Kathryn Janeway slept through the first three days of her vacation in Sienna, waking up for only a few hours a day before crawling back into bed. For the first time in seven and a half years, she had no reason to get up, no one waiting for her to arrive on the bridge or her office, no reports to read or finish writing, no staff meetings, no urgent messages, no reporters begging for interviews, no red alerts, no aliens waiting for first contact or threatening to blow up her ship. She felt lighter than she had in years, and she had only pleasant dreams.
She sat on the balcony of the tiny apartment she'd rented for her six-week stay, enjoying the sunrise and thinking about her vacation plans when the communicator beeped, pulling her from her reverie. It was Sunday morning, she realized, time for her weekly call from her mother.
“Good morning, Katie,” Gretchen said, a wide grin on her face when she saw that Kathryn was still in her robe. “How is the extended leave going?”
She smiled, truly happy to see a familiar face. “Actually, Mom, I was feeling a bit lonely. It’s good to see you.”
“If it weren't for the time difference, I’d come take you out for Sunday brunch.”
“I appreciate the thought.”
“Only four days, and you’re already bored.”
“Not bored, exactly. I have plenty to do. I haven’t tackled my reading yet, and I want to work on a memoir.” She paused, a crooked grin on her face. “What I miss is the crew.”
“It’s been six months since Voyager returned. I'd think you'd be over that by now.”
She sighed. “You're right, but I've been too busy to miss them. Now, I look around and wonder where they went.”
"I warned you about getting lonely when you decided to go off for such a long time by yourself. I thought you were going to make some new friends.”
She smiled. “That's actually a very good idea. It's a perfect day, here. Maybe I’ll take a walk and run into the love of my life.”
Her mother was suddenly serious, her maternal concern coming to the surface. “I hope you do, Kathryn. You’ve been so focused on getting the Voyager reports finalized and the crew settled that you’ve forgotten about yourself. You deserve to be happy, too.”
She blinked back tears at her affectionate words. “That's nice of you, Mom.”
“You need to spoil yourself and have some fun while you're in Italy." She gave her daughter a wink. "I’ll let you go so you can take that walk and meet the love of your life.”
Her mother's call buoyed her spirits. With renewed energy, she packed a lunch and beamed to a popular trail along the ridges that afforded the best views of the landscape. She strolled along the trail, enjoying the scenery and fresh air, stopping to gaze across the green fields and hills that surrounded her.
After a couple of hours, she stopped at an expanse of smooth white rock that had been etched by passersby over the centuries. Fascinated by the initials, dates, and symbols that had been engraved on the stone, she spent a long time speculating about the age and meaning behind them. The only ones she was sure about were the paired initials carved inside of a heart, a time-honored symbol of lovers.
The lines and circles reminded her of a similar boulder on New Earth, the planet where she and Chakotay had been marooned for six weeks in the Delta Quadrant. The boulder had formed a sun-drenched observation point for a waterfall that was a mile or so upstream from their cabin, and she had often rested there while on one of her insect-hunting expeditions. In time, it became a favorite spot for relaxation, and Chakotay had often met her there when the sun was at its apex, bringing with him a picnic lunch.
One lazy day, not long before Voyager returned for them, they had spent an entire afternoon scratching their names into the boulder, talking and laughing all the while about their childhood and youth. Once their names were finished, she had added the delta sign of Starfleet beside her name, and Chakotay had etched beside his the spiral that the "sky spirits," as he called them, had given to his people.
She lay back and gazed into the blue sky, thinking that their names were still out there on that isolated, uninhabited planet. Someday another visitor would be mystified by the markings and would wonder about who had left them, where they had come from, and when they had lived there. She rolled over on her side and idly ran her fingers over the carvings, wondering about the universal desire to leave behind something that said "we were here" or "we loved one another."
Until their sojourn on New Earth, Kathryn had never appreciated the spiritual connection Chakotay felt with nature. Life on a starship afforded few opportunities for the captain and first officer to enjoy shore leave together for any length of time, and so she'd been pleasantly surprised by the way he relished their exile. As a scientist, she'd always been a keen observer of her surroundings, but her observations were made with a tricorder in hand and involved verifiable facts like temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, ambient light. She seldom took the time to appreciate what she saw.
