It's strange, sometimes, the things the senses choose to recognize, to remember.
The smell of wood smoke and the bright pinch of winter in the breeze. The sky awash with deep color on an autumn afternoon. The rustle of dry leaves.
The halting step on the garden path.
The particular dimension of a shadow, falling across a half-painted canvas and pausing there, hesitant and wary.
It was the shadow, the familiar shape and contour of it, that she recognized. Strange that, after all the years that separated them, she should know him by his shadow even before she heard his voice. Slowly, deliberately, she rinsed each of her brushes and set them aside, she closed the wooden paint case and placed it on the chair beside her. As an afterthought, she moved the case and stowed it beneath her own chair, leaving the one a meter to her left empty, ready.
The shadow inclined its head, and though she couldn't see his eyes she knew he must be smiling at her. Fondly, sadly.
With hesitant steps he came toward her, stopping just behind her chair. His shadow enveloped her and she shivered at the sudden chill or the sudden nearness.
The shadow nodded once, decisively. "It's good," he said softly, nodding toward the canvas. His voice, rough-edged now and deeper, was painfully familiar. "You captured the spirit of that old barn perfectly. And the way the light hits the trees."
She looked out over the valley and saw the honeyed sunlight bright on the leaves, illuminating them as if from within. And the old barn did have spirit, an inner life that she had always known, but that only he would have spoken of, and only to her. On the canvas she had managed to capture at least a part of that spirit, and that light.
"It's good," he repeated. "Go ahead and finish it."
"I'm losing the light," she murmured. "I can finish it in the studio."
The shadow shifted, and she heard the whisper of dry leaves beneath his feet.
"You must be tired," she said. "Sit."
"Is that an order?" Though she heard the smile in his voice, she felt no humor.
"Of course not. You know that. After all these years, you know that."
"I know." He stepped around the empty chair and lowered himself into it with a tired sigh. "I'm sorry. Old habits die hard, I guess."
A silence stretched between them in the fading afternoon light. She could not look at him, not yet; her eyes darted sideways and took in only glimpses of him. Hair almost white now. Strong brown hands lined with age, callused from hard work. Soft tunic open at the collar and sturdy boots scuffed with dirt. Just pieces of him. She turned her gaze back to the valley, not yet brave enough to meet his eyes.
"You came," she breathed.
"Yes. You're surprised."
"You were never close. Never friends."
"Tuvok and I -- close? No. Friends? Maybe. But we respected each other." He shifted heavily in his chair. "We had one important thing in common."
"What's that?" she asked, uncannily afraid of his response.
"We both loved you."
She gasped. "Chakotay -- "
He turned to her and though she still could not bear to look at him, she knew his face would be sad and regretful, his eyes soft on her. "I can say it now, Kathryn. Starfleet isn't watching our every move anymore. We don't have to turn in duty logs transcribing our every word. I loved you. I can say it now."
"You can. Just please -- " Her breath caught in her throat. "Please don't."
"Not now, or not ever?"
"Don't answer. Never mind. I'm sorry." He scrubbed a weary hand over his face and she heard stubble rasp beneath his fingers. "I'm sorry."
She sat staring at her hands, reeling a little from his words. The sound of her breath was strange to her own ears, fast and harsh, as if she'd just completed a long race. A falling leaf landed on her canvas and she gingerly lifted it away, twirling the stem between her fingers.
"How did you get here so quickly? I thought you were out on Alger Prime."
"I was." If her sudden change of subject annoyed him, he gave no indication of it. For that she was grateful. "I was already on my way back to Sol system when I intercepted Harry's message. Starfleet wants me to head a new research team at the Academy. Long-range colonial studies."
"Are you going to do it?"
"I haven't decided yet. I was on my way to San Francisco to hear what they had to say when I got the message. I'm sorry, Kathryn. I know how much he meant to you."
She raised her chin, pushing back emotions she'd refused to dwell on. But he had that effect on her, with just a word in his soft voice he could make her face parts of herself that she had carefully hidden away. "He had a good life. A rewarding career, four children, nine grandchildren. You can't ask for much more than that."
"How is T'Pel?"
"Grieving, as only a Vulcan widow can grieve. They'd known each other since they were children."
