The shuttle she's claimed for personal use is a luxurious one. There's too much space for one person, but that's a relief. Alone with niggling thoughts and expansive emptiness, she'd be too claustrophobic otherwise. Relief as it is to parts of her soul, a ship this tiny takes getting used to.
At least there's no godforsaken fog.
She has ten days to come up with the answers to all the questions that burn her, and once more, so much of her energy goes into figuring out where everything went wrong. She finds herself counting, cataloging betrayals.
The first was when he'd gone after Seska but she's reluctant to count that. He'd done that to save the crew. Misguided as it had been, that is the kind of man that he is. He'd never lied to her about how he felt about the alliance with the Borg. Angry as she'd been to awaken to the reports on what he'd done while she'd been unconscious in sickbay, she'd reviewed the facts in the weeks afterward. He had made a judgment call and was well within his rights to do so.
Riley had not been of his own free will.
Teero. Again, not his fault. Again, it had taken some time to forgive him for it, but that's not to say she ever told him that. That doesn't count. Much as she'd like to hold it against him, she'd never really been able to after a few months of hard reflection.
Seven counts as one half a betrayal, and not a deliberate one. She won't believe that of him. At worst, it was selfish shortsightedness, near unforgivable lapse in judgment. Very near, but no lasting harm was done to Seven, who is thriving on Starbase Eight Four in spite of the difficult adjustment if the communiques are any indication. Had that not been the case…had Seven been hurt in any way…she can't say she would have forgiven that before hell froze over. But Seven is fine.
No. Until two years ago, he's never truly betrayed her. That time was the first.
He still came back for her. Doing that was risking everything. His freedom, any life he's built for himself. It wasn't to taunt her. She knows him well enough to know that, never questioned it. Coming back was arrogant, assuming as hell, but it had been for her as much as for him. To check on her, she knows now. And if a quick fuck had been all he'd been after, there were any number of more convenient, probably younger and attractive marks that would have fallen into his bed if he had so much as crooked his finger. He'd never had a problem in that department. So no. He came back for her. To see her.
And cutting the power cell to her phaser? Stopped her from betraying him. Letting her sleep with him, again, under the pretense of keeping him there and catching him unawares? She'll lump all that in with the first, considering the implications of what would have happened if he hadn't done those things.
They're at one and a half, then.
He betrayed her trust once. And she his.
Seven years of what they went through together doesn't just disappear with one act. No matter how wrong. No matter how furious she is. Was.
She needs to know. She needs to hear all of the answers to her questions from his lips before she knows how to reconcile the inner war he ignited in her when he walked away from her…twice.
Where he secured a cloaked ship she doesn't know, but she can take a few educated guesses. He's the most resourceful man she's ever met. Always has been. Unfortunately for him, cloaking requires power that leaves other systems wanting. His shields aren't substantial while he's hiding, and one well-planned shot knocks out his propulsion before he ever reads her hiding in the magnetic moon crater his ship is passing over. Armed, she keys the mathematically derived coordinates and hopes like hell she materializes where she'd planned and before the person she's fairly sure she's going to meet. If it isn't him, this is going to be awkward.
"Hello, Kathryn." He isn't surprised to see her materialize on his flight deck. Not really. He's armed but makes no move to unholster his weapon: a wise decision, as hers is out and trained on him already. She clearly means business.
"Chakotay," she acknowledges coolly, her weapon never wavering.
"I'd started to think you weren't even trying."
"So had I," she agrees curtly.
His eyes pass over her, burning ebony washing over ivory skin and civilian clothing. "You're out of uniform," he notes carefully.
"So are you."
The nod is a thoughtful one. "But I'm not in Starfleet anymore."
"No. You aren't." She won't wait one second longer. "Why, Chakotay? I need to know why."
His sigh fills her bones with his regret. He rubs his hands over his face, shrinking under her gaze as he sags forward, elbows braced on his knees. "I had a debt to repay."
That's not nearly enough. "A debt?" she presses.
"Sveta gave me my life back when she took me under her wing. The Maquis gave me a purpose when all I wanted was to curl up and die. That purpose may have been anger, but it probably saved my life. I owed them my life. There's never been any escaping that for me. And I don't know any other way to explain it than that."