Chakotay had taught her to appreciate the feelings that nature evoked in her. With him by her side, she came to pay attention to the cool damp winds before the storm, the clean heat of a hot summer day, the amazing palate of color in a sunset, the birdsong of dawn, the insect chorus of night. Gradually, day by day, he influenced her with his quiet words and insightful comments until she, too, began to appreciate the spiritual side of her surroundings. With a pang of loss, she wished he could be with her now to share the green rolling hills of Italy, to open her eyes, her ears, and her heart to the nature around her.
But he was with Seven of Nine. Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of them. Each day she visited the Voyager website, checking up on the crew that had scattered throughout the Federation. Tom and B’Elanna posted holoimages of Miral almost every week, Kim reported on his adventures aboard the U.S.S. Pioneer, and Tuvok, who had retired to Vulcan, frequently graced her with a special subspace communication about his family. Even Neelix had managed to establish a regular method of contact, keeping them posted on his new family and home by sending messages through the Midas array.
Two names, however, never turned up—Seven of Nine and Chakotay.
Kathryn felt a wave of sadness wash over her. She’d tried to be happy for Voyager’s newest couple, but she'd felt left out and unneeded, as if she'd been purposely forgotten by two people she'd come to love. She buried her face in her hands and let herself cry for the first time since Voyager's return, eventually stretching out on the warm rock, her tears hot on her arms as she cradled her face.
She cried for sorrow at her losses, for all that might have been, and for all that would never be. She cried because her own sadness made it impossible to remain friends with Chakotay, even though she had made it clear that she couldn't, or wouldn't, become involved with him. She cried because her jealousy made it impossible to continue to mentor Seven.
But it was Chakotay she missed. She finally accepted the fact that the aching loneliness that she felt had more to do with Chakotay's absence from her life than with the crew's disappearance or even Seven's defection. She decided that, no matter how painful it might be, she would salvage what she could of their relationship and take whatever scraps of time and attention he could spare from his new life with Seven of Nine. She’d track them down, reestablish her bond with them, and then move on with her life.
It was time to put Voyager behind her, and accepting the fact that Chakotay and Seven were a couple was an important step in her recovery. With a sigh of relief, she felt at peace and dozed in the warmth of the sun.
It was nearly dark when she returned to the transport station. She rounded the corner of the building and stopped dead in her tracks, for silhouetted against the bright lights of the station’s interior was none other than Seven of Nine, her long blonde hair pulled together loosely at her neck and her voluptuous body covered by a soft, loose-fitting cotton dress. Facing away from Kathryn, Seven was obviously tense, her body held awkwardly, her hands in constant motion as she stared into the building.
Kathryn followed her line of sight and caught her breath, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. Chakotay stood at the counter inside the building making their transport arrangements. She could see his profile, his tattoo partially covered by longer hair that hung over his forehead, and she stared at him as if he were an apparition. She knew she should speak to Seven, but her voice failed her. Instead, she stepped further back into the shadows, unwilling to accomplish in person what she could barely imagine doing over a less intimate subspace communication.
Chakotay completed the arrangements and walked to Seven’s side, putting his arm around her waist and his head close to hers. Kathryn stopped breathing as he spoke, his warm familiar voice washing over her.
“It'll be all right, Seven,” he murmured, “I promise. I know how disappointed you are. We’ll find another way.”
Seven nodded and nestled her face against Chakotay’s neck. Without another word, the couple made their way to the transport pads and dematerialized, leaving a stunned and despondent Kathryn Janeway in the shadows, the image of their embrace burned into her memory.
The next day, her art classes began in the gallery beneath her apartment, an activity she threw herself into with relief. Part of their first assignment was to walk through the city with a sketchbook, and so Kathryn made her way to a nearby museum, found a window overlooking a lush garden, and sat down to sketch the scene. She happily concentrated on her work, imagining how she would place the tree in the background and how the sunlight would stream through the leaves onto the flowers below when a man wandered into the garden and sat down on a bench to rest.