"It must be hard for her."
"Her family is with her. She'll manage."
"Tuvok was a good man."
"Yes. I'll miss him." To her surprise, tears came into her eyes. In the three days since she'd heard the news she hadn't cried, even though she'd taken calls of consolation from all over the Federation, from her former crew and a dozen other acquaintances. But just a few words from Chakotay and...
She shook her head, willing the tears away.
"I'm leaving for Vulcan tomorrow," she said.
"I know." Again she heard the smile in his voice. "So am I."
"Tom and B'Elanna and Harry are coming in the morning. Our transport leaves at 1100 hours --"
"From the San Francisco passenger ship yard, out to Jupiter Station, and then on to Vulcan."
She cast a wary glance at him. "Don't tell me."
"We have adjacent cabin assignments. The name 'Chakotay' may not mean much anymore, but even a retired Captain's rank pulls a little weight. And as soon as I mentioned your name... Well." Out of the corner of her eye she caught his grin. The dimples were deeper now, but the teeth still straight and white. "Surprise."
She smiled in spite of herself. "Why did you do it?"
He shrugged. "I thought you might enjoy the company."
"After all these years?"
"After all these years..." he murmured. "I wanted to see you. I was going to call you from San Francisco to see if maybe we could have dinner. But when Harry's message came in, I changed my plans."
"Are they still expecting you in San Francisco?"
"Not for three weeks. I asked them to postpone the meeting until I return from Vulcan."
She nodded, still staring down at the leaf held gently in her fingers. "Why did you want to see me?"
"Alger Prime can be a lonely place, Kathryn. There are more than three thousand colonists now, but..." The words came with difficulty; she could hear the hesitation in his voice. "I get letters from Harry every few weeks. It's harder for Tom and B'Elanna to correspond, with all those kids of theirs. But they manage. Even Tuvok did, before the Bendii's set it. So I get news from the old Voyager crew. But you..." He shook his head slowly. "I found out from Tom that you'd retired from Starfleet." He chuckled softly. "I didn't believe him."
"You were Starfleet to the core. I was trained to it, I learned the life. But you were born to it. I couldn't imagine you getting up every morning and not putting on a uniform."
"There's more to me than just Starfleet, Chakotay."
"More to you than rules and regulations? I know that. Now." He shifted in his chair, a little uneasily. "But I still had to see it for myself."
She felt his eyes on her, taking in her long gray braid, the crow's feet around her eyes, the laugh lines. All the years etched in her face, all the joys and all the triumphs. She struggled to hold herself steady for him, hoping he would not see all the regrets as well.
"It suits you," he said softly. "Contentment always did."
Again his words brought tears to her eyes, but she swallowed hard and forced them away.
The breeze shifted and she shivered, wrapping her arms tight around her body. Silently he reached into his duffel and pulled out a heavy sweater. He draped it over her shoulders and sat back, watching her. When she tugged the sweater into place a wave of his scent rose around her, warm and dry and precious.
"Thank you," she whispered.
He leaned across the space that separated them, a gesture so familiar, so right, that it instantly drew back the years that hung like a curtain between them, and she was on the bridge of her ship sharing a secret with her cherished -- she could admit that now -- First Officer.
"Kathryn," he said softly. "Kathryn, why won't you look at me?"
She could not admit to the irrational fear that, if she did turn to look at him, she would be lost. But at the same time she knew she could never be lost to one who would go to the end of the universe to find her.
Even if she didn't want him to.
Mustering her resolve, she took a deep breath and turned to him.
His white hair was longer than she'd ever seen it, falling over his forehead almost boyishly. It obscured his tattoo and she fought off the urge to brush it away, to cup his cheek in her palm and look deep into his eyes, past all the years between them and into the soul she'd treasured once, long ago.
Her gaze moved down his face, taking in old and new lines around his eyes. His skin was burned brown from spending all his days walking the farms on Alger Prime, carving a thriving colony out of deep wilderness. Hard work had left him leaner than she'd ever seen him, well-muscled and strong. His hands gripped the arm of the chair and she stared at them, remembering their competence at a handsaw or a keypad, their gentleness at smoothing knots of tension or soothing a child to sleep. Now they were lined and callused. Well-used.
