Author's note: This is a special request for my good friend Fritz42, who asked that I write "Faith" from Chakotay's point of view. I've taken the opportunity to practice my portrayal of our favourite XO and hopefully added depth to the original story "Faith". Enjoy :)
It had almost been the end of them. Chakotay had no doubt that the onslaught of the Telan and their allies would have destroyed Voyager if the battle had continued for much longer. Now, limping back through unclaimed space, the ship's engines seemed arrhythmic and pained. Repair teams were working around the clock to bring their vessel back from the precipice of an untimely demise. It was enough, for now, but he wasn't worried about the metal shell that protected them all from the ruthlessness of space. It was her captain that held his concern.
Chakotay looked up from his monitor at the doors to the Ready Room, staring at the blank portal that barred him from her. All the crew were shaken by their flight from failure, but Kathryn was broken.
When the first blow had struck the ship with only a moment's warning she had been thrown to the floor. He had seen her even as smoke billowed from Voyager's first wounds, and for one heartbreaking moment he thought she was dead. He shuddered at the memory, unable to keep the unease from crawling across his skin.
As the first barrage tore through the shields they had all leapt into action. No one waited for the command to defend themselves: it had simply been done.
He remembered hearing the crew shout orders to one another, regardless of rank or station, but he had been oblivious to it. Fear had paralysed him and only when Kathryn struggled to her knees, shaking her head in confusion, had he found the strength to move to her side.
The picture of her was forever etched into his mind. Blood had drawn a crimson trail across her white cheek and soot had smudged across one temple, but it wasn't her wounds that shocked him; it was her eyes. Every day he saw them lit with passion or anger or hope, but in that moment the light had died. It terrified him.
He had ignored the boundaries of protocol and taken her face in his hands, touching the gash on her cheek with gentle fingers. He remembered how cool her skin had been, a direct contrast to the sweat and fear that emanated from the other crew. He had hoped that she would shout at him or push him away, something to show that she had the strength to carry on.
Instead she had turned her face to his palm, her eyes closing as her lips brushed his skin. The touch was so light that he wondered if he had imagined it, even now. Everything he knew about Kathryn insisted that she would never perform such an intimate gesture on the Bridge, and yet he had felt it: a whisper of perfect sensation.
When she opened her eyes again the light had returned, dim and frail, but present. Without a word she had risen to her feet, shouting commands and issuing orders as though nothing were amiss. On the Bridge he could believe her: she stood proud and strong, unwavering as she tried every trick in the book to end the ruthless onslaught.
Then, in her Ready Room, his recently abated fear had risen anew. Where he was used to strength and intelligence he found exhaustion and despair. Her determination had faded into doubt, and he longed to shake her free of it: to drag her from its clutches and bring her back into the light. In that first moment of conflict something had happened, and the Kathryn he knew had changed.
Chakotay realised that his fingers were digging into the arms of his command chair and consciously tried to relax, blowing out a steadying breath as he stared out of the viewscreen at the blank space beyond. He had tried asking her about it, but every attempt was rebuffed with vague excuses. At least that he was used to.
In a quick movement he got to his feet, ignoring the exhaustion that dragged at his limbs as he strode across the Bridge. Briefly he met Tuvok's eyes and saw the Vulcan nod in understanding. Chakotay wasn't the only one who had seen a change in Kathryn over the past week of desperate defence and feverish flight. The crew were concerned for her welfare, and as they began to heal it seemed everyone was aware of Kathryn's wounds. They may not rent her flesh or make her bleed but she couldn't hide the pain of her spirit from anyone; she wasn't even trying.
That alone was enough to chill Chakotay to the core.
The doors hissed open, allowing him access to her inner sanctum. He could almost imagine that this was just another ordinary day in the Delta Quadrant. There was no evidence of the damage that the ship had taken here and nothing to suggest that the rest of Voyager was falling apart except for the heaps of PADDs on her desk.
She wasn't sat behind it, and the chair looked stark and empty. Instead she perched on the edge of the couch, her face turned towards the window as she surveyed the streaming stars. There was no military rigidity in her spine. Instead her shoulders were slumped and her head bowed, as though she were wilting under an immense pressure that he couldn't see or sense.
She raised her head then, looking at him with a mixture of surprise and pity. A small, self-depreciating smile curved her lips at his appearance. 'You look how I feel, Commander.'
'Tired and hungry?' he asked, his smile fading when his eyes fell on the broken fragments of china that rested on her coffee table: her favourite cup.
She turned back to the window, barely crediting the shattered remains with a glance. 'It must've been shaken from my desk during the last attack.'
'You could replicate a new one,' Chakotay suggested, picking up a thin sliver of the cup and looking at it. The surface was perfectly smooth and the curve delicate and finely formed. Yet here, in its broken state, it became something else. There were sharp edges and points. What had once been benign had somehow become malevolent and more potent in its destruction than it had ever been whole.
'Some things aren't that easy to replace, Chakotay, you know that.'
He nodded at her words, knowing that while the replicators could build a facsimile of what had been lost they could not copy what it had symbolised.
