NOTE: This was written for the VAMB Secret Summer 2013 exchange. My request, from TB, was for a "fun in the sun, summer vacation" story. This was the result. Enjoy.

Wanderers Still

She was dazzling.

He'd always been a little in awe of her – more than he should have been at the beginning of their long journey together, more than he wanted to admit by the end – but today, with the sun shining on her cheeks and the breeze lifting her hair, she was utterly captivating.

Chakotay set his feet in the unstable riverbed, shifted his grip on the canoe's gunwales and smiled to himself. He was enchanted…but she was irritated. Somehow, that made the situation even more charming.

"Ready when you are," he said.

Kathryn huffed out an unintelligible response and bent to grab her end of the canoe. "'Fun in the sun,'" she muttered. "I was promised 'fun in the sun.'"

She gave the canoe a quick yank and continued grumbling. "I was promised sand, surf, great company and no responsibilities." With an ear-splitting yelp, she dropped the canoe and slapped at the back of her neck. Her hand came away with a fat mosquito smeared across the palm. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and shook the insect away. "I am never letting Tom Paris plan anything for me again. Ever. Especially not a vacation – my first vacation in almost a year, I'd like to point out."

More than willing to let her blame Tom for their predicament, Chakotay gave a quiet chuckle. "It's not exactly ideal. But it's not terrible, either."

Kathryn stared at him, blue eyes wide. "Not terrible? Tell me, Chakotay. Exactly which part of this is not terrible?"

He smirked and opened his arms to take in the clear blue sky above them, the lush green forest around them, even the clouds of insects that had followed them all afternoon and into the early evening. "You've got to admit, there's plenty of sun and sand."

"I'll concede your point on the sun," Kathryn groused. "My skin can certainly vouch for the quantity of sun we've gotten today."

Chakotay eyed her pink cheeks and fair, freckled shoulders, exposed by the tank top she wore, with more appreciation than was probably appropriate. "You are getting a little crisp, Kathryn."

She just kept talking – ranting, really – as if he hadn't spoken. "But this," she crowed, raising her bare foot with a squelching noise, "this is not sand." The foot was covered in slimy black goo. She shook it at him; globs of muck flew in every direction. "This is mud. Not sand, mud." She stepped back into the mess and yanked the canoe behind her. He quickly bent to push from behind, and the craft moved another meter along the river bottom. "Nothing but mud for the last half hour."

"There was no way of knowing the river would be this low and we'd have to portage."

"If you hadn't steered us down the wrong stream, we wouldn't have to portage."

"Ah, but if you hadn't spilled your coffee and fried the PADD with the map, I wouldn't have steered us down the wrong stream."

She threw him an impish look and yanked on the canoe so hard he almost lost his balance and fell face-first into the muck. He barked a half-hearted protest, more amused than annoyed, then righted himself and gave another shove. It might have been easier to pick the canoe up and carry it across the portage, but their gear stowed in the bottom of the craft made it just heavy enough to be unwieldy.

And in truth, Chakotay was enjoying the view of Kathryn's lean legs and firm backside in those shorts far too much to suggest a faster route back to the water. He shook his head at himself. He'd thought that particular line of thinking dead and buried a long time ago, but today, it was all coming back to him in a rush. Must be the sun and the sand, he decided, and embraced it with a little surge of warm anticipation. "At least we're making progress," he offered. "We've only got fifty more meters to go before we're back on the river."

"There you go, being all cheerful and optimistic again," Kathryn muttered.

"That's the good company Tom promised you."

Kathryn rolled her eyes and gave the canoe another yank.

Centimeter by centimeter, they made their way back toward the middle of the river, where the Lower Platte ran deep enough for them to paddle again. "Once we're back out on the water, there's only a couple hours to go. We'll be at the campsite in time for dinner."

Kathryn sighed. "That's the other thing. Camping, Chakotay. Camping. How did I let myself get talked into this?"

"You won't actually be camping," he reminded her, his tone light and jovial. "Most of us will be in tents on the beach, but I made sure Tom booked a cabin just for you." He smiled. "One with a power source, a state-of-the-art replicator and your very own bathtub."

She shook a finger at him. "But this isn't what I expected, and you know it."

"And what did you expect, Madame Admiral?"

