door. Protective custody, the admirals had called it, and just for a short while. She shook her head in dismay. In spite of the late hour, she decided on a quick meal and a hot bath to help her relax. Maybe the bath would help her get a few hours of sleep.
The soup eased her nausea and her headache and gave her the chance to view the newsvids of the previous day. The articles on Voyager had not diminished as the mystery surrounding the Maquis captain's disappearance invited more and more speculation. How much did the Starfleet captain know of his devious plan? Had she helped him to plan his escape from prosecution? Had they been lovers, as so many thought they had? Had he blackmailed her into agreeing to his disappearance? She shook her head in exasperation and flipped off the screen.
As she prepared for her soak, she remembered those first sweet hours of success on Voyager before her elation had been dashed. After a subdued celebration on the bridge, she'd finally retired to her ready room where she'd begun to make arrangements for the crew to disembark and see their families. Preliminary arrangements were being made for each of the four portions of her crew-Starfleet, Equinox, Maquis, and Borg. Things were falling into place nicely when Chakotay interrupted her at the end of Beta shift.
"Have you been to see the baby?" she'd asked him as he strode into the room, grateful for the interruption and the chance to talk to her friend. While they'd spoken briefly in the first hour after their arrival, there was much more they needed to settle. "If not, I thought we could go together."
"Maybe later." He'd shifted to his other foot, his hands gripped behind his back in obvious discomfort. She sensed that this wasn't a happy meeting, as far as he was concerned, and she'd briefly wondered why that would be. Surely he knew that their friendship wouldn't end just because they were home and no longer working together. Besides, the debriefings could take months, and they'd have the chance to gradually readjust to working with others, to letting each other go.
Then she remembered the Admiral's news of his budding relationship with Seven of Nine.
She'd sat back in her chair, forcing herself to relax, reminding herself that he would soon tell her about his romance with the former Borg drone. If that's what was bothering him, he might as well do it, and she contemplated beating him to the punch and telling him what the admiral had told her about his future. Reluctant to break the temporal prime directive, she simply asked him what was on his mind.
"I just wanted to say that it's been a pleasure serving with you these seven years, Kathryn." His voice trembled with emotion. "I think you're the best leader I've ever seen, and the finest captain that's ever held the rank."
She frowned in confusion. They'd already congratulated each other on their spectacular success in getting home by using the Borg hub. Why would he feel compelled to shower her with compliments? Where was this sudden emotional outburst coming from? Alarmed at his sentimentality, she kept her voice calm as she said, "The feeling is mutual, Chakotay. I can't imagine a finer first officer than you've been for me."
"And I want you to know," he pressed on, his face serious, "that no matter what happens, I have the utmost respect for you as a person and a friend."
She'd stood up, coming around the desk to reassure him. "You act as if we won't see each other again, when in fact we'll continue to work closely as Starfleet debriefs us." She stopped in front of him, placing a reassuring hand on his arm. "And I hope we'll always be friends."
He'd silently gathered her into his arms for a fierce hug, a display of physical affection that they'd learned to avoid over the years. She'd realized, though, that she needed a hug, and she'd needed it from him. "Remember that everything I do, Kathryn, is out of loyalty and devotion to you and this crew. No matter how it looks. No matter what anyone says."
Mystified, she'd slowly put her arms around his waist and returned his hug before she'd pulled away and looked into his eyes. "You know I trust you implicitly. What's wrong?"
He'd stared at her a long moment before he'd broken into a shy grin. "I guess I'm just a little overwrought, that's all. I thought I was prepared for this, but now I realize that I need time to come to terms with what's happened."
She'd stepped away, still a little alarmed by his unexpected display of affection. Everything had happened so quickly, too quickly for them to handle with grace and decorum. They needed to process all of this before they could really look forward. "Take some time, Chakotay. It will take us over twenty-four hours to reach earth. Use that time to think things through. Once we're in orbit, things will happen quickly. We might not be able to reflect on all that's happened then."
"I'll do that." He paused, his face troubled. "Thank you."
