The Story Keeper: Rated NC17

Rated NC17

Summary: A Post Endgame fixer upper.

Happy Birthday MaryS. I hope you had a wonderful day. Hugs.

Disclaimer: CBS/Paramount owns everything. No infringement intended.

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The sun sat low on the horizon, the sky bathed in a gaudy wash of pinks, purples and oranges. He watched, unmoved, as the glowing yellow orb melted into the uneven silhouette of the distant White Mountains and dragged the twilight, like a dark blanket across the sky. The mournful howls of coyotes echoed eerily across the harsh landscape – a fitting accompaniment to his melancholy mood.

Turning away from the sky’s garish display, Chakotay sighed and stared at the coffee table he’d just finished lacquering. Muted reflections of the sunset danced across its glossy surface, but for him, the evening’s display signalled nothing more than the end of another working day. He frowned, trying to stop the unwanted thoughts from invading but they tramped unbidden through his mind and he cursed himself. The sunset also meant that yet another day had passed since his return to the Alpha Quadrant – making it one hundred and forty-six days since Voyager burst through the exploding Borg sphere into the arms of Starfleet and the Federation.

Not that he was counting.

With a shake of his head and a derisive huff, he crossed the barn to the old style calendar hanging from a nail on the wall and picked up the marker dangling next to it on a piece of twine. He struck a dark line through the date – May 17th 2379 and heaved another sigh as he stared at the patterned page, each date diligently marked off with a precise diagonal black line. There was something disturbing about his compulsion to mark-off the days in this manner. He had no reason other than it had become a daily ritual and something he’d come to rely upon to distinguish one day from the next. Without it, time seemed immaterial; the days sliding from one to the other with mind numbing monotony.

He didn’t want to think about Voyager. Every time he did, the dulled claws of homesickness scoured at his insides, hollowing out the already empty place within him. It was a sad legacy, a constant reminder of the mistakes he’d made and of how meaningless life seemed since the end of the journey.

Like an automaton, he moved back to the newly finished table and took one last look at it to ensure that there were no blemishes or brush marks on its glossy surface. Satisfied, he turned off the lights, closed the shed door and made his way back to the house in the fast approaching twilight. What awaited him was another meal, another quiet evening, followed by another lonely night.

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Chakotay rinsed his coffee mug and tipped it upside down on the sink to drain. It was early morning and the sun had just risen to herald the start of a new day. He looked out of the window at the parched landscape. It was quite beautiful in its harshness and reminiscent of his home planet. This was not a land for the fainthearted; it could be brutal and unforgiving but there was also serenity in its starkness that nourished the soul. He could understand why his ancestors had felt so at home when they stumbled upon Trebus. The lands were sisters, almost a quadrant apart.

Arizona.

It wasn’t a place that he’d ever imagined settling, not that he’d envisaged ‘settling’ anywhere on Earth again. After being flung to the opposite side of the galaxy he’d become accustomed to the idea of living out his life in the Delta Quadrant, on a ship that he’d come to think of as home, with people he thought of as family. There had been little in the Alpha Quadrant for him to return to – as was evidenced by his current existence – but on Voyager, he’d had everything he could ever have wanted and more. In fact, his life had taken an interesting turn only weeks before they’d made that final leap through the Borg conduits. After many years alone, he thought he’d found someone with whom he could share his life, but it wasn’t to be. It was still open to debate whether or not remaining in the Delta Quadrant would have made any difference to the outcome of his relationship with Seven. She’d refused to discuss it, as had Kathryn, but the argument was moot. They were home, Seven was gone and he was here, marking time, living with his cousin and family in the remote deserts of Arizona.

It wasn’t that he was unhappy; not really. It was more that he was empty, unsettled and searching for something to fill this void at the core of his being – all of which sounded ridiculous in light of what he’d been through over the last seven years. He should just be grateful to be free and unencumbered, thankful that he wasn’t spending his days stamping numbers on engine parts in a Federation penal colony. His current circumstances could have been vastly different had Kathryn not been so immovable and uncompromising regarding the Maquis’ plight. She’d fought like a demon on their behalf and in the end she’d triumphed; besting all those hardnosed, small-minded bureaucrats bent on revenge for long ago and, in many cases, contrived transgressions. Instead, they’d been hailed as heroes, their commissions upheld, remuneration advanced and pardons granted. Her campaign had been a phenomenal success and he should have been ecstatic… but he found himself struggling.

He was pleased and, god knows he was immensely grateful to Kathryn for how things had worked out; the problem was that he’d seen his future in something of a different light and now he had to regroup and reassess his options. Although, from where he stood, those options seemed rather limited, not to mention the fact that he had taken procrastination to an entirely new level. In the months since he’d been ‘home’, he’d made no headway at all, becoming mired in the minutiae of life and seemingly incapable of making any sort of decision about his future. It was frustrating the hell out of him.

It was as though he’d been becalmed on the vast unchartered ocean that was his life. He did an internal eye roll at his overly dramatic meanderings but had to admit that since he’d arrived home, his forward momentum had stalled and he wasn’t sure what he should do with his life. His commission had been put on hold, although Owen Paris had made it clear that he could return to Starfleet whenever he chose, it was entirely up to him. Many of the former crew had decided to stay with Starfleet and a good percentage of those were ex-Maquis, so he would be in good company. He simply couldn’t make up his mind and make that final step.

This debilitating case of ennui had left him uninspired and practically inert but he consoled himself with the thought that there was no urgency and, until something happened to show him the way, he’d bide his time. He had faith that the spirits would eventually guide him in the right direction.

“You’re daydreaming again.”

“Huh?! Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise, but you know you can talk about it if it would make you feel better. Sometimes it’s good to get things off your chest.”

Chakotay smiled at the handsome woman at his side. Annya, his cousin’s wife, was a rare one. Strong willed, beautiful, but also wise and understanding. She reminded him of Kathryn. They both exuded the same aura of strength and steady presence. It was peaceful and soothing. He would love to tell Kathryn about Annya one day, he was sure they would like one another. He shrugged. “I might just take you up on that one day when I figure out exactly what the problem is.”

“You need to find someone.”

“I thought I had.”

Annya snorted. “She was not for you. Annika is a beautiful girl – a smart girl – but only a girl. There was no connection here…” She thumped her clenched fist to her chest, and then placed it over his breastbone, pressing it hard to make her point. “This connection, it needs to be strong. It must feel like your hearts exist as one and that neither can beat without the other.”

Chakotay shook his head. “I don’t think that is for me.”

“It is for everyone, but there are not many who are lucky enough to find it.”

He smiled warmly at his cousin. “Well, I won’t hold out too much hope. Time is marching on.”

She gave him a sad but puzzled look. “Aren’t you lonely, Chakotay?”

“Not at the moment. I’m here with you.” It was a glib reply but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Annya’s brow furrowed but she tempered her frown with a gentle smile. “Everyone needs someone to listen to their stories. Who do you tell your stories to, Chakotay?”

He turned sharply towards her as his face paled and he muttered. “My stories.”

“Yes, your stories.”

Annya’s words roared in his ears as the sweet knife of realisation slid between his ribs and plunged straight into his heart. He exhaled shakily, the slow haemorrhage of understanding spreading through his chest; the warmth filling him with each beat of his heart – strong and steady. Kathryn. He turned to Annya with a look of stunned surprise.