She gave him a dirty look, but it was fleeting. "Oh, I don't know, Sir Captain," she retorted. "Maybe an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. A villa on the Mediterranean. Even a sailboat on Lake George." She waved her hands to take in the mud, the mosquitoes and the blazing sun. "Not a four-hour canoe trip on the Lower Platte, which should be renamed the 'Small Muddy,' and a log cabin on Lake Michigan."

"Whatever happened to your sense of adventure, Kathryn?"

"I think I left it in the Delta Quadrant," she replied, and gave the canoe another pull while he shoved from behind.

Chakotay's smile faded. She'd been effectively shackled to her desk at HQ since their return to the Alpha Quadrant, but he'd recognized the old sparkle of excitement in her eyes when they'd launched the canoe right after lunch. "I don't think that's true," he said softly. "I think you've just set it aside for a while."

She was quiet for a moment, pulling the canoe along with her. He watched the set of her shoulders and the angle of her head change as she mulled over his words. "I am glad to get out of the office for a few days."

"I thought you might be. That's why I asked," Chakotay said. "Even though Tom worked out the details."

She glanced up at him. "Thank you for this."

He started to tell her she'd been working too hard, but let the words die on his lips. The observation was unnecessary at this point.

She was tired. He could see it in her face every time he met her for dinner or dropped by her office for lunch. In the two years since their return to the Alpha Quadrant, she'd barely stopped to take a breath. Her relentless work on the Ad Astra Initiative was important, very much worthy of her time and efforts…but it was consuming, and it had taken a toll on her.

Almost since the moment that their post-Delta Quadrant debriefings had ended, she'd labored around the clock to convince Starfleet to turn away from its wartime focus on militarization and look to the stars again. Her position inside Starfleet and her fame outside it gave her a platform from which to advocate for a Starfleet that made exploration its primary mission. From his office on the Academy campus, slightly in awe of her as he always would be, Chakotay had watched her use her fierce intelligence, her ferocious passion for discovery and her considerable charm to turn public opinion back to the peaceful pursuit of science. After Kathryn's months of meetings and presentations and appearances on every news outlet, Starfleet, under pressure from a Federation citizenry that had tired of constant warfare and an Admiral who knew too well the price of constant vigilance, had finally come around to her way of thinking. The Ad Astra Initiative was a go. The ships, small, quick and versatile science vessels designed for exploration, were being built and their crews assembled from Starfleet's finest.

In the end, Kathryn had been triumphant…and exhausted. She'd pushed herself too hard for too long. But the shimmering August day was too fine and he was having far too much fun with her to risk her irritation by pointing that out. So he smiled and nodded, and bent to prepare for her next tug on the canoe.

When they were in navigable waters again, Chakotay stood knee-deep in the river and steadied the canoe so she could climb back into the bow. He waited patiently while she washed the mud off her feet in the shallows, then cautioned her to shift her weight so that he could ease his bigger body into the stern without capsizing them.

There was a tense moment when she overbalanced and nearly rolled over the side, but soon they were free and clear on the river. Paddle resting across his thighs, Chakotay sprawled with his legs over the sides until the cool river water washed the sticky mud away from his own feet. Then they were underway again, drifting along the slow-flowing Lower Platte toward the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan.

They paddled in silence for a time, working in tandem, while the summer quiet of the river closed around them and the shadows lengthened as they worked their way west to the lake. A bright blue dragonfly, iridescent in the early evening light, perched on the thwart in front of Chakotay's seat, slowly opening and closing its fragile wings while it rested. Chakotay started to call Kathryn's attention to the simple beauty of the dragonfly when she turned to him suddenly and pointed to the far bank.

"There! Take us over there, Chakotay."

A dead tree trunk, half-submerged at the edge of the water, had caught her eye. He steered the canoe over for a closer look. They pulled alongside it just in time to watch six turtles slip from the tree into the river, each with a faint plop.

Kathryn laughed. "Did you see them?"

Chakotay grinned. "What kind were they?"

"Painted turtles. Chrysemys picta. They were lined up by size like graduated beakers in a lab."

