TALENT NIGHT

May 1997

Post "Coda." (If I have the episode name right. The one where Janeway keeps dying in front of Chakotay, and then they make plans to go sailing. That one.)

TALENT NIGHT

"You're drunk."

"I'm not."

"You are. I can tell."

"How can you tell?"

"Your face is pink."

Her hands flew up to her face. "Isn't it always?"

He shook his head. "Not always. Not like that." He gestured at her with his champagne glass. "Your face is only this pink after you've been playing tennis on the holodeck with Harry. Or after you've consumed....let's see." With his foot he knocked over one empty bottle of champagne. He held up a second bottle and examined its meager remaining contents in the bright moonlight. "Almost two whole bottles of champagne."

"You had some of that, too," she protested.

"But not as much as you." He held out the bottle to her with a wicked grin. "Want some more?"

"Not on your life."

He laughed and snatched her glass away from her, filled it to the top with the little remaining champagne. "Here you go. Now drink up."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n." She gave him a mock salute; a little champagne sloshed over the rim of her glass.

"Careful, now. I'll make you swab the deck."

"You just try it, Mister."

"We're on my vessel now. You can't give me orders." He turned his face away from her a little but looked back out of the corner of his eye, slyly, hiding his smile. "In fact, I ought to be giving you orders."

"Don't push your luck." She threw her head back and downed most of the champagne in one gulp, then lifted her hand to wipe her chin. "You try it and we'll see who's really in charge around here."

"You are, Captain. Always."

"Damn straight."

She leaned back against the pillows he'd piled on the deck for her, brought up from the small cabin below. "And what makes you think this is your vessel, anyway? It's my holodeck program, after all."

"Yes, but I designed the boat for you, remember?" He raised his glass and noisily sucked down the rest of his champagne. "If it were up to you we'd be sailing the Queen Mary out here."

"It wasn't that big," she protested. "It was the same boat we used to take up to Lake Michigan every year."

"Exactly my point. It was fine for Lake Michigan. But this -- where the hell is this lake, anyway? The real one."

"It's Lake George. Southern Indiana."

"This lake is barely big enough for a couple of kayaks and a rowboat. So I designed you a more appropriate vessel." He pointed his glass at her. "So technically, this is my boat."

"Technically," she countered, "this starship is under my command, which makes everything and everyone on it under my jurisdiction. So technically, Commander, you are out of line. Even more than usual."

"Now what is that supposed to mean?"

She ignored him and continued her tirade. "So you'd better shape up, Mister, or I'll have you court-martialed for steering my vessel while under the influence of illegal intoxicants."

"Hey! What makes you this stuff is illegal?"

She smirked at him, toying with her champagne flute. "I happen to know you don't have enough replicator rations left this month to produce two bottles of champagne. So you either appropriated rations from someone else, or whoever's producing engine-room hooch these days owes you a favor. Either way, that makes it illegal."

He frowned for an instant, then bowed his head in defeat. "You're right, Captain. It is illegal."

"So who did you get the rations from?"

"What makes you think it isn't engine-room hooch?"

"You ever hear of anyone producing Dom Perignon in an engine room still?"

He threw back his head and laughed. "Can't get anything by you, Captain."

"You'd have had better luck if you'd pulled off the labels, at least."

He chuckled and settled back into the pile of pillows opposite her, shaking his head, his eyes closed.

She rested her head and watched him, watched the night breeze stir his hair and the moonlight brighten his dark features. In the pale light his face appeared more fierce than usual, all planes and angles, even when he looked up and smiled at her.

"I'm glad you invited me," he said softly, "even if it means I'll have to eat Neelix's cooking for the next couple of months."

"I'm glad you came." She returned his smile without hesitation. "I needed to do something life-affirming after today."

"So did I."

He looked away quickly, as if ashamed of what he'd said, and she let the remark pass.

The silence stretched between them, suddenly uncomfortable. She wanted to ask him what he'd felt when he watched her die in spite of his best efforts to save her. She wanted to tell him what she'd felt then, too, watching him try to force the life back into her while he pleaded with her to live, to breathe, just once, Kathryn, don't die on me now. Watching him weep over her, pull her into his arms and hold her close as if he could bring her back by sheer force of will. No, Kathryn, you can't die...