'It's been three hours since we saw any sign of another ship. Tuvok thinks that we should remain alert, but we might be safe,' Chakotay said, changing the subject as he approached the sofa and sat down opposite her, resting his elbows on his knees as he waited for her response.
Kathryn nodded wearily, no doubt glad to be able to agree with the Vulcan's estimation. She lifted a hand to her face and he saw the tremble of her fingers as she rubbed her forehead in weary strokes.
'How long is it since you've slept?' he asked, lowering his voice in concern.
'I got an hour or so last night,' she murmured, her voice cracking as she closed her eyes. 'Before that I don't know.'
'Kathryn, you can't keep this up. Please, get some rest. Tuvok and I can watch the Bridge.' He saw her hesitate and reached out, taking her hand from her temples and wrapping it in his palm. Her fingers were icy in his grip, and he could see the scrapes and bruises that marred her skin from helping with repairs.
'You've been up as long as I have,' she said softly, leaning towards him as though his warmth was all that kept her alive.
'That's not true. Besides, I've eaten, and I know you haven't had anything since those three spoonfuls of soup yesterday.' It was a gentle reproach, and he smiled as she managed a weak chuckle. 'Go on, the crew needs you well rested.'
She looked at him curiously, her head cocked to one side in thought as the faintest trace of a smile flirted on her lips. Her eyes had lost their far-away expression, and he could see her familiar spark flickering in their depths again. It was as though without him she couldn't find the strength to sustain her. He almost laughed at the arrogance of his own thoughts, but her next words stirred his hope and lifted his tired heart.
'For you, Chakotay, not for the crew.'
He didn't get a chance to respond as she got to her feet, walking steadily through the Ready Room doors. Even as she went he saw her strength desert her, leaving her body slumped and her head bowed as she departed.
With a deep sigh he leant back into the cushions, shutting his eyes and trying to find balance. Many a Starfleet Admiral would have reminded him that his first duty was to the ship, not to her captain, but he knew that one defined the other. When Kathryn weakened Voyager struggled, and when their precious vessel was damaged it was as though the captain herself bore its injuries. He'd seen it happen before, but this time it was different. This time something outside of the bond between captain and ship had been struck down, and he wasn't sure that it had survived.
With a grunt he tried to shake away the confusion of his thoughts, promising himself that soon enough he would find his answers. Even if he had to corner her and drag it out of her forcefully, he would discover what was wrong.
Muscles, limp from exhaustion, complained bitterly as he got to his feet. Chakotay longed for rest, and he had a sneaking suspicion that if he so much as blinked he would fall asleep where he stood. Hauling energy from his dwindling reserves he strode to the Bridge, desperately trying to keep the exhaustion from his face. Pitying looks from Tom and Harry told him he had not succeeded, and he slumped into the command chair, fighting down a groan.
There was plenty to do, but with each turn his progress was hampered by more repairs that needed conducting. Hull breaches had been prioritised once propulsion systems were working at fifty percent capacity, and many of the ships remaining systems were sluggish to respond. He tried to organise the duty shifts to ensure that the over-stretched crew could find time to crawl back to their quarters as he longed to, but every time he tried he found himself deleting the entries and starting again.
Scowling fiercely he wished that there were a spaceport nearby where they could dock and make repairs. Instead they'd have to do it on the fly, and it wasn't only Engineering that would suffer. Sickbay was a hive of activity healing the scrapes and bruises of the crew. The Doctor was trying everything he knew to get each man and woman through the next hour, the next repair or the next light-year, while making sure that no one worked themselves into the grave.
Neelix was cooking up a storm in the mess hall and had been almost constantly, sleeping at one of the tables for a few hours a night. He always had coffee brewing, and no one cared that it tasted like tar and burned like warp plasma. It was hot and strong, and for now it would replace every other necessity.
The replicator systems were still functioning, but most crewmembers preferred the company that could be found in the mess hall in times of crisis. It was their way of affirming that they had made it through once more, and it allowed everyone to keep their ear to the bulkheads. Chakotay knew that most of his unofficial information came from what he had overheard or was told over a bowl of Neelix's latest concoction.
Biting back a curse he realised his own exhaustion was causing him to input crewman Chell on repair teams on different decks at the same time. Clearing the data with a jab of his finger he tried again, rubbing his hand across his jaw and wincing as stubble scraped his palm.
'Commander?' Tuvok's neutral voice caught his attention. He looked over his shoulder at the chief of security, noticing that the Vulcan stood at ease: a sure sign that he had an opinion to express, and was preparing himself for the disappointingly emotional response of his commanding officer.
'What is it, Tuvok?' Chakotay asked, gritting his teeth.
'May I recommend that you end your duty shift?'
'No, Tuvok. There's too much to be done.'
Tuvok raised one eyebrow fractionally, and Chakotay knew that the next thing he heard would be irritatingly logical. There was no arguing with a Vulcan. It just left you feeling like a child throwing a temper tantrum.
'The captain has retired at your suggestion. It is my responsibility to ensure that, as the commanding officer at this time, you are fit for duty. At this point lack of sleep is affecting your ability to command. You require rest.'
