ETCHED IN STONE

by Keaton Bridges

Star Trek Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount.

For four days Voyager had been in orbit around Kroi, an m-class planet where abundant supplies had been secured and the crew had taken a long overdue shore leave. The people of the planet, who looked surprisingly human except for slight ridges at their temples, had been extremely helpful and their hospitality had been amazing. It was a visit the crew would not soon forget.

In twenty-four hours the last group to take shore leave would return and soon after Voyager would resume course for the Alpha quadrant. Kathryn was anxious to 'get back on the road' as she had put it to Chakotay, but their weekly dinner together had settled her somewhat.

After pouring them both more wine she set the bottle aside and watched him absently twisting his glass by the stem, deep in thought. They had finished their meal half an hour earlier and had been talking since yet Kathryn knew something was bothering him.

"Is anything wrong, Chakotay?" she asked softly.

Stirred from his thoughts by her voice he looked up at her. Kathryn felt her stomach tighten at the pained expression on his face and leaned toward him. "What is it?"

Chakotay took a deep breath. "I've spent the last day and a half trying to decide how to tell you this and there just is no easy way to do it." He leaned forward resting his arms on the table aside his plate. "I've decided to resign and stay here on Kroi. I'm sorry, Kathryn."

Her mouth had fallen open at the word resign. "You aren't serious." she whispered.

"I'm afraid I am." he said finding it hard to face her. "And there's more. Eight members of my former crew wish to stay as well."

News that she was losing eight members of her crew had barely registered. She only knew that Chakotay was leaving and that she suddenly felt as if she was drowning. Barely able to breathe she stared at him in disbelief, her heart pounding. Chakotay held her gaze and waited for whatever was to come.

"Why?" she managed, her voice strangled.

Chakotay pushed his plate aside and rested his arms on the table, fingers interlaced. His gaze drifted to the table as he spoke. "The last day I was on shore leave I met a woman who reminded me of you. We had lunch together and I found myself telling her all about you. How we ended up in the Delta quadrant, and how we've been working together for the past five years to get our crew home." For only a moment his eyes met her blank stare. "By the time I realized I was going on and on about you I saw that the look in her eyes had changed. Where there had been interest in me at first, it changed to distance. The same distance I see in your eyes." With this he stood and walked to one of the viewports and looked down at the planet, hands resting on the ledge. "I've finally realized that I can't spend the rest of this journey facing that every day. Each time I feel us growing closer, that distance clouds your eyes and I'm forced to step back. I just can't do it anymore, Kathryn. I need more."

Kathryn swallowed hard yet the lump in her throat remained. Still unable to find her voice she stared at the table and forced herself to breathe.

"This planet is very much like Earth." Chakotay went on. "I like the people. I can see myself settling here, having a good life." He glanced over his shoulder to see she had not moved then turned his gaze back to the planet. "There's also the question of what's in store for the Maquis when Voyager gets back to Earth. I think you know me well enough to know I would've been ready to face whatever came, but the others who want to stay are not so inclined. They'd rather take their chances here and make a new life." He turned and went back to sit across from Kathryn. She was pale and continued to stare at the table. "What I can't face," he went on gently, "is the thought of remaining for years on this ship with you, but without you."

Kathryn put a trembling hand to her mouth and closed her eyes unable to look at him.

"I'm sorry, Kathryn. I know I made a promise to you, to always be there for you. but it's just too difficult. I need...I want more in this life and I can't have it on Voyager. I have to move on."

Summoning every ounce of courage she could find, Kathryn finally looked at him and forced up an almost believeable smile. "I understand." she said. "I want you to be happy, Chakotay. It's my fault you're facing a lifetime aboard this ship. I can't blame you for wanting to make the best of a bad situation." With a deep sigh she added. "I want you to have everything you want out of life."

Though he did not speak his eyes clearly said 'You are everything I want'. Kathryn looked away.

"It won't be the same without you." she said thinking it was a gross understatement. She stood and walked away taking up his earlier position at the viewport. "It's hard to even imagine..." she began but the words caught in her throat. In self defense agains the pain she slipped into anger. "It would've been nice to have more notice."

"I am sorry for that." he said as he saw her stiffen and cross her arms. "I'll work with Tuvok on replacements. It shouldn't be a problem, especially since the cross-training programs were implemented."

"Those programs were started eleven months ago." Kathryn said flatly. "Were you even then planning your departure?"

"That's unfair, and the answer is no." he said failing to keep the anger from his voice.