"Chakotay..."

He looked up and the moonlight caught him full in the face. The breath went out of her again, this time with astonishment -- his eyes wide, moist with tears he couldn't let fall, she couldn't let fall.

She swallowed hard and found her voice, found a smile.

"I know of another life-affirming thing you could do."

One corner of his mouth turned up in gratitude. "What's that?"

"You could participate in the next Talent Night."

She'd caught him between such extremes of emotion -- choking despair, utter astonishment -- that he simply sat and stared at her for a long moment, spluttering his surprise. He picked up a pillow and waved it over his head, clearly fighting the impulse to throw it at her.

"Not that again! I told you, I don't have a talent!"

"Of course you do. You must. Everyone does."

He shook his head, laughing now. "Not me. I'm the only one. I'm completely talentless."

"Surely there must be something..." She cocked her head to one side, considering him, then snapped her fingers. "I know. You could sing!"

"Oh, I don't think so." He laughed and shook his head lightly, but for an instant she saw a hesitation in him.

"Come on, Chakotay. You've got to be better than Lieutenant Carey and his accordion. Sing for us."

Again he shook his head. "I can't sing."

"Yes you can. I've heard you."

He looked up suddenly, all the humor draining from him. "When? When have you heard me sing?"

She shrank back a little, astonished by his reaction. "On New Earth. I'd be on my way back from checking my insect traps and I could hear you singing while you worked. Sometimes I'd stop and sit down and just listen to you until it was time to come in for lunch."

He turned away from her. "If I had known, I would have stopped. I didn't know you could hear me."

"You have a lovely voice. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I'm not ashamed. I just... I don't sing in public. It's a very...private thing for me."

"But if the crew could hear you -- "

"No. I won't sing in front of the crew."

He stood abruptly and gathered the empty champagne flutes and bottles and retreated to the cabin belowdecks before she could even apologize.

Now what was that all about? she wondered, listening to him stomp through the cabin below, toss the bottles into the waste disposal and slam the door to the head. I haven't seen that temper of yours since the last time Dalby got out of line. What gives, Commander?

It wasn't much she'd asked, after all, just a song or two for the crew. True, she'd never heard him sing on the ship, not alone in his quarters or in the shower, even though their quarters shared a common wall. She would never have thought it strange, except...

On New Earth she'd heard him sing dozens of times. He habitually hummed while he cooked -- she vividly remembered lying in bed and listening to him putter through the shelter, preparing a midnight snack while he hummed to himself, quiet melodies she came to recognize over the weeks they spent together. A comforting sound, something he didn't seem to mind sharing with her. But when he was alone, or thought he was...

Clear and strong, his voice ringing out over the treetops, soaring with songs she knew and songs she didn't, accompanied by the buzz of a handsaw or the percussive blow of a hammer. A lovely, if untrained, tenor voice, a little rough-edged, always rich with emotion.

Rich with emotion...

She looked up, startled, when he emerged from belowdecks and sat down opposite her, staring at his hands.

"Chakotay?"

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I don't want to sing in front of the crew. If I could, I -- "

"Chakotay." She leaned forward and touched his hands, forced him to look up at her. "I know you won't sing for the crew. But, just once, would you sing for me? Just once, and I'll never ask you again."

He stared at her for a long moment, his expression blank. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head a little as if to clear it.

"Just once," he said firmly. "Computer, produce one acoustic guitar, specifications Chakotay Alpha."

The guitar was sleek and black, the strings taut and shiny. He took it in his hands almost reverently, paused for an instant to run his fingers along the smooth curves.

"My father had a guitar like this when I was a boy," he said softy. "He always said he'd give it to me someday."

"Did he?"

"He never got the chance."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged a little, not looking at her. "I was saving up replicator rations to make one of my own, but I used most of them on the champagne this evening."

She made a small sound of exasperation, caught somewhere between astonishment and gratitude at his generosity. "You should have saved them for yourself. You shouldn't have wasted them on the champagne."