'You've been on the Bridge as long as I have,' Chakotay pointed out, knowing that he was fighting a losing battle.
'I must remind you, Commander, that Vulcans can go for long periods of time without sleep and still function efficiently.'
Grudgingly Chakotay raised his hands in mock surrender, getting stiffly to his feet. 'All right, Tuvok, you have the Bridge. Wake me up if you see any signs of another attack.'
He stoically agreed, and Chakotay knew that Tuvok wouldn't hesitate to contact either him or the captain if need be.
'Sleep well, Commander.'
With a weary nod Chakotay departed, unsure which need to satisfy first. His brain felt slow and unresponsive with exhaustion but pangs of hunger echoed around his empty stomach sending sharp pain into his chest.
'Deck two,' he told the computer, waiting for the turbolift to begin its descent. It was only when it started to move that he wondered if the systems were still in full working order. Surely someone would have reported a malfunction?
The descent was sluggish, but eventually he found himself outside the mess hall. His stomach roared in appreciation of the smells that wafted through the open doors, and Chakotay took a deep breath. His mouth watered, and the edge of his exhaustion faded away as he took his seat. Neelix handed him some stew and thick bread, still steaming from the oven.
'The captain didn't stop by, Commander,' the Talaxian said reproachfully, dabbing sweat from his forehead with a cloth. His dappled skin was glossy from the heat, and Chakotay noticed that some of his hair was singed, probably from an abrupt overload in the cooking assembly.
'She's exhausted, Neelix. If she's hungry she'll either come here or replicate something.'
'I'm not concerned where she gets her food, Commander, as long as she eats it.' Neelix looked around and leant closer, his voice lowered discreetly. 'I wouldn't fuss, but I checked her replicator records for the past few hours to make sure. She hasn't even had coffee!'
Chakotay paused with his fork halfway to his mouth, feeling his belly growl in frustration at the delay. 'There's barely been time to breathe, Neelix,' he said softly, trying to be reassuring. 'As soon as she gets a moment to herself she'll replicate some.'
Neelix nodded, his expressive face concerned as he looked around at the weary crewmen who huddled at their tables. 'I'm just worried. Morale is so low, and the crew look to the captain.'
'I'll look after her, Neelix.'
Chakotay watch the chef depart and busy himself in the galley before taking the first mouthful of his dinner. It was hot and bland, but Chakotay couldn't care less as he wolfed it down, barely taking the time to chew. His stomach finally settled down, content to have something to digest.
'I'm surprised you don't make yourself sick.' B'Elanna's tired voice lilted with amusement, and he looked up at her in surprise. He and Kathryn had forced the chief engineer to get some rest a handful of hours ago, and judging by the rumples in her uniform she hadn't bothered to get undressed before collapsing into bed. 'Before you start, Chakotay, I got six hours of sleep. Solid sleep,' she added. 'Can you say the same?'
'It's next on my list,' Chakotay said, nodding to Neelix as he accepted a mug of tea.
'Won't that keep you awake?' she asked, gesturing to the cup as she sat down opposite him.
'I don't think a Borg invasion could keep me awake at the moment.'
B'Elanna shuddered, taking a fortifying gulp of coffee and rubbing a hand across her eyes. 'Don't even think about it. We'd be assimilated in seconds.' She drummed her fingers on the tabletop, watching his astutely. Her brown eyes were calculating, and eventually she put the PADD she had been reading aside and clasped her hands together in front of her.
'Say it,' Chakotay grunted, his voice echoing as he tipped the mug of tea to his lips. 'Whatever it is, just say it.'
'It's about the captain.' B'Elanna smiled when she realised that she had his full attention. 'You do know that she's been in Engineering when she's claimed to be asleep, don't you? She's catching an hour here and there, but she's been on the go since this began.'
'Is she doing any damage?'
'To the ship? No! She's a damn good engineer, and even when she's half out of her mind with exhaustion she does a fine job, better than some of the ensigns, anyway.' B'Elanna shrugged uncomfortably, crossing her arms. 'It's just that there's something wrong. It's not just that she's tired or hungry, or even worried. When I talk to her it's like she's not there anymore.'
When Chakotay frowned she ran a hand through her hair, rubbing at her forehead absently as she tried to explain.
'She's passionate, Chakotay. She gets enthusiastic about everything to do with this ship. Before, when we've been struggling to make repairs and suddenly found the solution to the problem she's been right there with me. She's been excited and driven to make it work. Now she barely reacts at all.'
'I know what you mean,' Chakotay said quietly, earning himself a sharp look of surprise. 'I've seen it too. On the Bridge she acts like nothing's wrong, but if you catch her on her own she's -' he hesitated, staring into the bottom of his cup as though it held the answers in its depths, '-defeated.'
'How can that be?' B'Elanna whispered, shaking her head. 'How can she have brought us this far and not feel like she's won?' Her fist thumped on the table in emphasis, and Chakotay smiled at the young woman in front of him. Her eyes were burning above shadows that still lingered on her skin, and a faint flush had blossomed across her cheeks.