She looked back at him; her eyebrows raised in question. “Chakotay?”

He barked a laugh, then smiling broadly, mused. “My stories.” Glancing into the distance and then back at his cousin, he muttered quietly. “Thank you. I’ve just realised something. Something wonderful… but it has been such a long time. I wonder if…” His eyes slid back to the view and he smiled gently to himself.

Annya’s face softened at his look. She laid her hand gently on his shoulder. “Ahhh, there is someone. I’m pleased for you, Chakotay. What do you plan to do?”

His grin hadn’t wavered and throwing his arm around his cousin’s shoulders, he hugged her to him and laughed aloud; his heart suddenly filled with purpose. “I have one last order to fill but as soon as that’s done I have to leave. I think, at last, I have found my path.”

“I hope so. I want to see you happy, we all do.”

“Thank you, Annya, for everything.”

A ground vehicle came down the dirt road trailing a cloud of dust and, after dropping a smiling kiss on Annya’s head, Chakotay left to deal with the customer.

After taking payment and loading the furniture, Chakotay wandered back into the shed to look at the next order. His cousin, Timis’s furniture business did well and, for him, it was a productive pastime, filling his days and allowing him to contribute something to his upkeep. Woodworking had always been something he enjoyed but now that he had stumbled upon a new course of action, he was impatient to set forth. He would get this next job done quickly and then be on his way. Reading the new order, he smiled. It was for a headboard.

It seemed that the signs he’d been waiting for were now coming thick and fast. Memories began to flood his mind. How many years had it been since he and Kathryn been on New Earth? More than five, but now that he’d tapped into these reminiscences, he could see it all so clearly and his mind filled with images. All those happy days he’d spent working in the shade of the trees near their shelter, the sounds of his saw and plane melding in gentle harmony with birdsong and Kathryn’s tuneless humming. They’d been happy days towards the end of their stay. He and Kathryn had come to an understanding, an unexpressed acknowledgement of shared feelings and it was only a matter of time before they would move on to something more permanent.

The headboard had been a gift for her, although she’d been reluctant to accept it at the time. Perhaps she’d been aware of his deeper desires; his intention to one day make a headboard for their bed, but he’d been willing to wait until she was ready – after all, they had their whole lives ahead of them. They would be alone on that planet forever, or so he thought. He’d held such hope in his heart until Tuvok had contacted them.

On that very day, she’d been flirtatious and carefree. Tending her garden and telling him happy stories from her childhood, she appeared to have decided to let go of the past and look towards their future. He’d loved that Kathryn, although he’d loved all the Kathryns whom he’d met over the years. Circumstances had been against them however, and, in the end, time had become their enemy. Now, it was on his side and he planned to make it work for him – for them.

While he worked, Chakotay spent his time remembering; dredging up all the memories and recollections of his and Kathryn’s years together. Both good and bad. They were many and varied, their lives woven together in a tapestry of stories and experiences. By the evening, as the sky splashed its purples and pinks across the horizon, Chakotay’s heart was full. Walking across the shed to the calendar, he picked up the marker and very deliberately struck a line through the date – the 18th May, 2379. One hundred and forty seven days since they’d arrived home and the last day he would be without Kathryn in his life. With a spring in his step, he tidied his work area, switched off the lights and headed towards the house.

He was half way across the yard when he jagged to a stop. Swinging around, he ran back to the shed. He hit the light switch as he barrelled through the door and ran across the workshop to the calendar. “Yes!” He jabbed his finger on the date two days hence. Perhaps it had been a countdown after all and he just hadn’t realised it. In two day’s time, it was Kathryn’s birthday. He grinned. Perfect.

Jogging back to the house, he entered through the back door and strode into the kitchen. “Annya and Timis, I’ll be leaving tomorrow, early.”

“Well, good evening to you too.” Annya gave him a look.

Chakotay laughed and his cousins smiled. “I apologise, but I have to be in San Francisco by the day after tomorrow.”

“May I ask why, cousin?”

“It’s a friend’s birthday. A dear friend and I have something to ask her.”

Annya stood up and moved to his side. “Is this woman-friend the keeper of your stories, Chakotay?”

He nodded. “And I am the keeper of hers.” His eyes misted as he thought of Kathryn and their shared history. He’d missed her dreadfully, although he hadn’t realised what that empty feeling had been until today. Now that he recognised the aching void for what it was, he was desperate to find her and tell her of his revelations. He loved her. It seemed that he always had but he’d grown so adept at hiding that love that over time it had become lost. The time had come to set things to rights and find their way back to one another.

Timis shook his hand and pulled him into a hug, slapping his back heartily. “I am pleased for you, brother. Bring her here when you’re ready. I wish to meet the woman who has tamed your heart.”

Chakotay grinned. “I will. As soon as I can. Thank you both. I’ll leave at sunrise, but will contact you when I am settled.”

“We will miss you, Chakotay. Travel safely and good luck.”

He heaved a satisfied smile. “Thank you.”

Annya and Timis watched his retreating figure and, turning to one another, exchanged wary smiles. Their hopes went with their cousin.

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Chakotay wove his way through the crowds at the San Francisco shuttle port, getting jostled and bumped in the press. He’d taken a civilian shuttle and was now regretting that decision. It had taken all morning and half the afternoon to get here and the place was a seething mass of beings of every known species, all of them in a hurry to be somewhere. Next time he would use his notoriety to advantage and take a Starfleet shuttle, but for now, he would have to contend with the throngs. Hoisting his pack higher on his back, he let himself be swept along with the crowd towards the exits.

Once outside the building, he took one look at the snaking queues at the transporter station and instead made his way to the ground-shuttle terminal to find a ride that would take him to the city.

Before leaving Arizona, he’d sent a message to B’Elanna and Tom, telling them that he was on his way, but at the time, he hadn’t known when he would be arriving. He knew he’d be welcome to stay and, with their address in his pocket, he was standing at the vid screen searching for the correct departure zone when a hand landed on his shoulder. He spun around to find Tom Paris grinning at him. The younger man pulled him into a quick hug. “Chakotay, it’s great to see you.” Tom tapped his combadge. “B’E, I found him. We’re outside at the shuttle timetable thing.”

“I’m on my way.”

Chakotay was pleasantly surprised. “How did you find me?”

Tom’s grin widened. “We’ve been stalking you. B’E got the passenger lists.”

Raising his eyebrows in question, Chakotay smiled as Tom shook his head. “Don’t ask. She found out which flight you were on and here we are. Although, we didn’t credit the crowds.” Tom looked back over his shoulder at the sea of people. Then he smiled as a familiar face came rushing towards them.

B’Elanna, with Miral tucked safely in a sling across her front, came striding out of the crowd. Careful of her precious bundle, she flung her arms around Chakotay and hugged him. “Well, hello stranger. It’s so good to see you.”

“Hello, B’Elanna, it’s good to see you too.” He peered into the carrier at the sleeping baby. “She’s grown.”

“They tend to do that you know.”

“I got the holoimages you sent, but it’s difficult to tell from those. She’s still beautiful like her mother.

B’Elanna beamed and gave him a friendly shove.

Tom put his arm around B’Elanna’s shoulder and looked at his little girl. “That’s my girl you’re talking about and she’s got my eyes.” Tom tried to look indignant but failed. “She’s pretty amazing isn’t she?”