The man was Chakotay. She was so shocked to see him again that her hand froze in midair. She began a frantic search for Seven, afraid of running into either of them until she was better prepared to meet them in person. She was relieved that there was no sign of the former drone, and after a few minutes, she began to relax, hiding from Chakotay in the museum's darkened interior.
She took advantage of the opportunity to study him. It had been just over four months since she'd last seen him, and he was thinner than he’d been and his hair had grown long enough to fall across his tattoo in a tantalizing way. He was dressed in the same comfortable casual clothes that he'd worn as a Maquis, the brown leather bringing out the golden bronze tones of his skin. His expression seemed sad, almost lonely, as he sat in quiet meditation. Kathryn wished he would smile and reveal the dimples that she always associated with him.
Turning a page in her sketchbook, she quickly drew him from several angles, sometimes somber and sometimes smiling. She’d just finished her second page when he stood up, glanced around, and wandered away from the building. Kathryn realized that if they were living in Sienna, then she needed careful about her own whereabouts or she'd run into them unexpectedly. She didn’t want to find herself face to face with Seven and Chakotay unless she was properly prepared for the confrontation.
She decided to spend the next few days focused on painting, an activity that would keep her safely indoors. She found that she was fascinated by the drawings she'd made of Chakotay, and decided to paint the moment he first beamed onto Voyager’s bridge in the Delta Quadrant. She painted him dressed in his Maquis clothing, slightly crouched with a phaser in his hand, his face expectant and wary. Behind him, roughly drawn, was the bridge itself with the shadowy figures of Michael Ayala and Tuvok in a similar pose.
A week passed. She was concentrating on the painting in the back of the gallery when she heard the bell ring as the door opened and the clerk greeted a customer. The music that was playing over the speakers obscured parts of the conversation, but she did hear the clerk make a comment about sand paintings as he made his way toward the storeroom.
“Not many people do sand paintings here,” the clerk said as he passed her. “I’d like to see your work sometime.”
She froze. Chakotay did sand paintings, and who else would do sand paintings in Italy? She was about to peek around the corner of her canvas when the clerk returned and stopped to stare at the figure in Kathryn's painting, no doubt shocked to see his customer's exact likeness on her canvas. Kathryn held a finger to her lips to keep him from saying something, and the clerk shrugged and moved on.
“I have an extensive assortment of colors,” he said, displaying his catalog to the customer. “If you’ll pick out what you want and tell me how much you need, I can have it delivered to you later today.”
Kathryn heard the rumble of Chakotay’s voice as he made his purchase, but she didn’t dare breathe until he left the shop. The clerk returned to look at the picture again.
“Is this a surprise for your friend?” he asked amiably, nodding toward the door.
“I sketched him in the gardens,” she said, telling a half truth. “Does it resemble him too much?”
“I’d say so. You’d better get his permission or make some drastic changes.”
She nodded and watched him return to the storeroom to order the sand. For a few minutes, she pretended to mix paint and study the portrait, even though her attention was drawn inexorably to the PADD on the counter.
His address would be on the PADD, and if she knew where they lived, she would find it easier to avoid running into them. Glancing behind her to make sure the clerk was busy, she walked quietly to the counter and memorized the location. To her surprise, he wasn’t staying in a hotel, but in a nearby apartment complex.
She wondered later, whether she ended up in his neighborhood on purpose or by accident, but two days later, as she explored the city, she realized that she was just a block from his apartment building. It occurred to her that if she could manage to see Chakotay alone, she could more easily approach him and renew their friendship. Once that was done, she would surely find it easier to endure his relationship with Seven.
She walked up to the complex and stood behind the hedge that surrounded the pool so she could study the building's layout. Suddenly she heard someone beside the pool. When she peered through the bushes, she saw Chakotay standing beside the pool in a tight Speedo, so close to her that she could have reached through the hedge and touched his muscular back. He dove into the pool and began to swim laps, his tall lean body gliding through the water powerfully.
She knew she should leave, but she was entranced by the sight of him. Even though he was over fifty years of age, he was trim and fit, his muscles taut bulges beneath the golden skin. She stood there watching him until he climbed out of the pool, toweled off, and walked into the building.
