This story was written in 2003. I have no idea why I have not posted it here before, but here it is, just as it was back then (well, I did modernize the spellings in the sonnet).

This was written for the 'Beach Blanket Bingo' contest (BBB). I fear it is not actually in the intended spirit of the contest, but it is what my muse offered in response to the BBB contest outline and it does meet the requirements, so here it is.

DISCLAIMER: We all know Paramount owns all Trek. I make no money from this. I would, however, gladly join the lawsuit filed against them for failure to maintain the franchise.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: The Welcome Home, Voyager banquet mentioned in my story is a reference to the event in Christie Golden's book "Homecoming". It will make no difference if you have not read that book, but I did want to acknowledge it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Great thanks, as always, to me Beta Reader, Holly. Along with the basic help (spelling review, etc), she always takes on the job when I ask at the last minute and offers me wonderful suggestions for tweaking, clearing up, and improving my work. Holly, thanks!

SUMMARY: post "Endgame", Chakotay approaches Kathryn

UNALTERED by MarMar1

Chakotay stopped to look around. He had enjoyed the pleasant ten minute walk from the transporter station, but it had been through unfamiliar territory and he had only hoped he was walking in the right direction. Now, though, he knew he had taken the right path. Here, he recognized his surroundings.

He had been here a few times and remembered it well. Looking north, his eyes followed the footpath until it turned, obscured by trees. He let his gaze continue straight down the slope to the large, sparkling lake edged with sandy beach and dotted by colorful sails catching the wind. Nature changed with the years and the seasons, trees were taller, the curves of shorelines evolved, plants died and seedlings sprouted, but he smiled at the feeling of familiarity. He had visited here, but never without invitation. Today, he wondered what reception he might receive and his expression turned to uncertainty.

Turning, Chakotay found himself looking at the cabin. Large and solid, the front and sides displayed a porch with comfortable rocking chairs and a bench swing at one end. He had never before seen the cabin and now he took a moment to study it. It was not modern, but appeared older than it likely was. Built to fit easily into the native habitat, it seemed warm and welcoming. Chakotay could imagine smoke coming from the round, stone chimney, a fire inside pushing away the chill of a winter morning. Today, the front door and windows were left open, only the screens separating the cabin's interior from the Indian Summer afternoon outside.

Chakotay remembered his first visit here five years ago. Kathryn had been all energy and life, eager to engage all of her senses, to connect with life after her encounter with the alien who had tried to lure her into his deadly matrix. Chakotay closed his eyes for a moment and remembered how she had wanted to celebrate and had shared it all with him. He had seen more of Kathryn than he ever had, other than on New Earth, and she had cast her spell over him all anew. The smile returned to Chakotay's lips as he remembered. The holodeck program of Lake George had been set in much the same season as it was now in reality. He remembered all the detail Kathryn had put into the program, it was how he was now able to recognize where he was, but she had not included the cabin. She had told him about it on a subsequent visit, but said it would have been too much of home to include in a holo-program, to use so far away. "I'll take you there when we get home," Kathryn had vowed. "You'll love the cabin, it's big and warm. You can see the lake from the porch. We'll watch the fog lift from the lake while we have breakfast." Chakotay remembered the desire in her voice and the promise in her eyes. He wondered how he could have forgotten.

"Chakotay."

Her voice behind him made a statement, no question, no surprise, a touch of caution. He thought at first it was a part of his memory. It would not have been the first time he had heard her distinctive voice in his mind; the voice that could reach right into him and strum the chords of his soul. Then, he realized she must indeed have come silently up the path and be standing behind him, not in the cabin as he had supposed.

He opened his eyes and turned, the caution he heard in her voice pricking at him; he felt unprepared. Kathryn stood at the crest of the path looking fresh in loose beige shorts, comfortable slip-on shoes and a light-weight, ivory colored tank top. The breeze caught and played with her shoulder length hair. She held a wide brimmed straw hat in one hand, a brightly colored blanket hung from her arm. She stood and looked at him, waiting.

Her gaze rested on him, her expression gave no hint to her thoughts. Chakotay could feel the tension, the anticipation, the hesitation quiver between them like a living thing. Still, she waited, her eyes perhaps a bit wary.