How seriously he takes that concept, she already knows. It had probably been about the only thing to have kept him from killing Tom on sight once she'd promoted him to helmsman. Given what she knows of him, this is something she can understand – and it's more of a relief than it has any right to be.
"I had to forget my loyalty to the Maquis once we joined Voyager," he tries to explain grimly. "Out there, I gave my loyalty to you. Only you."
"For your people," she whispers. That's the element she has always forgotten. That one key fact. Her arm trembles with the isometric position, but she isn't quite ready to relinquish her aim. Not yet.
"At first, maybe. You know it was more than that very quickly."
"I thought I did."
"You did know," he corrects, forcing eye contact she fights not to shy away from. When she doesn't contradict him again, he continues. "But it wasn't easy. I was always aware that by joining you, I was turning my back on the Maquis back here at home. I never forgot that I owed them my life. I couldn't forget it. When we came back, I couldn't turn my back on that debt once I had the power to do something about it. I had to set them free."
She nods, full understanding lifting a heavy weight she's carried for almost two years now. "One betrayal can be forgiven. Not two," she says softly.
He stares at her, drinking her in. Turning over her words takes longer when thirsty eyes are so openly trying to quench that thirst, but it penetrates eventually. He's able to nod slowly. "I guess that's a pretty accurate summation."
"I did," she admits with a grimace. "I betrayed you. In theory, I would have. I would have taken you into custody a year ago – I would have turned you in without a second thought. I would have denied you your freedom."
"I know." His head bows somber acknowledgment. "I understood, Kathryn," he tells her.
"You shouldn't have." Her head shakes sharply. "You shouldn't have been able to forgive that."
"It's not a question of forgiveness. I knew I had to go back eventually and face up to what I did. I thought about giving myself up then…but that would have deprived you of the pleasure of finding me and hauling me in." His full smile hurts to look at. The crinkling of his eyes, more than winking dimples, is what kills her. It breaks her heart.
"It would never have been a pleasure, Chakotay," she whispers, swallowing suspiciously loudly against an odd ache in her throat. "Not by any means."
"Are you sure about that?" he teases. "You do like to win."
"In games, maybe. This is no game."
"No, Kathryn. We were never that." He blinks. A soft, slow blink of a thousand different warring pains. "I'm sorry Kathryn. I never wanted to hurt you."
She says nothing, and he sits back, giving her the time he knows she needs. His eyes keep passing over her, a little surprised at what they find. Her attire. Her open posture. It's incongruent to what she's surely come here to do, and he won't let himself be fooled into thinking there's any other reason she has come. He doesn't want to experience the sensation of having his guts ripped out of him whole and shredded in front of him. Not again. He dealt with that a few times over the course of nine years, and he's learned not to even put himself in that position.
He holds out his unarmed hands to her as he rises slowly, wrists together. "I'm ready to go now. Take me in. But I won't give up the others."
He actually draws the laughter out of her. Even in these circumstances. "If you did, I'd have to seriously question your identity."
He smiles again, waiting patiently. When she makes no move to approach him, the smile melts into confusion. Hope – and fear. "Kathryn," he says sternly, cutting into the silence of inactivity. "What are you waiting for? This isn't going to get any easier for either one of us."
Incredulously, he watches her phaser slowly lower to her side. She shakes her head. "You're a good man, Chakotay." Unexpectedly, she smirks. "You have questionable judgment, sometimes, that much is true. But taking you back just to rot in some cell for years isn't justice. I won't do it. It wouldn't be right."
Right doesn't always have bearing on Starfleet policy. It's been his problem with them all along. But that doesn't mean he can let her do this. Not for him. Not this time. "Kathryn, you have to. If you don't, they'll never trust you again."
"They already don't. And if earning their trust is something I still have to do after decades of service, maybe I'm not interested in having it." Her shoulders set back without her consciously noticing, but he sees it. He sees her absolute conviction as she announces, "I'm not going back to Earth, Chakotay. I was a Starfleet officer for long enough. At heart I'm an explorer, and there's nothing left for me to explore in Starfleet."
Starfleet is her life. It's her identity. She can't mean this.
"Think about this. Really think about what you're doing," he begs.
She swallows. "Can you forgive me?" She isn't entirely sure that he can. That she could, in reverse.
Sagging, Chakotay sees that she isn't going to be swayed on this. She won't take him. "It was never a question of forgiveness," he tells her sadly. "You did what you felt was right, Kathryn."