Chakotay couldn’t help smiling at Tom’s unabashed pride. It was wonderful to see. “She certainly is.”

“Is that all you have with you?” B’Elanna was pointing at the duffle he had thrown over his shoulder.

“Yes, that’s it. Me in a bag.”

“Okay, well let’s go then.”

The transporter station was bedlam, but B’Elanna and Tom waved their Starfleet IDs at the attendant and they were ushered through another gate to an alternate transporter. Within minutes, they were standing in the living area of Tom and B’Elanna’s home.

“That certainly saves time. I must remember that next time.”

Tom shrugged. “Just one of the perks of being married to Starfleet’s top engineer.”

“Having ‘Fleet’s most innovative shuttle designer in the house doesn’t hurt either.” Grinning, B’Elanna handed Miral over to her father then turned and picked up Chakotay’s duffle. “Your room is down here. You probably want to get unpacked.”

He reached for the bag, taking it from her. “You show me the way.”

B’Elanna led him through to the back of the house. “We have a sort of visitor’s wing out here. It was part of the reason why we bought this house. Hardly a week goes by without someone from the old crew dropping in and it’s nice to have somewhere for them to stay.” She opened a door that led down a short corridor to a bedroom with a bathroom off to one side and a small balcony, separate from the main house. “Your own little kingdom while you’re here.”

“Thank you for having me B’Elanna, especially on such short notice.”

“Nonsense, it’s just so good to see you. We’ve missed you.” She cocked her head to the side. “You’re here to see the captain?”

Chakotay nodded. “It’s long overdue and… I’ve missed her.” He didn’t feel the need to pretend with B’Elanna, she would understand. “I’ve been a little lost since we got home and something my cousin’s wife said to me, made me come to my senses.”

B’Elanna squeezed his arm but glanced away before she muttered. “It’s about time; I only hope it’s not too late.”

“Too late?” His heart slid from his chest to his boots. This was something that he hadn’t even considered. More fool him.

He watched as B’Elanna took a deep breath, her expression telling him she wasn’t happy about being the bearer of bad news.“She’s seeing someone.”

His heart shrivelled and his shoulders sagged. What the hell did he expect? That she would put her life on hold and pine away waiting for him to come to his senses. He’d had his fling with Seven. How was she to know that under all that stupidity he still loved her? She’d done what Kathryn Janeway always did; she’d gotten on with her life – and more luck to her.

“I’m sorry Chakotay, but I thought you should know. It’s only a new thing and I don’t know how serious it is but I didn’t want you fronting up there tomorrow and…”

He sighed. “… making a fool of myself. Or more of a fool than I’ve already been.” He smiled sadly. “Thank you for telling me. I wish her well.”

“You’re not going to give up, are you?”

“You know what she’s like. She wouldn’t enter into a relationship on a whim. It must be serious and I don’t want to interfere with her happiness.”

B’Elanna rolled her eyes. “Kahless, you two! You’re far too civilised for your own good. She didn’t interfere when you decided to dabble in the ‘Collective’, and we know how well that turned out. Now you’re going to do the same thing. The pair of you are a damned nightmare. Come on, Chakotay. Where’s that Maquis spirit? You have to fight for her. You and Kathryn belong together. We all know that. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Circumstances have been against you but it’s time to make it right.”

“That’s all well and good, but I can’t just turn up at her door now, tell her that she’s with the wrong man and that she should be with me.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Oh right. Kathryn would be thrilled. I can see her reaction already. She’d toss my ass out that door so fast I wouldn’t know what hit me. I’m going to have to think of something else.”

B’Elanna shrugged. “You have the element of surprise on your side. I’ve told Phoebe and Gretchen that you’re coming to the party, but Kathryn doesn’t know yet and, as it’s an open invitation, we don’t have to tell her. I think her reaction when you show up will tell the story.”

“I still might find myself on my ass.”

“You might, but I don’t think so.”

Chakotay wasn’t convinced and sighed wearily. “Well, there’s no point worrying about it now. We’ll find out soon enough.”

Shaking her head, B’Elanna turned to leave. “I’ll let you get unpacked and when you’re ready, join us in the living room.”

“Thanks B’Elanna. It’s wonderful to be here and to see you. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed everyone.”

With an understanding nod, B’Elanna patted his shoulder. “We’ve missed you too.”

After she left, he heaved another sigh and looked around the comfortable room. If nothing else, he was pleased to have seen B’Elanna and Tom, and as far as Kathryn was concerned, he would have to wait and see. His earlier enthusiasm, which had been the impetus to come to San Francisco, had waned somewhat and he wondered if it had been such a good idea after all. His ‘Maquis spirit’ as B’Elanna had put it, had taken something of a battering over the last few months and he was still putting the pieces back together. It was time, however, to make some decisions, even if they weren’t the ones he wanted to make. He did an internal shrug and accepted that he’d made the move to come here; he should at least see how it played out.

Picking up his duffle, he unpacked his few possessions, placing his clothes in the cupboard and his medicine bundle and books in the bedside table. After taking a quick shower to wash off the travel grime, he made his way back to the main part of the house. Tom was on the floor playing with Miral and B’Elanna was at the computer console working. It was the picture of domestic bliss and for a brief moment jealousy burned, but he quashed the feeling and smiled as B’Elanna looked up from her work. “There you are. Feeling better?”

“Much, thanks. Can I do anything to help?”

B’Elanna snapped her computer shut and stood. “Harry should be here soon. I was about to start dinner and Miral needs to be fed. You’re welcome to help.”

Tom sprang to his feet and picked Miral up. “Beer o’clock then.”

Chakotay grinned and nodded. “Sounds great.” And with that they all trooped into the kitchen. Tom placed Miral in her highchair, handed a bowl of baby food to Chakotay and grinned. “There you go, Uncle Chakotay.” Tom leant close to Miral. “Be kind to him, honey, no biting or spitting.”

“Are you sure about this?” Miral was eying him warily. She seemed decidedly unsure and Chakotay wasn’t feeling much more confident.

Tom slapped his back. “It’s easy. She’s her mother’s daughter and eats anything that doesn’t move fast enough, and we won’t even mention gagh.” B’Elanna gave Tom a daggers look, which he ignored. “You’ll be fine. I’ll get our drinks.”

Chakotay shuffled a chair over close to Miral and taking a spoonful of mashed vegetables brought it tentatively towards her mouth. She pursed her lips for a moment but then she opened wide and gobbled the mouthful. Chakotay couldn’t help laughing as she wolfed down her dinner, scowling the entire time.

Once Miral was finished, Tom took her up to bed. Harry arrived and, after a quick reunion and catch up, they all sat down for dinner. It was like old times and the friends fell into the easy camaraderie that had been a highlight of their years together on Voyager.

Like Tom and B’Elanna, Harry was back with Starfleet. The newly minted Lieutenant had been assigned as First Officer on the USS Marshall, a hospital and science ship attached to a group of four long-range exploratory vessels setting off for the Beta Quadrant in a few months time. A number of the Voyager crew had taken posts on the various ships, their expertise highly regarded and sought after. Seven of Nine, the Doctor, Ken Dalby, Tal Celes, Billy Telfer, Mariah Henley, Will Chapman amongst others had all taken commissions. They would be gone for a little over two years, exploring and mapping the Beta Quadrant. Using the Midas array and the same technology that had allowed Voyager to contact Starfleet during the last eighteen months of her journey, the Beta Quadrant ships would be relaying their data back to Earth.

