Disclaimer: I do not own nor claim to own any of the following characters, places, or events. Just the story.

Author's Note: You'd have to be blind not to notice the explosion of J/C fic on FFN recently. Angry Warrior this and Lonely Captain that - quite honestly, it's making me squirm. Some of it is exceptional, raw and powerful with GOOD writing to back it up, but the majority? No. I can't see it happening. So here you are, folks. *My* take on J/C.

And please... if you're one of those die-hard J/Cers, give me a chance. I'm quite proud of this, and I think I stuck to canon and character quite well.


Best of Strangers
by Dax's10thHost

They left three weeks after they returned, disembarking by foot in accordance with tradition. Low-tech, sparsely furnished, reminded of their significance only by the whirring holocams and hubbub of questions thrown at their faces, they trudged, satchels slung over their shoulders. Some carried boxes, others rolled suitcases, and all were full of silence. Filing off their home of seven years, they ignored all but the presence of family around them. Family not by blood, but by circumstance. And later… by choice.

B'Elanna carried Miral, a blanket shading her slumbering form from the fierce summer sun. Tom strode beside her, toting their luggage and sporting his Captain Proton jacket with the casual brazenness that Chakotay had come to admire after seven years. Harry, Seven, Kathryn, and the Doctor dotted around and between the crewmen, lieutenants, and ensigns. Tuvok, too, had returned from Starfleet Medical, healed of his illness.

All solemn, all a little stiff-kneed, all with eyes wide and fingers shifting on satchel straps.

It was strange, walking away from this ship with so little to show for it. One satchel, some favorite civvies, a knickknack or two. His uniform. And a hole where he supposed his heart had been.

Cliché, he admitted, but at least it was accurate. Or as close to accurate as something like a giant gap in one's chest could get. For seven years, they'd striven to reach this place they all called home—all but the few like Seven, Icheb, and Naomi Wildman—and what did they have to show for it?

A satchel, a uniform, and an ache for the familiar.

Four weeks and twelve debriefings later, he looked around, tipping his face to the sky. Brassy summer air beat against his skin, and he breathed the strictured scent of manicured lawns. He tasted the freer, wilder smell of roses and honeysuckle in the distance and wished Boothby would butt in and tell him what to do with his life.

Two years ago, this had been a fountain for his senses, a laughing, smile-bright dance of relief and familiarity tumbling over and around him, even though he'd known it couldn't be real. There had to be something more to it. And there had been. Species 8472.

But this was the real thing. Or was it?

Seven years, and Earth wasn't home anymore. Even the Alpha Quadrant didn't feel right. It was… empty. And tired, like a ship with no crew. Still, even in its emptiness it overflowed, brimming with stories and people that held no life for him, no interest or intrigue or room to grow. He was shut out, along with the rest of the crew, isolated from friendships and eye contact.

That was another thing he'd noticed—the absence of eye contact. There was a bitterness towards the Voyagers that no one cared to mention, for they all knew it and felt it, and, to some extent, understood it.

Voyager had been missing for seven years, been declared lost, and then shown up in the Delta Quadrant long after her friends and family had laid her crew to rest in their minds and hearts. Cruel, some called it. Why hadn't they contacted them sooner, before everyone moved on? Now they had to reacquaint themselves with the idea that their loved ones were still alive?

It wasn't fair of them. Wasn't nice.

At least, that's what everyone said. And then there was the issue of the Dominion War.

As he walked along the pristine sidewalks of Starfleet Academy, Chakotay wondered if Earth would ever feel right again. Somehow, he knew it wouldn't. At least not when this silence lumbered between them like the proverbial elephant in the room.

He'd known that she would never fully leave his mind, not completely, not even when they'd disembarked the ship and set off on their different paths. But he hadn't expected to run into her this soon, either.

He should have known it would be today.

She almost didn't recognize him at first, which surprised and hurt him. Was he really only visible to her in uniform? His memories denied it, but her slim form passing by told him otherwise. He wanted to stop her, and might have, had she not turned for a second look, stopped, and wheeled back when she saw his tattoo. Or had it been something else?

What made him familiar to her?

"Chakotay. I almost didn't recognize you."

He heard her unspoken words, her question hanging like an overripe fruit on her lips.

He pushed the image from his mind. "It's good to see you, Kathryn."

"You're out of uniform."

"Yes."

"Mind if I ask why?" She'd finally turned to face him, and he could see the crease in her brow, the half-smile on her lips, that curious, almost playful glint to her eyes.

"I'm resigning my commission."

"You're leaving?"

"Is that such a surprise?"

"I thought you'd learned how to make it in Starfleet." A moment. "I guess I was wrong."

"Starfleet has nothing to do with it."

"Then what does?"

"I have my reasons."

"Chakotay… you used to share everything with me."

"Not everything. Kathryn."

She shifted, a hand fluttering to her hip. When had things become so stiff between them?

"Seven?"

"It's over."

"I see." Something changed in her eyes, and her lips pressed more firmly together.

"It's not what you think, Kathryn."

