Chakotay slowly walked along the edge of the clearing, smiling to himself. From his vantage point, he could clearly make out the silhouettes of the Voyager crew enjoying their last night of shore leave. Things were winding down, but a few couples were still dancing in lazy circles. Shouts and laughter still rang out at gradually decreasing frequency. Chakotay silently thanked the spirits for providing them with such a beautiful uninhabited planet to recoup on, right on course for Earth.
The senior command triad were in their preferred configuration for the party. Tuvok was enjoying peace and quiet manning the ship, Chakotay was monitoring the party, and the captain was off duty. Maybe it wasn't her first choice, but Chakotay and Tuvok were both sternly set on her taking the night off, and she had given in.
Content that things were under control, Chakotay turned away from the clearing. He walked down the short hill to the beautiful lake that was the main attraction of their base camp. His excuse was that he needed to make sure no inebriated crewmen tried to go for a swim, but really, he was looking for the person he wanted to spend his last night of shore leave with.
Kathryn was right where he expected to find her, sitting on a log, looking out at the water. Chakotay rustled nearby branches as he approached so as not to startle her. She turned to him and smiled. When he got closer, she slid over slightly to make room for him to sit beside her. He took her silent invitation gratefully.
After he sat down, he noticed the bottle of amber liquid propped against the log. He reached down to inspect it and discovered it was half empty. He opened the cap and took a sniff. Whatever it was, it was potent.
"You didn't drink all of this yourself, I hope?" He asked.
"It was like that when I got it from the stellar cartography department," she hiccuped, "more or less."
This worried Chakotay slightly. He'd had to beam two members of that team back early when he caught them passed out at a table. Whatever had caused that, he didn't want his captain drinking. Then again, she probably knew the risks if she swiped it from them.
"What is it?" He asked.
"Not sure, but it's pretty good," she replied, unbothered.
Chakotay didn't want to spoil the mood by pulling out his tricorder, so he took a tentative sip instead. It had the deep, smokey caramel taste of good bourbon. There was an aftertaste he didn't quite recognize, but it didn't seem any more toxic than any other liquor.
For a few minutes they discussed how the party was going. Chakotay cheerfully reported on who was dancing with who, the little spats, the best jokes. Janeway laughed along gaily and posited that this had been the best shore leave yet. Chakotay agreed without hesitation.
"We could call this home, you know," Janeway said, "the crew is young, Voyager is in good shape for trade missions, or anything else we might need. The crew could live long, happy lives here."
Chakotay took another sip from the bottle and sat back to consider. They had debated this dozens of times over the years, starting when they visited Amelia Earhart's colony. Hell, they'd had the same debate about New Earth, before they got stranded. They argued endlessly, switching sides, but always reaching the same conclusion: the alpha quadrant was home. Still, they always talked it over, and this time probably wouldn't be the last.
"What about our commitment to Starfleet?" Chakotay threw out as his opening salvo.
"Fuck Starfleet," she spat back.
Chakotay was so started he nearly fell off the log. In all the times they had argued, she never swore, and never at Starfleet. He was starting to worry about how drunk she really was, even though she wasn't slurring her words. Janeway was oblivious to his discomfort and pressed on.
"A scientific organization that sends a ship to hunt down people defending their homes doesn’t deserve the loyalty of a crew as good as this one,” she said vehemently.
“You had reservations about hunting down the Maquis?” Chakotay asked, taken aback.
Janeway nodded, “I dislike the Cardassians as much as anyone. I like to think I wouldn’t have accepted the mission if it hadn’t been for Tuvok, but I was younger and more ambitious then. Maybe I would have done it anyway.”
Kathryn reached for the bottle, and Chakotay was so stunned that he handed it to her despite his previous hesitation.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked quietly.
"What was I supposed to say? Sorry we’re stuck out here, and by the way, I didn’t even want to be looking for you?” Janeway shook her head, “No, I knew my regrets weren’t worth shit. So I tried to give you my respect instead.”
Chakotay didn’t reply right away. He was stunned she hadn’t shared this with him before. He thought about all the arguments they had where such an admission might have brought them closer, might have resolved things faster. On the other hand, he thought, if he had seen it as a calculated move, maybe it would have driven them apart. If there was one thing he could say about the evening, it was that it was not calculated. Kathryn noticed his disquiet and pivoted to face him.
“It worked out, didn’t it?” she asked softly, her face full of concern.
Any remaining resentment he may have harbored melted at the sight of her insecurity. He held out his hand for the bottle and grinned.
“Yes,” Chakotay replied, “Yes, it did.”
He took a healthy swig, and, just to be safe, set the bottle down on the opposite side from his captain. They sat quietly for a few moments, looking at the lake and listening to the small waves lap against the shore. The temperature was dropping, and Chakotay thought that Kathryn may have nudged a bit closer to him, but it could have been his imagination. Finally, Kathryn spoke.
“A united crew like ours would be the perfect basis for a colony,” she said, circling back to the original topic.
If her goal had been to throw him off and win the argument, she wasn’t going to succeed, Chakotay thought. He had his reply ready from long practice.