Kathryn turned and sat on a nearby chair barely visible as she sank into the shadows. "You and the others will be debriefed..." she said exhaling. "I'm sure you know the process." She turned her head toward the viewport and Chakotay could see her profile. "Are any of them essential personnel?"

"No." When several moments of uncomfortable silence passed he stood and took a few steps toward the door then stopped and turned to face her. "I'll send the list of those who wish to stay to you and Tuvok." He saw her nod very slightly. "I will do all I can to make the transition..."

"That won't be necessary." she interrupted. "Tuvok and I will take care of it."

"As you wish." he snapped and regretted it immediately, adding in a gentler tone, "I'll have my final reports and resignation to you by 2100." When he again moved toward the door Kathryn stood suddenly. Chakotay stopped and turned back toward her as she stepped into the light but came no closer. His heart wrenched at the sadness in her eyes but he quickly reminded himself that she had the power to stop it. She had only to open her mouth and speak the words.

"At the risk of sounding selfish, is there anything I can say to change your mind?" she said barely above a whisper.

Chakotay looked at her for a long time, his expression one of resignation and sadness. "You know the answer to that, Kathryn. And we both know it's not going to happen." Holding his breath he searched her eyes for the faintest indication that she would stop this, ask him to stay. His own eyes pleaded with her but she turned slightly away.

"When do you leave?"

Fighting down the sudden urge to shake from her the words he so deperately wanted to hear, Chakotay swallowed and spoke as calmly as he could. "I'll meet with Tuvok along with the others to tie up all the loose ends, then I'd like to make rounds to say my good-bye's." He exhaled heavily. "A few hours."

Looking down at the floor she said quietly. "I'll see you at 2100 then."

Chakotay quickly turned and left as Kathryn squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her teeth, her shaking hands tightening into fists. She stood on the spot for a long time until finally she felt her legs would carry her and moved to the table to clear their dishes.

Kathryn's appearance at the debriefing was via the computer terminal in Tuvok's office. She saw in Tuvok's eyes his awareness of her pain, and understanding that she had chosen to remain in the privacy of her quarters. Mercifully he handled the debriefing quickly then asked his captain if she had anything to add. When she answered that she did not, he terminated the transmition. Chakotay had grown to know Tuvok very well over the past five years and clearly saw the deep concern for Kathryn in his eyes. He felt a pang of guilt but quickly pushed it aside.

After dismissing the others Tuvok asked Chakotay to remain. When they were alone Tuvok leaned back in his chair and looked at his former commander. "I find your decision to leave Voyager and her crew difficult to accept." he said. "However, I do understand."

Chakotay almost snorted. "Do you?"

"I have spent many years with humans and have observed them on many occasions make decisions that are not in their best interest."

"This decision is in my best interest." Chakotay snapped.

"Are you certain?"

"Look, Tuvok," Chakotay said, unable to hide his annoyance any longer, "I would hate to leave with any animosity between us, but this is my business. Whether or not you understand my reasons for this decision makes no difference to me. Just respect it."

Tuvok slowly nodded. Chakotay was right. "This crew has benefited greatly from your leadership, Mr. Chakotay. You have been very important to them, and you will be missed."

"Thank you for that." Chakotay said with a nod. "I will miss them as well." He stood and extended his hand. "Including you, Tuvok."

Tuvok rose before grasping Chakotay's hand in a firm shake. Though they had not been close there had always been mutual respect between them. When the handshake ended Tuvok offered the Vulcan blessing. "Live long and prosper."

"I hope so." Chakotay said. "Goodbye."

"We will be within communications range for approximately seventy-two hours." Tuvok said.

Although Chakotay had turned and started to leave, he stopped and faced Tuvok with a slight smile. "I'm not going to change my mind, if that's what you mean." With a slight nod he turned and left.

B'Elanna busied herself on the upper level of engineering having sent the others below. She knew Chakotay would come to say goodbye since she was on duty and could not go to him. The upper level would allow them some privacy and she had plenty to say.

When she heard the lift coming up she walked over to meet it, scowling when his grinning face appeared. He stepped from the lift and stood in front of her.

"Reporting for my dressing down, Leutenant." he said.

"Don't you dare be flip with me." she spat, crossing her arms. "How can you do this?"

Chakotay took her elbow and led her to an even more private spot. "B'Elanna, I'm doing this for me. I've spent five years giving my all to this crew and if it's selfish to think of myself for a change, then I'm sorry."