Chakotay sighed, finishing off his tea. 'You're not the only one who's noticed that the captain's not behaving like her usual self. Harry, Tuvok and Tom have all voiced their concerns.'
'I can see why Harry and Tom would, but Tuvok?' B'Elanna asked.
'Just because he's a Vulcan doesn't mean he can't see emotional changes in others. Besides, he's the captain's oldest friend. He knows her better than anyone.'
B'Elanna raised a doubtful eyebrow. 'The man who knows Captain Janeway best is sitting right in front of me. You may not know every secret of her past but you know what she's planning, and you know how she'll react in every situation.' She looked embarrassed for a moment and cleared her throat nervously. 'Look, you didn't hear it from me, but we need her. It's not that we don't have faith in you or Tuvok, but she's the only one who can get us home. Everyone thinks so.' B'Elanna shook her head mournfully. 'If this keeps up I'm not sure she'll make it back to Earth. It's been easy to pretend she's just the captain, but now….'
Chakotay nodded quietly, getting to his feet and leaving the engineer to finish her coffee. 'I'll keep an eye on her.'
'You always do,' B'Elanna said with a smile.
With a quick farewell he departed, his mind a whirl of tired thoughts. B'Elanna's words rang true, and he felt his heart sink like lead at the implication. Was it really that bad? Was there a chance that the captain wouldn't make it back with the rest of them?
He sighed in disbelief as he entered the turbolift. Of course there was a chance. Every hour of every day they risked losing another crewmember, but losing someone to an accident or an attack was different from losing them to themselves.
Grimly he ordered the descent to deck three, trying to find the inner calm he needed to handle this situation. The crew had made it clear that, as first officer, his job was to look after the captain. Now, when he felt like he had failed, they were all turning to him and asking him to explain the reactions of their captain that even he couldn't understand.
A faint smile crossed his lips as he thought of Kathryn sneaking out of her quarters to get to work in Engineering. At least there she was behaving normally. She took the job of captain seriously, but she was never one to rest on her laurels while others got their hands dirty. Sometimes he thought she'd prefer to be down there, up to her elbows in Voyager's inner workings, or at a science station unravelling the tangled knot of the universe's mysteries.
The turbolift shuddered to a halt, effectively interrupting his thoughts, and Chakotay stepped out onto deck three. Scorch marks seared the walls, and exposed conduit slumped from ruptured bulkheads. He dreaded to think what kind of state his quarters were in.
Walking more quickly he approached his rooms, longing for the soft, warm embrace of his bed. He knew that crew quarters were one of the lowest priorities. Still, he could sleep anywhere as long as there wasn't a hull breach.
Passing Kathryn's door he hesitated, looking at the grim grey metal as he thought. Should he check to see if she was still awake? If she was sleeping then calling her on the comm. link would only startle her, and probably make her think they were under attack. Still, if he left her in peace for all he knew she would be down in Engineering for the rest of the night and miss even more sleep as a result. Eventually he raised his fist to the door, tapping gently against the sturdy barrier.
'Come in, Chakotay.'
The smile on his lips was irrepressible as he stepped over the threshold into her dusky quarters. He didn't need to ask how she knew it was him. After years of sharing the Bridge and sharing their friendship they knew one another too well. Squinting in the gloom he saw her seated at the table and noticed a couple of sheaves of old fashioned paper in front of her.
'I didn't think you'd be asleep yet.'
'Checking up on me?' She raised an eyebrow and smiled, some of the sparkle he had missed so much returning to her features as she watched him. His smile broke into a grin, and he ducked his head for a moment, knowing that there was no point in arguing. When he looked up again it was to see a whisper of concern on her features. No doubt she was taking stock of his exhaustion, and before she could order him to get some rest he said, 'I left Tuvok with the Bridge. He seemed to think that I was losing my edge.'
'I wonder what gave him that idea?' she mused, a trace of sarcasm colouring her words as she gestured towards the sofa. 'Sit down before you fall down.'
He did as he was told, sighing in relief as the cushions cradled his body. The lights increased their intensity at Kathryn's demand and he looked across at her, not missing the wince of pain at the sudden change in illumination. With a content sound he leant his head back and closed his eyes, feeling the tension ebb away from him as he smothered his questions, waiting for the best moment to ask her for the truth.
It was easy to hide behind the guise of first officer, to demand honesty for the ship and the crew, but he wasn't here for her in that capacity. He hadn't been for a long time. When he came into her quarters it was as a friend, and both of them knew it. Here there were different parameters, and he treasured the fact that she trusted him to keep the professional separate from everything else.
Here he could ask the questions that the captain didn't dare answer for her first officer, but that Kathryn could share with Chakotay. Perhaps she'd tell him what was wrong as a friend, if nothing else.
Her question took him by surprise and he raised his eyebrows as he considered the possibility.
'I think I need something a little stronger.' His voice was hoarse in his throat, and he swallowed roughly as he listened to her move towards the replicator, no doubt exploring her options.
'Mulled wine? It is nearly Christmas, after all.'
