Disclaimer: They aren't mine.
A/N: I still don't like Timeless; this changes nothing but this needed to be off my hard drive. I think crumbles of CallHerVictor sentiment landed in here, especially from her lovely titles.
Thanks to: Shayenne who piled guts into shredding at this story and pushing me to concentrate it, Cheshire who is always bleeding a little into picking the outliers hanging from my stories, and the innocent bystanders like Gates H., JoAryn, Koneia, Miz, Malezita who happen to be in chat or on chat and listening to me whine about it. Froot escaped with her hide intact…this time.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
That phrase and everything it means keeps pounding against the inside of my skull. From the minute Harry repeated it to me this morning, I've been living in a hell made out of those three words.
They're words that could only have come from a man who had lived through my worst nightmare: a broken man with both a command of my Native tongue and an exact memory of what happened between you and I last night.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
At first, I can't help fighting their significance. Until this warning, last night has been holding an entirely different meaning for me: a sacred meaning that can't possibly match up with those words. And yet that phrase won't stop beating its insistent drum inside my mind.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron. Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron. Samaal…
My blood turns cold inside of my veins, and then I know. I can see it clearly, that fatal mistake we made last night. It should have been obvious, but at the time, I was so distracted I couldn't see it. And that scares the hell out of me.
From the minute I entered, you pushed the boundaries. I was almost sure it was deliberate, so I sat back, playing along, waiting to see how far you were willing to go. The only problem with us and pretending is that, eventually, at least one of us is only pretending to be pretending. All I can say now is that, whatever the crucial turning point we missed, we stepped too far over the line and ended up too close – too close to a truth we'd left buried in a patch of dirt we'll never see again in this life.
You asked if I was with you. Always, I admitted, and for you, that settled everything. To you, that's every question that matters and the answer to all of them, but it has a different meaning for me. I can be with you, beside or behind you and still think you're making a horrible mistake. Someday, I'll find a way to make you see that distinction but last night wasn't that time.
For a while, at least, I let you think I was on board. After all, you'd worked hard on that dinner, and I have to say, it wasn't bad. You'd pulled out all the stops. Flowers. Candles. Music. You were expecting me to be cynical about Harry's miracle solution to our slipstream variance problem, and you were right, but it had nothing to do with Harry or his technical abilities. It was just a bad plan. I made it all the way through dinner with the intention of getting you to admit it, too.
The entire meal, you were practically glowing with excitement. It made an attractive picture, even though I knew it meant this wasn't going to be an easy fight. The last time I'd seen that feverish gleam in your eyes, was a time I didn't want to think about for what it almost did to us. I wasn't keen on having another fight like that with you ever again. Maybe that distracted me, too.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
The squeezing of my shoulder and the palm to my cheek were a nice touch. They didn't sway me as much you told yourself they did; then, I was still treading water, biding my time.
The plan was to go softly. I remember thinking that I needed to melt you slowly. That's usually how I handle things you don't want to hear: chip away at your hard casing, then apply a little heat in the right places. At the time, I was thinking melt, like the caramels you'd replicated melted across my tongue. Now, sitting on the bridge, waiting for you to arrive for your duty shift, I shiver violently at that phrasing, hating the words I so casually used, haunted by imagery Harry's report instilled in me this morning. How cold it must have been for all of you, trapped under all that-
I stand and cross to the turbolift, unable to sit here and let my mind wander down those dark paths in public any longer. "Tuvok," I say casually, not wanting to alarm him, "you have the bridge. I'll be in my office, filing the quarterly crew evaluations."
It's more information than he needed. If he's puzzled by that, I can't say that I care. There's nothing going on up here that requires my attention. I get all the way to Deck Two before the distraction fails and my mind returns to last night.
In hindsight, you'd anticipated my attack. You knew I was waiting and you did what you could be expected to do: you struck first. I stood up from the table, intending to cross to the replicator to get the bribe – fresh coffee – before steering the subject back to Harry's bad idea, only to find you standing right behind me, blocking my path. Your eyes were glowing brighter than the candle on the table beside us. I want you to know I just took one nanosecond to admire the softness of your mouth, not realizing that that nanosecond was all I had. By then, you were leaning forward and your breath was on my cheek, tickling the fine hairs on my skin. Soft, and so damned warm – caramel coffee and bottled sex licking across my skin.
I held strong. I've had practice at this. So many times we've come up against these moments, accidental and intentional, and always with those same silent centimeters held awkwardly between us.
Not last night. Last night, you were flying high on champagne and risk. Probably, I should have counted how many glasses of both you'd had. Probably, I could have used one less of the former. There's no question that I could have stepped back instead of letting my hands settle on your arms, but you didn't seem to notice that we'd closed that set distance. And then you took it further than I ever expected, hitting well below the belt – you crossed an invisible line with the pictures you whispered into my ear. Your voice was low and so certain that ripples of a future we'll never experience shocked through me as if we were living in it.