Her expression softened when she heard the sadness in his voice, saw it clearly in his eyes. "But we're your family." she said feebly.

"In a way, yes." he admitted with a nod. "And I'd be lying if I said this isn't painful for me, but try to understand. I need more than I'll ever have on Voyager. It's taken me a long time to realize that."

"I understand." B'Elanna said and turned away slightly, looking down at the floor. Suddenly her head snapped up, her face a mask of anger. "I understand that she could keep you here with us if she wanted to!"

Chakotay gently turned her back to face him. "Don't." he said softly.

"Don't what?"

"Don't blame her."

"Why not?" she almost yelled, then shook her head and lowered her voice. "It's because of her that you're leaving. She's too stubborn to..." Despite her best efforts tears sprang to her eyes.

"It's complicated, B'Elanna." Chakotay said patiently. "Sometimes I don't even understand it myself." He leaned closer. "Promise me you won't hold this against her."

"Why can't you two just get over all this protocol bullshit and be together?" she almost pleaded.

Chakotay exhaled. "This isn't exactly a good time to get into all that." he said, trying to lighten the mood. B'Elanna wasn't buying it. "Just try to understand that I have to leave. I have to find out what else this life has for me." He swallowed to get rid of the lump in his throat.

B'Elanna suddenly threw her arms around his neck and held him tightly. "I can't stand this." she said over his shoulder.

"You'll be fine." he said, patting her back. When she pulled back he brushed her tears away. "You and Tom have each other. Have a happy life."

She started to speak but the tears began anew and she stepped away wiping at them with her sleeve. "Damn it, Klingons don't cry."

Chakotay chuckled. "I know better than that." He stepped closer. "B'Elanna," he said and waited for her eyes to meet his, "you've been a good friend and I treasure that. You're an excellent officer as well." With a slight grin he added. "Who would've ever believed it." She smirked at him. "I will never forget you."

B'Elanna forced up a small smile. "As mad as I am at you, I hope you find what you're looking for. I'm going to miss you terribly."

"Remember what I said about not blaming Kathryn." he gently reminded her.

B'Elanna nodded. "Something tells me she's going to blamer herself." she said almost whispering. "And that she'll never be the same again." She regretted her words when she saw the expression on his face, as if he'd never considered this. "We'll take care of her." she offered, placing a hand on his arm. Again they embraced and whispered their goodbyes. B'Elanna could not watch him leave and went to a console as he boarded the lift, unable to see a single thing through her tears.

Chakotay found Tom and Harry in Sandrine's. They put down their cues and went toward him when he entered. Tom was wearing a small smile but Harry looked to be on the verge of tears.

"Tom, Harry." Chakotay said, placing his hands on his hips.

"You're really leaving?" Harry asked.

Chakotay nodded. "I'm going to miss you two." he said, looking at one then the other. He would've sworn he saw Harry's chin quiver.

"We need you, Chakotay." Tom said. "I'm asking you to reconsider. Please."

Harry nodded in agreement.

"Thanks, Tom." Chakotay said. "But my mind's made up."

"Well, I had to try." Tom said as he placed a hand on his former commander's shoulder. "Neelix is really upset that he doesn't have time to throw you a big going away party."

"He'll get over it." Chakotay said with a grin.

Harry took a deep breath and spoke. "Comman...Chakotay, it has been an honor working for you. I wish you all the best andI'll miss you."

"Ditto." Tom said. Chakotay was more than a little surprised to see Tom's eyes glistening with tears as he extended his hand. Tom pushed the hand aside and took Chakotay into a fierce bear hug. "Take care of yourself."

Harry stepped up and followed Tom's example, hugging Chakotay firmly.

Chakotay paused for a moment looking at them as if committing their faces to memory. "Behave yourselves." he said with a smile.

"Not a chance." Tom quipped.

"Keep up the good work, both of you." Chakotay said, then turned and left.

After spending another two hours making rounds to say his goodbyes Chakotay started to his quarters to pack his belongings. He tried to busy his mind with what lay ahead for him on his new homeworld. It didn't work. All thoughts came right back to Kathryn. He had known leaving would be hard, but he had not been prepared for the level of pain and sadness he was experiencing.

As he entered his quarters and began to gather his things, he knew a very small part of him was relieved to be going. Not seeing Kathryn every day would have to be less painful than how he was living now. He told himself that the grief would fade and eventually pass, even if not completely. He would then be free to build a new life. A whole life. The larger part of him was questioning his decision without any sign of stopping. Was any life, anywhere, worth living without her? Would he ever truly get over her? Would be forever compare every woman he met to Kathryn?