Chakotay opened his eyes and lifted his head, feeling a shock of surprise go through him. He'd forgotten. It didn't matter that he didn't celebrate Christmas; it was something the crew had adapted to fulfil a need. It reminded them of home and allowed them to take a moment to recall what lay waiting for them at the end of their long journey. It was a time to think of those that wouldn't celebrate with them again, and a day to hope that no one else would succumb to the perils of their voyage.
Above all else it was a time to celebrate that family was more than blood and genetics. It was about people who would put their life on the line for you and who would pick you up when you fell down. It was about getting everyone through another year and taking them that much closer to home.
'It's been a bit of a non-event this year,' Chakotay said sadly, listening to the faint hum of the replicator.
'I'm sure we'll manage. I have no doubt that Neelix is already planning a party, and it's not like the day's completely passed us by.' Kathryn looked at the clock in the corner and Chakotay followed her gaze, realising that it was still Christmas Eve. She was right, of course. This crew made what they could of any situation. Just because Christmas might be a little late this year didn't mean that they'd forget about it. Neelix simply wouldn't allow it.
Turning back to her he accepted the warm mug that she held out to him, wrapping his palm around the smooth metal and breathing in the tang of spice and alcohol. 'The crew might manage,' he agreed gravely, 'but will you?'
She bowed her head, her hair escaping from behind her ear and fanning against her cheek as she looked down into the cup in her hands. She cradled the mug as though it were the most important thing in the world to her before lifting it to her lips and tasting the warm liquid.
For the briefest moment her eyes closed in bliss, and he watched a tendril of steam trail up her cheek before it melted away in the air of her quarters. The berries in the wine stained her lips a darker shade of pink and he watched, fascinated as her tongue darted over her bottom lip, savouring every taste of the beverage.
It was moments like this when he could really see who Kathryn was, when she lowered every shield and simply savoured a split second of time with all of her intensity. He doubted he could ever enjoy something as completely as she did.
'I'll get there.'
Her words were like a douse of cold water, and Chakotay felt his eyebrows rise as her words sank in. He had expected her to deny it and turn away. Instead her admittance had been given without presumption or drama, and defeat laced her words like poison, leaden and deadly.
The tension returned to his body, and he could feel his muscles knotting again as he watched the flicker of guilt cross her face. In a flash he realised that she was sorry for taking away the peace of the moment.
He set his mug down, not bothering to taste the warm, tempting liquid as he focussed intently on the woman who stood in front of him. Searching her face he tried to deduce every emotion that he could from her features. Finally, without a word, he held out his hand, waiting patiently for her to make her decision.
It didn't take long. She hesitated for a matter of heartbeats, glancing back at the sheaves of parchment on the table as though looking to them for guidance before settling her hand in his.
Her touch was still cool, barely warmed by the mug, and he quickly wrapped his fingers around her hand before guiding her to the seat at his side. Her arm brushed against his as she settled onto the cushions, her own body tense. He could feel the hardness of her muscles and see her worry in her posture, even as her shoulders slumped once more.
He didn't let go of her, instead cradling her hand with the gentlest of touches. He knew that Kathryn would never ask for it, but she appreciated the comforting caress of his fingers on hers. It was a reminder that she wasn't alone, no matter what she thought.
'You never did tell me what happened on the Bridge when we met the Telan,' Chakotay said softly, gently needling her for the answers. If he pushed her too hard then he knew that she'd withdraw, pulling away from him and back into herself. Still, he was not going to let her feed him her excuses this time.
Gently, her fingers lingering on his, she withdrew her hand, curling it around the mug and taking a deep gulp. She winced as the fluid burned her throat but didn't complain. Her face was a picture of conflict: of longing and despair. She wanted to tell him; he could see it in her eyes. It was as though she were desperate to reach out for help but lived in fear of the consequences.
He sat in silence as she fought her inner battle, waiting with steady patience until she spoke again. 'I gave up.'
It wasn't a gentle admission. Fierce and hateful he could see how disgusted she was at herself, and wished he could understand why it caused her so much anger and pain.
'I don't have the strength to get this crew through a lifetime of this, and that's all I have to keep me going: the promise that I'd get them home.' She motioned at the streaming stars beyond the window, but Chakotay didn't take his eyes from her. He knew that she lived for her promise, and that she would do everything in her power to keep it no matter what the personal cost. He had daily proof of her strength and knew that there was nothing in her life that she took more seriously than her oath to the crew. She would bend every protocol along the way if she had to, but nothing would stop her getting this ship back to Earth but death itself.
It scared him, sometimes, the intensity of her determination. He had seen people torn apart by the power of their love and their hatred. He feared that in her dogged upholding of her promise she would forget what it meant to follow her own agenda, even when it came to the little decisions.
Even now there were times when she barely heeded her most fundamental needs, and B'Elanna was right. Unless something changed it would be the death of their captain.
'You still got us through it,' he reminded her, his words roughening as she shook her head bitterly. 'Yes, Kathryn. You still made the right decisions, and you still tried all the possibilities.'
Her voice was hot with loathing, and Chakotay took her hand again and leaned closer, emphasising his words with his proximity. 'Because there was no other choice.'
'That first day I did nothing,' she confessed. 'I lay on the deck, and if you had been waiting for a command we would have all died. If it hadn't been for the training of the crew our journey would have been over.'
