January 26, 2012 – March 4, 2012
With apologies to T.S. Eliot scholars everywhere. :-)
"To Make an End"
A younger man would not have noticed.
A younger man, one who habitually overlooked women of a certain age, would have ignored the petite beauty who swept through the door of the noodle shop, navigating with sure steps around the tables and patrons. When she arrived at the front counter she placed her order - "Yasai Yaki Soba and jasmine tea, please" - in a clear, confident voice that sent Chakotay slipping back through the years. He paused, chopsticks hovering over his bowl. The time fell away and he was on the Bridge of the Voyager, listening to her negotiate with some alien dignitary for supplies or food or leave for their crew. The voice was the same. Clear and confident, yes, and also a little imperious. A voice accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed.
And a younger man, one not as practiced in the art of observing Kathryn Janeway, would also not have noticed the hint of softness in her voice, of the contentment and wisdom only age can bring. He smiled. When he had decided to seek her out on this day, he had thought it would be her face that would conjure up the most vivid memories, or maybe her eyes. But her voice? Surely not. It wasn't a lovely voice; she'd be the first to admit it. Sometimes it was downright grating. Now, however, cutting across the lunch crowd din, nearly a year removed from Voyager, her voice was as welcome as a sudden rain shower in the desert. At the sound of it, the unsettled feeling that had brought him here shifted and eased.
He put his chopsticks aside and sat back to watch her. The popular restaurant, just off the Starfleet grounds, was crowded with officers and support staff on this Friday afternoon. Empty tables were scarce. She turned away from the counter and glanced around the shop, eyes roving from one occupied table to the next. The high tabletop and stools along the windows earned a scathing look – Chakotay suppressed a smirk – and she performed a second, slower survey of the tables. Her eyes passed over him, flicked back again and widened.
Chakotay stood up. "If you need a seat, Admiral, I seem to have an extra."
Her lips turned up into the lopsided smile he remembered so well. "Chakotay," she said softly. "I'll be damned."
"Join me, Kathryn."
She sauntered over to his table, shaking her head at him. "What are you doing here, Captain?"
He shrugged. "Having lunch."
She dropped her bag and pulled out the empty chair, waving her hand vaguely to take in the shop, the city, the planet. "No, what are you doing here, Chakotay? On Earth?"
He lowered himself back into his chair and picked up his chopsticks. "Taking some leave time. Visiting friends. Tom and B'Elanna told me I might find you here today."
"You should have let me know you were coming. I would have cleared the day for you." The waiter brought her tea and noodles while he pondered that statement. He wondered if she really would have cleared the day for him – and if she still might. "How long has it been, Chakotay? Seven months? Eight?"
"Eight. It's good to see you, Kathryn."
She patted his hand. "And it's good to see you." She picked up her chopsticks. "Now. Tell me why you're really here."
He chuckled. A younger man might have been irritated by her practiced air of nonchalance. No doubt she knew exactly why he was on Earth, but she was going to make him tell her himself. "The Academy Commandant has offered me a custom position. Special Recruiter. But you know that already."
She didn't look up, but he caught her half-smile nevertheless. "I might know something about it. Not all the details, though. Tell me what you know and we'll compare notes."
"They want me to follow up on promising Academy applicants who are outside the mainstream. Kids from deep-space colonies, allied worlds, challenging backgrounds... Kids who show potential, but need a little help to get ready for their entrance exams and classes."
"And what would be your role?"
"I'd go out and meet them where they are, talk to them on their level. Tutor them when I can, arrange for tutoring when I can't. Maybe bring them here to visit the campus in person to see if they could handle it."
"And reassure their families, I'm sure."
"In some cases, yes." He took a few bites of his lunch. "A lot of them are likely to be kids like I was. Brought up in colonies that are affiliated but... backward."
He nodded. "I guess you could say that. And I think that's why Command asked me."
"Because you're a contrary?"
"Think about it, Kathryn." He ticked his points off on his fingers, one by one. "I joined Starfleet as a teenager, served for more than twenty years, left in a fit of rage, fought against the system, rejoined out of necessity, and then stayed for the long haul. I've seen Starfleet at its best and at its worst, and here I am." He tapped his chest. "Back in uniform, warts and all."
"It sounds like a good fit."
"I think it will be." He looked up suddenly. "You didn't have anything to do with this, did you?"
She laughed. "No, Chakotay, my sphere of influence isn't that wide. The Academy is its own entity." She sipped her tea. "I heard about the idea, and when the Commandant dropped by my office and asked me if I thought you'd consider it, I told her she'd have to ask you. I told her you were good with kids and likely to be someone recruits could look up to, but that was all. You earned it on your own." She raised her cup. "Congratulations."
He touched his cup to hers. "Thanks."
"You are going to take it, aren't you?"
"I haven't given them a definite answer yet, but I think so. I wanted to talk to you first."
"Not to ask for my blessing, surely."
"No." He cocked his head to one side. "To see if you thought it was a good idea. You know me better than anyone. If you think it's a good fit, then it probably is."
"What about your sister and her family?"
He shrugged. "I'm more likely to see them if I'm based here than on a deep-space assignment, which was Starfleet's other offer."
"So you'll be based here on Earth?"
He nodded. "I'll be traveling a lot, which will satisfy the small part of me that still wants to wander. But I'm actually looking forward to being back. Sekaya and her family will visit when they can, and I'll probably be out there from time to time, checking up on applicants. And I still have family in Ohio."
They were both silent for a long moment, finishing their lunches. He eyed her covertly over his chopsticks. She was more relaxed than he'd seen her in years, her smile easier and more genuine. Her hair was short again, and he noticed a few stray gray hairs among the auburn. His eyes fell on the Admiral's rank at her collar and he smiled. Most of the crew, Tom and B'Elanna among them, and been certain she'd refuse the promotion and go back to deep space. But Chakotay knew better than anyone else how much the Voyager's long journey had cost her. He hadn't been surprised at all when she accepted the promotion and took a desk job. She was ready to stop moving for a while.
In truth, so was he.
The eight months away from Earth had seen him pick up and move his life four times. It was at least three moves too many. Coming back to Earth at the Academy's request had been easier than he ever thought possible. While he had no illusions about the new position being the last job he'd ever have – he was still in Starfleet, after all, and obligated to go where they sent him – he'd already felt his feet taking root in Terran soil. Seeking Kathryn out, chatting with her across the table as if they were back on Voyager and the eight months apart had never happened, solidified that connection. It was good to be back. It was right. He could feel it.
Bringing his focus back to the present, he realized she had pushed her bowl aside was staring at him with a guarded look. "And how does Seven feel about all of this?"
He sighed and shoved his own empty bowl away. He'd known this topic would come up. He'd hoped it wouldn't be this soon. "You know we split up."
"B'Elanna might have mentioned it. But she didn't tell me why."
"She doesn't know why. She doesn't care, actually, as long as it's over."
"She might have mentioned that, too." She leaned across the table. "So. What happened?"
He crossed his arms over his chest. If they were going to have this conversation, they may as well have all of it. "What do you really want to know, Kathryn? Why Seven and I split up, or why we were together in the first place?"
That stopped the smirk that was threatening behind her eyes. "I think I know why you were together."
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Seven has...obvious assets."
He felt himself go cold all over. "Do you really think I'm that shallow? You used to know to me better than that."
"Maybe I didn't."
"Did my relationship with Seven make you think you didn't know me?"
"For a while, yes."
She looked away. "I do know you better than that, Chakotay," she admitted. "You were lonely. I could see that. And it nearly destroyed me that I couldn't do anything about it. Not while we were in the Delta Quadrant."
Years ago, that admission would have filled him with passionate, unreasoning joy. But for now he let it pass unremarked. "Loneliness was a significant part of it," he conceded. "And I was...flattered by her interest. She could have dated anyone on the ship. But she chose me. I couldn't help but be intrigued." He sipped his tea. "So when she asked me out, I agreed. We had dinner a few times on the ship. One lunch. A few kisses." He toyed with his mug. "Suddenly we were back in the Alpha Quadrant. She had a whole new quadrant to explore. And I just wanted to put my feet on the ground and leave them there for a awhile."