Her heart pounding, she caught her breath and then started back toward the shopping strip nearer her apartment. She found a coffee shop and went inside, taking a seat near the front and studying the menu, trying to decide whether to get only coffee or to add a late brunch to it. The waiter arrived at her table with an empty mug and a pot of coffee.
“Why, thank you!” she said in surprise as he filled the mug for her. “How did you know I would want coffee?”
“Compliments of the man at the bar, Ma’am,” he replied with a bow.
Smiling, Kathryn turned to find herself staring into the eyes of her former first officer. Her smile faded. “Hello, Chakotay.”
He stood up and approached her. “Hello, yourself.” He gestured toward the empty bench across from her. “Is this seat taken?”
“P-please,” she stammered, “sit down.”
She tore her eyes from his and lifted the cup in salute. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“I thought you'd need to warm up after standing behind that hedge for so long.”
She nearly choked. “You saw me? Why didn’t you say something?”
His eyes were twinkling. “Why didn’t you?”
“At first I was just too shocked that you were there, and then it was just too late, too awkward.” She could feel a blush crawling up her neck. His hair was still wet and she could smell the faint aroma of chlorine. “You followed me.”
“I thought that if you didn’t have the courage to speak, I did.”
“Courage had nothing to do with it, Chakotay!”
He leaned toward her. “Then, what was it that kept you from saying hello? After all we’ve been through together, Kathryn, I’d think you could say anything to me.”
She struggled to control her anger. “How can you say that? You vanished like a wisp of smoke and without a word of explanation. I haven’t seen you in months, Chakotay. Except for an occasional cryptic post on the message board, I haven’t heard a word. Is that the way friends treat each other?”
He looked away. “I was working through some problems.”
“And you didn’t need a friend?”
The sadness returned to his face as he looked up at her. “Actually, I did. I just didn’t know how to ask for help.”
She stood up, her voice clipped as she gathered her things. “After all we’ve been through, I thought you could tell me anything. Thanks for the coffee, Commander.”
He followed her into the street, walking just behind her left shoulder as he had countless times in Voyager’s passageways. “I saw you at the art shop,” he said. She came to a sudden stop. “I could tell you were hiding from me.”
“I was not hiding,” she lied. “I just didn’t think it was the right time to start this conversation.”
“I saw you at the museum, too, in the window overlooking the garden. What were you doing there all that time?”
She stood stock still. “How long have you been following me?”
“I haven't been following you, Kathryn. You noticed me, why wouldn't I notice you? I first saw you at the transporter station up in the hills.” He waited for her reaction. When she said nothing, he continued. “You stayed in the shadows, so I figured you didn’t want to talk to us.”
Kathryn was speechless. The haunting image of Seven and Chakotay nuzzling each other in the semi-darkness of the station flooded back to her, making it impossible for her to look at him or even try to talk. She wanted to sink into the ground. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry, Chakotay. I have to go.”
He caught her arm. “First, promise to meet me for dinner tonight.”
“I have plans.”
“Tomorrow night, then?”
She hesitated, finally looking him in the eye. “Will you bring Seven with you?”
“Seven isn’t here. Just you and me, Kathryn, like old times.”
“All right,” she said, hesitantly, unwilling to lie again about her availability.
“I'll come by at 1800 hours.”
“You know where I live?”
He smiled at her, flashing the familiar dimples she’d missed so much. “Of course I do.”
"Tomorrow night at 1800 hours," she agreed. "I'll see you then."
The next thirty hours crawled by. Kathryn stashed her portrait of Chakotay in her bathroom and spent the morning cleaning the tiny apartment. By 1730, she was sitting on her balcony sipping wine and munching replicated hors d’oeurves, but she didn’t see Chakotay in the street below her until she heard his voice.
“'What light on yonder window breaks?'” he cried. “'’Tis the east, and Kathryn is the sun.'”
Laughing, she looked down at him. “I thought Romeo was a teenager.”
“Please don’t ask me to climb up there.” His dimples were in full display. “At my advanced age, I might fall and break a hip!”
“All right. Take the stairs, then.” Shaking her head, she made her way to the door and let him in. After showing him the apartment, she said, "Would you like some wine?”