'And who gave us that training?' Chakotay demanded, wishing he could take her fully in his arms and soothe away her pain. 'Who gave us this environment where we're all free to do what we know is best?' He grasped her arms gently, feeling the thinness of her through the rough material of her uniform. 'You.'
He watched her turn her face away from him and wondered if it were in denial or shame. Did she truly feel as though she had failed them? He did not understand how she could reach that conclusion. Every member of their crew had stumbled at one time or another, making an error in judgement or losing sight of their goal. She helped them without punishment or reprimand, but she didn't give herself the same leniency.
As softly as he could he moved his right hand, running his fingertip down a scab on the side of her face. Chakotay knew that she hadn't had the time to get it healed, but to him it was as though she were reminding herself. Every time she caught sight of her reflection she would recall that moment and punish herself for it all over again.
A rush of sensation went through him as she leant towards his touch, and he flattened his palm against her face. Soothingly he rubbed his other hand up and down her arm, ignoring the rough scrape of her uniform against his skin as he tried to think of the right words to say.
'The crew needs another captain.'
It was like a slap in the face, and Chakotay felt his heart constrict with selfish fear and disbelief. His denial was on the tip of his tongue within a second, but he choked it back. Kathryn was never one to make such a statement without thinking about it. If she truly felt that way then she was more distressed than he had realised, and he had to choose his words with care.
With a shaking hand he reached for her chin, turning her head gently until her eyes met his. She winced, though whether in pain or at his expression he couldn't tell. Either way it didn't matter. He had been looking for honesty in her eyes, and his heart died a little when he found what he sought. She believed what she was saying, even as he could barely credit it with his consideration.
'Kathryn, this crew doesn't need anyone but you. You can't pass this job on to someone else.'
She pulled herself away from his grasp sharply, and his skin tingled at the loss. Letting his hands fall he watched her pace back and forth fretfully, her footsteps muffled by the carpet. As calmly as he could he continued, trying to make her see what was clear to everyone else aboard Voyager.
'They don't need a captain; they need you,' he said softly, echoing B'Elanna's earlier words. 'Do you think that they are so selfish that they can't understand your need to be human?'
'Of course not,'
'Then why won't you let anyone see anything except "the captain"?'
Chakotay watched as she threw her hands up in the air, giving a half-hearted scoff at his suggestion. It was an act, he could see, and it wasn't one that was going to fool him.
'Is it?' Leaning back Chakotay picked up his mug, sipping at the rapidly cooling mulled wine and rolling it around on his tongue thoughtfully before swallowing. 'B'Elanna admires you as a captain and an engineer, but she wishes you'd socialise with the crew.'
He watched her freeze in place, her body stiff with the shock of it as he continued to speak. 'Tom knows he owes you his happiness and wants you to find some of your own a little closer than the Alpha Quadrant. Harry's seen you fight and would bet on you any day, but he still knows you can lose sometimes. He thinks you shouldn't be ashamed of that.' Hesitating a moment Chakotay spoke deliberately, knowing more than anything that his last words would have an impact. 'Tuvok wishes he'd never told you to be more logical.'
He saw the disbelief disappear under a wave of shame and sadness and knew what she was thinking. It was understandable that two lieutenants and an ensign had taken their thoughts to Chakotay, but for Tuvok not to tell her outright of his concerns spoke volumes.
'Vulcan's don't have regrets,' she stuttered, her lip shaking slightly as her composure lost some of its stability.
Slowly Chakotay got to his feet, walking towards her. She didn't retreat as he'd expected her to, and he found solace in the defiant way she stood her ground until he was almost toe to toe with her, looking down into her face.
'They have concerns, and so do I.' He swallowed, trying to control the rush of emotion that this woman, infuriating and strong as she was, could invoke in him. 'I'm worried that by the time we get home Kathryn will be gone and all anyone will see is the captain.' He lowered his voice, his heart thudding painfully as he realised the truth of what he was about to say. 'I'm afraid that if I reach out you'll turn away, but if I don't we'll lose you forever – I'll lose you forever.'
The tenderness in his words couldn't be missed, and he felt his chest tighten with fear. He expected her to react with disappointment or anger, and he was surprised to hear her take a deep, gentle breath, as though she were savouring something precious. She met his eyes without hesitation, and he saw her uncertainty and desperation as clearly as if she had told him of it.
It was almost too much for him to bear, and only the strongest vestige of his restraint prevented him from wrapping his arms around her slim frame and soothing away her torment. Every fibre of his being longed to make it better and to make her smile again, but it wouldn't help. It would be a temporary solution to a problem that had been lingering around for far too long. If she asked then he would give, but until then he knew he had to walk away.
With a pained sigh Chakotay stepped back, tearing his eyes from her gaze as he turned from her. 'We both need sleep,' he said quietly. 'I'm only making things worse.'
She didn't speak to correct him or beg him to stay, and he felt his spirit sink further as he murmured, 'Goodnight, Captain.'