"I should have tried the comm.," he offered. "I hope you don't mind the intrusion." He tried to find his mental footing; now that he was here, facing her, he felt completely unprepared. The thoughts, the conversations he had held in his mind during the walk from the station now escaped him...

"You're always welcome, Chakotay." Kathryn allowed a touch of a smile to grace her lips, her eyes left him, looked briefly to each side, then returned. "I didn't expect to see you..." her comment seemed to go unfinished.

*Didn't expect to see you* what? he wondered. Didn't expect to see you...here? so soon? alone? Any of those might fit, he knew. He felt himself standing on the edge of a great chasm. Chakotay realized that she was still speaking

"... visiting your sister or cousin or on your way to Trebus. I am surprised you found me; I didn't mention to anyone where I would be."

"When no one knew where to find you, this was the first place I thought of," he answered. "It's wonderful, just as you always said it was." *Of course I knew where to find you!* his mind cried. *I know you, I am connected to you. But, even if you had not been here, I would have looked until I found you!* He silently pledged.

Once more Kathryn's gaze stayed on him, searching, unyielding. She stepped closer to where he stood. He was sure that she, too, must feel the energy of that connection. There had been times he thought he could no longer feel it, when he imagined it must have faded away, but he had been wrong. So very wrong. Had she, too, thought that it was gone?

"Why are you here?" There was no malice, no accusation. Her eyes remained steady upon Chakotay's face, boring into him as if to reach his inner core. She sincerely wanted to know why he had come.

What could he tell her? What could he say that would not shatter their tenuous connection? There was so much he wanted, needed to tell her; so much he needed to hear her say. There had been a time he had been so sure; he had known, when this time came, when they were finally, truly home, he had known what to expect; what he wanted; what she wanted. But he had lost all that. He had slowly, silently slipped away from the surety until, at last, he had turned away from what little bits survived. The stark realization of all that he had lost had brought with it only one certainty: he wanted nothing more than to have it back. That was the answer to Kathryn's simple question and he had no idea how to tell her. He sent a silent plea to the spirits to guide his words.

"Kathryn, you were right, of course," he gave a rueful smile. "Your holoprogram was good, but the difference in the reality is immeasurable." Chakotay let his eyes skim over the area as he conceded to her words from years past. Looking back to Kathryn, he continued. "I've come for that sail on the *real* Lake George. Don't you remember?" He had meant to keep it light, to not push, yet he felt himself pleading for her understanding.

A misstep! Chakotay's heart lurched at the flash of hurt that touched Kathryn's face. Had he blinked he would have missed seeing it, so quickly did it pass, but see it he had. He wanted to cry out, to reclaim the words which had caused her pain. He wanted to fall to his knees, take her hands and beg her to understand. It had not been meant as an arrow of accusation, but as a hope. Did she remember? Please, remember!

Having dropped her head, Kathryn now raised it, opening her eyes, her expression carefully neutral once again. Looking at him, evidence of a smile graced her lips and her eyes softened.

"Of course I remember," she answered, her voice soft, lacking its customary command. Her blue eyes drew him to her.

"Kathryn..." Chakotay hesitated. "Kathryn, I..."

Fear paralyzed his voice. It clenched his chest. It taunted him with thoughts that another misstep could be his last. One more might plunge him over the edge into that bottomless chasm. Chakotay broke her gaze. He turned his head; he tried to breathe. *No!* He cried out in his mind. *Stop! She'll listen if I can just think! What do I say? That I forgot? That I wasn't strong enough? How do I tell her I wanted to be everything she needed me to be? I tried! But I wanted her, too. Spirits, I wanted her so much! Can I say 'I thought I could wait. I was so sure, sure of myself, sure of you, of us! But it was so long ago! I know it was hard, harder for you. I was amazed by your strength. I drew from it. Maybe I drew too much; I had promised to support you. Things happened to us, between us, and I started to loose you. I started to loose me.' How can I make her understand?*