“I would love some.” He glanced out the window. “I’ve wondered what the view is like from your balcony.”
“Make yourself at home. I’ll be right out.”
She found him lounging on the glider and handed him his glass. “This apartment is so much nicer than mine,” he commented. “How long is your lease?”
“Why? Are you hoping to steal it from me?” she asked, sitting down beside him.
“Since I commute to Paris, it would be nice.”
“Sorry. I leased this for a year and plan on using it as a weekend retreat once I go back to work in a few weeks.” She sipped the wine and studied him. “So, what is this problem you've been working through?”
He looked away. “I’m really not at liberty to discuss it.”
“Don’t be coy, Chakotay. You can tell me.”
“It’s Seven’s problem, actually.”
Kathryn’s heart rate increased, and she cursed herself for being so sensitive. “Is it serious?”
He took a deep breath. “She’s dying.”
An electric shock coursed through Kathryn's body. “Are you kidding? She's dying?”
“The cortical implant Icheb gave her is malfunctioning just as the original one did. The doctor thinks that maybe his removal of the emotional dampener might have damaged the cortical node. Or it may be that any implant’s usefulness is limited to just a short time once it’s disconnected from the collective.”
Kathryn leaned forward, determination in her face. “We’ll find another one. There has to be a way.”
“No. We've suggested that, but Seven won’t have it. Where would we find a donor? There aren't any Borg cubes close by, thanks to our destruction of the hub. And, anyway, taking a cortical node would kill the drone, and she refuses to do that."
Kathryn stood and looked toward the rolling hills, hugging herself against the growing chill of the evening. “No, she wouldn't do that. How long has she known about this?”
“She suspected something might be wrong just before we returned to the Alpha Quadrant. The doctor removed the emotional dampener the day the admiral arrived, and she blamed her early symptoms on that. But the real problems began during her debriefings. The doctor reinstalled the dampener, which delayed the deterioration until just a few weeks ago. But now . . . things are progressing quickly.”
"And you've stayed with her through it all." She turned to look at him, suddenly touched by his dedication and loyalty.
He shrugged. "She needed someone, and I was the obvious choice. We've traveled quite a bit consulting a variety of specialists."
"The EMH has been in on this, too?"
"He's been involved from the beginning, of course."
"Yet he's never said a word to me! And neither have you!" Her temper flared. "You know I feel responsible for Seven of Nine!"
"The doctor feels responsible, too, Kathryn. She swore both of us to secrecy, and to him, it was also a matter of doctor-patient confidentiality."
"That explains his silence." She faced him, hands on her hips, eyes burning with fury. “What's your excuse?”
“She asked me not to tell you."
"And you agreed not to tell me, even though you knew you should." She rolled her eyes. "I don't care whether it's Seven or Tal Celes, or anyone else on the crew. I need to know something as serious as this."
"That's why I'm telling you now. You were swamped with work, Kathryn, and since she refused to look into alternatives, there was little to be done besides tend to her night and day, something you didn't have the time to do. She's had recurring periods of instability and has needed constant supervision."
"I could have helped in dozens of ways, Chakotay, if you would have trusted me."
"It wasn't a matter of trust. She has so little that is truly her own, so little privacy. It seemed important that she have a say over how her death was handled."
Kathryn softened her stance at his words, thinking of how much the Borg had taken from her. "I could have let her know she wasn't alone."
"That's why I stayed with her. She needed a friend, and I could do my work as we traveled and searched for a solution.”
“A 'friend'?” She narrowed her eyes. “You two are much more than friends.”
“You say that because of what the admiral told you about her future, where Seven and I got married." He looked away. "Didn't you hear me say that the doctor reinstalled the emotional dampener? When Seven realized that we couldn't have a physical relationship, she . . . well, let's just say we've stayed friends and leave it at that."
Janeway grew thoughtful, realizing that she had, indeed, jumped to conclusions. "You know, Chakotay, you haven't been honest with me. There's so much I don't know, so much I need to know."