She'd returned to her desk and had reactivated her view screen before she realized that he was still rooted to the floor, staring at her intently. It had been a long time since he'd looked at her with such concern and much longer since she'd needed to dismiss him from her presence like a green ensign. "Is there something else, Commander?"
"No, Captain," he'd answered, glancing away. "I'm just realizing how much I'm going to miss this ship and the crew. And you."
She took a breath, recognizing the same fear deep inside herself. "Don't think about what we're losing, Chakotay. Think of what we've gained, of all the challenges ahead of us." He'd nodded silently, but still didn't move. "Let me finish answering these messages, and we'll go see the new baby together."
"I'll be on the bridge. Take your time," he'd answered, turning to leave the ready room. The doors had opened, and he'd paused again, turning to look at her once more, his eyes bright with emotion. "I think, in the future, I'll always imagine you here, in your special hideaway, waiting for me to bring you the daily status report." Before she could think of a response, the doors closed behind him, leaving her with her mouth hanging open in surprise at his uncharacteristic sentimentality.
Now, sinking into the warm water in her tub, she realized that something had in fact been seriously wrong, that his behavior had been a sign of what was to come. Why hadn't she followed up on her suspicions, she wondered? Was it because she had been so afraid that he'd tell her he was in love with Seven of Nine? That he planned to marry the former Borg? Whatever the reason for her reticence, she knew now that she'd made a mistake by not talking to him more intimately, for withdrawing from him when he was so obviously in distress.
She sighed. How could she have known that in the twenty -four hours between their joint visit to Sickbay to meet Miral Paris and Voyager's arrival at McKinley Station, her first officer would disappear from the ship without a trace?
The memory of those frantic moments after his departure nearly turned her stomach. She'd taken special care with her hair and makeup that evening, fully expecting to be greeted by the Chief of Starfleet Operations, to have her face on every newsvid throughout the Federation. She'd taken her seat on the bridge and looked around at her crew.
B'Elanna had gotten up from her bed to take her station at the bridge's engineering station, little Miral in a sling over her shoulder. Tom Paris grinned at her from the helm. Harry Kim and Tuvok stood at their usual stations on the upper deck, and Seven of Nine stood behind her, the EMH at her side. Only the seat beside her, Chakotay's seat, was empty.
"Has anyone seen the Commander today?" She was glad he'd taken the time off she'd offered and hoped that he'd found some resolution to his worries. For a moment she imagined that he was preparing some special arrival on the bridge to commemorate the moment-perhaps flowers or a plaque from the crew. When no one could remember seeing him, she'd glanced up at the overhead as she'd activated the ship's commlink.
"Janeway to Chakotay." Silence. "Chakotay, report to the bridge." Silence.
For an insane moment, she'd imagined that he'd overslept, that he was hopping around in his quarters on one foot pulling on a boot, that he was searching high and low for his commbadge and rank bar, or that he was dashing for the turbolift as he combed his hair.
Exasperated, she'd finally asked the computer for his location.
"Commander Chakotay is not on the ship," the cool voice had replied.
And the circus had begun.
Tuvok and his security teams had scoured the ship while Harry Kim and Seven had studied the sensor logs for any signal of his departure or of his kidnapping. Had he stowed away on one of the many shuttles that had visited the ship as they'd made their way toward earth? Had a cloaked vessel snatched him away while he meditated in his quarters? Had he contacted someone to help him escape? Had a sworn Cardassian enemy found a way to capture him? Kathryn didn't know and couldn't find out in time to keep Starfleet from taking over the investigation. She ground her teeth in frustration.
"Did you realize," Admiral Sanek had asked her later that evening, "that many of Chakotay's communiqués to his sister on Dorvan were delivered to a nonexistent address?"
"How would I have known that?" she'd replied, smarting at his imperious tone of voice. "Why would I check on the addressee of his messages?"
"Obviously, in spite of his years of loyal service to you, he is still a criminal," Sanek had concluded, "still flouting Federation law whenever it suits his purpose." His eyes had narrowed. "And I, for one, think you approved of this disappearing act."