Looking back, he realized that even then, he'd been ready to stop moving. He'd kept going for Seven, not for himself. "Accepting the posting to DS9 was a compromise. Kira's an old friend and she needed an Exec she could trust. I'd be closer to my sister and Seven could work with the Ops staff, so it seemed like a good fit. There were missions into the Gamma Quadrant, and enough excitement to keep us both interested. And it did keep us interested for a while."
"But she wasn't happy there. According to Seven, the station was primitive and filthy, Bajorans were superstitious and backwards and I was...non-compliant." He shook his head. "But that was nothing compared to Dorvan."
"I can imagine."
"We visited my sister a few times. I've never seen Sekaya take such an instant dislike to someone. She thought Seven was cold and superficial and wrong for me, and she made no effort to hide it from either of us. And my people are still very...earthy. The third time she caught one of my younger cousins making love to his girlfriend in the middle of the day, she packed up and went back to DS9."
"Seven is nothing if not fastidious."
"Right. I followed her back, but that was when I started to wonder what she really thought about me. I wondered if she thought I was also 'ruled by my animalistic impulses.'"
Kathryn gasped. "She said that?"
"That and more. She was talking about my cousin Igasho, but I heard a blanket condemnation of my people's way of life. To me, it was just normal teenage behavior. To Seven it was...unsavory. We argued about it. And that first argument led to more arguments. About...well, about sex, but also about what it means to really love someone. To put their needs ahead of yours. To accept them for who they are and love without expectations and reservations. She didn't feel that for me." He sighed. "And I realized I didn't feel that for her, either, and never had."
She reached across the table and clasped his hand in support. "Is that when you left DS9?"
"Not right away. I tried to pretend nothing was wrong, but people noticed." He stared at their hands, at her white fingers wrapped around his. "Not Seven, of course. But Kira did. She pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong with me, prancing around the station with a woman half my age."
Kathryn laughed. "I can just hear her saying, it too."
"It was a hard conversation. I didn't want to believe she was right. But one night when Seven and I were getting ready to go somewhere, I don't even remember where, I caught a glimpse of us in a mirror." He looked away, remembering. "I saw a gorgeous young woman with her whole life ahead of her... And a middle-aged man who'd gotten very vain." He ran his hand through his hair, wondering for the thousandth time what the hell he'd ever been thinking. "I was an idiot."
"It was definitely not your best decision," she said dryly.
"Which one? Dating Seven or dying my hair?"
He grimaced. "I contacted Command the next morning and requested leave and reassignment. What I didn't know was that she'd already done the same thing a week before. I was packing up to leave, dreading having to break up with her, when the tech team showed up to dismantle her regeneration unit. She didn't even bother to tell me she was planning to leave. She just left." He sat back. "So that was that. We parted ways and I haven't spoken to her since. Maybe someday we'll be friends again, but for now I'm just...letting it go."
"How long ago was that?"
"Three months. I spent a month on Bajor at one of the temples. Just trying to clear my head. Then I went back to Dorvan to stay with Sekaya. Command took a long time to get back to me with a new assignment. I appreciated that at first, because I was enjoying having a family around me and my feet on the ground. I even considered resigning my commission and staying there permanently."
He nodded. "I was hurt and confused and didn't know what to do next. I thought maybe I should just forget the Starfleet life and get back to something simpler." He let go of her hand and rubbed his forehead. "But then I started to remember all the reasons I left in the first place. My sister is a lot like my father. There was a lot of talk about 'the good of the tribe.' When she started throwing women at me, I had a new problem."
Kathryn gave him a sympathetic look – but couldn't hide her amusement. "That must have been uncomfortable."
"You have no idea. We started to fight a lot. She told me I had a duty to find a wife, get married and start a family. For the -"
"For the good of the tribe."
"Right. I told her that when I father children, it'll be on my own schedule with a woman of my choosing, who may or may not be 'of the tribe.'"
"I'm sure that went over well."
"No, it didn't. But she knew I wasn't happy there, and in the end that was more important to her. We mended our fences and when Command finally got back to me with reassignment choices, she helped me pack my bag, went with me to meet the shuttle and told me go find my place in the universe again."
She regarded him steadily. He held himself still under her scrutiny, wondering what she was thinking. "And is this your place, Chakotay? Earth?"
"I don't know. It never was before. But maybe it could be, in time." He put his hands flat on the table between them. "One last thing, and then I'm done talking about myself for a while. I want to hear what you've been up to. But first... I'm sorry if my relationship with Seven hurt you, Kathryn. That was never my intention."
She hesitated, then nodded, her eyes very bright. She accepted his apology – and everything it signified.
A younger man would not have noticed the admission – of hurt, of regret, of love – in that nod. A younger, more impatient man would have fixated on the complete and utter lack of jealousy in her expression.
Instead he let the acknowledgment of her feelings wash over him. In the early days, when his emotions for her were still raw and unpredictable, he would have been elated. Today he just tucked the knowledge away for later.
"It did hurt," she murmured. "But I would have tried to find a way to support you both, if you had let me, no matter how much it hurt." She touched his hand. "And you have nothing to be sorry for, Chakotay. You were lonely, and I know you've never been one to...to put off today for a tomorrow that might not come. You're patient, but you're no saint. I don't blame you for trying to build something with Seven. You deserve to be happy. That's all I've ever wanted for you."
"Thank you. And Kathryn, I am sorry for it, for more reasons than I can even begin to tell you. And I just want you to be happy, too."
"We'll both get there in time."
He smiled. "I think you're right. But what about you, Kathryn? What have you been up to these last eight months?"
She shrugged. "After the debriefings were over I took extended leave, same as everybody else. I spent some time reconnecting with my mother and sister, meeting my brother-in-law and niece and nephew. I visited Mark."
"Did you get closure there?"
"I did. His wife is lovely and he's content – more content than he ever would have been with me."
"How about now? Anyone special in your life?"
She stared at him. "B'Elanna again? When did she turn into such a gossip?"
"She just wants to see us happy. So." He crossed his arms over his chest again. He'd made her sit back and watch his relationship with Seven; hearing about Kathryn's relationship with another man would hurt, but it was the least he owed her. "Tell me about Admiral Cornell."
"There's not much to tell. We were in the same class at the Academy. He married a civilian doctor right after graduation ; they divorced while we were in the Delta Quadrant. We've been to dinner a few times. Nothing more."
"That's pretty close to what B'Elanna told me."
His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "She also said he's an insufferable p'tak."
"Probably because he's not you." She sipped her tea. "He's a good man. He's trying very hard to be what he thinks I need."
"What he thinks you need? But not what you truly need?"
The wistfulness in her smile was impossible to miss. "And what do you need, Kathryn?"
She gave him a wary look. He held his breath.
The moment hung between them, as so many had before. He felt as though time had slowed, pausing with uncanny precision on every conversation they'd ever had about protocol and parameters, about barriers that couldn't be crossed. A part of him wanted to force the crisis, but somehow he knew the decision had to be hers.
He let her stare at him speculatively for a long time. Then she gave her head a little shake. She was not ready to have this conversation yet. He suppressed a sigh.
"Right now," she said, too brightly, "I need to get back to the office." She gathered her bag and started to stand up. "This was nice. Let's do it again. Next Friday? Will you be available?"
Her sudden nervousness almost made him smile. "For you, yes. But do you really have to go?"
"I'm afraid so. I need to -"
He grabbed her hand impulsively. He couldn't force the crisis, but he could change the parameters. "Spend the day with me, Kathryn."
She blinked. "Doing what?"
Truthfully, he hadn't thought that far ahead. But he wasn't ready to let her go yet, and he refused to take the invitation back. Especially since she seemed to be considering it. "I don't know. I suppose we could go to Paris for the afternoon."
"It's the middle of the night there."
"Right." He scratched his chin. "Well, we could...hike the Grand Canyon."
"In Starfleet-issue boots?"
"Would your Starfleet-issue boots stand up to a walk in Golden Gate Park?"
She chuckled. "Holding hands like a couple of Cadets?"
"Maybe. Maybe I'll even try to steal a kiss in the Japanese Tea Garden."
She gave him a sidelong glance. "I shouldn't."