"I should’ve told you as soon as I first started seeing her instead of letting you find out from the admiral. I'm sorry for that. But dating Seven felt like a betrayal of our friendship. You had no one else to turn to for companionship but me, and I knew that a relationship with Seven would interfere with the time we could spend together." He rubbed his face. "I imagined it was just a passing fancy.”
"What about the time since? What about the last four months?"
"I felt sorry for her, Kathryn. She's been very fragile, both emotionally and physically. She's had periods of hallucinations, moments of physical debilitation, even a few terrifying bouts of dementia. I could understand why she preferred to keep her illness private and away from the 'adoring' public."
“And here I thought you were happy. I imagined you laughing together, loving each other, and becoming a couple." Kathryn shook her head in amazement. "When I saw you two at the transport station, I thought you were lovers.”
He smiled sadly. “What did you see? I put my arm around her waist. She rested her head on my shoulder. We’d come here to consult with a cyberneticist who lives in the Tuscan hills. We thought she might have a solution to the implant’s malfunction, but she could offer Seven no real hope. I did what any friend would have done when faced with another setback. I comforted her.”
Kathryn felt her heart breaking. “Where is she now?”
“In Sweden with her aunt. She sleeps most of the time. The doctor thinks she has a week or so left.”
Kathryn buried her face in her hands; she was the one who had decided to liberate Seven from the Borg and doomed her to an early death. “What have I done to her?”
“She doesn’t blame you, so don’t blame yourself. She's proud of how much she helped us on our journey home, and she treasures the individuality you restored to her.”
Kathryn looked up. “Will she let me see her?”
“I told her I was seeing you tonight, and she wants you to come to Sweden this weekend, if you can.”
"Of course I can." She saw the sadness and frustration in his face and lifted her hand to cup his cheek. She could tell that he’d been through a lot in the last four months. “Who’s comforted the comforter?”
His eyes brimmed with tears at her immediate empathy, at her understanding of the strain he’d felt for so long. “Oh, Kathryn. How I’ve missed you.”
She leaned into him until he pulled her into a fierce embrace. “You don’t have to miss me any more, Chakotay.”
They stood quietly on the balcony for a few minutes, reveling in each other’s embrace, when Kathryn pulled away. “I think we should go find something to eat.”
“I can’t believe it,” he replied, chuckling. “Kathryn Janeway wants to eat.”
She looked at him, her eyes serious. “Things have changed.”
They had just stepped into the apartment when they heard a knock at the door.
"Who could that be?" Kathryn wondered. She opened the door to find a delivery boy with a large basket of food.
"Is there a 'Kathryn Janeway' here?" the young man asked, peering into the room.
Chakotay stepped forward. "Perfect timing, Ernesto. I'll take that."
"Enjoy the meal, sir," he said as he disappeared down the stairs.
"You had dinner delivered?"
"I didn't want to share you with the public," he admitted, a grin on his face. "I've had more than a few people recognize me, thanks to this tattoo, and I figured it would be even worse if the two of us were together."
She smiled, delighted with his thoughtfulness. "Well, let me set the table."
The meal was a collection of their favorite foods, carefully selected from the menu of one of the best restaurants in the city, and included two bottles of wine that helped them relax and share their thoughts.
"Chakotay, I should be angry with you for disappearing the way you did." She poured them each a glass of wine from the second bottle. "That's not the way to treat a friend."
"Oh, I agree. I felt terrible about keeping you in the dark, but I also knew that if we spoke, you'd insist on news about Seven. And . . . well, I wasn't sure how you felt about me."
"How can you say that? You know that everyone from Voyager's crew is special to me."
"I know Seven is a surrogate daughter to you, and I wanted her to tell you about her condition. But it was her decision, and she was determined to be independent." He sighed. "As for me? I was sure you'd find someone to take my place--there must be many eligible men to choose from."
"You must be joking."
"Not at all."
"Chakotay, I've never had a friendship like ours with anyone else. I couldn't replace you in a thousand years, even if I wanted to."
He blushed. "I wish I believed that."
"Why would I lie about that?" she demanded. She blinked back tears. "I though you didn't care."
"About you?" He shook his head in disbelief. "You know how much I care for you."
"Past tense. I knew how much you cared for me. Years ago. Before the Borg. Before the Equinox. Before Seven."