As all of him was -- well-used.
He was...weatherbeaten. It was the only word she could think of to describe him. Weatherbeaten. And beautiful.
Shaking herself all over, she raised her chin. "You look fine," she said. "Healthy."
He snorted ruefully. "Healthy. Thanks for noticing."
He turned away from her, restless hands brushing dirt from his trousers. She tried to look away but found she couldn't; once allowed a long look at him, her eyes begged for more. She studied his profile in the waning afternoon light, her mind cast back to a thousand other afternoons, his profile young and stark in the artificial light of the ship's bridge.
"Kathryn?" he asked, eyes turned to her once more, pleading, as if there was something he wanted to tell her but couldn't find the words.
She frowned. "Why did you come here?"
His brows drew together in surprise. "I got Harry's message, and --"
"No. Why did you come here, Chakotay? Why now? Why not five years ago, or fifteen?"
He let out a long breath. "I've missed you, Kathryn. More than I ever thought possible. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but none more...grievous than walking away from you."
"We walked away from each other. It was a mutual decision."
"Yes. I suppose it seemed that way, to you."
She glanced at him sharply. "What do you mean by that?"
"It was a long time ago. It doesn't matter now."
"Of course it does. If I've misinterpreted something, even if it was fifteen years ago, I want to know --"
"You want to know what, Kathryn?" His voice was soft and sad, barely masking the trembling sigh beneath his words. She wanted to reach out to him, but stayed her hand with effort. "You want to know that before I ever got to Alger Prime I knew I didn't want to go? That I wanted to turn the ship around and come back to you and never leave you again? That I loved you and needed you, and that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life, but I didn't know how to make it right?"
"Do you want to know that for fifteen years I've wanted to make it right, but I couldn't, and now I've come because I'm afraid this might be my last chance? Is that what you want to know, Kathryn? Because I don't think that's what you want to know at all."
She pressed the leaf between her fingers, looking out across the valley, turning his words over and over in her mind. He hadn't said anything she didn't already know, or at least suspect, but it was still difficult to hear the words aloud. Disturbing. "Don't tell me what I want," she said finally. "You don't know what I want. You don't even know what you want."
He gasped. "What? What do you mean?"
She lifted her hand and waved the leaf, lightly painting her words into the air where she hoped he could see them clearly. "There has always been a...a hesitation in you. A reluctance to admit what you really feel."
He was silent for a long moment, staring off into the valley. "Are you calling me a coward, Kathryn?"
With the leaf brush she waved the thought away. "No. Of course not. You're one of the bravest people I've ever known." She smiled slightly, remembering. "So brave you're occasionally foolhardy."
The joke eased the little tension between them. He shifted his body away from her and the chair creaked beneath him. "I've always known what I wanted. And I've always known that I could never have it. The reluctance you've seen... Self-preservation. Nothing more."
The sun set behind them, casting long shadows over the valley. They sat quietly, watching the vibrant colors fade before their eyes, the burnished reds and golds blending slowly into the dark forest. Kathryn shivered.
Chakotay leaned forward, retrieving his duffel. "You're cold. You should go inside. I'll walk back to the transport station and --"
"You didn't answer my question."
He paused, the duffel resting lightly on his knees. "What question?" he asked warily.
She gave him a disbelieving look. "Why did you come here?"
He let out a long breath and closed his eyes. Kathryn saw his shoulders slump a little as he shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted. "I don't know anymore. I suppose I thought I could comfort you. It didn't occur to me that you might not want comforting. Or even need it." He rubbed his palms together and stared at them, his eyes bleak. "Maybe I thought things would be different this time. Maybe we could put the past behind us and start over somehow. Come to some kind of understanding, at least. I've missed you so much, Kathryn..." His breath caught in his throat and she steeled herself against it. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about you, and wish that I hadn't done so many of the things I've done. I've made so many mistakes --"
"You don't really believe that, do you?" she hissed, the words escaping her lips before she could even acknowledge the thought. Once uttered, though, she could not take them back. More words followed, her voice rising in pitch and intensity with every phrase. "You sit there wallowing in self-pity, as if this rift between us is entirely your doing. But I know you don't believe that. I know you'd like to lay the blame for all these years firmly on my shoulders. You've said it before. It's my protocol that keeps us apart. It's my self-imposed isolation. For years you told me that I wasn't alone, even though every decision was mine to make. Mine alone, Chakotay. And so I had to act as if I were alone. I couldn't afford to let you in, not when I had so many people depending on me. But as soon as that responsibility was off my shoulders, you ran away. You ran away."