This part of the mission was Kathryn’s assignment. She was involved on this end, co-ordinating the mission’s exploration parameters, charting courses, and cataloguing and analysing the data collected. There were several ex-Voyager crew involved in this part of the project as well. Sam Wildman and the Delaney twins were part of the team and several others were expected to join the group as more data was collected.

Kathryn, in true Kirk-style, had refused to take a promotion to Admiral, preferring to remain a captain but she had not been offered another command. Chakotay briefly wondered about this but didn’t ask why, assuming that it had been her choice.

Chakotay was fascinated by the entire endeavour but wasn’t tempted to join Harry or the other adventurers on their deep space mission. As much as he missed Voyager and their life in the Delta Quadrant, he had no desire to go back into space again; he was happy with his two feet planted firmly on the ground. However, the thought of so many of his old shipmates being involved in the planet-side aspect of the project made it a tempting prospect. Even Tom and B’Elanna were involved in the enterprise. B’Elanna with the development of the slipstream drive that was now incorporated into the new engines of the Beta Quadrant vessels and Tom with the design of the shuttles, each of which was also equipped with the drive. The idea was that the small armada would use the slipstream drive to leap to a designated point, the shuttles, with a complement of scientists and security would then leave the ‘mother’ ships and explore. It meant that greater expanses of space could be covered more efficiently and effectively.

As Chakotay sat and listened to the outline for this extraordinary project, he realised just how out of the loop he’d been. Hidden away in Arizona, the quiet respite had been good for his soul, but he knew now that he hankered for something more challenging and perhaps being a part of this project would fulfil that need. It was definitely something to think about.

Harry left around midnight and soon after they all said their goodnights. Chakotay made his way to his room and exhausted, climbed into bed.

Lying there, looking at the ceiling, his thoughts were filled with Kathryn and what the future might hold. He decided that even if he and Kathryn couldn’t find their way back to one another, the prospect of working with her again was too good to pass up and he would make some inquiries in the morning about taking a position on the team. With a small measure of his future taken care of, he rolled over and let sleep take him.

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Chakotay slept late the following morning, rousing somewhere around mid-morning when he heard Miral squealing with laughter and what sounded like her father making aeroplane noises. He could just imagine what was going on and it no doubt involved some sort of midair lounge-room escapade. Amid much laughter, Tom had shown them yesterday how Miral loved to be tossed in the air and to sit on his hand way above his head. At five months, she already showed signs that she’d inherited her parent’s penchant for risk taking.

He showered and dressed in record time and greeted his hosts warmly. He’d be correct about Miral. Tom was flying her around the room like a small shuttle as she squealed with laughter then whimpered for more when he stopped.

After a quick breakfast, he headed to Starfleet to speak to someone about reactivating his commission and make inquiries about a position, commensurate to his abilities, on the Earth-based Beta Quadrant Exploration Team.

Admiral Nechayev greeted him warmly and was remarkably enthusiastic about his inquiry; assuring him that there would be a place at Captain Janeway’s side should he decide to take the position. This created another dilemma for him. If he were to work as her ‘first officer’ again, they would once more be victim to those dreaded regulations and parameters. The problem was resolved almost immediately though when he was offered a promotion to captain. With equal rank, the regulations became moot. He could have kissed Nechayev and she’d watched him, bemused, as he thanked her over and over again for her help and the promotion.

Things were starting to fall into place. Now all he had to do was lure Kathryn away from her new beau. He had an awful feeling that this was going to be easier said than done.

On the way back to Tom and B’Elanna’s, he stopped at one of the better men’s wear stores and bought a suit to wear the birthday party. When he donned it that evening, B’Elanna whistled quietly and gave him a once over, nodding her approval. “Very nice, very nice indeed.” It was a simple long dark jacket and pants with a collarless white shirt underneath, but it was expensive and the cut was classic and classy. He looked pretty damned good.

The party was being held at Kathryn’s mother’s house in Indiana. The large living and dining areas of the rambling old farmhouse had been decorated with flowers and Chinese lanterns. Harry and the Kimtones had set up in one corner of the living room and when Chakotay and the Parises arrived, they could hear the strains of ‘Autumn Leaves’ playing.

Taking a deep breath, Chakotay mounted the steps. It felt a little like he was walking to his doom. Not to put to fine a point on it, his future rested on tonight and Kathryn’s reaction to his presence. He patted the pocket of his jacket; her gift was in there safe and sound and the moment of truth was nigh. The door swung wide and he was momentarily disappointed, although why he thought Kathryn would be answering the door to guests at her own party, he had no idea. It was Phoebe Janeway and she greeted Tom and B’Elanna warmly, hugging them both and ushering them into the house. Her mouth opened in surprise when she caught sight of Chakotay and an array of emotions swept across her face but eventually a slow smile softened her features. She reached towards him and pulled him through the door. “Now there’s a sight for sore eyes. It’s about time you showed up.”

“You remember Chakotay, don’t you Phoebe?” B’Elanna said by way of introduction.

“Do I remember Chakotay?! How could I forget?” She kissed his cheek and then shook her head. “She was nuts you know.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Phoebe was looking him up and down, and he was finding her predatory look decidedly uncomfortable.

“Kathryn – she was nuts not to snag you when she had the chance. Are you here to win her back?”

Chakotay looked towards Tom and B’Elanna for help but none was forthcoming, they were nodding encouragingly though.

“Ummm. I…” He followed their lead and nodded as well.

Phoebe grinned. “Good for you. You have to, you know. She’ll be miserable if she stays with that boring old fart and it will be all your fault.”

He was about to protest his innocence but then realised that she had a point. He shrugged. “I made a mistake and I’ve come to correct it, if that’s any help.”

Phoebe laughed. “It’s a good start and I think I have a plan to get her away from him.” She primped her hair and waggled her eyebrows. “Say hello to your new girlfriend.”

“My what?”

“Hey don’t look so terrified. Me. I’m going to be your new girlfriend.”

“You?!” He looked towards B’Elanna and then back at Phoebe. “I don’t want to seem rude, but what the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m going to pretend to be besotted with you and you are going to be reluctant but finally fall under my spell. When Kathryn sees what’s happening she’ll make sure she gets you back.”

He had a distinct feeling that he’d been manoeuvred. This was all too convenient. “I hate to point out the obvious but she didn’t come after me when I was with Seven. What makes you think that she’ll do anything different this time?”

“Because it’s me and I’m going to goad her into it. She needs a wake up call and we’re going to give her one. A big one. She won’t let you get away twice. I promise.”

“I’m not sure about this. Perhaps I should just go to her, tell her how I feel and see what happens.”

“You could try, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t work.” Phoebe nodded towards to the other side of the room where Kathryn was holding court. There was a ‘bevy’ of handsome men gathered around her and she seemed very happy with the current state of affairs.

Chakotay stared, his heart dropping into his boots again. She looked beautiful in her striking red dress. Her hair was longer and she appeared well rested and relaxed. There was a healthy glow to her cheeks, whether from the company or the wine, he wasn’t sure, but she reminded him of the Kathryn from the early days of their journey before the weight of responsibility and the losses had taken their toll.