And so, she and her senior staff had been escorted to this lovely facility in Illinois for an intensive and very confrontational debriefing. His behavior had cast the entire crew under suspicion, but, as upset as she'd been with Chakotay's disappearance, no one had been more furious than B'Elanna Torres.
In fact, she and B'Elanna had had an interesting discussion that very morning about the direction of Sanek's inquiry during their debriefings. B'Elanna had informed her that his questioning focused on Chakotay's final few months as a Maquis, just before their ship had begun to use the Badlands as a hiding place and just before the Caretaker snatched his ship into the Delta quadrant.
"Sanek just wouldn't give up," B'Elanna had complained as she slumped on Kathryn's office chair. "He just went on and on about Chakotay leaving the ship and doing some espionage for the Maquis, and he didn't want to hear me say that as far as I could remember he was never off of the ship at all."
"As far as you remember?"
"We had to go to a maintenance base to overhaul the injectors before we reported to the Badlands. I was busy with that, and I knew Chakotay was in meetings. But I thought he was on the base the whole time." She shrugged her shoulders. "I have no reason to think he went anywhere."
"Interesting," Kathryn had replied, storing the information away for later reference. Could that be the reason for Chakotay's sudden departure? Was there something in his past that neither she nor B'Elanna was aware of, something that the Federation was anxious to use against him?
The conjecture on Chakotay's Maquis crimes upset her even more, so she gave up on the bath and decided to stretch out in her bed for awhile and try to sleep. She finished her bedtime routine and turned out the lights, starting across the small bedroom lit only by moonlight when she suddenly realized that something was wrong. Whether it was a sound, or a smell, or a presence, she didn't know, but the hair on her neck prickled and she stopped to listen, crouching slightly and holding her breath in anticipation.
She was suddenly grabbed around the chest and neck by a strong arm while a second hand was clamped tightly over her mouth and nose. She began to struggle, even though she could tell that she was completely at this powerful man's mercy, unable to land a blow or even take a breath unless he released his hold. She wondered briefly how he had gotten into the compound and past Ensign Peters when he spoke quietly into her ear.
"Quiet, Kathryn. When I let you loose, just crawl into bed and wait until I make sure it's safe for us to talk. Understand?"
Chakotay! She was flooded with relief and curiosity and more than a little anger. How dare he sneak onto the facility and into her bedroom like this? She was tempted to scream bloody murder and laugh as he was taken into custody, but then she felt him gradually release her until his hold was more like an embrace. He buried his face in her hair and seemed to sigh with remorse as he held her body against his. Her heart softened. She remembered all they'd been through and how completely she'd trusted him. She should listen to what she had to say and then, if he deserved it, scream bloody murder.
She nodded, and he set her gently on the floor. She turned and looked at him briefly, but his face was nearly invisible in the darkness. All she could see was a flash of white teeth as he smiled at her and then glanced away. She crawled into bed, hearing the quiet chirp of a tricorder opening and seeing Chakotay's shadow as he moved methodically through the room.
Monitoring devices. He was checking for and disabling the cameras or microphones that were undoubtedly scattered throughout the room, having them recycle a period of quiet to fool the guards. The security system was probably set to activate whenever there was an unusual activity or sound. She reminded herself that he was good, very good at this sort of subterfuge, that he had been, after all, a cell leader in the Maquis. She slid between the sheets and waited for him to finish his work, anxious to confront him about his behavior. Perhaps now she could get the answers she needed to understand his desertion of her and the crew. Maybe he could explain his actions well enough to mute the fury that bubbled just beneath her calm exterior.
He crept around the room, quietly tapping instructions into his tricorder, a shadow that moved against the dim light of the windows, and then he sat down beside her on the bed, staring down at her. She let him look at her, waiting for him to begin the conversation.
"If I lie down beside you, we could whisper," he said, waiting for her permission before he moved closer. "The monitors in the next room are still functioning. If we talk out loud, they might pick up our voices."
