Summary: Janeway reflects after the Equinox incident.

A/N: Written to northernexposure's prompt in the VAMB Secret Drabble 2014 exchange. The request called for a J/C pairing. Given that I don't write much J or C, this was definitely a good challenge.

Many thanks also to Delwin for beta-ing and for the usual words of wisdom (and encouraging me to sign up for the exchange.)

Disclaimer: Star Trek begins to Paramount/CBS. No copyright infringement is intended.

Hard lessons

There are few things worse than hindsight, but one of them is regret.

She can't remember where she first heard the saying. Has not always been quite sure whether hindsight is even as bad a thing as the phrase implies: the ability to understand and judge an event after it has occurred – to realise what alternative actions might have been taken – is a learning opportunity, a way to prevent a recurrence of mistakes. In any case, the phrase has sprung once more to the forefront of her mind and lingered. The regret part, predominantly, as she reflects on the unpleasantness of that emotion.

Not that it's really anything new to her.

She'd said herself that Ransom, a Starfleet officer, had abandoned everything the uniform stood for by torturing and murdering innocent life-forms. And then she – a representative of that same set of ideals – had gone and tortured a man. Whether Lessing had been guilty or not, the plain fact is: Starfleet doesn't advocate torture. Not of nucleogenic life-forms. Not of human beings. She knows that what she did in the cargo bay was wrong, whatever her motives, whatever the perceived greater good. And her treatment of Lessing – while she still detests the man's complicity in Ransom's crimes – isn't the only behaviour she's regretting.

The last few days have certainly been a learning opportunity.

Watching the warp trails through the mess hall window, she listens – not really taking in the words – as Neelix fusses (loudly) in the galley, a couple of 'willing' volunteers helping him cook a few dishes to supplement the potluck. She'll happily stand back and let the moral officer/chef 'captain' this particular 'mission'.

She'd made a point of arriving early, beaten to the mess hall by just Golwat and Chell. Only after Neelix had peered expectantly past her shoulder did she consider that maybe she and Chakotay should have come together.

It's too late now. While not exactly buzzing, enough crewmembers are present to efficiently propagate the news that the Captain showed up alone. And, to all intents and purposes, empty-handed…

"Did you bring the croutons?"

Wincing, Kathryn takes a steeling breath, then turns from the window. She hadn't heard him approach. "My replicator churned out something more akin to charcoal. Can you believe that?"

Chakotay grins. (It's a little forced, Kathryn notes.) "I can, actually."

"And how's the salad?" she politely returns.

"The replicated lettuce came out a little limp, but I compensated by burying it under some tomatoes I got from airponics."

"Terran or Talaxian?" Her interest is genuine.


Her favourite.

"They were the only variety that were ripe," he adds plainly, then, after a beat, continues with, "though, had I the option, I'd probably still have chosen them over the Terran sort. I've always found the Talaxian sweeter."

"I'll make sure I try them."

"You won't have many people fighting you for the chance."

Narrowing her eyes, she fails to see any animosity on his face. And, as his gaze turns outwards, she follows it across the room, acknowledging that, although it's still early, attendance is decidedly, troublingly low. "In hindsight, perhaps Neelix should have given it a couple of days before arranging this gathering," she says softly.

Chakotay's nod is solemn. "It is a shame that the turnout is so poor. I think it would do people good to spend some quiet time in each other's company. Even if they don't feel like it."

"I suppose everyone's tired."

He arches an eyebrow, recovering his neutral façade almost immediately. "That must be it."

Tiredness is something he can't mask. He lifts a hand to stifle a yawn. That could, of course, be a reflex action to her mentioning the subject – she yawns herself in turn – but his eyes are bloodshot, and dark circles sit beneath them.

She's already spent a great deal of mental energy analysing the conversations – disagreements – that she's had with him through the whole Equinox debacle. Her first officer did his job to the letter; her friend has suffered for it. Their friendship has suffered for it: another thing to regret.

"But you and I are here, at least," she tells him.

He looks down, holding her stare with a smile that's faint but definitely genuine. "Yes," he says. "We are."