She must have felt his eyes on her because she paused and turned towards him. For a moment, she stared at him in stunned surprise, her eyes wide and expressive. Their gazes held for a heartbeat and he was about to take a step towards her but then her eyes clouded and her look became guarded. She inclined her head ever so slightly, giving him a small smile of welcome and then turned away to resume her conversation – although she appeared less animated than before. Chakotay was unsure how to gauge her reaction. Kathryn was a master at hiding her emotions and, even though he’d learned to read them well over the years, their circumstances were so different now, it was difficult to tell exactly what it all meant. He had a terrible feeling, however, that he’d just been dismissed.

He was still watching her as a short grey-haired man made his way across the floor and taking Kathryn’s arm, kissed her cheek. This must be the ‘new man’ and Chakotay couldn’t stop the surge of jealousy that rose like bile to sear his throat. His eyes narrowed and his hands curled into fists. Phoebe saw his reaction and pulled him out of Kathryn’s line of sight before he gave the game away.

With Tom and B’Elanna in tow, they made their way over to the buffet, although Chakotay knew he wouldn’t be able to swallow a thing.

Phoebe whispered loudly enough for them all to hear. “That’s the guy. Not much to look at huh?”

“Who is he?” Tom was intrigued.

“Graham something. He’s some sort of industrial big-wig. I don’t think much of him. She’s only been out with him twice and I’ll be damned if he’s taking her on a third date. I think he’s using her and likes the notoriety that goes with having her by his side. He’s a self-serving, narcissistic creep.”

“Don’t hold back now Phoebe.” B’Elanna was almost laughing.

“I don’t understand what Kathryn would see in him if he’s that unpleasant. He must have some redeeming features.” Chakotay was puzzled.

“None that I can see, but I’m not Kathryn and didn’t get thrown over for a woman half my age.” Phoebe gave Chakotay a pointed look.

“Fine. I’m sorry, but this still doesn’t sound like the Kathryn Janeway I know.”

“It isn’t. There’s something not quite right with her. Ever since she arrived home, she’s been lost and searching for something, it’s as though a part of her didn’t come back. Mom and I have been worried sick about her.” She looked at Chakotay. “You know what she’s like when she gets into one of these moods. She makes bad decisions, mostly self-destructive ones but this is one that I’m not going to let her make.”

Chakotay nodded slowly. He knew exactly what Phoebe was talking about. The incident with the Equinox and their time in the Void instantly came to mind. Most of the time, and to most people, Kathryn Janeway was a woman filled with a purpose, self-confident and assured but there had been times during the journey when misgivings and guilt had eaten at her to the point where she’d become riddled with self-doubt and remorse. On a number of occasions, during their seven years in command, he’d had to coax and, at times, bully her out of these bouts of uncertainty and self-loathing.

She’d carried a huge amount of guilt with her throughout their time in the Delta Quadrant and even though he’d argued with her and proved more than once that she’d made the right decision in destroying the Caretaker array, she was never truly convinced. It seemed, from what Phoebe was saying that the lingering self-doubt was still causing Kathryn problems. To look at her now it was difficult to tell, but he could see it in her face. She was laughing and smiling, but the joy didn’t quite reach her eyes. It was an impressive display and had likely fooled most of the people in the room, but Phoebe, Gretchen and Chakotay were her toughest audience and not so easily convinced.

Chakotay looked past Kathryn to the other side of the room and his eyes met Gretchen Janeway’s piercing stare. He swallowed. Now there was a formidable woman. Her daughters came by their strong and wilful personalities honestly, having inherited a goodly proportion of it from their mother. He’d met Gretchen briefly on their arrival and he now understood her brusque and dismissive manner. She’d been protecting her daughter and he couldn’t fault her on that. As far as she was concerned, he was deserving of her wrath and it momentarily gave him pause about Phoebe’s idea of making Kathryn jealous. What was Gretchen likely to do if she thought he was pursuing her youngest daughter now that the oldest one was out of circulation? He surmised that it would not be conducive to a long and fruitful life. Dragging his eyes away from Gretchen, he spoke to Phoebe.

“What are we going to do about your mother? She’s going to be horrified if she thinks that we’re an ‘item’.”

Phoebe shook her head. “I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Where do you think we got the idea?”

His gaze snapped back to Gretchen and he found her smiling at him. A crooked smile, so reminiscent of her eldest daughter’s that it made his heart skip a beat. It was as he thought. He’d been hoodwinked and they were all in on this charade. It was nice to know that they wanted him and Kathryn to be together and hoped he didn’t disappoint them but he had a bad feeling about this. Gretchen nodded at him and he smiled in return. Oh well, if he was going to go down, he may as well go down fighting.

The band was now playing a slow tune and he turned to Phoebe. “Okay, girlfriend, are you ready to do this?”

“I am. Let’s do it.”

Chakotay stopped and looked at her. “Now that’s unnerving. You know your sister says that?”

“I’m not surprised. It was one of our father’s favourite sayings. I think we even had it embossed on some of his underwear.”

With a shake of his head and a laugh, he took Phoebe’s hand and led her out onto the dance floor. They made a handsome couple. Their dark hair and complexions were strikingly similar and they moved together gracefully. Phoebe was being overtly flirtatious and he was making a point of smiling and laughing at her overtures. He didn’t dare look in Kathryn’s direction but he was certain he could feel her stare burning into his back. At one point, they brushed past one another on the dance floor. Kathryn was with her ‘friend’, laughing and seemingly engrossed in his conversation. Chakotay ignored her, spinning Phoebe away from him, then back into his arms to dip her low as the song finished. They received a round of applause from the watching crowd and he and Phoebe took a small bow, then arm in arm made a beeline for the drinks table.

Phoebe stood on tiptoe and whispered in his ear, touching his arm and giggling. “I can feel the daggers, can you?”

He smiled broadly. “Her stare is like a phaser blast and it’s not set on stun. We may not get out of this alive, you know.”

“Ah, but what a way to go.” Phoebe took his hand and they moved over to Gretchen’s side.

“Mom, you remember Chakotay.”

“Mr Chakotay, it’s lovely to see you again.”

“Mrs Janeway.” For some reason he felt he should bow, but stopped himself. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

She quirked her brow. “Hmmm, we’ll see about that.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he smiled benignly and prayed for rescue. Phoebe wasn’t being the least bit helpful, hanging onto his arm like a limpet. Kathryn was on the dance floor with Mike Ayala and swooped past, in a blaze of red. It was impossible not to stare, as always her presence commanded it and his eyes followed her around the room. He had the unpleasant feeling that she was aware of what they were trying to do and was giving as good as she got. Out-manoeuvring Kathryn Janeway was to fight a losing battle. She sailed past them again and met his gaze with a knowing glare and it was at that point that Chakotay decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Relinquishing Phoebe’s arm, he turned to both Janeway women.

“I’m sorry Mrs Janeway, Phoebe, this is wrong. I love Kathryn and I made a dreadful mistake for which I am so very sorry and will regret for the rest of my life but I can’t do this.” Not wanting to draw attention to himself by walking through the middle of the dance floor, but needing to get some fresh air and try to figure out what to do, he headed out through the kitchen to the back veranda.