If I'm honest, my first instinct was anger: anger that you're dared to go so far. Anger that you just assumed I still wanted one with you. Anger that you were right in that assumption, as always.
But what I saw. What you saw. You, me, us. A life, a home we'd make together that was only ours. I could see it all falling into place around us as you whispered, and that image was all it took. I lost every trace of desire to fight you on those engine designs, surrendered them to what you unabashedly promised to give to me –and the lines dissolved into nothingness. My hands weren't allowed to be tangled in your hair that way but one minute they were sliding through rough silk and the next I had you up against your bulkhead, knew the weight of your body resting in my hands.
I missed the transformation completely. One minute we were playing the game and the next you were all but naked in my hands. I'd forgotten what you looked like, how beautiful you can be when the layers are stripped away and you're just you. Over the years I'd become so afraid that you weren't in there anymore that, at some point, I'd stopped looking. And yet there you were, placing yourself right in my hands, a single night away from me.
I wasn't prepared to defend against that.
I wasn't the only one unprepared for how strong the pull between us still was. While I held you, your thighs trembled vulnerable heat into my palms, and when you finally exerted the strength to push me away, my broken groan of frustration almost drowned out your condition.
"Tomorrow," you dared to whisper at me, and your red lips that cut through me so easily in anger were branding my skin with a promise I'd almost convinced myself you could never release to me.
Tomorrow. Samaal. It was so close I could taste it, as clearly as I tasted you on my tongue.
I craved like hell to press it, knowing if I did we would start that night. You were ready. The risk of imminent destruction or impossible success had you shining with that life force I've only seen in the mad and the gifted. But pushing would have cheapened something that had potential to be more than anything I'd ever created with another person, so I forced myself to stop short at the point when I had you backed up against the wall again, pinned, and so on edge under my fingertips that by the second promising, I had you meaning it: everything you were swearing you'd give to me. I left knowing that even you believed everything you'd said, at least in those last moments, and suddenly – I wasn't so sure that Harry wasn't right anymore. That can't happen again.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
I looked in Harry's eyes this morning, on the bridge, and they were haunted. I know what he relayed to me, even if he doesn't, but whatever he said to himself shook him to the core. Now, he's a reminder of the stakes. If he lived, so did I. I lived without you. Without any of you. I've already done that once. I've endured the crippling emptiness of having my entire family wiped away in the blink of an eye. As I make my way to my quarters, searching for some hint of peace in all this, I can't imagine what that did to me, to experience it twice.
No. That's a lie.Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron. I know exactly what it did to me to survive the death of the rest of you. Worse, I know who's to blame, and tonight, I can hardly stand to sit in my quarters and pretend it's not ripping me apart.
I can't stop the images. Having you. Losing you. Losing you because I'd started to believe again in having you. I knew better than that. At some point I got so tired of choking down bile whenever you left the ship to walk into some death trap or another, I'm ashamed to admit I'd gotten used to it. The doctor would probably call that natural: like any painful stimulus, I'd built up a defense against it. Maybe it was right that I'd grown deaf and numb to that sensation. Or that I thought I had.
I'm still going in circles, trying to picture what I could have done differently before dinner – trying so desperately to deny the truth my future self revealed. I've tried to come up with things that might have made a difference in your decision when Harry's plan was first suggested, when we all stood in Engineering listening to his ambitious "corrections" and I had the first flutter of misgiving about the danger involved. There's nothing there. No matter how hard I search, there isn't anything I can put my finger on. Every angle I change, and any comment I imagine making to anyone in that room would have ended in an argument I wouldn't have won.
Every path I trace from there leads back to our beginning, from the moment I gave up command of my people and placed them into your care. It was the right thing to do. I still believe that. Which brings me again back to last night. I can't escape from our fatal mistake last night, especially my part in it. The guilt leaves my mind in turmoil, and there's no peace to be found in the spirit world or in this one. All I'm left with is to wonder what fifteen years of my future was without you after last night – especially after last night. I wonder all the way up to your doors, and through the opening of them.
"Chakotay. What are you doing here at this hour?" You blink slowly, pulling your robe around your shoulders, but I'm not buying it.
It's hardly the wee small hours of morning. You weren't going to tuck in for another few hours, if at all. You're pale. Several cups of coffee in varying stages of cooling dot your coffee table. Like me, you've been up agonizing over where exactly you went wrong in the catastrophe we narrowly avoided. I'd give a month's worth of rations to bet that, unlike me, you haven't yet arrived at the key misstep you made.
If it's any consolation, I'm going to help with that. Not the way you want me to, but the way I need to.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron. I can't make those words stop. Not until I make it right.
I step in without being invited, forcing you to block my path or make way for my entry. Wisely, you step aside, allowing the doors to repressurize behind me. Now my words can only be heard by you.