Her mind whirled with the memory of it, the sudden return to an Alpha Quadrant in the midst of cataclysm, the war with the Dominion and the uneasy alliance with the Romulans, her travel-weary crew finding the strength somewhere to contribute to the effort, pushing aside their elation in the face of possible annihilation. And then the tumultuous days that followed, briefings with Starfleet, hours at a time spent convincing the Brass that her Maquis crew should be spared punishment. Exhausted, triumphant, she had gone to him with the news, exhilarated by the prospect of meeting him halfway this time, finally able to stand toe to toe with him as an equal. She carried his four shiny pips in her pocket.
He pressed them back into her hand when she offered them to him, along with his letter of resignation. No explanation was given.
Victory and defeat, all in the same hour.
She choked back tears, remembering the feel of her very soul shattering into a thousand pieces.
"I suppose I should have expected it," she whispered. "I had pushed you away for five years. I should have known your feelings had changed. But I had never considered it. You were my rock, Chakotay. I expected you to be steady. I can't tell you how much it hurt to find out that you weren't, and to know that I was to blame, at least in part."
He reached out a hand to her but she waved it away. "You're not the only one who has regrets, Chakotay. You're not the only one who wakes up every morning and wishes things could have been different between us."
She rose slowly, stiffly, and handed him his sweater. The evening breeze dried the tears on her cheeks and sent a shiver down her spine. "I'm going inside. There's no sense in you going back to the transport station tonight. WeatherNet has scheduled a thunderstorm and you'll never make it in time. I have plenty of room. Bring your things inside and I'll heat up some vegetable soup."
He caught her hand in his as she passed by. "I never knew, Kathryn," he whispered. "I never knew."
She turned on him, her anger welling up again. "That's because you never asked."
She wrenched her arm from his grasp and moved swiftly up the hill and back to the house. Behind her she heard him sink down into the leaves, crying softly into his cupped hands.
Much later, long after they had eaten in uneasy silence and he had retired to the room she made up for him, she remembered the painting. She ran outside but the canvas was ruined, blown from the easel and streaked with rain, matted with fallen leaves. She wrestled it inside and found her dress had become a whirling maelstrom of color, mottled and mysterious.
He was awakened by an insistent snuffling, a warm wet breath in his ear -- an orange and white tabby cat, investigating him while he slept.
"You're a curious thing, aren't you?" he whispered. The cat eyed him suspiciously, plucking at the sheets. "Sorry if I've taken your spot, friend. I'll be gone tomorrow. I promise."
The cat backed away a little, then lay down and licked its paws, keeping one wary eye on him.
In the quiet darkness he lay very still, listening to the old house around him. The wind had picked up and the structure protested each gust with a soft creaking, a long-suffering sort of complaint. Rain was coming; he'd seen the storm clouds gathering over the valley as he stripped for bed. Likely there would be a downpour, inevitably followed by clear skies in the morning. Silently he cursed Earth's weather net, and longed for Alger Prime's unpredictable environment.
There was a rustling from the next room, a soft sigh. He closed his eyes. It was so familiar, lying still and hearing her breath in the room next door. Emotion tightened in his chest and he heard the first drops of rain strike the roof.
The old tabby yawned and stretched. Chakotay reached out to it but it hissed and drew away from him. Sadly, he pulled his hand back.
"Unwelcome here, too," he whispered.
The cat turned its back on him and crept to the foot of the bed.
He sighed. "I shouldn't have come."
The intensity of the rain increased while he rolled to his back, one arm across his eyes. He could go. If he was very careful, he could use Kathryn's computer to cancel his passage to Vulcan and summon a transport back to San Francisco, where he still had rooms waiting. He could refuse the invitation to teach at the Academy so he wouldn't have to be near her -- she didn't want it. Clearly she didn't want him there. All he'd ever wanted was to make things easier for her. Rarely had he been able to do it. Too many times his own emotions had gotten in the way. He'd come to ease her grief, but all he'd done was add to it.