Anger overtook him and he found himself standing by the bed where his clothes were piled, clenching and unclenching his fists, fighting to hold in a wail of anguish that threatened to shake the very bulkheads around him. Almost as quickly as the anger came it passed leaving him spent. Sinking onto the bed with his head in his hands he told himself the decision was made and that Kathryn, damn her, wasn't about to ask him to change it. This was exactly why he had come to his decision in the first place. It was as B'Elanna had said...Kathryn was too stubborn. Though it had never been his plan to force her hand by threatening to leave, he hadn't been above hoping. Now he faced a future without her. In less than two hours he would leave Voyager, and Kathryn.

Nextdoor Kathryn sat idly at the dining table staring blankly at the wine glass Chakotay had used at dinner. Having recycled the the other dishes she could not bring herself to part with his glass. Despite her silence and stillness her emotions were reeling as question after question tumbled through her mind demanding answers. 'Why after five years did he decide to leave?' Because he wants more than I can give. 'How can he leave all those who have become his family?' Because there is still an emptiness in his life. 'How can he leave me?' Because I am not his.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts she summoned Captain Janeway. Voyager would survive. Tuvok would fill the position of first officer and...Kathryn resurfaced wanting to know who would be her dinner companion, her sounding board and counselor...her best friend? The thought of never being able to talk to him again, see his smiling dimpled face, made her sick to her stomach.

Noting the time she was surprised at how long she had sat there lost in her thoughts. Soon he would come to say goodbye and she was filled anew with dread and sadness. Slowly she stood and went to freshen up. She changed into a fresh uniform, washed her face and brushed her hair, all the while wishing she would wake from this terrible dream. Her reflection in the mirror revealed the distant eyes Chakotay had spoken of and she let out a small moan. After tonight, she wondered, what would replace the distance? Emptiness? Hopelessness? Regret?

Moving slowly back into the living area she again found herself gazing at the solitary wine glass on the dining table.

Chakotay had an ensign take his travel cases to one of the transporter rooms keeping only a duffel with him. Standing in his quarters he looked around then let his eyes settle on the wall that separated his quarters from Kathryn's. Saying goodbye to the crew had not been easy but he knew he now faced the most difficult moments of his life. Saying goodbye to Kathryn. Feeling he needed a few more moments to prepare he sank into a chair and kept his eyes fixed on the wall. A sad smile almost found its way to his lips as he thought How does one prepare to rip out their own heart? How do you walk away having looked for the last time upon the face of the one you love more than life itself?

At precisely 2100 Chakotay rang the door chime of Kathryn's quarters. Simultaneously he heard the sound of glass shattering. Whispering her name urgently he entered his code to open the door only to be informed by the computer that the code was no longer valid.

"Kathryn!" he called. When there was no response he tapped his chest where now there was no combadge. As he was about to call her name again the doors opened and he rushed inside. In the semi-darkness he spotted her kneeling in front of the replicator picking up shards of glass.

"It's alright." she said, smiling up at him. "I just dropped a glass."

Chakotay let his duffel drop to the floor as he started toward her but stopped when she held up a hand.

"I've got it." she said then rose and dropped the glass into the recycler. Brushing her hands off on her thighs she came toward him.

"All packed?" she asked as if he were merely going on an away mission.

His first reaction was anger at her calmness, her behaving as if this was an every day occurance. Then he realized that she was trying to make this easier on the both of them.

"Yes." he answered then turned to retrieve two padds from his pack. Handing them to her he said, "My final reports, and my resignation."

Kathryn nodded and placed them on the table behind her then looked up at him and smiled again. "Do you have a few minutes?"

"Of course." he answered, still unable to manage a smile for her. She gestured toward the sofa and they went to sit, taking positions at either end. The same thought went throught both their minds...how many evenings had they spent here on this sofa talking into the wee hours of the morning?

When Kathryn had crossed her legs and arms she looked at him and spoke without a tremor. "I met with the others earlier. I made sure they understood I hold nothing against them for their decisions to stay, that I wish them only the best. I truly hope they'll be happy."

"That was very kind." he said, noting the flash of hurt in her eyes.

"It wasn't kindness, Chakotay. I meant it."

"I know you did."