He chuckled and navigated them back to open water, where they meandered from bank to bank as the sun sank lower in the high, bright sky. Before long Kathryn was distracted by more wildlife – blue herons, raccoons, common loons, a Northern Water Snake hanging from a low tree branch. They gave the snake a wide berth and moved on to the shady riverbank, where they pulled the canoe ashore and snacked on the fruit and bread he'd packed for them. While they ate, she toed over a fallen log and revealed a gorgeous spotted salamander enjoying its own meal: A fat, slimy slug. Chakotay shuddered and looked away, but Kathryn knelt and watched, fascinated, while the salamander feasted.

She could protest the conditions all she wanted, but she was clearly having the time of her life.

He almost hated to drag her away from her discoveries, but the shadows had closed around them in the last hour, and he didn't know the river well enough to navigate it in the dark. Not without the PADD with the map, he thought, and smiled to himself.

With visible reluctance, Kathryn climbed back into the canoe. "How long until we get to the beach?"

"Not long. Maybe half an hour," he answered.

"Do you suppose everyone else is already there?"

"Oh, I'm sure of it. Seven and Harry decided to try the faster waters, and we haven't seen Tom and B'Elanna since they left the launch point."

Kathryn rested her paddle across her knees and yawned. "I bet Miral's tired," she said.

"I don't think she's the only one," he pointed out.

Kathryn turned and nodded at him with a fond smile. "I am tired," she agreed, "but it's a good tired."

"Fresh air and a little exercise will do that to a person. Sun and sand."

"And the good company." She yawned again.

"Are you saying I'm boring, Kathryn?"

She laughed and lowered her paddle into the water again. "Never."

The forest along the banks soon gave way to scrub vegetation and sand, and around the next bend in the river they could hear the sound of waves. A moment later they were steering between grass-covered dunes and out toward open water and the sparkling blue lake.

Kathryn caught her breath at the sight. "This is gorgeous," she breathed. "However did you find this place?"

"It wasn't me, actually." She turned to glance at him. "I explained to Tom and Harry what I was looking for. Harry suggested this place right away. There's a youth music camp not far away in Interlochen. They used to bring the kids here for outings. Harry remembered it being nice, so…" He shrugged. "They made most of the arrangements for us."

"It's beautiful," Kathryn murmured, and turned back to the water. "Camping or not, I think I'm going to love this weekend."

Chakotay's heart soared at her words as he steered them beyond the end of the sandbar and out onto the lake.

"Hey there, Skippers!" Chakotay and Kathryn both looked up to find Tom Paris in his swim trunks, trotting along the sand beside them. "You can pull the canoe up about a hundred meters down the beach. Harry and Seven have corn and potatoes roasting, and there are burgers and veggie kabobs waiting for you on the grill. Grab a plate before the sun sets!"

Kathryn twisted around in her seat and hit him with a pleading gaze. Chakotay gave her an indulgent smile. "Go, Kathryn. I'll take care of the canoe and meet you at the fire."

With a warm, grateful grin, she hopped out of the canoe and dashed along the beach. Chakotay watched her go, watched her little feet sink into the sand with each trotting step and the low sun pick up the red and gold highlights in her hair, until she disappeared around a small sand dune.

His plans for the weekend shimmered before him, as bright and ephemeral as shifting sparkles on water, and began to coalesce into hesitant hopes.

=/\=

Their sunset dinner was a casual, comfortable affair.

Chakotay had found four canoes on the beach, as well as three kayaks – belonging to Mike Ayala and his boys – several rafts and a small pontoon. The Wildmans had decided to come at the last minute, and Pablo Baytart and his husband. As word had spread through the former Voyager crew, the gathering had grown in size, practically overnight.

Stuffed to the gills with roasted vegetables and the fresh cherry tarts the Doc had picked up in the village, Chakotay balanced his beer on his knee and watched them all, old friends enjoying each other after long separation. Two-year-old Miral Paris toddled from adult to adult, batting her long eyelashes in hopes of earning extra treats while her parents looked on, one amused, one exasperated. Mike strummed a guitar while his boys and the Doc and both Delaney sisters improvised harmonies around the fire. Harry sat across the way with Seven's hand held loosely and tentatively in his own. Chakotay caught the younger man's eye and nodded his approval. Harry grinned and nodded back.

It had been months since they'd all been together like this, and although everyone seemed to be occupied, Chakotay couldn't miss the anticipatory feel to the gathering, nor the way everyone tried to glance away when he caught them staring at the woman next to him.