"Last night, you promised me tomorrow." Samaal. Tomorrow. "It's here, and I'm here to collect."
I'm beyond small talk, games and fables. This isn't a joke anymore. The shields have been breached, and there are hostiles on deck.
"Chakotay, when I said…" You can't repeat it. You can't use the words you so freely spilled to me last night. I'm not surprised. There's neither champagne nor inherent risk of death to blame them on. "Surely you realize…"
"I realize." That doesn't mean I care. "Are you breaking your promise?" is all I want to know.
The hard edge descends over your face to match mine, cutting into your words right on cue. "You're making this unnecessarily awkward."
"I disagree. I think I'm making it painfully clear."
"I know you understand that I intended that promise for–"
I hold up my hand to silence you. "Are you? Breaking it?"
Your word is everything – almost everything to you. You swallow tightly, your bright eyes rapidly scanning my face, trying to assess and to regroup.
It never takes you long.
"Why are you doing this? What's gotten into you?"
You. Myself. Harry. Tuno'oron. All of us. The kilometer of ice we buried you and the rest of the crew under, everything, all of it.
"Harry passed along a message to me."
"A message for you?" Now there's surprise at the creases between your eyebrows. I can't tell if it's genuine or feigned, and I can't say I care. "I didn't see anything in-"
"Trust me, it was there."
"What…" Licking your lips is either on purpose or a tragic accident, but even without that unconscious motion, your nervousness is betrayed in the shine breaking out across your skin. "What did it say?"
I should at least give you that much. I open my mouth. I can't- I stiffen. "It was private."
"I see." You raise your left brow in that disdainful way of yours that makes fire ants dance inside my skull. "Can you at least give me a synopsis?"
My head moves back and forth once, curtly. "I don't think you would understand." The translation is imperfect. It won't be as heavily nuanced for you, and explaining it would cheapen a private wound a tortured version of me carried for fifteen years. That version of me doesn't exist anymore, but it's a wound that must be honored. "I can say that Harry and I changed history today. And I know that in the end, I did it for you."
For your legacy. For our peace of mind. For my sanity, for the crew, but mostly for you.
"I would do the same," you say softly – immediately.
I don't doubt you, but it doesn't budge me because even this level of honesty is no longer enough. Not tonight. The standoff continues; I haven't changed my posture or my request. I'm not going to.
"I suppose I could threaten to call security," you finally say.
"You could." I nod short agreement. "But you wouldn't like the result."
Archly, you ask the question that isn't a question. "Is that so."
It is. I don't have to say it for that fact to sink in to you. You try and disarm me with one last blast of captain's fury, and I absorb it, feeding on it, using it for fuel; it has no weight or bearing on this argument. Then you're done, and we both know threats aren't going to work on me now.
Your shoulders slump. "What do you want, Chakotay?" you ask plaintively, and it's you asking because I've worn down your other options and remaining personas.
"I told you. I came for what you promised. And I'm not leaving without it."
You know damned well I'm not taking it. I'm waiting for you to agree to give it, and you will before I leave here tonight.
Silence. So much of us is wrapped up in painful silences. Have you ever thought about that? You're wondering what to do, what to say to sway me from this course. I can see it all flickering in your too-expressive face, but that doesn't mean-
"Are you going to tell me what that message said?" you ask again. But it's the way you ask it, this time.
Damn you, Kathryn. I've taken great pains to stay closed off, but you see past my best defense mechanisms as easily as I see through yours. I haven't always given you enough credit for that. Usually, you're so busy running your favorite game of sexual distraction that if you're using any other insights into my psyche, I don't even catch it.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
You've seen what's driving me, and it's fear. Your last weapon is concern, and maybe I forgot it existed or how badly I need it. If I could, I would give in to it; I'm that scared. I begin to.
No. Almost, but I won't tell you what I said. Not exactly. It won't mean anything to you the way I said it.
Nothing I've ever said means anything to you. You aren't about words. You're about equations, facial expressions, torturous touches, truths. Lies, when they're necessary. So many lies between us, lies about us, lies that strangle us even while they let us go on living.
Three words are all I had to hear Harry relay from my future self, and I lived fifteen years of empty hell in one heartbeat. I don't have words for that. I can't quantify what I feel for you, any more than I can define it in words. I could try, but I'd fail, and failure isn't something you were ever able to stomach. It eats away at you, from the inside out.
It's doing it now. Harry's mistake was your mistake. My mistakes are your mistakes. It makes you vulnerable, and knowing you as well as I do is a weapon I try not to use often but today, I'm using it. It's all I have left in my arsenal.
I've already given you everything else I ever had to give.
"Are you going to keep your promise?"