"Those feelings never changed."
"Don't patronize me, Chakotay."
"Now you're calling me a liar."
"If the shoe fits." She stood up and began to clear the table, noisily piling the dishes into the reclamation slot. "It's late. I think you should leave."
A look of panic crossed his face. "We should talk this out."
"I think not. We've both had too much to drink. We might say something we regret later."
He stood up and drained the last of his wine, twirling the empty glass in his fingers. "I hoped we could start over tonight. I thought . . . ."
"You thought you could walk into my life and I'd just welcome you back like the prodigal son? That we could just open a bottle of wine, toast the past, and then leave it behind us." She picked up a napkin and wiped tears from her eyes. "Sorry to disappoint you."
He set the wine glass on the table with great restraint. "You're right. I thought you'd understand. Seven came first in your life for so many years that I thought you'd forgive me for putting her first in mine for awhile."
"What did you say?" She frowned, trying to make sense of his words. "First in my life?"
"It's a long walk back to my apartment. I'd better use the bathroom before I leave."
Kathryn nodded as she thought about his comment. For many years she had paid more attention to Seven than she had to anyone else on the ship. The poor woman had needed her close attention and advice, and everyone else had resented her presence on the ship, especially her first officer.
Had Chakotay been hurt by that shift in her interest? Had he felt replaced in her affections by the former drone? Had she hurt him by turning to Seven, only to be hurt when he'd done the same thing to her four years later?
"Turn about is fair play," she said softly, remembering the rule her mother often quoted about life. She looked up to see Chakotay standing in the doorway with a stricken look on his face. "What's wrong?"
"I was washing my hands and saw something peeking out from behind the shower curtain." He stepped aside, pulling forward the painting that she'd hidden there.
She didn't know what to say, and the wine fogged her thoughts. "I . . . I'm taking a painting class."
"And you're painting me?"
"I'm painting a decisive moment in my life."
He studied her, his face thoughtful. "My life, too." He held the painting in front of him and studied it. "You're very good."
She shrugged. "Phoebe is the artist in our family."
"She must be damned good, then." He stared at the likeness of himself, flooded with memories of that overwhelming moment, the first time he'd met her in person.
"Chakotay, I should've asked your permission before I painted that. I apologize for . . . ."
"Why was it decisive?" he interrupted her. "This moment. Why?"
She swallowed. "It was the beginning."
"The beginning of what?"
"Our alliance. Our partnership."
"But it wasn't, not really. I still had my own ship. We thought the Caretaker might send us home. We had an uneasy truce, at best, but hardly a partnership."
"It was the first time I saw you."
"That's not true, either, Kathryn. We'd talked before. We'd seen each other on the view screen."
She straightened up and looked him in the eye. "It was the first time I'd seen you in person. It was quite an experience."
"Yes, it was. Wasn’t it?" His dimples appeared. "I was determined to intimidate you."
She laughed. "Did you forget I was a Starfleet captain? Did you expect me to say, 'Oh, my, he has a big gun pointed at me! What will I do?'"
He chuckled. "Maybe I did. You looked like a little fragile woman on the view screen. I wasn't prepared for the real you."
"If things had happened differently at that moment, our future might have followed a different course."
"So true. Your people weren't even armed. And when your crew reached for their phasers, you told them to put down their weapons. Just a few careful shots, and I could've been captain."
"But you didn't take advantage of my trust." She shrugged. "Fighting should be the last resort to conflict resolution, Chakotay."
He nodded. "I've heard you say that so many times, and I'm wondering why we're fighting now."
She narrowed her eyes, her throat suddenly tight. "Because we've hurt each other?"
He set the painting aside and approached her, taking her hand. "Kathryn, go back to that moment on the bridge. I was mad as hell and ready to shoot the first thing that moved. Then I saw your face and I stopped in my tracks to listen to you."
"I was determined to defuse our conflict and impose my will on you. I had no idea how much that would cost me."
He laughed. "What did it cost you? Weren't you always the captain? Wasn't I always your faithful first officer?"
"I don't mean professionally. That was easy. I had Voyager at my command. My crew outnumbered yours three to one." She looked down at their hands. "The cost was personal."