He would slip away, unnoticed, into the rain.
Quietly he rose and pulled on his clothes. The tabby raised its head and watched him shove his belongings back into the canvas bag. He found his boots in the dusty corner where he'd left them, just a few hours before. He tied them together and threw them over his shoulder, not wanting to wake her with the sound of his heavy steps on the old stairs.
At the open door he paused, looking back into the room. The cat had already moved to the head of the bed and curled up in the warm space he'd left. Chakotay smiled. "You got what you wanted, friend. That's a rare gift. Precious. Be thankful for it." He shook his head sadly. "Some of us have never been so lucky."
He closed the door behind him and crept into the dark hallway, stepping lightly on the old floorboards. A bolt of lightning briefly lit his path and he stopped. Her door was open.
A full minute passed while he stood still and argued with himself, begged himself not to look. But in the end he couldn't bear it, couldn't stand to leave her without one last glimpse of her face, even in sleep. He took a hesitant step forward, then another. Thunder masked the sound of the old floor, creaking under his weight.
She lay on her side, her fists balled beneath her chin, her hair loose and free, spread across her pillow in a shining silver fan. He would have given anything he owned to run his fingers through it one last time, or to wipe away the worried frown that creased her brow. Without a thought he stepped forward, drawn toward her as he always had been, always would be. The dog that lay across the foot of her bed gave a warning growl.
"You too?" he whispered. "I thought we had an understanding... Don't worry, I'm going." He took a deep breath, staring at her face. "Good bye, Kathryn. Have a good life."
He turned away before the tears started. Somehow he knew that, once spilled, they would not stop.
Softly, softly, he made his way down the old staircase, surprised that he could negotiate the steps when he couldn't even see them.
Her terminal came to life at his command. Methodically, emotionlessly, he canceled his passage to Vulcan and summoned a transport to San Francisco. He booked passage back to Alger Prime, alerted his secretary that he would be returning earlier than expected, and sent a quick message to his sister. He considered leaving messages for Tom and B'Elanna and Harry, who would be arriving in Indiana in just a few hours. He wanted to lash out at them, tell them that their entreaty to just go to her, just show up at her door and let events unfold, had led to this unfortunate scene. But there would be time, plenty of time on the passage to Alger, for him to send them all personal notes. By then his emotions would have cooled, his grief eased into the dull mantle of regret that had been his life for many years.
He'd met T'Pel only once, but he owed her a note of consolation at least.
Finally, he composed a short letter to Starfleet Academy, expressing his regrets. It was more difficult than he had anticipated, turning down their informal offer. Deep down he'd wanted it, wanted to return to Earth and start over again. Alger Prime represented very little to him but endless hard work, and although it was gratifying to see the city he'd constructed from his own will, built by his own hand, it wasn't home. Earth had always been that for him.
No. Not always. First there had been Voyager. It was the home he would always want to return to. She was the home.
A feeling of finality settled over him as he addressed the message. His fingers hesitated over the command to send. Something was ending here, something that had permeated his life for almost thirty years. He was reluctant to let it go so painfully, so suddenly.
With a tired sigh he reached out to send the message.
"What are you doing?"
His fingers stilled on the keypad.
He hadn't heard her on the stairs; she must know exactly how to navigate around the weak places so that she could descend silently, unexpectedly.
She stood at the foot of the stairs, one hand resting on the banister, the other straightening the closures of a well-worn bathrobe. The dog stepped down and moved protectively in front of her. Chakotay frowned at it, but could not look away from her for long.
A bolt of lightning split the air outside and lit up the room for an instant. Her face was stark white in the momentary brightness.
He raised his chin. "I'm sending a message. To the Academy."
"You're going to accept the position?"
"No. I'm turning it down. I'm going back to Alger tomorrow."
"What?" Her eyes darted to the canvas bag, neatly packed and waiting by the door, to his boots in the shadow beside it. "I thought you were coming to Vulcan with us."