She waved her hand. "I have responsibilities. Meetings."
He shrugged. "Cancel them."
She put her hand on her hip. "I can't just arbitrarily take a day off, Chakotay."
"Are there Borg cubes on their way? Is Species 8472 invading? Have the Vidiians landed and I didn't notice?"
She shook her head, but her smile gave him hope. "Of course not. But-"
"But nothing. It's peacetime, Kathryn. Maybe temporarily, but we should take advantage of it. There's no crisis looming, no imminent danger, and no reason for you not to cancel whatever you have going on and spend the rest of the afternoon with your best friend, who hasn't seen you in eight long, lonely months and misses you so much he can't stand to let you go today." He brushed his thumb across her knuckles. "Cancel your meetings. Waste the afternoon with me. We'll go wherever it takes us."
She hesitated for an instant, then to his immense relief she sat down and slapped her comm badge, her eyes still on his. "Janeway to Bradley."
"Bradley here, Admiral. Where are you?" The aide sounded frantic. "You have the Admirals' briefing in fifteen minutes, and -"
"Bradley, something has come up. Please send my regrets to the Admirals and cancel my appointments for the rest of the day."
There was a tense silence. "What will I tell them, ma'am?"
"Just tell them I have something more important to do today. Something that has absolutely nothing to do with Starfleet, but that needs my immediate and undivided attention."
"Is everything all right, Admiral?"
She rolled her eyes. "Everything is fine, Bradley. But I'm taking the afternoon off." She winked at him. "And you know what, Bradley? You should, too."
"I mean it. Cancel my appointments, shut down your station, lock the office, and go find something more fun to do. That's an order. Life is too short to sit in an office on a day like this."
Even Chakotay could hear the puzzlement in the younger man's voice. "Yes, ma'am. Will I see you Monday, then?"
"Bright and early as usual, Bradley. Have a good weekend."
"You, too. Bradley out."
She let go of his hand. "So. What do you propose we do?"
He tugged at his ear. "Well, how about that walk in the park?"
She moved again to stand. "It is a nice day for a walk, isn't it? Let's -"
Her comm badge beeped. "Cornell to Janeway. Kathryn, I just got the cancellations from your aide. Is everything all right?"
She sat back down, her face carefully neutral. "Everything's fine, Adam. An old friend is in town, and I've decided to spend the afternoon with him."
There was a second of uncomfortable silence."I see. Well." The man sighed. "Are you still free for dinner tonight?"
Before he could stop himself, Chakotay shook his head at her. She cocked an eyebrow at him. "I don't believe so," she said slowly. "Not tonight."
"I'm not sure." She pulled a padd out of her bag; Chakotay promptly took it away from her. "I'm not looking at my schedule at the moment," she said without missing a beat.
"Oh. Are you sure you're all right, Kathryn?"
"Perfectly fine. Better than I have been in months, actually."
"Because you're spending the afternoon with an old... friend?"
"Well, yes." She gave him the lopsided smile he had missed so much. "I guess that has something to do with it. And as for dinner... Why don't I just call you?"
Chakotay smothered his laugh. She was breaking up with the man right in front of him, and she didn't even seem to be terribly sorry for it.
"You'll call me."
"When you're free for dinner."
"I understand." Chakotay heard the disappointment and resignation in the other man's voice. He felt a twinge of pity... But it was fleeting. He supposed he should feel bad about that. "Have a good weekend, Kathryn."
Her eyebrows rose. "You too, Adam. Janeway out."
He handed the padd back to her. "Smooth."
"No, it wasn't. But it needed to be done." She stowed the padd in her bag and stood up. "I seem to be free for the afternoon, Captain. And dinner. And the weekend, apparently. Shall we?"
He stood up and offered her his arm. "Let's go," he said, and they made their way together through the shop and out into the street.
A younger man would not have noticed the way the golden afternoon sun glinted off her graying hair and highlighted the dusting of freckles across her cheeks.
Chakotay tucked her hand more securely to his side and gave silent thanks that he was not now, nor would he ever again be, a younger man.
It was so like being back in the Delta Quadrant with him, exploring a new culture on one of their rare shore leaves together, that she almost forgot where and when she was.
But not who she was with. Never that.
Her hand in the crook of his elbow felt so good, so right, that time fell away with every step they took together. Her fledgling relationship with Adam Cornell? Rejected. The eight months apart? Gone. His ill-advised affair with the drone in the catsuit? Dismissed. The final year of their journey, when so many professional disagreements had turned into personal schisms, leaving their friendship fragile at best, fractured at worst? Forgotten.
Strolling with him in the afternoon sunlight, matching him step for step, his soft voice offering a running commentary about everything and nothing, Kathryn felt whole and happy for the first time in months. Maybe years.
They wandered the streets for a time, heading in the general direction of Golden Gate Park. He bought her a red rose at a flower cart; she broke off the stem and tucked the blossom behind her ear.
"I'm sorry it clashes with your uniform," he said.
"I'm not," she replied, and slid her hand back into the crook of his arm.
No one stopped them.
The first few weeks after the debriefings had been hard; they were all recognized nearly everywhere they went. The constant scrutiny had driven many of them, including Chakotay and Seven, off the planet entirely. Now, almost a year later, they got a few knowing looks but no one stopped them, for which she was grateful. Apparently the Federation's news and gossip outlets had finally decided there were more compelling stories.
She pulled him into a jewelry shop she knew. "I'm having some of my Grandmother's things repaired here," she explained. "Let's check on them before we go to the park."
"All right." He didn't sound particularly enthusiastic but he followed her anyway, as she'd known he would. Now and always.
They crossed into the shop, pleasantly cool and dim after the afternoon sunlight. The proprietor, a short, plump man with a shock of silver hair, looked up and smiled.
"Admiral Janeway, how nice to see you!" He approached to her. "Come to check up on your repair project?"
"Of course. Just wait here." He darted into the back of the shop, leaving the two of them alone.
She watched Chakotay stroll around the cases of jewelry, feigning polite interest in their contents. "Bull in a china shop" wasn't exactly the right phrase, but close. "Sorry about this," she said with a smile. "But since you forced me to waste the afternoon and we're in the neighborhood..."
"Not at all, Kathryn. I'm just glad to be spending the day with you."
And he was. She could see that in his eyes.
She had missed those eyes more than she thought possible.
She had told him that she would have cleared the day for him, had he called ahead. In truth, she would have cleared a week. A week seemed like barely enough time to repair a friendship that they'd both taken for granted, but she would have tried to make it enough.
But an afternoon? She didn't think it was possible.
And yet here they were, strolling the streets together as if nothing had happened to damage their friendship at all. She wondered if this is what old Admiral Janeway had intended when she changed the timeline. Maybe she had come back not to save Seven and Chakotay's relationship, but to save her own friendship with Chakotay.
The little jeweler came back with a velvet-covered tray. "Admiral? Come take a look."
She bent over the tray and the antique jewelry upon it: An ancient diamond surrounded with tiny rubies on a delicate silver chain, matching diamond and ruby earrings, and a silver bracelet inlaid with sapphires. "Are they finished?"
"They are. You can take them with you today if you like."
Chakotay moved to stand beside her. "Kathryn, these are beautiful."
"Thank you. The diamonds all had to be cleaned and re-set, and the bracelet was missing some stones. He's done wonderful work to restore them."
"They were your Grandmother's?"
"Actually, they've been handed down through several generations of Janeway women. My father didn't have a sister, so these came from Grandmother to me. I'm having them restored for Phoebe's daughter when she's old enough."
"Not for yourself?"
"I wore them when I was younger." She shrugged. "I'd like to keep them in the family. So I'll keep these safe for Katie, since I don't have a daughter to give them to."
She could feel his eyes on her in silent contemplation.
She cleared her throat. "Wrap them up and put them on my bill, please," she said. "And thank you. You did a beautiful job with these."
"Of course, Admiral. And thank you."
The jeweler disappeared again.
She turned to find Chakotay still staring at her. "Do you regret not having children, Kathryn?" he asked in that damn soft voice of his.
How had she ever thought it was cool in the shop? The place was suddenly stifling.
"After babysitting Tom and Harry for seven years?" She patted his chest. "Not at all."