We no longer have an option. I gave them all to you: B'Elanna, Ayala, Henley, Chell, every Maquis who used to stand ready to die by my command and who lived for my approval. It's taken years for the complete transition, but you're a dynamic personality. In some ways, the most dynamic I've ever known. We both know that in an open disagreement between us, they'd back you. If I'd forced an open debate last night, they'd have taken your side. Worse, you would have let them, secretly reveled in it, we'd still have made the attempt, and I'd have resented you for it for the next fifteen years instead of resenting both of us.
I don't begrudge you their loyalty, or my own. Not really. But to forgive you for keeping them, and to go on being able to justify letting you, I need you to give me you, even if once is all we get.
"Kathryn, listen to me very carefully. I need you to hear what I'm going to say to you. All of it, and the way I mean it; not the way you want to twist it to make it easier for yourself to say no."
You don't speak. You're waiting for me to finish, and it almost kills you.
"I need to know what we're fighting so hard to reach – if I can't have that truth, then I can't know what I'm trying to set aside until we get home safely. Most importantly, I can't trust myself to know when it's being used against me or when I'm letting it."
Any other time, those words would light a fire in you. You would rear up in self-righteous denial against a blunt accusation you didn't want to hear. It's only because you know what almost happened this morning that you're open enough to hear what I'm saying to you. The magnitude of our collective failure is exposing you to the ugly truth of what we've done as much as it is to me.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
I'm not sure how, but you get it. Somehow, with those incomplete words, you understand all of what I need to convey to you. The fractured pieces are visibly falling into place.
"You knew," you murmur almost inaudibly, and I can taste the horror dripping into your realization. It's a bitter taste, I know. While I watch, the key misstep reveals itself to you in all its ugly glory.
Us. It was you, and me, failing to separate two things that can never be confused like that again.
"We almost killed them all because you let me off too easily."
Chamsa'ani. Killed. I nod tightly, because you're half right. We did kill them, yes, but not just them. In every way that counts we killed all of us, including me, Harry, and especially you. Tuno'orno. All of us.
"I distracted you, and I made you believe I was more certain of our success than I was."
If we should fail, let it be known that the crew of Voyager acted with distinction and with valor. Your words shudder through me, through both of us if I have to guess. You weren't certain it would work. A certain Kathryn Janeway would never have allowed for the possibility of failure. And they were the last words ever recorded by you or anyone else on this crew.
I should know. It was a public log you recorded this morning, and I read it. It was one key variable in the equation that led me to your doors.
"You have no idea how much I regret-"
"Don't," I caution. "It doesn't change anything." Regret means nothing now. And, "I let you do it, remember?"
Why, you almost ask. I see it forming on your lips but something stops you from completing the question. Probably the fact that you already know the answer, and possibly the fact that the answer only makes it worse.
Samaal. That's what I did it for. Samaal with you. That's what we killed them with, in the end. Rushing toward samaal made us both reckless, blind to a dangerous truth that was staring us in the face.
"No more, Kathryn. Either it works, or it doesn't. Either we succeed or we fail – but we can't keep walking that line of in between. Not anymore."
We've walked the line for years and it's worked for us. You've used it to your advantage; I've let you use it to mine. Ninety-nine times it's worked in Voyager's favor. But once isn't acceptable. Once is lethal; once was lethal.
"This is bigger than us now. It's no longer about what we want, and what's emotionally best for the two of us, or even for you."
I'm sorry, but it's true. It's the way it has to be.
"Sink or swim," you say dimly, as if you're far away instead of right in front of me. As if it's going to be that easy.
It will be that simple. Either we destroy each other emotionally in one night, break each other's hearts and live with the consequences or it changes the dynamic between us, and we know what we're dealing with but it has to be decided. We need us out in the open, once and for all.
Voyager depends on it. Our individual futures depend on it.
Samaal chamsa'ani tuno'oron.
"Tomorrow." You're downright terrified if I can read anything into your hoarse whisper, but that makes two of us.
The word alone now forms icicles along my spine. Samaal. It doesn't change what needs to happen here tonight as I remind you:
"You promised me that."
I can't tell you what I said to myself, exactly. The translation isn't direct; it's watery and listless. In my native language, it's so much crisper: it weighs a whole ship's future on the tongue. I can only show you what the solution is; I need to, and I only need you to let me.
I hear your swallow, I watch it flex in your white, white throat. You were never one to hesitate after realizing what needed to be done, no matter how risky the course laid out in front of you. For the longest minute of my life, I wait, knowing that this might be the sole exception.
Then your hand reaches up and cups my left cheek, and just like that, my circular thoughts, and those three words, are stilling into a dull, warm buzz.
"Tomorrow is almost over," you point out, stepping fluidly into me.
And it is, but I take it.
A/N: words from bits and pieces of Native American language, roughened and meshed as I imagine a few hundred years would do to the surviving tongue. Not because I wanted to, believe me.