"I . . . I don't know if I should tell you this." She sighed. "I'd never met anyone as compelling as you. Or as alluring. I knew, instinctively, that we could be friends, that I could trust you, work with you, reach compromises with you. I even thought I'd enjoy working with you."
"I felt the same way. Your eyes and your presence overwhelmed me. You were petite, and yet so commanding. I was fascinated by you from the first moment, and I knew I could trust you to do the right thing."
She nodded, biting her lip. "But it was more than that, wasn't it?"
His eyes widened. "For me it was, and you know that. I . . . fell for you, Kathryn. I was lost, helpless to oppose you. And that hasn't changed."
"I fell for you, too." Her voice was a whisper.
"Come on." He smiled at her. "I know better."
"You were engaged. You were my captain. You weren't about to weaken emotionally and complicate everything by becoming involved with me."
Tears filled her eyes. "And that, Chakotay, was the price I paid."
He stared at her. "You loved me?"
"I tried to pretend otherwise, but I loved you. I held on to Mark as a shield to protect me from my own feelings for you." She pulled her hands from his and walked to the painting, kneeling in front of it, reaching out to touch the face she'd painted. "How I wish I could erase all the disagreements, all the misunderstandings, all the mistakes that separate us today. I wish I could meet this man again, only this time without the responsibilities, the protocols, and the guilt that kept us apart."
"I'm still here, Kathryn." He knelt beside her, turning her to face him. "Look. I'm the same man."
She touched his face, pushing his hair away from the familiar tattoo. "Oh, Chakotay, what a mess we've made of our lives."
He gathered her into his arms and soothed her as his own tears flowed. "I'm sorry for everything I've done that hurt you. I'm sorry I disappeared the way I did. I'm sorry that I put Seven first without telling you why. I'm sorry . . . ."
"No more apologies." She laughed, looking up at him with eyes full of love. "We can't erase the past or change our decisions, but we can change the future."
"That's what I was hoping for when I came here tonight, Kathryn--a chance to set things right between us."
"But first, Seven needs our attention." She stood up and offered him her hand. "Tell me more about what you've been through."
He stood up and followed her back to the balcony where they wrapped her shawl around them and snuggled on the glider. He pulled her close, nestling her under his chin. "Are you sure you want to hear all of this?"
"I think you need to tell it, don't you?" Her voice was warm and sympathetic. "And I need to know what she's been through before I see her this weekend."
Chakotay started slowly, recounting the early stages of Seven's illness, but the longer he talked, the more quickly the words and the emotions spilled out. He realized that he needed to share his experiences with her, that he needed to hear her genuine exclamations of compassion and empathy. She was saddened, of course, to hear the details of Seven's ordeal, but she was just as concerned about what he'd been through as he took care of her through her gradual decline.
Finally, he came to the last few weeks. "She's no longer able to be alone during the day, so her aunt insisted that she stay with her. I try to see her on the weekends and comm her during the week, but there are times when she doesn't know me."
"Oh, Chakotay! How I wish you'd come to me at once! I would have found a way to help you deal with it. There was no reason for you to endure it alone."
"I was afraid you were angry with me. And, anyway, it wasn't my call."
She sighed and burrowed into his chest. "Well, from here on out, we'll take care of her together. You're right when you say she's like a daughter to me. I feel responsible for her and want to be there for her. And I want to be there for you, too."
They relaxed into each other's embrace, secure in their shared warmth, unwilling to let go. "Kathryn, I always feel at peace when I'm with you."
She laughed. "Well, it wasn't very peaceful when we were arguing."
"Whether we're arguing or not has nothing to do with it." He kissed the top of her head. "I've felt peace from that first moment on the bridge. I know you'll always try to do the right thing, even if it means you have to work hard to make things come out the best possible way."
"Maybe what we felt was love?"
"I like to think so. What do we do now, Kathryn?"
"Well, tomorrow we go see Seven. She deserves to be surrounded by people who know her and treasure her in these last days."
"And then, Chakotay, we think about spending the rest of our lives together."
He sighed with satisfaction. "I was hoping you'd say that."
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