"Oh? And what do I think, Chakotay?" The question—quick, soft—was deadly serious.

"I wasn't the one to break it off."

"You weren't the one to keep her, either."

"That's not fair."

"I guess you should have thought about that before you took advantage of her heart."

"I took advantage of her heart? You're the one who told her she was going to die and take me with her!"

"That wasn't me!"

"Yeah? Well it sure looked like you." He cursed, blood coursing hotly through his veins.

"Look… Chakotay. I'm sorry. But I just can't."

"Can't what?"

"I… it's not right."

"What's not right? We're not on Voyager anymore, Kathryn. We're free. No more commander or captain or I'll see you in my ready room."

"You can't honestly expect me to believe that."

"I can hope."

She paused then, and looked at him. "I'm going to need more than that, Chakotay."

"So am I."

Her lids flicked as if he'd slapped her. "If you feel the same way, then why are we having this conversation?"

"Because you can't let me go, Kathryn."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You only stayed because you want to know why I'm leaving and then devise a way to talk me out of it. Don't deny it. I see it in your eyes."

"You're being unfair."

"I could say the same to you."

Silence.

"So… why are you leaving?"

The victory, though his, tasted like ashes on his tongue. "Starfleet isn't for me. It never was."

"You seemed to do just fine in the Delta Quadrant."

"Really? Because I felt pretty useless most of the time."

"Useless? How?"

Could she really be this blind? "You never listened to me, Kathryn. Every time I tried to give you my opinion, you arched your brow and gave me two words—Captain's call. And when I tried to talk to you about it, you left. Walked out of the room. As if I were worthless to you. Just a puppet to fill the seat beside yours."

"That's not true."

"Then why did you never listen?"

"Because I wasn't wrong, Chakotay! I was right!"

"You were right about the Hirogen? the Borg? Species 8472? And what about New Earth?"

"I have nothing to say about New Earth."

"Neither do I. Not anymore."

"Then why did you bring it up?"

"Because at least it got your attention."

She looked around, and he stepped back, realizing how loud their voices had grown. This wasn't what he'd envisioned. Conversations with her rarely were.

"Is that all?" she asked, voice like a feather on the air. He could tell he'd hurt her mightily—her arms were crossed, chin firmed, eyes steely. Steely in a way that told him she wouldn't soon forget his words.

Well fine. Let her remember. He didn't need her anyway.

But he did…

And he'd never have her.

"No. That's not all. But I don't feel like saying the rest."

"Then it's my turn." She ignored his look. "Why Seven?"

"Your guess is as good as mine."

"So it was just a fling?"

"I don't know what it was. And it's none of your business."

"I think it's plenty my business, if you have half the feelings you've claimed to have towards me."

"I've never claimed to have any feelings for you."

"What about New Earth?"

"You said yourself you have nothing to say on the matter."

"You still haven't answered my question. Why Seven? What drew you to her? Did she remind you of someone? Riley, perhaps?"

His chin jerked, and he felt his fingers clenching. "You've never been one to stoop so low, Kathryn. Or kick so low, for that matter."

"Neither have you."

"I don't know why I chose Seven. Maybe she chose me. To be honest, I don't even know when it started, or how, or especially why. It began just the way it ended. A mystery."

"She's fragile. Too fragile for that."

He swore. "Kathryn, I already told you I had nothing to do with it! She broke it off!"

She softened, arms loosening but not quite falling to her sides. "I'm sorry, Chakotay. I've overstepped my bounds."

"Darn right, you have." He couldn't forgive her that easily. Not after… "Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"Talking with me? You've made it clear you're not interested. We're only fighting now."

"Seven years, Chakotay. Seven years, and this—" she swung her arms wide "—this is all we have left? What happened?"

He let that hang a moment. "Nothing happened, Kathryn. It was over from the start."

"Do you really believe that?"

"No. But I have to if I'm going to move on."

Her blue eyes were so full of emotion that he almost took the words back. But that was foolish. He'd been taking them back for years—seven years—and he couldn't do it anymore. It would only hurt him in the end. And her.

Especially her.

"This isn't goodbye, is it?"

"You tell me."

She swore softly. "Don't do this to me, Chakotay. Not anymore."

"No, Kathryn. It's not goodbye."

"But it's not hello, either, is it?" At his look, she sighed. "I thought so."

"I'll keep in touch," he said, tightening his fingers around the fabric of his uniform. She seemed to notice him holding it for the first time, and again, that slapped quality returned to her face.

"You're really leaving."

"I am. It's time."

"Will you… is there any way I can change your mind?"

"You wouldn't be Kathryn Janeway if you didn't try."

She dropped her chin and smiled, an echo of their past. "That sounds like something B'Elanna would say."

"She did. Yesterday."

She looked up. "So you've said your goodbyes."

"Yes."

Oh, her look said. Oh. "I… have to get to a meeting."

"And I have a shuttle to catch."

But neither moved.

And so the silence stretched on, both of them pretending that nothing (and everything) had changed.

Fin