"I don't consider it wasteful," he said quickly. "I wanted to give it to you."

The moon behind him now, he was all shadows and bright eyes. "You don't have to do this, Chakotay."

He smiled, for the first time in many minutes. "I want to, Kathryn."

She sat back and watched, waited, hoped she could effectively conceal her emotions from him -- surprise, mostly, that he had agreed to this at all. Surprise and something else, something that had hovered at the back of her mind since she'd seen him trying to force life into her, weeping over her when she refused to comply.

It was difficult for him at first, she could see that. His unpracticed hands struggled to find the right chords, his fingers scraped and squealed against the strings. A simple waltz, one she did not recognize from the few bars of introduction. And then his voice, words she knew. She drew in a sharp breath when he began to sing.

Traveling at night, the headlights were bright
And we'd been up many an hour
All through my brain came the refrain
Of home and its warming fire

Not this one, not now, Chakotay...

The last time she'd heard it... New Earth, the last night, just hours before Tuvok was due to "rescue" them.

And home sings me of sweet things
My life there has its own wings
Fly over the mountains
Though I'm standing still

After all the packing was done and he'd gone into the woods one last time, for one last hike, he'd said. But she'd heard the sounds, the destruction. Tearing apart something he'd started to build but would never finish, wouldn't even tell her what it was.

The people I've seen, they come in between
The cities of tiring life
And the trains come and go, but inside you know
The struggle will soon be a fight.

And then the singing, his voice choked with emotion while he sang it to the trees, to the mountains, to all the life around them, all the life they should have had before them. To her; he must have known she could hear. To her, while she sat listening, weeping at the despair in his voice.

Traveling at night, the headlights were bright
But soon the sun came through the trees
Around the next bend, the flowers will send
The sweet smell of my home on the breeze

The sweet smell of my home...

Growing plants and cooking fires, sawdust and sweat, fresh earth after a hard rain.

It was home for me, too, Chakotay.

And home sings me of sweet things
My life there has its own wings
Fly over the mountains
Though I'm standing still

She did not realize there were tears on her cheeks until he reached out trembling fingers and brushed them away. Before he could withdraw she held her hand hard against her cheek, pressing her face into his warm palm.

"Kathryn," he whispered, his voice unsteady.

Tears on his cheeks, too. It took all her will not to reach out and wipe them away.

"Chakotay... We can't do this, can we?"

The lake breeze dead, the little boat drifted aimlessly while he sat staring at her from haunted eyes. For an awful second she thought he would profess ignorance, make her say the words aloud. But finally he shook his head and lowered his eyes.

"No," he said. "I don't think we can."

She drew in a long, shuddering breath. "At first I worried about the crew. I thought maybe there would be problems if our relationship...became something more than just professional. I thought my authority would be undermined."

"That would never happen. They respect you too much."

"I know that now."

"But?"

"But... Now I'm worried about us."

"I know." He looked out at the water, his lips drawn together in a thin, tight line. "I watched you almost die today, Kathryn. It's not an experience I'd care to repeat."

"And if our relationship were different..." She reached out, placed her hand on his face, forced him meet her eyes. "If we were lovers?"

He closed his eyes tight, her hand still on his cheek. "If we were lovers," he whispered, wistful, regretful. "If we were lovers I couldn't have done it. It was bad enough today. But... Kathryn, if we were lovers, I'd never be able to give an order that would put your life in danger. I'm not sure I can do it now. Maybe you can. Maybe you could even then. But I couldn't." He stared at her, his eyes pleading. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," she whispered. She wiped tears away from his cheeks. "I'm not sure I could do it, either. I've never had to. I suppose I don't want to find out. But the sacrifice..."

"The sacrifice is almost too much to take, Kathryn. Every day I sit within arm's reach of the thing I want most in the universe, but I can't have it. It's so frustrating." He leaned his head in his hands.

"I know. It is for me, too."

He looked up suddenly, his eyes wide. "Is it?"

"Yes."

Lips twisted in a grimace, he turned away from her. "I never knew," he whispered. "I never knew..."

"Didn't you? Leaving the ship for New Earth was the hardest thing I ever though I'd do. But coming back... Coming back was even harder."