Chakotay tried to contain his thoughts, but they raged on. *That damned void! That was the first time I was afraid I would loose you - I should have pushed harder. We got thorough it. We might have been okay, but the Delta Quadrant never stopped. The Devore Imperium! That bastard Kayshak! I know you never cared for him. I know the deadly game you played; a game you won. Oh, but I know it cost you; cost you dearly a part of yourself. Then Ransom! Equinox! I know how it tore at you to see a fellow Starfleet Captain become the enemy. The fear it must have sparked, knowing you faced the same struggles, the same decisions every day! Every hit, every chip in your armor caused you to retreat a bit more, but I saw only your strength. Fair Haven, that diversion that made it easier, at first. But even that demanded a price in the end!*

*Kathryn, I cringe each time I think about Teero, what he did to us all. I know it didn't change your trust in me, but it hurt you. Another retreat. And Quarra, Jaffen, only taunted you with all you had lost, all you couldn't have. And every time you paid the price and went on, and retreated a little more. And I saw only your strength and when you needed more from me, I gave you less. I lost sight of where we were going. Oh, not Voyager, but us. I lost sight of us, what we were, where 'we' were going. Oh, Kathryn, I forgot my promise.*

*How do I tell her these things? How do I say this and not sound the weak, pitiful man I feel I've become? What need does she have for my weakness, me needs? Spirits help me, what do I do?*--

Looking skyward, Chakotay ran a hand back through his dark hair. The awkward moment grew. He had to say something. Taking a calming breath, Chakotay looked again at the woman who held such power over him. Her gaze was steady, patient, waiting. With whatever words he could muster, he had to tell her and trust her to understand.

"Are you alone?" Kathryn's voice crashed into him.

Was he alone? Earlier she had looked about; was it to discern if he had arrived alone? Did she think he might have brought someone? Did she...? Seven? Spirits, did she believe he would have brought her here? What did she know? What had she seen at the "Welcome Home, Voyager" banquet? What had she heard? It struck him now that she might have known even before that night.

Are you alone? His heart constricted and he wanted to cry out. *Alone? Oh, yes, I am alone,* he answered in his thoughts. *Frightened and alone as I have never been. Alone and lost. I have just one hope to save me, but I am afraid I have thrown it away beyond reach. *

Kathryn prodded gently, "Chakotay?" Her voice caressed his ears and his heart. Are you alone? Just what was she asking?

"Yes," he finally replied, "I am alone." He wanted to tell her just how alone he was, to tell her of the enormous, black abyss over which he balanced and that he needed her to lead him again to the safety of firm ground, but how could he? How could he expect her to accept him, after he had turned away from her?

"And Seven?" he heard her say and he felt his balance sway.

His dark eyes clung to hers and he prayed for salvation. "A mistake; nothing more" Chakotay shook his head and quietly offered his inadequate explanation. He turned away, unable to face her as his thoughts once more out raced his speech. *I know this is all my own doing. Kathryn, I love you. I have always loved you. There was never anyone else, never really. A distraction here and there, but nothing more. It was you, always you I wanted. Always you who touched my soul, who completed me! But I didn't understand. Little by little you closed parts of yourself off. I was too blind, too stupid, too selfish to see it for what it was. Your struggle for self preservation. I was hurt, confused and I was not there when you needed me most. I turned away and, for a while, the hurt eased. But then, without you, the numbness came, and the despair followed. It took root and grew unchallenged like a great weed and covered my soul. It flourished, but I was dying. I was desperate. Then Seven approached me and for a few moments I basked in the new light, a light that never warmed me. It couldn't; it was only a pale reflection of the light I craved. Your light. The light of your smile, your laugh, your dignity and strength, your warmth and quick wit, your compassion and intelligence, your selflessness, your love. I was a fool, just a shadow next to a reflected light. And when I realized what I had done, you were gone. Kathryn, I am so sorry. If I could take it back, if it were possible to change it, I would. Oh, Kathryn, forgive me. I never meant to hurt you. I love you, I want you, I need you beyond all else. Please tell me it is not too late. I am so sorry. Help me, what can I do? What can I say? How do I tell you? How do I make it right?*

"Spirits, Kathryn..." he tried to reign in his agony as he spoke, but it choked off his breath. Chakotay closed his eyes, trying again to focus enough to hold her here with him. Willing himself to keep from reaching out to physically hold her until he was able to express himself.