He stood for a moment in the cool air, getting his bearings and regretting his rash decision to be part of Phoebe and Gretchen’s plan. After taking a few deep breaths, his head began to clear and he chided himself for being so foolish. It wasn’t his style to play games and he should have gone with his instincts and been more forthright about his feelings. It seemed, though, that both he and Kathryn were still gun-shy and with her new beau in the picture, matters were even more complicated. To declare himself and his intentions when she was already in another relationship, wouldn’t be fair and he had to respect her choice. He consoled himself with the fact that they would be working together again and perhaps that would allow them the opportunity to find their way back to one another. Needing to think about his options, he moved away from the noise of the party and stood at the far end of the veranda, staring at the stars.

He was still looking up at the heavens when he was startled by the sound of the back door slamming and a familiar voice that cut through the hubbub of the party. “You’ve come all this way and you still haven’t wished me happy birthday.”

Chakotay turned to find Kathryn standing with her hands on her hips, partially silhouetted by the porch light.

He couldn’t help smiling at her pose. It was just so typical and he wondered if she was doing it on purpose to rattle him. “Happy birthday, Kathryn.”

“Thank you. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be here. I only realised two days ago that it was your birthday.”

“I’m glad you came.”

He was running out of things to say. “I’m staying with Tom and B’Elanna.”

“I know. B’Elanna told me.”

“I…” That was it. He’d exhausted his supply of chitchat and stood there staring at her. Feeling awkward, he shoved his fists in his pockets and, as he did so, his hand wrapped around a small package. He took a step towards her and offered her the small parcel. “Happy birthday.”

“The invitation said no presents.” However, she took it from him and hugged it against her chest.

“I didn’t see an invitation, so…”

“It was an open one, for all the crew.”

He nodded, hurt that she considered him to be just one of the crew but then what did he expect. “It’s nothing special. I just saw it and thought of you.”

She swung around and moved back towards the door, muttering, “I need to see it in the light.” Her voice, though, sounded suspiciously tight and he could have sworn, she swiped at her eyes. He’d managed to hurt her again, unintentionally, but wasn’t that always the way? Now he was torn. What should he do? They seemed able to do damage to each other without even trying. He would happily console her, but did she even want to be his friend or was their relationship over? Nothing was ever simple when it involved Kathryn.

Her voice was quiet but sincere. “It’s beautiful.” She still had her back to him but held up the silver watch by its chain, the casing glinted, catching the light. She turned towards him, her eyes bright and her smile genuine. “I just know there’s a story attached to this. Please tell me.”

He staggered. His cousin’s words slamming into him with such force that for an instant he could barely breathe. Suddenly it all became clear and with his heart full, he took a deep shuddering breath. His stories, this woman; both so intricately and intimately entwined. She was the keeper of his stories and the one whose heart and soul were joined to his. It was so simple, and without hesitating, he walked to her side, all his doubts and misgivings fading without a trace.

Reaching up he let the silver watch rest in the palm of his hand and looked into her eyes. Everything that was in his heart was there for her to see and she sighed contentedly, leaning into him as he told her the story of the watch. “It’s nineteenth century, with a mechanical movement, the chronometer worn by Captain Cray of the British Navy. His ship was hit by a typhoon in the Pacific. Everyone back in England thought they were killed but eight months later Cray sailed his ship into London harbour. There wasn’t much left of it, a few planks, half a sail, but he got his crew home.” Chakotay’s hand closed around the watch and lifting Kathryn’s hand, he placed it in her palm. “From one bold and brave Captain to another; I think Cray would be proud to know you had this.”

She held it tightly in her hand and let her forehead rest on his shoulder. Her voice was muffled and wavered with emotion. “God, I’ve missed you.”

Chakotay let the back of his fingers drift down her arm from her shoulder to her elbow and he felt her shiver. “I’ve missed you too.”

Kathryn took a deep breath and then pulled away, her eyes flashed with anger. “Why didn’t you contact me? Where the hell have you been?”

Although he knew it was warranted, he was unprepared for her anger and snapped. “I don’t remember receiving any communications from you either.”

“I wasn’t the one who disappeared.”

His ire rose but he quashed it almost instantly. She was right. “I’m sorry.”

Kathryn had taken a breath, ready to do battle but instead her shoulders sagged and she sighed. “We need to talk. Come with me.” She draped the chain and watch around her neck and grabbed a blanket from the porch swing. Taking his hand, she led him across the moonlit backyard, behind the barn to a small rise. There, looking out over the herb fields was her willow tree. He knew it was hers. She’d told him about it one night; many years ago, when they’d been swapping stories of their childhoods but he would have known it was hers even if she hadn’t told him. Kathryn’s life force was strong in this place. It held great significance and he felt an almost reverent sense of awe as she pulled him under its overhanging branches and into its peaceful green embrace.

They stood in silence for a moment in the dappled moonlight and then Kathryn turned to him. “I’m sorry too.”

Chakotay moved to interrupt but she put her fingers on his lips to quiet him. Any words that he might have been going to say melted from his mind, all he could feel were the press of her fingers on his mouth. She continued.

“You’re right. I should have contacted you but I was confused. Your affair with Seven threw me, although I had no right to feel anything. I had no hold over you and you had no reason to feel obligated to me, but even so, I felt betrayed.” Again, he tried to speak but she shook her head. “Please, just let me finish. I need to.”

She took his hand, drew him closer to the tree, spreading the blanket at its base. He watched, intrigued, as she reached into the fork of the two lowest branches and pulled out some candles and a lighter. Smiling, she placed them in holders, each covered in layers of melted wax and then lit them one by one. Their hideaway came to life in the flickering glow of the candlelight.

Kathryn sat down, leaning against the sturdy trunk and extended her hand towards him. Chakotay took it in his and sat down beside her on the blanket, their shoulders touching and their hands clasped. Her voice was little more than a whisper when she began to speak again. “I was fine for the first few weeks. It was a busy time getting my life back in order, doing the rounds of all the welcome home parties and catching up with old friends. Then Starfleet called wanting me to head up this new Beta Quadrant Mission. I jumped at the chance and turned up on the first day for a briefing to find half of Voyager’s crew there. Many had signed up for the mission and others were involved with the data analysis and cataloguing. That was when it hit me. You were gone. I was so used to you being there beside me that with you missing, I suddenly felt exposed and so alone. I had taken your calm presence for granted for so long that it was a shock to find myself on my own. That’s when it started. All the guilt, the mistakes, the losses – they preyed on my mind until I was barely able to sleep or eat. Mom and Phoebe tried to talk to me but you know what I’m like. The minute anyone asked, I told them I was fine.”

Chakotay’s head dropped forward slightly and he smiled. That was something he knew all too well.

Kathryn smiled too. “Yes, I know. I thought you might find that amusing. Anyway, my mother and Phoebe had been at me to get my life back on track and there was much mention of dating, getting ‘out there’ and that sort of thing. So that’s where Graham Eckersley came in.”

“That’s his name. Phoebe didn’t tell me.”

“Phoebe?! I’m going to have something to say to her too. Did you really think I’d fall for something as blatantly obvious as her fawning all over you to make me jealous? She’s been reading too many trashy holonovels.”

Chakotay looked contrite. “I had my doubts, but everyone’s been very worried about you and it was done with the very best of intentions.”