She stared at him, trying to decide what to do, struggling with her conscience to find the best course of action. He was politely asking permission to lie down beside her on the bed, she reminded herself, when he could easily overpower her and do whatever he wanted to do. "I should turn you in for this, Chakotay. Tell me why I shouldn't? If they catch you here, we'll both go to prison."
He raised a phaser and pointed it at her head, his eyes glittering with tears, or malice; the light was too poor to tell the difference. He said, "You could plead innocence by explaining that I forced you to cooperate."
She swallowed. He wouldn't hurt her, she knew that. He was giving her an "out," removing the decision from her hands and placing the responsibility squarely on his own shoulders. "All right," she nodded, patting the bed. "Lie down so we can whisper."
He stretched out on top of the covers, resting his head on a bed pillow beside hers, the phaser still in plain view on his chest. For a long moment they just stared, both realizing how much they'd missed the other in the four weeks since they'd last talked. Kathryn struggled to keep herself focused on his desertion rather than her relief that he was safe. Clearly he'd left on his own volition and without a word of explanation.
"I've been thinking about you," he admitted, wincing when he saw the flash of anger in her eyes. "I've been worried about the debriefings."
"Like hell. Where the hell have you been?" she hissed, dispensing with the preliminaries. "How could you just disappear into thin air? Do you realize how much trouble you've caused? What were you thinking, leaving like that?"
"I know." He glanced away, unwilling to look her in the eye. "I thought I would be braver, more noble when the time came. I thought I could take whatever the authorities wanted to hand out, but I guess my survival instinct kicked in. I'm a coward."
"What are you talking about?"
"My crimes as a Maquis."
"Chakotay, I've told you that I would stand up for you, no matter what. Your seven years of service more than repay the damage you caused in your fight against the Cardassians. Don't you trust me?"
He smirked. "Frankly, Kathryn, you don't know what you're talking about."
"I beg your pardon." She was so angry she wanted to yell at him or get up and start pacing or put her hands around his neck, but because of her situation, she had to simply grit her teeth. "I've reviewed your entire file, and I know that your cell focused their attention on the Cardassians, not the Federation."
"Those were the activities Starfleet wanted you to know about. You don't know about the other charges against me." At her puzzled look, he chuckled softly. "Of course, I hacked into the file on Voyager and looked at my personal records. Surely you expected me to."
Tuvok had made her aware of Chakotay's snooping shortly after he had been made first officer. She would've been surprised if he hadn't satisfied his curiosity. But then the conversation with B'Elanna came back to her, the questions about the days when Chakotay might have worked alone or with another cell while his ship was under repair. There was nothing in his file about that period of time, if she remembered correctly. "Tell me the truth," she demanded. "Tell me what I don't know."
"Murder, Kathryn," he replied. "Murder, pure and simple."
She stared at him in disbelief. She had always comforted herself with the knowledge that his actions had never deliberately taken him into conflict with Starfleet or the Federation and that his actions had never really been those of a terrorist. He'd been a freedom fighter and had, at times, taken lives during battle. So had she. But, murder?
"Did this happen just before your ship reported to the Badlands?"
"So they have been asking about that," he nodded. "I knew they would."
"They've been questioning B'Elanna about it, asking her about your activities while the ship was under repair."
"She knows nothing about what happened."
"She's told them that, but they aren't inclined to believe her."
"Nor would they believe me, Kathryn, which is why I decided to disappear."
She frowned. "Just how did you do that, by the way? And how did you find out about these 'secret' charges?"
"Not all officers sympathetic to the Maquis cause left Starfleet," he replied. "But that's all I'm going to say."
She knew he was telling the truth. Several of her close friends were secret sympathizers with the Maquis, even though they continued to serve Starfleet without interruption. She wouldn't be surprised if many of them were still on active duty. "Of course. You would have to have had someone on the inside to disappear from Voyager as you did."
"You'd be surprised how many. And how high they go in the organization."
She realized that the people who had helped him escape from the ship had probably helped him gain access to her quarters on an extremely secure Starfleet camp. "What are the murder charges about?"