"And so did you."
He approaches slowly, still cautious. She makes no move to back away from his approach, encouraging his hand to lift, to wipe at the line of moisture under her left eye. Softly, he tells her, "You know I never thought that admiral rank bar looked right on you."
This might really be happening. She may be here with him. She may really have no intention of leaving him.
She laughs through her leaking tears. "The captain's pips didn't seem to fit you, either. Contrary to what I'd told myself all those years."
"The uniform always looked good on you. Too good. The pips, too." His fingertips dance a forbidden path down her neck to her collar, which he rims. "But I can't deny the leather looks better."
"It feels good." She marvels at that now. It's not the uniform she was born and bred to fit in but, "Leather feels right, somehow."
So does his body pressing up against the front of hers. Dear God, it's the first right thing in her life since the moment he walked out of it.
Since the moment two other people had drowned out of it, if she's honest.
This is right.
The fighter ship floor is hard but they never feel its bite until afterward, when they lie in a pile of sweat-dampened clothes, raw and sore and completed in ways neither one has been in years. Two years, in fact. With his remaining strength, he flips their positions, smoothing her back over the side of the floor atop their discarded clothing. He pushes the damp hair out of her flushed face, bracing his weight on one folded arm. What reflects back to him in her eyes stops his heart.
"Are you really here to stay?" He needs to hear it before he can dare to believe it.
She shakes her head. "We can't go back. There's nothing for us there. Not anymore."
Us. That's yes. It's everything. She is everything. But it's not without sacrifice on her part, he knows. "Your family?" he asks, knowing how much she loves her mother and sister.
"Want me to be happy. There's no happiness left for me in Starfleet. Or on Earth for that matter." Her fingers trail over his chest, reveling in the smooth outline of muscle that's harder than what she remembers of it. "I think they knew that well before I did."
He drops his head. "I'm sorry. That's my fault."
"Don't," she orders. "It isn't."
"Don't need me." It hurts to admit, but it's true.
"Somehow I'm not so sure of that anymore. She's grown, Chakotay. In ways we never expected, maybe. It's occurred to me that she doesn't have to choose my path to complete her journey. But we'll make sure she knows how to contact us whenever she needs to. We did devise encryptions no one in Starfleet could crack if they wanted to, if you'll recall."
"You've thought this through." It's taking time to fully penetrate; that's not strictly his fault and she knows it.
"You knew you would be able to live with the answers to your questions? About what I'd done, and why? You were that sure?"
"I know you. It was enough."
She is enough. They are enough.
"You know, we really don't have any idea if we can actually live together long term. What if we start fighting over the towels again?"
"You're a slob, yes, but I already know that," she says, unconcerned.
"And you're more of one than you'll ever admit to being – which was my whole argument all along."
"Voyager wasn't that big. If we didn't kill each other in seven years of working together, we'll manage outside of a command structure. And this had better work. Because I meant what I said. We really can't go back. It'll take years for those warrants to expire."
"Will they? Expire?"
"For me? Within three years. All I did was steal a shuttle and desert in peace time. But you?" She winces. "In about a decade."
"At least neither of us has murdered anyone…that I know of," he quips.
She quirks a brow. "Your faith in me is inspiring."
His faith in her is borderline delusional and always has been. She marvels at how he can still do that after all the flaws he's seen in her. Some of them were fairly ugly.
"Are you sure you can do this?" He still isn't sold on her commitment. "Walk away from Starfleet? I don't want to be the reason you make that decision, Kathryn."
Her hand on his chest is grounding. It always has been. "You aren't," she soothes. "If anything, you were the catalyst, but it's not the same. The Federation has changed. It's not where I want to spend the rest of my life and it's not the work I want to be doing. They're not who I want to spend it with."
"We'll go back. Eventually."
"Where to, then? I think I've seen enough of Alpha and Delta to last a lifetime."
"I'd say we've got the best of both those other quadrants right here," she agrees.
"The Gamma Quadrant?" he tosses out for consideration.
"Maybe. We'll find a place, if we decide to settle. Somewhere out of the way, maybe with people we can help. Truly help." Two fingers leave his flexing arm to signal an important interjection. "But I have one absolutely non-negotiable condition, wherever we go," she warns.
"Name it," he says. He will give her anything. Everything.
"It has to be somewhere without fog."