“Hmmm, yes, the road to hell and all that. Luckily, I’m not completely brain dead and before you ask, yes, I was aware of what Phoebe thought of Graham but he’s not the sycophant that everyone thinks he is, he’s just a tad unfortunate in the personality department. His heart is in the right place though. He runs a large medical supply firm that Starfleet used to provide medical equipment and medicines for the Beta Quadrant mission. Eckersleys Meds also has a philanthropic branch that offered medical supplies and equipment to the Bajorans and Cardassians, amongst others, in the post-Dominion war relief effort. He’s a good man and it worked for both of us on a platonic level. He got the press he needed and the Starfleet contract, while I got my mother and sister off my back.”

Chakotay looked dubious and Kathryn rolled her eyes.

“He’s a gentleman and not ‘the evil pretender’ my sister makes him out to be. In fact, I think you’d like him.”

Holding up his hand, Chakotay smiled. “Give me a few days on that, will you.”

Kathryn’s eyes sparkled and she grinned. “I remember hearing that once before. A long time ago.”

“It seems like yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it a great deal over the last few days.” He picked up her hand and kissed it. “I still feel the same as I did then. I’m so very sorry for all that has happened. If I could take it back I would. The thing with Seven was doomed from the start and I shouldn’t have gone into hiding, but I was embarrassed and confused. Life had been relatively simple on Voyager and everything was thrown into turmoil once we arrived home. I needed time to regroup.”

“I think we all did. It’s been a readjustment for everyone.”

Chakotay turned towards her, holding her hand firmly in his. “If you can forgive me for all my foolishness, I would like to make amends. I love you, Kathryn.”

She smiled, and squeezed his hand, rubbing her thumb along his. “I hoped you still did. The last few years of the journey were hard on everyone and I didn’t make life any easier for both of us.” She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I love you too.” Taking a deep breath, she settled back against the tree. “You know how people say that if they had their time over they’d do exactly the same? Well, I wouldn’t and I think that’s why the Admiral came back. This is her opportunity to change what happened to us; for the better.”

Chakotay looked thoughtful. It made sense but it was typical of Kathryn Janeway to go to such lengths to make things right. “That sounds like something you would do – and damn the consequences, not to mention the temporal prime directive.”

Kathryn laughed. “I think I even said something like that to her at one point. I don’t get any less stubborn as I get older, do I?”

“No, I’m pleased to say. I’m looking forward to meeting the Admiral again in a few years time.”

Kathryn shoved him gently. “Hey, more than a few but I don’t think you’ll meet her, maybe someone a little like her, though without the sadness and regrets.”

Draping his arm around her shoulders, Chakotay pulled her close. “Yes, no regrets and while I wait to see her again, I intend to spend those years here with you. I’ve taken a position on the Beta Mission team here in San Francisco. We’ll be working together again and we’ll have a wonderful life.”

Kathryn yanked herself away from him and stared aghast. “What!? Why?! You know what that means! You’ll be under my command again!”

This time he placed his fingers on her lips and held her eyes while he slowly shook his head. As he spoke, his eyes drifted down to where his thumb now caressed her bottom lip. “No I won’t. I was promoted. I’m a captain too, so there’s no problem. I swear Nechayev knew.”

Kathryn’s lips formed a silent ‘oh’ as their eyes met.

He didn’t think about it or even plan it, but before he knew what was happening his lips were on hers. The kiss was gentle at first, just a grazing of his mouth over hers, but she made this growling noise in the back of her throat and that was all it took. His mouth opened, pressing hard against hers, his tongue plunging into her mouth to taste. At the same time, he hauled her over him until she was straddling his hips and his hands slid under her dress to caress her thighs.

Her hands were in his hair, holding his face to hers as she made sighing noises into his mouth. They needed to breathe. Kathryn pulled her mouth away from his and, throwing her head back, she held his face against her neck and chest.

“Oh God, I knew. I just knew.” She was half laughing, her breaths coming in shuddering gasps as his lips slid down her front to nuzzle at her breasts. Still holding his head, she pushed him away from her and looked into his eyes.

Chakotay’s breathing was as ragged as hers was and he desperately wanted to touch her. She placed her hand over his heart, as she’d done so many times before, her other hand caressing his cheek. “I love you and more than anything I want to make love to you, but I have a house full of guests and if we’re gone for much longer there will be search parties out looking for us. We should head back, but will you come home with me tonight?”

Grinning broadly, Chakotay pulled her down for another kiss then whispered against her lips. “Just try going home without me.”

Kathryn heaved a relieved sigh. “I’m so out of practice with this sort of thing.”

Nuzzling her neck, Chakotay huffed a laugh, making her shiver as his hot breath tickled her skin. “Me too, but I think we’ll manage to work it out as we go along.”

Kathryn quirked her brow and gave him that half smile that he loved so well. “There are always the Doctor’s instruction manuals if we need them.”

He cringed. “I think I’ve had enough of doing things by the book for now. How about we just wing it?”

“Fine with me.” She grinned and leaning forward, kissed his tattoo and then his lips. “We should head back. I think there’s going to be cake.”

“Cake! Why didn’t you say so earlier?” Holding her around the waist, he jumped to his feet and grinned at her shocked expression.

Kathryn swatted at him. “Very funny. Thrown over for cake. That’ll teach me.”

His smile softened and he turned her, so her back was against the tree trunk and he pressed into her. Kissing her lips sweetly, he then moved down her jaw to her neck, his hands stroking down her sides and his thumbs teasing at the edge of her breasts. Nuzzling at the soft skin behind her ear, he whispered hotly. “Never imagine that I don’t want you.” He leant into her again and her breath caught as she felt the hard ridge of his erection press into her belly. “I would take you now if I could, but we have responsibilities and …”

“Cake?” Kathryn offered helpfully.

He chuckled and hoisted her up a little higher, his hands under her bottom as he ground against her sex. Kathryn bit her bottom lip and Chakotay closed his eyes briefly, blowing an unsteady breath between pursed lips. “It had better be good cake because I’m going to find it very difficult to walk away from here.”

“Mother made it and she won’t be happy if we miss it.”

The thought of Gretchen Janeway had a rather sobering effect on both of them and smiling, Chakotay let Kathryn slide down his front to her feet. “That puts an entirely different slant on the whole proceedings. We’d better get back.”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of my mother?”

“Me? I’m terrified and for good reason. I know what she’s capable of.”

Kathryn frowned at him. “My Mom?”

“She was behind the whole ‘Phoebe as my girlfriend’ escapade.”

That I can believe, so perhaps you have a point.” Kathryn began blowing out the candles as Chakotay picked up the rug. When the last candle was extinguished, they were plunged into darkness. Chakotay wrapped his arms around her, the night blanketing them until their eyes became accustomed to the dark.

“I would like to come back here again.” Chakotay kissed Kathryn’s forehead as they turned to begin their moonlit trek back to the house.

“I have a feeling we’ll be spending a good deal of time out here as the years go by.”

“‘As the years go by’. I like the sound of that.”

“It does have a nice ring to it.”

As they neared the house, they could hear singing. It was a very rowdy chorus of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and Kathryn turned and gave Chakotay a cringing smile. “Ooops.”

They picked up their pace only to reach the backdoor as they heard everyone sing, “Happy birthday dear Kathryn.” and Phoebe’s voice bellow over the rest of the crowd. “Wherever you are?” and the final line of “Happy birthday to you.” drowned out by gales of laughter.