He smiled politely, but she could see that she hadn't fooled him in the least. Someday, perhaps soon, he was going to ask the question again. And the next time he wouldn't let her laugh it off.
Next time, she would have to give him an honest answer.
She hoped she would have one.
The jeweler came back with her wrapped parcel, which she tucked safely in her bag. She slipped her hand back into the crook of Chakotay's arm and pulled him out of the shop and into the sun.
He was very quiet for a time. It unnerved her.
"So, where are you staying?" she asked to cover her unease.
He let the transparent deflection pass. "Starfleet officer housing for now. But I'd like to find my own place."
He nodded. "After seven years of being at the constant call of duty, I'd like a clear line of demarcation between my work life and my home life. No offense," he added with a smile.
"None taken. And I can sympathize. That's why I spend so much time in Indiana. Just to get away."
"You're still in Starfleet housing?"
"For now. I'd like to get out eventually, but I just haven't had the time." She shifted the bag on her shoulder. "Are you thinking apartment or house?"
"I'd prefer a house, but I'll probably have to settle for an apartment. I'll be away a lot. Maintenance would be hard."
"How many bedrooms?"
He grinned down at her. "Are you a realtor on the side?"
"No, just trying to help. I know a few people. Two bedrooms?"
"Make it three. Sekaya and her husband will want their own room away from the kids when they visit."
"But two bathrooms, then."
"Hmmmm. No. I'd like to choose my own. Make a few things if I can."
"Do you want to live here in San Francisco, or just within transporter distance?"
"You're here, right?"
"When I'm not in Indiana."
"Then here is where I want to be."
She slipped her hand down his arm and into his, palm to palm, fingers intertwined. "When you're not out recruiting the Federation's best and brightest, that is."
"Any other requirements?"
He was quiet for a long moment, looking up at the blue sky as they walked along hand-in-hand. "I'd like to have a big room with windows. Or a skylight. A quiet room, where I can meditate... And see the stars at night. A peaceful place." He gave her hand a squeeze. "I haven't been at peace for a long time. I'd like to try to find it again."
"Let's see. An unfurnished apartment in San Francisco, walking distance to the Academy and my office, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, lots of windows, a skylight, peace." She snapped the fingers of her free hand. "Consider it done."
"You know, Kathryn, I think you might just be able to pull that off."
"Like I said: I know a few people. This time next week, we'll be apartment hunting together."
He smiled down at her. "It's a date."
They walked on.
He pulled her into a coffee shop; she surprised him by ordering more tea – green tea with honey this time.
"No coffee?" he asked.
"I'm trying to cut back."
He gave her a look of mock alarm. "Who are you, and what have you done with my Kathryn?"
"It was keeping me up at night." She sipped her tea. "On Voyager, it kept me going."
"You beat the Borg with it. I remember; I was there."
"Right. Sleep was a luxury anyway, so missing a few hours here and there didn't affect me. But back here on Earth, I find I don't need the caffeine hit as much. So I stop at noon – or before – and switch to tea."
"And do you sleep better?"
"I'm glad to hear it. You never got enough on Voyager."
The reflexive protest that she would have offered on the ship, that she could look after herself, thank you very much, died on her lips. She looked up at him."Neither did you."
"We were quite the pair sometimes."
"Indeed we were."
They exited the coffee shop, his hand resting lightly on the small of her back.
The sun sank lower.
She was very conscious of his body beside her, of the way her shoulder brushed his chest as they walked. Wherever they went, in this or any quadrant, he seemed to always use his bigger bulk to shield her – and sometimes to block her path when he wanted to force her to listen to him. He habitually walked slightly behind and to her left, bent down toward her from the waist. She'd forgotten that. But the feel of his hand on her back reminded her forcefully of other walks together – among the people of a dozen alien worlds, along ancient Venice Beach, through the corridors of Voyager when he was certain they wouldn't be observed.
She felt safe. Not protected, exactly, because she didn't need it here. Just... safe. A simple word for a complex feeling.
"Are you game for an antique store?" she asked. "Last stop and then we'll finally go to the park, I promise."
"Lead on," he answered, and she took his hand again.
The antique store was as known to her as the jewelry store. When they entered she gave the owner a warm hug. "Hello, Andrew."
The tall blond man bent to embrace her, then held her at arm's length. "Kathryn, you look lovely today. You should get out of the office and into the sun more." He let her go and eyed Chakotay up and down. "And who have we here? Wait – you must be Captain Chakotay. You're much more handsome in person. Don't move, Clarence will want to meet you." He disappeared into the back of the shop. "Clarence, honey, Kathryn's here and you'll never guess who she's brought with her," he called.
Kathryn turned back to Chakotay, who stood rooted to the spot with an expression of equal parts amusement, surprise and caution. "I forgot about that," she said softly, chuckling. "Andrew's a little...excitable. But you'll like Clarence. He does all the restoration work."
"Are you having antiques repaired here, too?"
"No, not at the moment. Look around, maybe you'll find something for your apartment."
"Shouldn't I meet Clarence first? I'd hate to disappoint him."
She laughed. "Maybe so. Meet Clarence, then we'll browse."
Andrew emerged with a shorter, stouter man in tow. Both men gave Chakotay an appraising look. "See? I told you he was more handsome in person," Andrew whispered loud enough for them all to hear.
"Stop flirting, Andy. Can't you see he's here with Kathryn?" The shorter man stepped forward, hand outstretched. "Clarence Wright, Captain. And you've met my husband, obviously. It's nice to finally meet you. Kathryn has told us a lot about you."
"Has she?" He cocked an eyebrow at her. "What have you been telling them, exactly?"
She gave him an innocent smile. "Only that you do a lot of woodwork yourself, and that you appreciate a finely crafted antique."
He shook a finger at her but let the remark pass.
Andrew tugged her away, leaving Chakotay to talk shop with Clarence.
"When did he get here, Kathryn?" Andrew and Clarence knew of him from the Federation news, of course, but she'd told them about Chakotay as well. She'd found it was easier, somehow, to tell relative strangers how much she missed her friend than people who knew them both well, even Tom and B'Elanna and her own family.
"I'm not sure. He came to find me at the noodle shop today."
"How long is he staying?"
"I think he's here for good. He's going to take a position at the Academy."
Andrew leaned down to her with a hopeful expression. "So he's moving back?"
She nodded. "We're going to look at apartments next week."
His mouth fell open. "He's a handsome devil and a fast worker."
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "No, Andrew, not an apartment together. An apartment for him to live in. Alone."
"Oh." He frowned. "Then you're not -"
"Hmmm. That's too bad." He shrugged. "Ah, well. We just got some new books. Come see!"
She spent the next ten minutes flipping through antique books and wondering what in the world had made Andrew think that she and Chakotay were together.
When he came up behind her and placed a hand in the middle of her back, she was pretty sure she knew.
"What did you find?" he asked, his voice soft in her ear.
She held up the book in her hands. "Walt Whitman. An edition from the 1950s."
"Nice. Let me think." He rubbed his chin. "'I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.'"
She drew back, surprised. "'Song of Myself'?"
He nodded. "You know I like poetry. You're the one who loaned me Dante."
"And I don't think I ever got that back."
He ignored her and studied the shelf of books. "Here's another. T.S. Eliot. 'For I have known them all already, known them all:/ Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/ I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;/ I know the voices dying with a dying fall/ Beneath the music from a farther room.'" She stared up at him in astonishment; he seemed not to notice and pulled the book down. "'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' That's a good one. Although I've always preferred 'The Four Quartets.'" He opened the book and wandered away.
Andrew drew up beside her again. "He's quoting poetry at you, Kathryn. Are you sure you're not -"
"No, Andrew, we're not." She sighed. "But he talked me into breaking a date with Adam. And then I think I broke up with Adam altogether."
"Are you sorry?"
She thought about that for a second. Adam was a good man, just as she'd told Chakotay. He was also straitlaced, utterly predictable, and boring as hell. An insufferable p'tak, in other words. "No, I can't say I am."
Andrew nodded at Chakotay, who was still thumbing through the antique book and looking for a place to sit down. "And is he with anyone?"
"Do you care about him?"