He shook his head. "I shouldn't have come here, Kathryn. I've only caused you pain. Again." He ran a hand through his hair. "I never realized how much pain I caused you until tonight. I'm sorry for it all. I'll go."
"Damn you," she hissed. "You're doing it again."
"Running away. You've been doing it your whole life, haven't you? Running away from your family, from Starfleet, from me. You've been running away from your feelings."
"Not from my feelings, Kathryn. Because of them."
She waved her hand at him. "There's hardly a difference."
"But there is a difference."
"If this is what you call self-preservation, Chakotay, then it is cowardly."
His fists balled at his sides. "Then you're as guilty of it as I am. Maybe more."
She took a strong step into the room, brushing the dog aside. Her eyes were very bright. "Then break the cycle, Chakotay. Do something brave. Show me... Show me the Angry Warrior."
He gasped, surprised, as she took another unwavering step toward him. "I know he isn't gone, Chakotay. I can see him in your eyes."
A clap of thunder shook the house around them. He took a hesitant step forward, blood pounding in his ears. "It doesn't matter anymore, but I know what I want."
"You know, now?"
He shook his head. "I always knew, Kathryn. I just couldn't tell you."
She raised her chin. "Tell me now."
"I want to accept the Academy's offer."
"They why are you turning it down?"
"Because it's not the only thing I want." He crossed toward her hesitantly, drawing strength from her unflinching gaze. "I want you to go with me to San Francisco. I want you to be my research partner. You're a more methodical scientist than I am. You're smarter than I am."
"Chakotay -- "
He heard the warning in her voice, but pressed on, before he lost his nerve. "I want to work beside you every day. I want to make discoveries with you. Decisions. I want to argue with you. I want to see you sitting in my chair, drinking my coffee and laughing." He took a deep breath, willing himself to continue, to tell her everything. "And when there's time for a break in the work, I want to come back to this house and see my belongings mingled with yours. I want to put up a new porch swing and fix the shed door so it doesn't slam when the wind blows. I want to help you design a terrace garden and watch you work in it on a Sunday afternoon. I want to learn which stairs creak so I can sneak down in the morning and make you breakfast without waking you up. I want to -- "
His voice caught in his throat and he lowered his head, his words barely more than a whisper now. "I want to make your dog like me. I know it won't make any difference now. But I thought you should know."
She stood still, watching him warily, for such a long time that he finally turned away. Disheartened, he retrieved his duffel and boots and headed for the door. It was as he'd always suspected; he'd made his declaration and she'd refused him, refused to even acknowledge it. With each step away from her he felt a piece of his soul fall away.
He pulled on his boots and shouldered his duffel. His hand fell on the door latch and he hesitated, wanting desperately to turn back to her one last time, knowing that if he did he'd never be able to leave her.
He lifted the latch.
"When the Jem Hadar strafed Alger Prime, I was afraid."
Her voice seemed small and distant, as if coming to him from across some vast gulf of space and time. He froze instantly, holding his breath.
"It was a rogue squadron of Alpha Quadrant soldiers, protesting their confinement to one sector of space. I knew that. I also knew that it was my responsibility to be at Headquarters assessing the damage and preparing for the possibility of another attack.
"But I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't go to the office for days because I knew the casualty list would be there. I knew how many people had been killed, and I knew that as the governor of the colony you'd be a high priority target. I was afraid you'd be on that casualty list. And even if you weren't on that list, I knew we couldn't evacuate the colony in time to prevent another attack. So you might be on the next list, or the next. And I wouldn't be able to help you. Or you'd organize a retaliatory force and be caught up in another conflict like the Maquis. If the Federation decided not to protect Alger Prime, I wouldn't be able to help you. I was powerless, Chakotay. And afraid."
He dropped his duffel noiselessly and turned to her. She stood straight and proud, with tears on her cheeks.
"When I finally reviewed the casualty list and saw that you weren't on it, I was overcome with relief. I cried for hours, thanking a dozen deities I don't even believe in for sparing your life. I cried like a child, Chakotay, and when I was able to think about it, I was appalled at myself. After all the time and distance that separated us, five years and five hundred light years, you still had an undeniable pull on me. Like a tide."