Kathryn turned to Chakotay and shrugged. “Well, it looks like we have some explaining to do.”

“Okay, I’ll square it with the rest of the guests if you talk to your mother.”

“Oh, thank you so much.”

“Hey, you’re family, she’s less likely to have you hung, drawn and quartered. I might not be so lucky.”

“Good point. Ready?”

Chakotay grinned. “Let’s do it.”

Kathryn rolled her eyes and, together, they entered the room. They tried to be inconspicuous as they approached the table where the cake was blazing with far too many candles for Kathryn’s liking. However, they failed miserably and the laughter crescendoed, accompanied by applause, whoops and whistles. Facing the crowd, holding hands, Kathryn and Chakotay did the only thing they could do. They blew out the candles, kissed and gave a bow.

Phoebe was the first to congratulate them and then surprisingly, Graham Eckersley approached. He kissed Kathryn’s cheek and smiled warmly at Chakotay offering him his hand. “Chakotay, I’ve heard so much about you, it’s a pleasure to meet you and under such delightful circumstances. Congratulations.”

Chakotay shook Eckersley’s hand and smiled in return. “Thank you, Mr Eckersley. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”

“Graham, please and if I could bend your ear later, I’d like to speak to you about our relief operations in the DMZ. Alynna Nechayev mentioned that you might have contacts and information about the region that could be helpful to our efforts.”

Chakotay darted a look at Kathryn. She smiled.

Eckersley held up his hand. “In a few days, of course. You and Kathryn have lots of catching up to do, I’m sure.” He frowned and shook his head. “That didn’t come out right. I meant…”

Kathryn laughed and kissed Eckersleys cheek. “Don’t worry, Graham. We know what you meant and thank you.”

Chakotay chuckled and extended his hand. “I’d be happy speak with you. I’ll be in touch.”

With an apologetic smile, Eckersley clasped hands with Chakotay again and said his farewells just before B’Elanna, Tom, Harry and the Doctor rushed towards them. Their congratulations and well wishes tumbled over one another’s, they were so excited. The band began to play again and Chakotay took the opportunity to pull Kathryn onto the dance floor and into his arms.

All the guests watched enthralled, oohing and aahing as Kathryn and Chakotay danced together for the first time. It was so romantic until Gretchen pushed Tom and B’Elanna, Mike Ayala and Jenny Delaney, Mariah Henley and Ken Dalby onto the dance floor to join their former commanders. The good-natured fun continued when the Doctor swooped down, pulled Gretchen into his arms and spun her around the dance floor in her daughter’s wake. Phoebe even deigned to dance with Graham Eckersley and, to everyone’s surprise, by the end of the evening, the two of them were inseparable. No one had seen that coming but she was a Janeway, which meant that all bets were off.

Eating cake, sometime later in the evening, Gretchen approached just as Chakotay licked a bit of cream from his finger. He smiled and pointed to the plate in his hand. “This is delicious cake, Mrs Janeway.”

“If you’re eating my cake and going to marry my daughter, I think you should call me Gretchen.”

Chakotay’s eyes widened and he nodded. “The cake is delicious, Gretchen.”

“You are going to marry her aren’t you?”

“If she’ll have me.”

“Oh, she’ll have you. I don’t doubt that. Just make sure you look after her. I don’t want to go through these last few months again.”

He put his plate down on the table and looked Gretchen squarely in the eye. “I love her with all my heart and promise never to leave her side again. I don’t want to have to go through these last few months again either.”

Gretchen’s eyes narrowed, her stare drilling into his. Just when he thought he might crumble under the unrelenting glare, her face softened and she smiled. “You’ll do.” And with that, she turned, cut another enormous piece of cake and handed it to him. “You’ve got some icing on your cheek.” Then she walked away.

Stunned, Chakotay stared after her and swiped at his cheek. He looked down at the huge wedge of cake, not knowing how he was going to fit it in, but he ate it anyway and hoped he’d passed the test.

Kathryn joined him a few minutes later, the Doctor escorting her to his side after their dance.

“Are you all right? You look a bit shell-shocked. Has my mother been tormenting you?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, not tormented or shell-shocked, a little full maybe but the happiest man who ever lived.”

Ever. That’s not bad and on that note, I think it’s time to go home. Come and say goodnight to Mom and then we’ll go.”

They said their farewells and beamed back to Kathryn’s house in San Francisco. Situated in the hills, Chakotay stood at the windows for a moment looking out over the lights of the city silently thanking the spirits for guiding him here to Kathryn’s side. Her arms snaked around him from behind and she rested her head on the back of his shoulder. Turning slightly, he kissed the top of her head and then swung around and drew her into his arms. “Thank you.”

“Whatever for?”

“For loving me.”

“It’s not so hard to do.” She smiled and cupped the side of his face for a moment.

Chakotay leant forward and kissed her forehead as her arms wrapped around his back. His lips lingered until they slid sideways, his cheek against her hair. It was almost too hard to believe. He was here with Kathryn, when only two days ago he hadn’t known where his future might take him. Hugging her close, he took a deep breath and committed this moment to memory.

Sliding from his arms, Kathryn took his hand and pulled him towards the bedroom. Hand in hand, they entered the room, slipped out of their clothes and, wrapped in each other’s arms, made love until the morning.

*************************************

The first dusky tendrils of light danced across the wall of the bedroom and Chakotay rolled towards the woman sleeping by his side. He smiled and breathed deeply before gently drawing the sheet up over her naked shoulders. She snuffled quietly, tugged the sheet closer around her and burrowed into her pillow. He wanted to whoop for joy and shout from the rafters, but instead he silently studied her sleeping face and relived the previous night’s delight. She’d been voracious. What had begun as a quiet and gentle exploration of one another’s bodies had become a hungry and athletic race for fulfilment. He would never forget her, body taut, breasts swollen and glistening with sweat as she cried his name and shuddered through her first orgasm. They’d laughed after their initial coupling, lying in each other’s arms, sticky and sated. Kathryn had been momentarily embarrassed by her loud and enthusiastic love making but that had been short lived. Chakotay had fallen in love with her all over again as she’d pinned him to the bed and ridden him to several climaxes before pulling him on top of her and arching into him, begging him for more – her body hot and open, and his for the taking. She’d met his thrusts with those of her own before he’d howled through his own climax, filling her as she clawed at him in the rigours of her final orgasm. Before she’d fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning, she’d promised that their next round of lovemaking would be slower and gentler. He had his doubts, not that he cared. The mere thought of being with Kathryn in whatever manner she chose to love him, was fine by him.

She was deeply asleep and he slipped from the bed quietly, pulling on his pants to head to the kitchen for a glass of water. The sun was rising over the city and shimmering off the bay, the sky awash in the same purples, pinks and oranges that had coloured the sunsets, a lifetime ago, in Arizona. Today, though, the colours seemed brighter and they filled his heart with hope. After watching the sun rise above the horizon and bathe the world in the warm yellow glow of the new day, he left the window and returned to her side, sliding into bed and drawing her into his arms.

Kathryn roused for a moment to kiss him and then drifted back into sleep, mumbling against his chest. “Love you.”

Closing his eyes, he kissed her head and whispered quietly. “You too, with all my heart.” Burying his face in her hair, he held her close and joined her in slumber.

fin

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