"Of course. We're friends. We've been friends for a long time. But we've been through a lot, and I think there's still damage to repair."
"Do you think there's potential for something more? Maybe not now, but someday?"
She watched Chakotay make himself comfortable in an antique wooden rocking chair, the book open on his knees. He was a good man, too. Strong, brave, gentle. A little unpredictable, a little impulsive, with a calm demeanor that hid an powerful inner fire that had broken through from time to time – and saved their lives more than once. And a handsome devil, just as Andrew had said. Every minute they'd spent together today had reminded her of what they'd once had on Voyager: A deep and enriching friendship...
...That had never been quite enough for either of them.
He cared for her; that much was certain.
Deep down, she'd always thought they'd be good together. She'd put the feeling aside for the sake of her ship and her crew, but there were times when she'd been close to acting on it, Starfleet be damned. Not acting on it while they were stranded together on New Earth was a regret she'd always carry with her; so was their argument about protocol during a midnight sail on the day he'd watched her die. Those feelings were still there, but were they as strong as they'd once been?
And even though the day so far had been lovely, it was just one afternoon.
"Maybe," she said finally. "But I think I'd like to work on repairing our friendship first. Then later? Who knows?"
Andrew smiled down at her. "So, Admiral, what's your next move?"
She pointed across the shop. "How much is that chair he looks so good in?"
Andrew laughed with delight. "It's a set, Kathryn. Clarence is working on the other one and will be done in a week or so. Two chairs. It's perfect."
They negotiated quickly. She pressed her thumb to his credit padd and sauntered back over to Chakotay's side.
He looked up when she put her hand on his shoulder. "Ready to go?" He started to rise but she pushed him gently back into the chair.
"Wait. I have a surprise for you."
Andrew stepped forward and placed a large and jaunty "SOLD" sign on the arm of the chair.
Chakotay blinked slowly. "Kathryn, did you just buy me a chair?"
"Chairs. It's a set of two."
His face went blank. "Chairs."
"Yes, chairs," she repeated. "Clarence hasn't finished restoring the second, but as soon as it's done and you have a place to live, I'll have them sent over. And anything else in the shop you want. I'll have it all put in storage until you're ready."
"Kathryn, why did you just buy me a set of chairs?"
She patted his shoulder affectionately, waiting for him to catch up. "I bought the first chair because you'll need a place to sit. And I bought the second chair because I'll need place to sit when I come to visit. Andrew wants to keep them together, so..." She waved her hand with a flourish. "Chairs."
"You bought me a set of chairs."
"What's wrong?" She put her hands on her hips. "Do you not like the chairs?"
"No, I love the chairs. I love that you bought them for me. It's very thoughtful. I'm just not sure why you did it."
Until she said them out loud, she did not know the words had been in her mind all afternoon. "Because I want this to work out for you, Chakotay. I want you to find a home here. I want to help you make a home here." She placed a hand on his cheek. "I want you to find your peace again."
Behind her, she sensed Andrew and Clarence holding their breath.
Chakotay sat very still for a long moment, then he squeezed her free hand and smiled. "Thank you, Kathryn. You can't know how much this means to me."
She ran her fingers through the graying hair at his temple and withdrew, turning her back on him. "Look around. See anything else you can't live without?"
"Maybe one thing," he said softly.
Fair enough; she'd certainly opened herself up to that one.
She ignored the look that passed between Andrew and Clarence and turned back to him. "Ah, the Eliot." She took the book from him. "It's yours. I'll have it wrapped up for you. Then let's go to the park."
They left the shop hand-in-hand, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, copyright 1969, tucked in her bag with her Grandmother's jewelry.
The shadows were longer, but Kathryn had lost all sense of time. They chatted about B'Elanna and Tom, Harry's new mission, Tuvok's recovery. She filled him in on the Doc's latest sortie in his fight for hologram rights. He told her about Mike Ayala's new life on Dorvan and the Delaney sisters' exploits.
Before long they were reminiscing about Voyager – missions gone both right and wrong. There were tense moments over Fair Haven and Captain Ransom and Riley Frazier, among others, but the afternoon was so beautiful and being with him again so pleasant that she refused to give in to the old impulse to argue with him. They were home now, and all those old hurts were just that: old. They were threads in the rich and colorful tapestry that was their life together, and though she wouldn't forget them, she wouldn't let those conflicts come between them anymore. She sensed his relief when she steered the conversation back to Tom's holodeck adventures, Neelix's baking attempts, Naomi and Icheb's exploits.
"Do you have any regrets, Kathryn? About our life on Voyager?"
She thought back over the seven years, the highlights and the heartbreaks. "I mourn the loss of life every day," she finally said. "But every Captain who goes into deep space faces losses. I'm sorry for the families that fell apart while we were gone. But I'm proud of the other families that were created while we were there. So no. All in all, no regrets." A year removed from their return to Earth, she realized she had finally let go of the guilt she felt at having stranded them in the Delta Quadrant in the first place. "I wouldn't do anything differently." She looked up at him. "Would you?"
"I'm not sure I'd still kiss a member of Species 8472 if I had it to do all over again," he joked. "But other than that? No. I don't think I would. All the choices we made, even all the disagreements, led us to this day. And I wouldn't change this day for anything."
"Neither would I."
The breeze was chillier the nearer they got to the park. He draped his arm around her shoulders. She slipped an arm around his waist and let him pull her into his body, close enough to feel his warmth through his uniform.
He was heavier than he'd been at the end of their journey – not too heavy, just bulkier and probably healthier. And even though he'd let his hair go gray again, she'd noticed at lunch that the unsettled lines around his mouth and eyes were gone. He had prominent crow's feet and assorted wrinkles. They both did. But he actually looked younger than he had in years, maybe since the beginning of their journey.
Younger, but no less intriguing. And just as handsome as ever.
She shivered against his side.
"Are you cold?" he asked. "We could skip the park and find something else to do."
"What have you got in mind?"
His steps slowed. "I've been thinking," he began.
"I know that tone, Chakotay," she warned. "That tone usually precedes a suggestion I'm not going to like."
He gave a low chuckle. "Hear me out." He stopped walking and turned to face her. "Let's go see her, Kathryn."
"Voyager. Let's go visit."
Her mouth fell open. "To the museum? You can't be serious."
"I am. I haven't been there yet. Have you?"
"No. And I don't intend to. I can't believe they've done that to her, and I won't go." She had fought against the decision, but Starfleet had been firm. Her ship, her battered, beautiful ship, was now in low-Earth orbit, hosting gaggles of tourists and schoolchildren daily. She started to walk away from him, agitated at his presumption.
His hand darted out to stop her. "I've been avoiding it, too. But today, with you... I think I can face it." He shuffled his feet. "And I think we need to go – to remember where it all began."
"I'm not sure why, but I feel like we should to do this. Together." He leaned down to peer intently into her eyes as he'd done a thousand times before. "Maybe just for closure, but I think we need to go back to the place where we started."
And there it was, the feeling that she'd had all afternoon, that they were traveling to a destination that she couldn't see – but apparently he could. They had worked backwards through their entire journey, their successes and failures, and were ready now to go back to the start of their friendship from this new perspective of knowledge and wisdom.
He was staring at her, his whole face a question. "Will you come with me? If it's as terrible as we think it is, we'll come back down to the Wharf and I'll treat you to the most expensive meal we can find. Then we'll take a couple bottles of champagne back to your place and we'll get drunk and pretend it never happened."
She bit her lip. "You're sure, aren't you? That we need to do this."
He took her hands in both of his. "Do you trust me?"
"Then let's go. I promise it'll be okay."
She let out a long breath. "You win. Let's go."
The shadows continued to lengthen, but as they walked to the transport station hand-in-hand, she felt as though time shifted around them, rippled, shimmered, and stopped.
The ship was full of ghosts.
He knew he should have expected that, but it took him by surprise just the same. From the moment they materialized on the transporter pad – the first stage in The Voyager Experience – he felt the brush of other spirits against his own, almost as if they were physical and could reach out and touch him. There were two uniformed tour guides in the room, a short, rather round young woman with long blond hair and a tall young man with ice-blue eyes. But in his mind's eye he saw Joe Carey standing behind the transporter console with a knowing smile.