The doors whispered closed, leaving him alone in the corridor with nothing but his own dark thoughts for company. Weakness drained him and he shuffled towards his quarters, trying to find a glimmer of hope to hold onto as he slipped into the shadows of his rooms.
His call for lights did little to illuminate his mood, and he looked around at the disarray that he faced. Something crunched under his boot, and he looked down at the shattered remains of a statue he had bought on shore leave a few years ago. Voyager had been shaken like a toy, and more had been broken than just ornaments.
He found himself staring blankly at the bulkheads that separated his rooms from Kathryn's as though if he looked long enough their opacity would fade, but they stood resolutely solid: impenetrable walls that kept her from him.
With a deep sigh he moved to his bed., sitting on the edge of the mattress and staring at the floor. His body screamed for him to lie down, to forget everything in trade for a few moments of rest, but his mind wasn't listening. Nothing could have made him close his eyes and accept slumber's touch, not when it was a more tangible embrace that he longed to have and give in return.
'The crew needs another captain.'
Shivers raced through him as her words seemed to follow him, tormenting him with their honest belief. She had questioned her ability to command once or twice before, but never with this intensity. If she relinquished command then it fell to him, and while he doubted his own abilities to carry this crew home it was what would remain of Kathryn that concerned him.
Being the captain had come to define so much of what she was. It guided her decisions regardless of whether she was on the Bridge or not. Every minutia of her life was dictated by the strains of command, and it was tearing her apart. He knew how easy it was to become trapped by a role or a belief, and to adhere to it at the expense of all else. How many times had he let his anger at the plight of the Maquis cloud his judgement and affect his decisions?
Looking down at his hands he knew it was Kathryn who'd brought him the balance and peace he had been looking for. His anger had been soothed into strength, and his faith was taken and returned with silent gratitude. She believed in them, all of them. Every member of this crew had the captain's loyalty and trust, all except one.
Kathryn Janeway didn't believe in her own abilities, and she didn't trust herself to command. She wanted to relinquish the role of captain not for her own well-being, but for that of the crew. She wanted to do what she thought was best by them, as always, and her own needs fell to the wayside.
He surged away from the bed, letting himself pace restlessly around the confines of his quarters as he continued to try and see things from her point of view. Did she really believe that he would be able to get them home? Did she think that they were all better off without her in command? No matter which way he viewed it the possibility was still unthinkable.
Leaning against his desk he to think of how to prove what he had said. This crew didn't need anyone but her in the captain's chair, and to let anyone else take the reins would do her more harm than good. He knew what pride she took in her role and to deprive herself of that would only push her further away from them all. She wouldn't find freedom in her choice, but another prison in her mind and heart.
He couldn't let that happen.
Time crept past as he continued to pace, his thoughts chasing around in steady circles of disbelief and despair. Finally he shoved his exhaustion ruthlessly aside and marched back towards her quarters, intent on speaking his mind.
This wasn't for the crew or the ship, or even for him. It was for Kathryn. He couldn't imagine her languishing in a lower rank for the rest of the journey, constantly reminded of what she would see as her own failure. She needed to find her strength again, not just as captain of Voyager, but as Kathryn, and he would do anything he could to help her.
When there was no answer to his gentle tap on the door he wondered if she'd finally succumbed to her exhaustion. 'Computer, locate Kathryn Janeway,' Chakotay said automatically, groaning inwardly when the computer's flat tones came back to him.
'Internal sensors are offline.'
'Of course they are,' he muttered, hesitating before keying in his command code, assuring himself that he was only checking on her welfare. The doors opened obligingly, showing him the bareness of her rooms. She'd dimmed the lights again, leaving him with little more than twilight in which to search.
Kathryn was nowhere in sight and, feeling like a thief, he peered into her bedroom before realising that she was not there. Fresh sheets had been put on the bed, but there was nothing to indicate it had been slept in. A quick glance around told him that she'd probably retreated back to her Ready Room or down to the bowels of the ship.
He considered setting out to find her, but dismissed the thought quickly. There was nothing to be gained from dragging her back and forcing her to face the emotions that brought her so low. She'd find her way in her own time, and until then he could wait.
Her quarters seemed empty without her, and he looked around the starkness of the walls sadly. When they had started out on this journey she had insisted that she wouldn't be on Voyager long enough to make a home of the Starfleet vessel. Now she simply shrugged her shoulders and dismissed it, stating there were more important things to worry about than her décor. Replicator rations could be put to better use, like coffee.
His lips twitched into a smile at the thought, and he wandered over to the table, noticing a couple of books were stacked haphazardly on its smooth surface. The paper that he had seen earlier caught his attention and he eyed it with interest, wondering what had stimulated Kathryn to replicate the rough material. He could see the stuttering curve of her handwriting and tipped his head, trying to read what she'd written. He had to admit it was easier when the letters were spelt out with the clear print the PADDs used, but there was something oddly intimate about seeing her handwriting. It was strong and firm, just like she was, but there was a touch of elegance to it that he hadn't expected.