He shifted slightly, putting the phaser back into its holster on his left hip and then lacing his fingers across his chest. "Let me start by saying that I never thought my ship would survive its upcoming assignment to the Badlands. We'd lost more than eighty percent of the personnel and ships that had gone there, and I had no reason to believe my ship and crew would have any more luck than anyone else."
"So you decided to make your life count for something?" she guessed. "You felt like going to the Badlands was suicidal?"
"Something like that. I thought that I had months, maybe a year to live, and I wanted to make a difference. The Maquis needed medicine and food, so while B'Elanna and her engineers were working on the ship, I decided to help another Maquis cell raid a Federation outpost." He paused, reluctant to continue. "Belle Colony."
"Belle Colony!" Her eyes widened with surprise. The total destruction of the small outpost had electrified the Federation and turned many previously sympathetic individuals against the Maquis. To think that the man that she'd trusted with her ship, her life, and her very honor had participated in the deaths of over three hundred innocent people was simply incredible. "I don't believe it."
"It was a perfect target. Small, underdefended. Plus, the colonists had planned to expand their settlement and had stockpiled tons of food, medicine, and building materials for that purpose. Then, they realized that the atmosphere was eroding the dome's molecular structure and put the expansion on hold until the problem could be resolved."
"And all those extra supplies?"
"Were just sitting in some warehouses in a remote area of the settlement."
"It sounds too good to be true. Almost like a trap."
"It was a trap, all right. But the trap was Cardassian."
He sighed and rolled over onto his side to face her. "The team leader was a man named Padrillo. I didn't like him much. I knew he could be ruthless when he had to be and that he carried a grudge against the Federation, but I thought I could keep him under control. After all, the mission was deceptively simple. I was going to beam into the warehouse and tag the materiel we wanted while Padrillo beamed into their power plant to disrupt the shields just enough to beam us and the supplies out. Then the shields were supposed to return to full power. Nobody was supposed to get hurt."
She'd seen the diagrams of the installation in the aftermath of the destruction. The dome that had protected the colony from the poisonous atmosphere had been compromised when the power distribution system had exploded for no apparent reason. The only viable explanation for the failure had been the Maquis ship that had been detected racing away from the region by the Federation rescue ships dispatched to help the colonists. The only real comfort had been the mercifully quick and painless deaths visited upon the colonists.
"You and this man . . . this Padrillo . . . blew up the power system?"
"No. At least that wasn't the plan. He was only supposed to disrupt the shields. And that part of the operation was Padrillo's. We landed our shuttle outside the dome and beamed into tunnels that led into the dome. Padrillo went to the power plant while I went to the warehouse to tag the supplies. He joined me there and activated the pulse that was supposed to momentarily weaken the shields and allow transport to a second shuttle overhead. Then we returned to the tunnel and beamed back to the shuttle."
"And the colonists didn't pick up all this transporting and shuttle activity?"
He closed his eyes. "We had a few tricks up our sleeves."
"Someone in Starfleet provided some security codes."
"I never said that."
She sighed. "You don't have to. So, you beamed back to your ship."
"I was piloting the shuttle, so I couldn't monitor the sensors to make sure the power system came back on line properly. By the time I realized that the system was malfunctioning, the dome was already collapsing." A tear coursed down the side of his face and onto the pillow. "I begged Padrillo to return and help the colonists, but he refused. And then I accused him of sabotaging the power plant instead of just disrupting the shields."
"Oh, Chakotay." She watched him reach up and brush the tears from his eyes.
"He made some remark like 'Serves the Feds right,' and I was on him with both fists. If the other two Maquis hadn't been on the shuttle and pulled me off him, I would've tried to kill him with my bare hands."
"But he didn't admit to sabotaging the power plant?"
"Not in so many words. But whether he did it on purpose or whether the pulse we'd set up started a chain reaction doesn't matter. We're responsible for those deaths." He paused, struggling to retain control of his emotions. "Years later, after we were stranded in the Delta Quadrant, I realized that it had been Seska who had prepared Padrillo's charges for him."