He glanced at Kathryn, wondering if she sensed the presence, too. Her expression startled him – tense, wary, almost fearful. He shook off the haunted feeling and touched her elbow. "Kathryn? Are you all right?"
She nodded slowly. "I just...need a moment."
To give her space, he crossed to the tour guides, who had both snapped to attention. When he read their wide-eyed expressions for what they were he mentally kicked himself.
"I take it you know who we are."
They both nodded, staring at him.
"I suppose we should have let somebody know we were coming."
The woman seemed to recover first. "That's okay, sir. We, uh, we have a protocol for this. Just in case it ever happened."
He cocked his head to one side. "Are you Starfleet?" He had assumed the uniforms were costumes, but then realized their costumes probably wouldn't have included Ensign's pips at the collar – nor would they have snapped to such rapid attention.
"Yes, sir," she said smartly.
"You're assigned here?" He smiled at them. "At ease, by the way."
The young man relaxed and finally pulled himself together. "It's a new required assignment for Command-track Cadets, sir. We study Voyager's logs, record, missions, everything. There's a lot there worth learning, from first contact scenarios and battle tactics to building strong crew relationships and being creative with resources."
The girl nodded. "Then we rotate through as tour guides in different parts of the ship. Voyager has lessons to teach. We learn them so we can take them with us to our own assignments."
"Meanwhile, hosting civilians here helps us learn to adapt to beings of all backgrounds and ages," the boy continued. "Those are skills the two of you clearly had and used to your advantage."
Chakotay shook his head a little. "So this is a teaching ship more than a museum."
The woman nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I had no idea," he said, and turned back to Kathryn. "Did you?"
"No," she said softly, stepping down from the transporter pad at last. "Owen Paris tried to tell me once, but I didn't listen. I didn't like to think of her up here, not being used to her full potential."
Chakotay kept a careful eye on her as she crossed to them, her expression changing from wariness to curiosity as she moved. "So will you be our tour guides?"
"No, Admiral," the woman said. "We're just hosts today. We can call in tour guides for you, or..." She glanced up at the young man, who shrugged. "There's hardly anybody on the ship right now. And you don't need tour guides, obviously. We can just start the protocol, if that's what you prefer."
Kathryn raised an eyebrow. "And just what is the protocol?"
The young man moved to a newly installed wall panel and started pressing the keypad. "We'll track you through your comm badges and clear each area before you arrive. I'll alert the rest of the hosts and guides that you're coming so you can have a bit of privacy, if you want."
Kathryn smiled ruefully. "That would be appreciated."
The young woman joined her colleague. "There are a few areas that are off-limits to visitors, but they're only voice-locked. They're set to let any of the guides in, and both of you."
Kathryn glanced at him. "Owen must have set that up."
"Probably so. He knew one of us would come someday."
The young man finished tapping the keypad. "If you're ready, Admiral? Captain?"
She nodded, started to leave the transporter room, then turned back to them. "What are your names, please. I'd like to commend you both for handling this so professionally."
The man's eyebrows rose. Chakotay thought for a horrible moment that he'd offer a cheeky, "Just doing my job, ma'am," which she wouldn't have appreciated. But the young man surprised him. "Ensign James Lavin, Admiral."
Kathryn turned to the young woman, who was smiling widely. "Ensign Petra Novotna, Admiral, and thank you for coming today. We always hoped you would turn up eventually."
"And why is that, Ensign?"
Ensign Novotna shrugged. "Because your story didn't seem complete without it, somehow. We've all wanted to add a notation that you came back to visit and gave this project your blessing."
Ensign Lavin looked down at Kathryn. "We know you fought against it, but we hoped you would realize that Voyager's story didn't end when you came back to the Alpha Quadrant. The next chapter has already begun here, and we'll all take your wisdom forward from now on."
"Poetic," Kathryn quipped, but Chakotay couldn't stop staring at the two eager Ensigns.
"'The end is where we start from,'" he murmured, his mind whirling. "The Four Quartets," he elaborated when Kathryn looked up him curiously. "T.S. Eliot."
She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm again. "I'm surrounded by poets today," she said cheerfully, but he heard something else in the tone of her voice, something similar to the slight sense of unreality that he'd felt all day.
"Begin the protocol, Ensigns, and thank you both," she said, and led him from the transporter room.
As they walked out into the corridor he heard Novotna's voice. "Novotna to all tour guides. The Eagle has landed. I repeat, the Eagle has landed."
Just before the door slid closed behind them, Chakotay could have sworn he heard Joe Carey's hearty Irish laugh.
They made their way slowly through the corridors, stopping to read about the ship's design specifications and history on plaques placed every few meters. They came across an access panel that had been removed and replaced with a sheet of transparent aluminum, exposing the bright blue bio-neural gelpacks inside. Kathryn knelt to peer at them intently.
He touched her shoulder. "What is it?"
"Just wondering if they've vaccinated those. As fast as it was, sometimes the bio-neural circuitry was a lot more trouble than it was worth."
He chuckled. "Especially when it got infected with Neelix's cheese."
"Exactly." She straightened. "Where should we go?"
"Astrometrics is on this deck."
"Lead the way."
True to the Ensigns' word, the corridors were clear for them. Just the same, Chakotay had to fight down the urge to peek over his shoulder, unable to shake the persistent feeling that they were not alone. When they passed by the weapons control room, Chakotay was certain he heard Kurt Bendera's voice, just a whisper above the sound of the ship's engines: "I like a good fight." He glanced at the control room door, half expecting to see the big man leaning against the bulkhead with his characteristic expression of rough good humor.
Astrometrics was precisely as they'd left it almost a year ago – neat and tidy, thanks to Seven and Harry's work habits, with the final course to Earth glowing on the giant viewscreen. They both stopped and stared at it for a long time.
"Seems like only yesterday," she whispered.
"I know," he replied, and they turned and left the room.
They walked the silent corridors side-by-side. He felt as though there were a wind at their backs, propelling them through the familiar passageways.
In Engineering, among detailed graphs and charts explaining Voyager's mainsystems, they found a plaque commemorating Lon Suder's brave stand against eleven Kazon warriors bent on taking over the ship. Alone and without hope of backup, Suder had willingly unleashed the violent tendencies he'd tried so hard to suppress and killed all eleven warriors, only to be killed himself a short time later.
Kathryn frowned at the plaque. "I wonder how Frank Darwin's family feels about that," she said. "Suder murdered Darwin in cold blood."
"Maybe it comforts Suder's family to know he died a hero in spite of his personality disorders."
"This plaque says nothing about personality disorders."
He looked at it again. "You're right. Should we ask to have it removed?"
"I don't know." She rubbed the back of her neck and took a few paces away from him. "I thought I'd reconciled all of this," she said softly. "But nothing out there was black and white, was it?"
"No. We did the best we could, Kathryn. Starfleet seems to realize that, too, or this whole project wouldn't be here. The Cadets wouldn't be required to learn about everything we accomplished if Command didn't think it was worth it."
"I know." She gave him that lopsided smile and shook her head. "I hope the kids realize what hard lessons they were, though."
"Maybe not right away. But once they're out there themselves, they will."
She nodded curtly. "Let's leave the plaque alone for now," she said. "We'll contact Darwin's family and let them decide what to do about it, if anything."
As they left Engineering, Chakotay felt a strong wave of gratitude wash over him. You're welcome, Lon, he thought, and followed her into the corridor.
Melancholia seemed to have settled over Kathryn like a blanket. It hadn't been his intention to force her to relive her most difficult decisions, or to begin questioning herself again. He quickly pulled her into a turbolift. "Let's go to the Holodeck," he said. "Maybe Sandrine's is running and you can beat me at pool for old time's sake."
"With our luck, it'll be Paris's ridiculous Captain Proton program."
"That would be lucky – if you'll put that Queen Arachnia dress on for me."
"Not a chance," she muttered, and he laughed out loud.
Instead, they found Neelix's luau in full swing, with music, dancing, and a colorful holographic sunset. He tugged on his ear. "This is not what I expected."
"I wonder why they settled on this one?"
"Maybe there's another plaque. Shall we have a look?"