Squinting he felt a frisson of shock go through him as he made out the first words:
"Dear Father Christmas,"
Taking his hands from behind his back he braced his palms on the tabletop, giving up all guise of innocence as he dragged the paper towards him and read through it, marvelling at what he was seeing. Kathryn Janeway, firm believer in science, fact and all things logical had written a letter to Santa Claus. The child-like tradition made him smile, but deep down he could see the truth of it. She didn't write this missive in the hopes that she would magically be given the gifts she longed for. It was a rationale.
Everything she could think of she'd written. He could see from the hesitation in her writing, and the occasional dots from the pen as she'd tapped its nib against the paper in thought. Some of them were the simplest things, achieved in a matter of moments. Others were larger, less realistic goals, but all of them were honest.
Lifting the first page he stopped, his body frozen in shock as the last word on the list caught his eye. There was no hesitation here. He could see the pressure that she'd applied on the flowing letters, as though hoping to etch the level of her need into the page itself.
His heart thudded in his chest and his breath locked in his throat, not daring to escape in case it blew away the evidence in front of his eyes. He had hoped for it, and even when he'd long ago decided that he was waiting for an event that would never happen he had still searched for signs of her regard for him. Now it was defiantly written in front of him, obliterating every doubt he'd ever had.
Exhilaration was an electrifying shock, burning away everything else as he continued to read the single word again and again, half-daring it to say something different. Rubbing a thumb over the script he wondered if she would have told him, or if it would have been a secret desire pinned to a page and locked away, never to be considered again.
The thought was like a lance in his chest, barbed and sharp, and he forced himself to think rationally. Kathryn was good at hiding things from the crew, but with him it was different. Just because she hadn't said it with words did not mean she had not been telling him how much she needed him.
Every day in different ways she showed him how much faith she had in him, and through that she showed the extent of her feelings. There was no one else she would trust so completely with the running of her ship. Not even Tuvok. There was no one else she shared her secret smiles with, or let her guard down for. She'd been showing him all along, and he just hadn't seen it.
'I thought you were sleeping.'
Her voice was soft in the shadows. and he looked over his shoulder to see her in the doorway. The harsh light from the corridor silhouetted her slim figure, and he knew instantly that something had changed. There was no slump to her shoulders and no resignation in her voice. Her frame was not rigid with the stiffness of authority, but was held straight as though she could once again take the weight of whatever responsibility burdened her. The words she had spoken could have been laced with accusation, but they were soft in the air.
'I couldn't,' he replied. 'I was looking for you and thought I'd wait until you got back.' He clenched his jaw, knowing he could offer her no apology for reading the letter on her table, and even if he did she wouldn't believe it.
Her footsteps were measured and unhurried as she moved to his side, putting one hand on the table next to his and the other on her hip as she looked over his shoulder. He pointed mutely to the last word, knowing that there was nothing she could tell him except the truth. For all her reserve she would not lie to him. Not about this.
He turned towards her, bringing them face-to-face. They were barely more than a hand's width apart, and he could see the anxiety and excitement in her eyes. Her lips were parted and her cheeks flushed as she took one step closer to him, effectively closing the distance between them.
Her hand rested on his shoulder, and she tipped her head back to brush her lips across his. The touch was warm and light, sending arrows of heat through him. He trembled with his desire, feeling the closeness of her soft body to his. Her grip on his uniform sleeve tightened, and he suppressed a groan as he broke away from her before he lost himself completely.
She gasped at the sudden loss, and he saw the flicker of fear in her expression. Before she could turn away he wrapped an arm around her waist, holding her close to him.
'No, Kathryn,' he said huskily, looking into her eyes as he spoke. 'I need to know that this isn't just for tonight, or just for now.'
Her breasts were pressed to his chest and he could feel the race of her heart in tandem with his own. Her eyes had darkened to a stormy blue and when she bit her lip he tensed, forcing himself to hold back even as his body ached with need for her.
'This isn't for the ship, or for you, Chakotay. It's for me, and it's not just for tonight.' Her whispered words deepened with her promise, and he felt the tautness of uncertainty in his chest vanish.
'Why now?' he asked quietly, still trying to believe that she had finally come to him so fully and openly. 'Why now?'
Her lips curved in an awkward, shaky smile and he resisted the urge to kiss her again, forcing himself to listen. 'Because I can't just be the captain, not anymore,' she confessed, her eyes searching his face for understanding. 'I've got to have more to my life than getting this ship back to Earth. It just took me this long to realise that there's not going to be a quick way home, and I can't put my life on hold indefinitely.'
Chakotay felt his heart swell, the leadenness he had grown so used to falling away as the truth finally sank in. She wanted him. Not just for a day, or just for the time being. She was reaching out, and there was nothing that could make him turn her away.
'Thank you,' he whispered quietly, brushing his fingertips lightly along her jaw as he lifted her chin and pressed his lips firmly to hers. His tongue stroked past her lips and tasted her passionately as her fingers curled in his hair, holding him close. The brush of her other hand across his torso left flames in its wake, and he felt a rush of pleasure as she moaned softly, returning his kiss with equal intensity.
No words were needed as they lost themselves in each other. Every touch was a promise, and every kiss a dream come true. They had found each other and now, amidst the diamond light of the stars, they would find their way home.