"Seska. So that's the Cardassian connection. You're thinking that she might have set you up?"
"I can't prove it. But it really doesn't matter. We killed those three hundred people as surely as if we'd put a phaser to their heads one person at a time." He looked so miserable, his voice sounded so tortured, that her heart went out to him. He'd lived with this guilt for years, she realized, since before she'd met him. "I'm a murderer, Kathryn."
"You are not. You had nothing to do with Padrillo's actions, nor with Seska's treachery."
He gave her a cynical smile. "Any deaths that occur during a felony are considered capital murder, and you know it, and breaking and entering a Federation facility in order to steal supplies is a felony. It's murder multiplied three hundred times. By all rights, I should spend the rest of my life in prison for what I've done."
"Stay and let us argue this in the courts."
"If I had your courage, Kathryn, and your nobility, I'd face the music instead of turning tail and running. I admit my guilt. The decision is whether I want to spend the rest of my life on a penal colony or living outside of Federation space."
"There are always other options."
He turned to her, shaking his head. "It doesn't matter. Whatever happens, wherever I go, I have to live with the guilt for the rest of my life."
"I wonder how thorough the investigation was into the explosion? I wonder how much data is available to corroborate your account." She wanted so much to comfort him, to reassure him about what had happened. "It must've been your shuttle that the rescue ships detected as they approached Belle Colony. Everyone assumed that the Maquis had destroyed the colony. But . . . did they?"
"I've just told you we did." His voice was deadly calm. "And they investigated enough to identify both me and Padrillo as having been on the colony that night."
"Maybe we can talk to Padrillo? Find out exactly what he did while he was in the power plant."
"I'd love to get my hands on Padrillo again, but he's dead, killed by the Cardassians in the war."
"Then give me a chance to find out what I can. I have contacts in Starfleet, too."
"Kathryn, are you listening? It doesn't matter. I'm guilty of the crime, and there's nothing you can do to change that fact."
But Kathryn's mind refused to listen and was headed in a completely different direction. "Why didn't the admiral warn us about this?"
"She didn't hold back many punches about the future. How could she have overlooked something this important? I can't believe that she would've put you in such jeopardy without a word or two of warning."
"I don't think she knew about my involvement with the Belle Colony disaster." When he sensed the skepticism in his captain's face, he said, "I asked her about the Maquis in her timeline, about what had happened to them on Voyager's return. She said that they were all pardoned and allowed to find gainful employment in the Federation. But when I asked her specifically about the charges against me, she became evasive. She finally admitted that her Chakotay died just before they returned to Federation space. I'm assuming that because he was dead, she never learned of the additional charges against him."
"Really? Her Chakotay was dead?" She paused, trying to imagine how devastated her future self must have felt to lose her closest friend. "But, how could the admiral not know? Her Voyager was in contact with Starfleet for years before they finally returned. Why hadn't she been informed?"
"I could ask you the same question, Kathryn. Why haven't they told you about Belle Colony, of all my crimes? Why haven't they kept you informed of what faces me once we're home?" He let that sink in for a moment. "They know we've been working together closely for seven years, that we've worked out a good command relationship and a pretty deep friendship. They probably feared that you would help me escape, or that you would defend me in spite of the facts."
"You're right. There's no other reason for them to avoid telling me about your presence at Belle Colony. And even though they must know that the Belle Colony issue is the reason for your disappearance, they're trying to find out how much we know before they tell us any of the details."
"I should've been honest about this. I should've come to you years ago with the truth, but I was afraid. And, to be honest, I'd hoped that they wouldn't figure out that I had been on Belle Colony that night. I'd hoped that all the evidence had been lost when the colony's dome collapsed."
"When did you find out that they knew you were there?"
"When the Pathfinder communications became regular, one of my contacts let me know. But I thought we had years yet before we returned. I decided not to panic."
"You should've told me right away."