"Never mind," she said quickly, and looped her hand through his arm. "Let's have a drink instead."
He let her lead him to a table, relieved that she had shaken off the darkness their visit to Engineering had caused. "Do you think the replicators are online?"
"Let's find out." She motioned to a holographic waiter, but couldn't seem to attract his attention. In fact, he realized suddenly that all the holographic characters were ignoring them. He couldn't imagine the program had been set to ignore visitors, and supposed it was part of "the protocol."
Kathryn must have come to the same conclusion. She winked at him and tapped her comm badge. "Eagle to Ensign Lavin."
The boy responded in a high-pitched squeak. "Uh, Lavin here, Admiral. What can I do for you?"
"Do you think maybe you could turn the replicators on in Holodeck 1? The...Columbia and I would like to have a drink, please."
"Of course. Just give me a minute to reset, and then you can order anything you want."
"Thank you, Ensign. Eagle out."
"That was mean, Kathryn." But he couldn't suppress his grin. This was the Kathryn he'd missed so much, this playful woman who seemed to have vanished somewhere in the fifth year of their journey. He was glad to have her back.
She gave him a look of mock outrage. "They deserved that, Chakotay, and you know it."
"It was still mean. Reminds me of the way you used to scare the hell out of Harry."
"That boy deserved it, too. I've never seen an officer quite so uptight. I'm glad he finally mellowed."
"Did he really mellow, or did just Tom just corrupt him beyond help?"
She laughed. "Good point."
They ordered mai-tais and a plate of onion rings, of which she ate the vast majority before he could stop her. "Careful, there. Don't spoil your dinner, Kathryn. If I'm going to spend a fortune on you later, I'd prefer you actually eat something."
She waved her hand to take in her surroundings. "This isn't so bad, actually. You're off the hook."
His face fell a little. "So you won't have dinner with me?"
"Oh, you're still buying me dinner, make no mistake about that."
"It just doesn't have to be an elaborate, seven-course meal?"
"Exactly. But let's finish the tour first."
"Where do you want to go next?"
"How about Cargo Bay 2?"
He cocked his head at her. "Hydroponics? Do you think they've kept the plants alive?"
"Let's find out."
The plants were indeed alive – Tuvok's prize orchids, Neelix's herb garden and dwarf fruit trees, half a dozen rosebushes. Kathryn bent to sniff a rose, then straightened suddenly, her fingers flying to the blossom in her hair. "Damn. I forgot about that. No wonder our Ensigns kept staring at me."
Chakotay laughed softly "They're probably jumping to all sorts of conclusions right now. Drinks in the Holodeck, a flower in your hair..."
She shrugged. "Let them think what they want," she said, and moved off between the growing beds. He smiled and followed her.
When they came across a small bed of blue flowers, they both stopped and stared. "Kes planted these," she said softly.
"I still miss her."
"So do I."
This time when the sense of a third presence in the room touched him, he wasn't at all surprised. He let it hover around him and tried to project all his affection for her, all his gratitude for the many lessons she taught them, back onto it.
They wandered on down the row to a bed filled with tall Talaxian tomato vines. She reached out and rubbed a leaf between her fingers. "Do you think the ones we left on New Earth are still growing?"
"If they are, that damn monkey at least has something to eat."
"They do make a fine pasta sauce."
"Too bad we didn't leave a pasta maker for him."
"And about a million years of evolution."
A thought struck him. "Kathryn, if I can get some of the seeds, would you come and plant them at my new place and take care of them for me?"
"If you'll promise to turn them into marinara sauce for me."
In Neelix's galley, they found large viewscreens displaying various crewmembers' favorite foods: Tom's "hot, plain tomato soup," Naomi Wildman's ice cream sundaes, his mushroom soup and fresh bread, her coffee and brownies.
"They must have opened up our replicator accounts," she said. "I wonder what else they know about us."
"Admiral Paris wouldn't release information that would embarrass anyone."
"You're probably right."
"Do you think any of our crew have been here besides us?"
"I don't honestly know. I haven't heard anything." They left the galley arm in arm. "But you know, I think maybe we should get them up here."
"I was just thinking the same thing. All along we've assumed that turning Voyager into a museum was disrespectful, but this project..." He ran his fingertips along the bulkhead as they walked. "This honors us – the crew and the ship both."
"Maybe we should propose it as part of the reunion weekend next month."
"That's a good idea."
"I'll talk to Owen and set it up."
They continued to move up through the decks, the wind at their backs – real or imagined, spiritual or otherwise – seeming stronger with every step. He knew they both had the same destination in mind, but he wasn't quite ready to say it out loud yet.
His quarters were exactly the way he'd left them on their last day – complete with her copy of Dante's Inferno on his bedside table. He offered to retrieve it, but she shrugged it off. "Andrew will find me one," she said. "Leave it here."
Her quarters were very orderly...and very dimly lit, with soft music playing and the table set for a candlelit dinner. They both stared at it. "I wonder what they thought I was getting ready to do in here."
"Could it be part of the protocol?"
She gave a disapproving little sniff and they left the room.
Sickbay was eerily quiet without the Doc.
He spoke haltingly of the many times he had awakened in Sickbay to find her hovering over him, her hand on his chest, a look of concern on her face.
"When I opened my eyes and you were there," he said softly, "I knew I would be all right. Every time."
"And I knew I would be all right when you opened your eyes," she replied. "Every time."
He took her hand and led her into a turbolift. They'd been wandering from deck to deck for over an hour, and there was only one place left to visit. "Are you ready for this?" he asked.
She nodded. "Bridge," she ordered in that clear, confident voice he knew so well.
When the lift opened, the sight of Earth on the forward screen stopped them both in their tracks. "I will never tire of that view," she finally said, and stepped out onto the deck.
He followed her from console to console, silently reading the plaques over her shoulder. The primary functions for each station were listed, as well as the crewmembers who normally sat or stood there. The memories were thick here, battles won and lost, crises averted, arguments, laughter. She placed her open palm on each console, the back of each chair, as she moved around the room. When she turned to step down to the lower deck, he caught a glimpse of her face, her thoughtful expression.
She looked up at him. "It was good," she said, "what we did on this ship. Wasn't it?"
He stepped down to face her. "Of course it was. We had our problems, but we got around them. And in the end, in spite of all the odds against us, we made it. That's everything."
They both turned at the same time to gaze at the viewscreen again.
And it hit him suddenly, with so much force that he nearly doubled over with the shock of it, that this is where he should have been when they returned to Earth eleven months ago: Standing next to his Captain, his Kathryn, reveling in the accomplishment and looking ahead to the next journey they would take together.
Instead, he'd been standing with...
No. He shoved the thought away angrily. That was over now, long over, and coming here today had given him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go back, correct his mistake and make it all right again.
He chuckled softly to himself.
He knew what he had to do next, and it was so perfect, so right, he couldn't believe he hadn't seen it before. Maybe it had been in the back of his mind all day and he just hadn't quite realized it. He ran a hand through his hair, laughing.
She looked up at him. "What's so funny?
Sending up a silent prayer of thanks and hope and joy, he looked down at her. He took a deep breath. "Marry me," he said, in as nonchalant a tone as he could muster.
Her mouth fell open and she took a hasty step away from him. "What?"
He gave another little chuckle. "You heard me, Kathryn. Marry me."
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Chakotay, you can't just -"
"Just listen to me." He took another deep breath. "This day has been... I started to say 'magical,' but that's not right. That trivializes what it's meant to me, being with you today. Since we got back, I've been drifting. I think a lot of us have. But I truly lost my way."
She shrugged. "A breakup will do that."
"It wasn't just that. I was drifting even before Seven and I split up. I think I knew all along it wasn't going to work. We were – are – just too different. And not just the age difference," he added when she smirked at him.
She nodded her acceptance.
He took another step closer, encouraged that she was listening and no longer backing away. "I came to find you today just to see if we could reconnect and repair our friendship. Nothing more. But as the hours passed, I realized that there was a lot more to it. I didn't fully realize how much I missed you until today."