After a moment's hesitation she went on. "You've been the finest first officer I could ever ask for and I want you to know that no one will ever fill your shoes." Only by sheer will was she able to keep her voice level and strong and tears from her eyes. "It will never be the same around here. Most of all, I will miss my best friend."

"As will I." he said, pausing for a moment. "It has been an honor, a privilege to serve with you." There was so very much more he wanted to say yet he took his cue from her, sticking to the less painful sentiments. With a small smile he added softly. "I have no doubt you're going to get this crew home."

Kathryn maintained eye contact as her expression softened. "I hope you will find everything you're looking for, and more. You deserve much happiness."

"I appreciate that." Chakotay said as he looked down at the sofa between them. Despite the hope he had held all evening, he knew this indeed would be their final farewell. Slowly his eyes came up to hers and he allowed himself a good long look. It would have to last a lifetime. When the moment became uncomfortable he stood and went to his duffel to retrieve a small wooden box then came back and handed it to her. Remaining on his feet he smiled slightly. "It's just a small parting gift." he said. "Open it later."

"Thank you." Kathryn said, seeming to be uncomfortable. She added sadly, "I don't have anything for you."

Oh, Gods, yes you do he thought, Your heart, your love! You're just not willing to let yourself give it. "It's alright." he said with a slight smile. Kathryn looked down at the box then placed it on the table by the sofa and stood before him. "Take care of yourself." she said and placed a palm over his heart. He covered her hand with his own.

"You too." Having her so close and still being unable to take her into his arms reminded him why he was leaving. He let go of her hand and went to pick up the duffel then turned to face her again as he shouldered the strap. He looked at her for a long time recording this last image of her in his mind. An image that would be with him until he drew his last breath. "Goodbye, Kathryn."

Her mouth moved with the word 'goodbye' but no sound came. And then he was gone.

Kathryn's will vanished, her strength evaporated the moment he left and she sank onto the sofa wrapping her arms around herself. Closing her eyes the memories flooded in. The expression on his face the first time he tasted a dish made with leola root, his excitement over an away mission that peaked his interest, his sheepish grin when she blistered him at pool in Sandrine's. She remembered how Tuvok had been forced to nearly drag Chakotay from sickbay when she had been transported back from the Borg cube, his face contorted with stark fear for her. His face alllit up with pleasure when he had presented her with the bathtub on New Earth. All the dinners they had shared, the long talks and even their disagreements.

Forcing herself to stop Kathryn reached for the box and placed it on her lap. With trembling hands she opened the lid and peered inside, a sob escaping as she lifted the stone. It was similar to the one from his medicine bundle except for the etching. Holding it in her palm she touched it gently with a forefinger, tracing the pattern that matched his tatoo.

Her eyes came up slowly then widened. "No." she whispered then hit her combadge. "Janeway to Chakotay." The computer informed her the combadge was no longer activated. Instantly she was on her feet rushing from her quarters still clutching the stone. In a panic, it had not occured to her to contact the transporter room and have him detained, so she ran. She ran as if her life depended on it, and suddenly, she knew that it did. Tracing the pattern on the stone, it had hit her like a bolt of lightening.

I can't lose him.

When Kathryn literally stumbled into the transporter room she was just in time to see three shimmering silhouettes disappear. Panting, she stared at the platform while behind her a confused ensign shuffled, unsure of what to do.

"Captain?" he said but she did not respond. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. "Captain?"

Kathryn snapped around in surprise having forgotten there was anyone else in the room. "It's alright, Ensign." she said moving toward the door. "As you were." Once in the corridor her steps slowed as two conflicting voices again battled in her mind. 'It's over. Let him go.' I can still contact him 'He's gone to build a life.' Without me. 'It's his decision. Let it be.' It's a lousy decision! 'He wants all of you, or nothing. You can't give him that.' All or nothing...all or nothing...all or nothing...

Stopping in front of the turbolift she lifted her hand and gazed at the stone as those three words repeated over and over in her mind...all or nothing. She did not hear the turbolift doors open and continued to stare at the familiar symbol on the stone. All or nothing...

"Are you getting on or not?" came the question.

The voice registered. Very slowly she lifted her head and looked into his face.

"I forgot something and had to go back..." he began but stopped when he saw her chin begin to quiver. A puzzled look came over his face. "Kathryn?"

Without a word she stepped into the turbolift and into his arms, burying her face in his chest. As heart wrenching sobs shook her body he held her, stroking her back and whispering to her as the turbolift doors slid closed...