He shook his head, moving slowly toward her. "Like binary stars," he whispered. "We pull on each other."
She nodded. "Yes. That was ten years ago. And we're still pulling. Only now, we're trying to pull away."
"Why? Why do we do this to each other?"
"I don't know," she whispered. "I don't think I ever will."
He took a last step toward her and stopped just a breath away from her. "What happened to us, Kathryn? I expected Seven and Harry to pull apart. Hell, I even thought Tom and B'Elanna might not be able to make it work in this quadrant. But you and I... I thought we'd always find a way to make it work. What happened to us?"
"There was never an 'us,' Chakotay."
"You're wrong. There was always an 'us.' You just refused to acknowledge it until it was too late."
"'Too late.' You mean, after we returned to Earth."
"Yes. I wanted you to want me on both sides of the wormhole, whether we held the same rank or not."
"It wasn't possible in the Delta Quadrant. You know that."
"No. You know that. I don't." He put his hands on her shoulders tentatively. "Tell me, Kathryn. Did you never come to me there because of protocol, or because you honestly didn't want me?"
She squirmed a little under his grasp. "What difference does it make? Why are you asking me this now?"
Fifteen years suddenly fell away and he was standing in his quarters, pressing his letter of resignation into her hand along with his cursed rank pips, the question he desperately wanted to ask her dying on his lips. "Because I've had fifteen years to think about it Kathryn. Fifteen years to regret not asking you when I should have. And fifteen years to prepare myself for the answer, no matter what it is." He kneaded her shoulders gently with his fingers, reliving all the moments he had wanted to touch her this way. "I adored you almost from the moment I met you, Kathryn. Adored you, wanted you, needed you. Feared you. Even after we started to drift apart it was you I thought of, it was you I imagined in my arms even when it was someone else. It was always you. Can't you tell me that you felt a little of the same? Even once, even a long time ago?"
The storm raged around them as he stood still, staring into her eyes. Her lips trembled and he fought hard not to still them with his own.
"Of course I wanted you," she whispered. "I've always wanted you."
His heart pounded in his chest. "It's not too late, Kathryn. We have time. We can talk about what happened and start over."
She closed her eyes. "Is this why you came here?" she whispered intently. "To wrench a late-night confession from me?"
In spite of himself, he smiled. His head was swimming, his heart was beating wildly, he was within mere centimeters of holding her in his arms for the first time in fifteen years. He smiled. "No. I came here because of Tuvok."
To his surprise, an expression of profound amusement crossed her features. "Tuvok," she breathed. "Oh, Tuvok... After all these years, wouldn't he be shocked to find out he's the instrument of our reconciliation?"
With that he drew her into his arms and laughed long and hard, laughed until there were tears on his cheeks. She buried her face in his chest and laughed with him, holding him close. She stayed in his arms even after their mirth had subsided, her palms flat against his back, her face turned up to him.
"I can't promise you anything," she murmured, her brows knit together. "I can only vow to listen and to talk."
"To be honest with me?"
"Yes. From now on, always honest."
He ran a hand through her hair, almost moved to tears by the silky feel of it. "That's all I ask, Kathryn. Talk, listen, and be honest."
She touched his face tentatively, her fingertips lightly grazing his cheeks. "And what do you promise in return?"
"The same -- to talk, to listen, to be honest." He cocked his head to one side, considering his words carefully. "I also promise not to condemn either of us for things that happened fifteen or more years ago. I promise to take each hour with you for what it is -- a gift that I never thought I would receive."
She stepped away from him, holding his hands in her own. "Will you come with me to Vulcan?"
"Yes, of course I will."
"It will be awkward. Tom and B'Elanna will be here, and Harry. All of them. It will be the first time they've seen us together in fifteen years."
"We'll manage." He raised her hands to his face. "We'll get through it somehow, Kathryn. Together."
"Together," she echoed. "Good night, Chakotay." She gave his hands a small squeeze and moved to the staircase.
He watched her disappear into the dark hallway, her dog following close at her heels. "Good night, love," he murmured.
With great care he mounted the stairs, taking note of each loose step. In the morning he would find a hammer and nails and start with the old staircase.