She gave him a watery smile. "I missed you, too. And I'm glad we had this day together. If you take the position, we'll have more. You'll be here, and -"
"And we'll make a standing date for lunch every Friday. We might even keep it for a while." He frowned. He could see it all unfolding in front of his eyes, and was determined to stop it. "But then you'll go on assignment and you'll miss one. I'll go on a recruiting trip and I'll miss one. Then two. Before long, we'll be meeting once a month. Then every few months." He looked away from her. "Someday, maybe as soon as next year, you'll bring someone new to the reunion party. And it'll break my heart."
She gasped and touched his hand, but he just kept talking. "The next time Starfleet wants me to go back to deep space, I'll go. Or maybe I'll even resign and go back to Dorvan. We'll exchange messages for a while, but then those will dwindle, too. I'll get married to a woman my sister chooses for me, just because I'm lonely. We'll have a couple of kids. They'll learn to resent me because I don't love their mother. After a while I'll stop wondering where you are and if you're happy, because it hurts too much. And before we know it, we'll be...at Miral's Nova Squadron banquet. We'll stare at each other across the table and realize we have nothing to say."
There were tears on her cheeks. "We'll make sure that doesn't happen."
"Marry me and it won't."
Her brows knit together. "I'll agree that this day has been...beautiful. I'd like to think there will be many more of them." She squeezed his hand. "And I realize we lived together for seven years. We've seen each other at our best and worst, and the fact that we can even still stand each other means something."
"It's more than that. It always has been. You know that, Kathryn."
"I know. But in all that time and in spite of the feelings we had for each other, we never even ki-"
Before she could stop him, before he could talk himself out of it, he darted forward and kissed her. Softly, sweetly, slowly. The culmination of their day together, of their lives together.
When he withdrew, he smiled with satisfaction at the look of utter shock on her face – and the way she pressed her fingertips to her lips. "There. Now we have. Was it so bad?"
She cleared her throat. "Not precisely."
"Is there anything else you'd like to try out before you buy? I'm at your service for any kind of test run you might require."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"After today, yes." He gestured around the Bridge. "This is how it was supposed to end. I know it now. Voyager in low-Earth orbit, you and me here, face to face, just like it started. 'To make an end is to make a beginning.'"
"'The Four Quartets' again?"
He nodded. "'We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started...'"
"'And know the place for the first time.'"
"Yes." He took both of her hands in his. "It's a risk, but we've taken them before. You took a bigger risk on me when you made me your First Officer. But we dealt with it one day at a time and figured things out as we went along. The commitment came first. And look where that got you. Look where that got us. We're back here, right where we belong." He took a deep breath. "I made a mistake that delayed this moment for a while, and I'm sorry for it. But you said you wanted to help me make a home here. Kathryn, my home is wherever you are. And my peace... I found my peace with you."
"And so you want to get married."
"So that you don't lose that peace."
"So that we don't lose that peace. This peace." He pulled her hands to his chest, willing her to understand. "Because Kathryn, I think you can feel it too. Here in this place where we met, where we began, everything just finally feels right. This is where our first journey together started and ended, and where our next journey together begins. We can finally put all our demons to rest here and build a life of our own together. Marry me."
She stared up at him for a long time. He could practically hear her going over all the possibilities in her head, all the challenges they would face, all the difficulties they might have. Then she gave him a crooked smile. "We've lost our minds."
"But found our hearts."
She groaned and poked his chest with her index finger. "I approve of Eliot, Captain, but bad poetry does not become you. See that you remember it."
He grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
She placed her hand over his heart, as she'd done countless times before. But this time she stared at it, eyes wide, as if pondering a new significance for the gesture. When she looked up at him, the love in her eyes took his breath away. "We're going to make this work, aren't we?"
"Is that a 'yes?'"
Instead of answering, she grabbed the front of his uniform, pulled him close and kissed him – and this time, there was nothing soft or sweet about it. Slow, yes. But full of so much wanting his whole body hummed with anticipation. If their first kiss had been the culmination of long years of waiting, this one was packed with the promise of longer years of loving to come.
When she tried to draw away he held her tight and molded her body to his. This kiss was the beginning of their life together, and he intended for it to be perfect and unforgettable. He poured all the joy he'd kept at bay all day long into that one kiss.
And though the place was right and meaningful – the Bridge of their ship, where they had first met and where he had first fallen in love with her – he had a fleeting thought of dragging her to the couch in the Ready Room, a fantasy he'd thought buried a long time ago.
She finally pulled back and looked up at him steadily. "That's a 'yes.'"
He held her tight, trying to catch his breath. "Kathryn... Do you think the people you know could help us find a house?"
She seemed surprised. "Are you sure?"
He nodded. "Let's get out of Starfleet quarters for good. We'll buy a big house here in the city." This time, the scene that unfolded in front of his eyes was good and right. Perfect. He smiled. "With a garden in the back for you."
"And a workshop for you. And lots of sunny rooms."
"We'll fill them up with antiques."
"And the new things you'll build."
She looked up at him for a long moment, then pulled his head down and kissed his cheek. "And kids," she whispered. "Lots of kids."
His heart stopped. "Kathryn?"
"I didn't want kids with Mark. I don't think I would have wanted kids with Justin, either. But with you?" She stroked his tattoo with her fingertips. "I keep having visions of mischievous little boys with dark eyes and dimples."
He grinned down at her, his heart so full he could barely speak. "Bossy little girls with freckles and pigtails."
She cocked a dangerous eyebrow at him. "'Bossy?'"
He brushed her hair away from her face. "How about just 'beautiful?' Beautiful and smart little girls, handsome and contrary little boys... But only if you're sure."
"I think I am. But let's talk about it more in a few months, after we've settled into this big house we're going to find, and you've started your new position."
"And we've actually gotten married."
"About that." She drew back. "I want to do this as soon as possible."
He nearly laughed out loud. It was so like her; once her decision was made, she immediately started barking out orders. This time, he would obey without question. "All right. It'll take a few days for my sister to get here. Most of the crew could be here within a couple of weeks. Harry's on assignment, but I'm sure you can pull strings and get him back by -"
His brain crashed to a halt. "What?"
"Now. Tonight. Here." She let him go and started to pace the Bridge. "We'll get Owen up here to do it. I'm sure our two Ensigns would consent to be witnesses. They seemed very interested in how our story would end. Oh!" She slapped her hand on the nearest console. "That jewelry shop we visited – he could send up rings, and -"
"Uh, Kathryn?" She whirled around and looked up as if surprised to still find him there. He tugged on his ear. "Don't you want to wait for your mother and sister at least? If we elope, you know we'll never hear the end of it. From them, or from anyone else."
"So we won't tell them yet."
"What do you mean?"
She came back to him and took his hands in hers. "I don't want to be engaged to you. I know it's completely irrational, but I have very bad luck with long engagements and I can't go through it again. So let's get Owen up here to marry us, right now, right here on the Bridge where it all began and is beginning again. We'll swear him to secrecy. And in a few months, when everyone can get here and after we've planned the whole, horrible extravaganza of a wedding that they've probably all been expecting for years, we'll do it again. But we'll know we made our real commitment here where it was supposed to be all along."
He gave a soft chuckle. "Kathryn Janeway, you are more devious than I ever gave you credit for."
She shrugged. "I don't know why you're so surprised. I've been in love with a master Maquis tactician for almost eight years."
He pulled her into his arms and laughed himself out of breath. She began to laugh, too, and locked her arms around him in a tight, fierce embrace, as if she never wanted to let go.
Around them, the ghosts of Voyager smiled knowingly and withdrew.
Time rippled, shimmered, righted itself and began to move forward once more.
Notes: If anything here is hopelessly out of canon, blame the fact that the last episode I saw in order was "Year of Hell Part 2." I saw maybe half a dozen more over the final two and a half seasons, and the last episode I saw entirely was "Shattered." I never saw "Endgame;" I couldn't bear it, for reasons that should now be very clear.
All of my stories have soundtracks, and even though they are usually of interest only to me, this particular story has such a short soundtrack that I thought I'd share it. It's only two songs long, and both songs are by the incomparable duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart: "Where or When" and "I Could Write a Book." Oldies but goodies both, just like our heroes.
Finally, here's the excerpt from Eliot's The Four Quartets that informs so much of this story.
From "Little Gidding"
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.