"I thought you might relieve me of duty or, worse yet, withdraw your friendship. I feel so guilty about my actions that I could barely admit what I'd done to myself." He frowned. "The worst of all this is that I can never escape the remorse for what I did. The people living in Belle Colony were innocent victims. They were simply living their lives, as my people had been when the Cardassians slaughtered them." He looked away, visibly distressed. "Twenty-two children died that night. I have to find a way to live with that fact."
"It wasn't your fault. There has to be some way to show that Padrillo's actions were separate from yours, if he even knew about the problem. And I'd be willing to bet that Seska had more to do with this than anyone in the Federation has ever considered possible."
He turned to face her, gripping her shoulder with his left arm. "Kathryn, I was there. I took part in the theft that resulted in the deaths of those three hundred people. There isn't any way to 'handle' this." He smiled, his grip turning into a caress. "But, I want you to know that I'm glad you believe me. I'd always hoped that you'd believe I was innocent."
"I do believe you, Chakotay. I know you're incapable of murdering three hundred innocent people. Why not let me help?"
"To protect you. I don't want to pull you or anyone else down with me." He shook his head. "It's better this way. I came to tell you why I've disappeared and to say goodbye, that's all. I owe you that much."
"Goodbye? You're really leaving?" She could hardly breathe. "What about Seven of Nine? Aren't you two involved?"
"We've had a few casual dates. A couple of kisses." He paused and shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. "I wouldn't call that serious, would you?"
"But she told me you discussed continuing your relationship once you were home. That you were making plans to be together."
"What was I supposed to say to her, Kathryn? I didn't want anyone to think I was unhappy to get home, so I pretended I'd be settling back into the Alpha Quadrant just like everyone else. I couldn't afford to tip my hand. But, I'm sorry that I misled her. I never meant to hurt her."
Kathryn just shook her head in resignation. "Well, as Seven would say, she'll adapt."
"You're the one I feel as if I'm leaving behind. I should be here to help you as the crew's debriefed, as you readjust to being home."
"Then stay," she begged him. "Stay and we'll fight this together."
Before he could answer, there was a soft chirp from his pocket. "That's the signal. I have just a few minutes before I have to go."
"Where are you going?" she demanded, suddenly desperate to keep him with her. "How can I contact you? When will I see you again?"
"I can't tell you where I'm going, and I don't know when or if I'll see you again," he admitted, touching her face and giving her a wistful smile. "If I can, I'll let you know I'm okay. Be happy, Kathryn. Enjoy your success. You deserve that much after all you've done for us."
"But I'm going to miss you too much! How can I be happy if I'm worrying about where you are and whether you're all right?"
"Don't worry about me." When she sobbed, he put his arms around her and held her close, absorbing the sounds of her sorrow in his chest as silent tears streamed down his face. "Don't cry."
"This can't be happening," she mumbled, feeling as if her heart were being torn from her body. "This is a nightmare."
He pulled back from her and shook her slightly. "Listen to me-you have to remember this. Don't believe everything you hear about me. I'll be fine. I have a plan and friends to help me."
"But none of them care for you as much as I do. You're my best friend, Chakotay. I need you to stay beside me, as you promised to do. Please, stay and let me help you."
Those words, more than anything else, broke his heart. She not only believed that he was telling the truth about his innocence, she still believed in him, in his basic goodness and integrity, despite the horrible confession he'd made to her, despite the fact that he was guilty of being an accessory to murder. He cursed the hopeless anger of those final months with the Maquis, damned Seska to hell for her complicity in the Belle Colony explosion, and blamed himself for the rash decisions that had altered his life forever and put Kathryn Janeway eternally out of his reach.
"There's nothing you can do for me," he admitted. "There's nothing anyone can do."
"I know you'd be taking a chance if you stayed. But even if the worst happens, we could still see each other."
"I should stay and accept the consequences of my actions. I should stay and help you get through the debriefings. But I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. Besides, no matter what I do, I can never escape from the torment this guilt creates in me every day. I can never really escape my punishment."