"Maybe we should have talked more."

"What was there to say?"

"I don't know." He shook his head hard. "There's so much I regret now... So much I would have told you, if I knew we were going to be rescued. I though we had our whole lives in front of us."

"I know. So did I."

"If we had it to do over again, knowing what we know now, would you do anything differently?"

A long moment while her mind spun with the images she'd repressed for so long -- the two of them laughing together, walking hand-in-hand, traveling down the river in the boat he never built, lying together in the grass, sun warming bare skin. The only two people on the planet. And then returning to their shipboard lives as if nothing had happened between them...

Finally she shook her head. "No," she said softly. "I wouldn't change anything."

His shock carried to her even though her face was turned away from him. "You wouldn't? Not anything?"

"Would you?"

"You know I would."

She turned to him, reached out and touched his cheek with gentle fingers. "But wouldn't you rather never have something you want very badly, than have it once and then have it taken away?"

He caught her fingers in his, pressed them to his lips fervently, passionately. "I wouldn't have given up that easily, Kathryn."

To have that passion with her every night, to give herself up to it and show him her own...

"It's a cruel joke," she whispered. "Thrown so far from the Alpha Quadrant should be a tragedy, but it landed us here together..."

"Together, but always apart." He released her hand. "I feel like I've had my life given back to me, only to have it taken away again and again."

"So do I."

Janeway sat back in the pillows again, suddenly sober. The sky to the east was brightening a little; they'd sailed the night away, talking and laughing, crying. He sat with his head lowered, staring at his hands -- hands that tried to make a home for her, hands that would mold the universe into any shape she asked for, if only she would let them.

She stood and smoothed her dress, pulled on her sandals. "Computer, show arch." Almost as an afterthought she retrieved the pale, perfect rose he'd given her, holding it gently in her fingers.

"You're leaving?"

"We're both due on the bridge in a couple of hours. You stay here as long as you want to, but I'm going to get some sleep. Tom Paris will start a rumor if we both walk in hung over."

He chuckled softly. "You're probably right."

"Thank you for the champagne and the sail. And for saving my life."

"Thank you."

"Good night, Chakotay."

She turned to go but his voice caught her mid-stride.

"Remember something, Kathryn. We make our own rules here," he said softly, intensely. "We make our own way. Maybe someday..."

"Maybe."

"Good night, Kathryn."

For a long time he sat alone, watching the sun rise over the hills, over the water.

A cruel joke, that he'd found the one thing he wanted only by losing everything he had. A cruel universe, to tease him like this.

He rose, pulled on his boots. Sighed heavily, looking at the guitar.

Maybe someday...

Maybe never.

"Computer, end program."

For an instant he wanted to delete it, to wipe away this memory and everything he knew it would eventually come to represent. But better to have this reminder, better to know, when he inevitably forgot himself and her and their places, that it was still here, that this discussion had really happened.

The corridors were empty; at 0400 it was one of the quietest times of Voyager's day. He walked alone, head lowered, the beginnings of a hangover hovering behind his eyes. Long night, long day ahead. Many long days ahead.

Something different in his quarters. Even without raising the lights he knew someone had been there, had left something behind.

"Computer, raise lights one quarter."

It stood in the corner on a metal stand. His father's guitar -- his guitar -- sleek and black. A pale rose woven into its shiny strings.

The tears started and wouldn't stop while he stood there staring. If only he'd been there when she'd brought it, if only he'd been patient enough with her...

If only Tuvok hadn't come to rescue them...

If only.

There was a stirring next door, beyond the wall that separated them, one of the many walls that separated them. A stirring, a soft sigh of recognition, resignation.

He picked up the guitar gently, reverently, almost fearfully.

Life taken away from him and given back to him so many times. How many more times, he couldn't know, couldn't bear to know. But this piece, this piece of life was his. He clutched it close to him, intending to hold it for as long as he was able.

Surprise that he could find the chords with tears in his eyes, could sing around the emotion in his throat.

Home sings me of sweet things
My life there has its own wings
Fly over the mountains
Though I'm standing still