"A big part of what unites this crew is the passion for discovery and exploration," he said, "I don't think we should give that up until we absolutely have to, Starfleet mandate or not."
Kathryn smirked, then shook her head. Chakotay tried not to get lost in the way her hair glittered in the moonlight.
"You don't have to play devil's advocate, Chakotay," she said quietly.
"No?" he asked, surprised.
"Just tonight," she said, tilting her head back in the most tantalizing way, "you could agree with me. That it would be nice if we could call this home."
Chakotay’s heart started to pound. For a long time, he had kept hopes and dreams locked away in the back of his mind. Still, when he looked into her eyes, he thought maybe this time, they were on the same page.
"Fuck Starfleet?" he said, testing the words, “Screw protocol?”
"Exactly," Kathryn replied.
Now Chakotay was certain, she had scooted closer to him. The scent of her perfume was just as intoxicating as the whiskey. He looked up and saw Voyager fly past, as a bright shooting star, but it didn’t leave him with any clarity. In its absence, there was only him and the woman he wanted in ways he couldn't even describe. He tried to recover a bit of reality regardless.
"Where that leads," he said carefully, "we cannot go."
His words were his commitment, but they felt like a betrayal. The silence as he waited for her response was deafening.
"Sometimes I wish we could," she whispered.
Chakotay tried to hold his voice steady, “So do I.”
Kathryn sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder. Chakotay badly wanted to see her face, but didn’t dare disrupt their closeness. All he could hear was the lake and the pounding of his heart.
"How do you tell someone that you care about them very much, even though you can't be with them?" she said heavily.
Chakotay focused on deep breaths, even as his heart was breaking. He had told himself countless times that simply knowing she had feelings for him would be enough. That knowing he wasn't alone would sustain him indefinitely. As he tilted his head to rest it on hers, he knew that would never be true.
"Just like that," he replied, not caring that his voice broke as he did.
Kathryn must have known that the truth wouldn't save him, but she had told him anyway. They would continue to be alone, but at least they could be alone together. Before he could suppress the reflex, Chakotay turned his head and kissed her hair.
Kathryn turned to him, but did not pull away. She aligned her face exactly so that if he kissed the same spot again, their lips would meet. Chakotay knew it was as good an invitation as he was ever going to get. The lake, her face in the moonlight, the lingering aftertaste of the alcohol - it was almost perfect.
But Chakotay knew, deep in his heart, that almost perfect wasn't good enough. Whatever the hell that booze was, neither of them were thinking straight. And as the clearer-headed party, he had to be the one to step back. He just hoped Kathryn wouldn't hate him as much as he hated himself.
He tried to chuckle lightly and held the bottle between them to create some space.
"Someone really needs to stick a warning label on this thing," he said.
"Or submit it for chemical analysis," Janeway replied, shaking her head.
She stretched her shoulders and subtly moved a few inches away. Chakotay sighed to himself. He was relieved, bitter, and heartsick all at the same time. He cursed whoever it was on the stellar cartography team who had brought the bottle down with them in the first place.
"Or burn it," he suggested.
"Not that," Kathryn replied, more sharply than he expected.
Chakotay was startled when she quickly stood up and took the bottle from his hands.
"I'll hang onto this," she said, "until we get home."
Chakotay was too surprised to say anything except to bid her good night. This seemed to be all the she required, as she wished him the same before departing for the transport site at a brisk pace. He sat alone on the log for another moment, then rose to finish his duties.
Back aboard Voyager, he stayed up late into the night replaying their encounter. It was a long while before he finally fell asleep.
The bridge was subdued the next morning. It was always a challenge to set back out for deep space, and no one looked particularly fresh. Notably, the captain was five minutes late for her shift.
"We didn't leave her down there by accident, did we?" Paris asked from the helm.
Chakotay glowered at him in response. He was feeling the affects of the alcohol from last night, and he had much less than his captain. As much as he wanted to grant her the opportunity to recover, they did have a ship to run. He raised his hand to his combadge just as Janeway entered the bridge from the ready room.
Chakotay watched her in wonder as she strode over to her seat, cheerfully barking orders to get underway. She looked as energetic as the first day he'd met her. Everyone, even Tuvok, stood up a little straighter as they performed their duties and set off.
Chakotay finally noticed that she had been carrying mugs in both hands, and was handing him one. Coffee was never be his favorite, but it sounded perfect for that morning. He was grateful that she had remembered to add cream and sugar to his. Suddenly, an alarming thought crossed his mind, and he sniffed the coffee.
"Not until we get home, I said," she whispered, smirking.
Chakotay flushed and shook his head. It took a minute for her words to sink in. She remembered the whole exchange, and didn't regret it, he realized. And she had renewed her commitment: they would pick up that conversation again when they got home.
He looked at her abruptly when he reached this conclusion. She smiled back at him, sweetly but with a touch of sadness. Chakotay smiled back, hoping his eyes would convey everything he couldn't say.
After a beat, they returned to their respective duties. Chakotay attended to his tasks with relish. Yes, he was tired, hungover, and still mourning what he couldn't have. But none of that mattered, because, at least that morning, he was full of hope.