She buried her face in his neck again, and he couldn't help but think of the irony of the moment, lying in bed beside Kathryn, holding her in his arms as a farewell gesture. How he had longed for this moment and for this woman. How he had dreamed of holding her, of cherishing her, for the rest of their lives. But before he could lose himself in the promise of her affectionate embrace, he reminded himself that he had to leave quickly.
"It's time for me to go." He stood up and fished a tiny device from his pocket. "Stay where you are. The monitors will come back on line as soon as I beam out."
"I have to go. I'll ruin you if I stay, and God only knows what would happen to the other Maquis. I couldn't live with that. In time, you'd all come to hate me and resent the damage I've done to your lives and your careers."
"That's not true. I'd never resent you."
"Whatever pain and sorrow you feel, it's my fault. Blame me."
She wouldn't be dissuaded. "There has to be a way out of this."
He knelt beside the bed and kissed her on the forehead. "Never forget how much I care about you. You're the best friend I've ever had, and you're the best person I've ever known. I'll treasure the memory of these last seven years with you for the rest of my life. Be happy, Kathryn. And tell the crew . . . well, make them understand why I've done this, if you can."
Tears spilled down her face. "How can I make them understand when I don't understand it myself?"
"But you do understand. You'd make any sacrifice for the good of the crew, wouldn't you?"
"I don't see how your going away will help the crew."
"It will, I promise you. Starfleet will try to claim there were other members of the Maquis involved in the murders. They'll question your judgment for not realizing that the man you made your first officer was a murderer. No one will benefit from having me around." He smiled down at her, cupping her cheek in his hand. "Remember the good times, Kathryn. Remember our friendship. Remember what we had, not what we let get away."
She watched dumbstruck as he keyed the device and was immediately surrounded by the familiar blue swirl of a Federation transporter. "Stop!" she cried, forgetting about the monitors in the next room, forgetting about everything but the pain his leaving caused her. "You're breaking my heart!"
The room was silent and dark, and she was alone again, just as she'd been alone for so long on Voyager. She collapsed into her pillows unable to move as she heard barely discernible clicks from three spots in the room, clicks that told her that the monitors had reactivated. She was being watched, her actions carefully studied, but she no longer cared. As miserable as she felt, nothing mattered any more.
There had to be a way to prove that Chakotay was innocent, that Seska or Padrillo had been the ones guilty of the Belle Colony massacre or that the dome itself had collapsed because of a structural failure and not because of the Maquis raid. She'd focus on finding that proof, once the Voyager situation was settled. Chances were good that the investigation of the explosion had not been extensive, because everyone would have assumed that the escaping Maquis ship was guilty of the crime. She would access the records, interview those involved, even visit the colony's remains if she had to, and in time, she'd prove his innocence. And then she'd find him and bring him home.
She'd talk to B'Elanna first thing in the morning, and together she and the rest of the senior staff would figure out how to proceed. She desperately wanted to dive into the Belle Colony mystery as soon as possible, but she knew it wasn't the right time. She'd have to be patient, and she'd have to be careful. Starfleet intelligence would be watching her closely, thinking that she might attempt to manipulate the data in Chakotay's favor. But in the meantime, she was miserable and disappointed, all because Chakotay had once again taken everything on his own shoulders, because he hadn't trusted her enough to ask for help.
She tossed and turned in her bed, trying to find a comfortable position, when her eyes fell on an unusual object sitting on her nightstand. She reached over and switched on the light. A flat smooth stone, about the size of her palm, lay in front of her alarm clock. She picked it up and studied its surface, recognizing Chakotay's delicate and beautiful etching. She realized that he must have left it there for her as a parting gift.
The surface bore the image of Voyager in minute detail. She was fascinated by the sheer beauty of the work and its incredible accuracy. Then she turned the stone over and nearly cried out loud. The opposite side was etched with a picture of their temporary home on New Earth, a view of the tiny cabin and the garden that was in perfect scale. She ran her thumb over the lines of the drawing as tears streamed down her face. Beneath the small picture was a brief sentence:
"I will remember you."
to be continued