"Chakotay," that voice he loved coaxed him. He looked to see her smoky blue eyes so open to him he thought he could fall into them straight to her soul.

"I know." And without breaking their gaze, Kathryn reached out and offered her hand to him, safely holding all the hopes and promises between them. Her simple words broke the chains of dread that had held him. All thought left him as he took this lifeline, his solid, bronze hand engulfing hers. Bronze and ivory, their fingers intertwined, sealing the promises securely within. Chakotay felt himself being pulled to sanctuary.

Silently, hand in hand, they retraced Kathryn's path past the trees, down to the lake's edge. Unwilling to break the physical contact with Kathryn, Chakotay loosened his hiking boots with a single hand and prodded each off using the toes of the opposite foot while Kathryn slipped easily from her loose shoes.

Barefoot, they stood on the sandy stretch by the base of the dock in the afternoon's fading light. The breeze rustled their clothing and played with the loose strands of Kathryn's hair about her face. Their gazes locked between them, the connection electric. Chakotay tightened his fingers around Kathryn's instinctively, lest he lose her again. A smile teased at Kathryn's lips as her eyes searched his face; her own hand returned the pressure of his.

"Will you stay for dinner?" Kathryn's eyes were as inviting as her words. "If we sail now, we can catch the sunset, then wait for moonrise over the water. After, we can chase off the night chill with a late meal of hot soup and fresh bread."

The pieces of Chakotay's heart mended together with the sound of her voice. Relief. She had asked him to stay. She could have suggested walking through the Vulcan desert at midday; it would not have mattered. He could not leave her.

"And tomorrow," Chakotay found his voice, hope surging through him, "we will have breakfast on the porch…"

"...to watch the morning fog burn off from the lake." Kathryn finished the thought, tears glistening in her blue eyes.

"And the morning after that?" Chakotay asked, unable to stop himself. He had to know where he stood. He had to know exactly what it was she was offering.

Kathryn lifted her free hand to gently caress his face as the once tentative smile settled on her lips.

"And every morning after that, for as long as you want." Her eyes implored him to stay, as her words promised him forever.

Chakotay released her hand and gathered her into his arms where she melted into his broad chest. Pressing his face to her silken hair, he breathed in the fragrance of Kathryn. Even as his heart sang and his soul took flight, his tears escaped to mingle with the russet strands.

He had come to plead his case, to beg, if necessary, for Kathryn's forgiveness. He had come to ask for a place, any place, in her life and she had offered him everything. She had given herself to him unconditionally.

The baggage was all still there; no Q to snap it magically out of existence. Together they would open it. They would examine and share and discuss each item and then dispose of it. Together. It wouldn't be fast; it wouldn't be easy or always pleasant, but they had time now; and they had each other. But tonight? Tonight was just for being; for the wind and the lake, for hope and declaration.

At the end of the dock, they climbed into the small sailboat, Kathryn taking the tiller as Chakotay cast off the lines. Brilliant splashes of sunset already decorated the horizon as they headed out onto the lake. Later, under the black silk drape spangled with stars, they would affirm the beginning of their voyage into the future. Their voyage together.

FEEDBACK: One thing better than writing a story is getting feedback on it. Well, positive, or at least constructive, feedback.

Explanation of my title choice; "Unaltered". It is a reference to a Shakespeare sonnet (#116 - see below). I love to see Kathryn and Chakotay as 'the marriage of true minds' and I tend to think of Kathryn as being as true and steadfast and constant as that which this sonnet brings to mind (Chakotay is, well, perhaps not as strong, but very well intended :-} ). Once given, Kathryn's pledge, promise, and love would be unalterable. Which is not to say she is unable to move on; of course she is able (as after Mark) to move on when it is necessary (Mark was unreachable and moved on himself, with good reason). Chakotay was nearly gone, but in my story at least, he snapped back to reality. Kathryn may have stepped aside, but she had not moved on. Kathryn was always "the star" to Chakotay's "wandering bark"; his peace.

Sonnet 116 by Wm Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken:
It is the star to every wandring bark,
Whose worth' unknown, although his height be taken
Love's not Time's fool though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.