Kathryn was perched on driftwood log, Naomi Wildman leaning against her knees. The girl's parents had slipped away for a private moment, entrusting Naomi to their care. Kathryn absently smoothed Naomi's wavy hair while they watched the sun set over the lake. Chakotay bent toward Kathryn, feeling all the eyes upon him. For the first time that he could remember, the scrutiny didn't bother him. "Having a good time?"

She turned to him and nodded at once. Her eyes twinkled in the low light. "Aside from the primitive accommodations, yes. It's so quiet here. So peaceful. And lovely to see everyone again, even though it's only been a few months."

"I'm glad." Slowly, offering her enough time to pull away if she chose to, he reached out and stroked his fingertips across her bare shoulder. "You're not cold, are you? Harry says the temperature drops quickly after sunset." He glanced out at the water and the red-gold sphere rapidly sinking out of sight. "You've got maybe fifteen minutes before it's dark."

"I'm all right until Sam and Gres come back." She yawned and shook her head ruefully. "I am awfully tired, though."

"Might want to call it an early night, Admiral," Tom called from his seat across the fire. "I've got you and the Old Man there slotted for the first game in the beach volleyball tournament tomorrow. You've got the 0900 start."

Kathryn laughed and shook her head. "I'm not much of a volleyball player, I'm afraid."

Tom gave her a wicked grin. "Even better. We mere mortals might have a chance to win a game or two."

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Is that a challenge, Mister Paris?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. "As always."

She nodded once. "Challenge accepted, Commander."

B'Elanna looked up from wiping sticky marshmallow residue from Miral's face just long enough to roll her eyes at her husband. "Now you've done it, Tom. No one else stands a chance."

"I don't know," Harry chimed in. "I think Seven and I might give everyone a run for their rations."

"In your dreams, Kim," Pablo Baytart growled.

Kathryn chuckled. "Come now, Mister Baytart,"she drawled. "I've seen you on the Parrises Squares court."

"Yeah, but I've seen Chakotay on a basketball court, and I'm afraid the two of you are doomed."

"Hey, Pablo," Chakotay protested. "No need to be insulting."

Kathryn patted his arm and gave him a sympathetic look. "Don't let him get to you, Captain. We'll be just fine."

Chakotay leaned his elbows on his knees and listened to the bright, familiar banter, more convinced by the minute that his plan was good and right. Maybe even the very thing they all needed.

When he saw Gres and Sam approaching them he touched Kathryn's shoulder, more confidently this time. "We should find you something warmer to wear."

She nodded, surrendered Naomi to her parents' waiting embraces, and rose with him. "Where did you put my gear?"

"I wasn't sure which cabin was yours, so I stowed it all in my tent for now." He offered her his arm and they made their way across the beach to where those who had opted out of cabins had pitched their tents.

As they walked away from the gathering, he felt a dozen pairs of eyes on his back. He wondered if Kathryn could feel them, too. There was a time when all those curious gazes would have irritated him and might have unnerved her. But they were long past that now, and he was more amused than angry. He glanced at Kathryn out of the corner of his eye and saw nothing there but a settled contentment and a pleasant, healthy fatigue.

He'd set up his tent as far away from the others as he could manage but still stay within the sheltered curve of the beach. While they walked, arm-in-arm and silent, darkness rolled over them and the first stars appeared in the sky. Chakotay did a bit of quick mental math. Sunset this time of year was close to 2100 hours, give or take a few minutes. He had at least an hour to wait before he could put his plan in motion.

When they finally reached his tent, he ducked inside and produced her knapsack and the sandals she'd left in the bottom of the canoe.

She accepted both items from him, slung her knapsack over her shoulder and yawned. "I think I'll turn in."

Alarmed, he drew in a sharp breath and took her hand before she could turn away from him. "Not yet, Kathryn."

"But it's late, and I'm tired." She squeezed his hand. "And if we're going to beat these kids at beach volleyball tomorrow, I need my rest."

He was desperate to keep her by his side, but refused to let it show on his face. "Just a little while longer?"

Her brows knit together in concern. "Is something wrong?"

"No, I just…" He gave her a half smile. "I have a gift for you. A surprise."

She immediately stepped closer to him, her eyes bright even in the faint starlight. "What is it?" She looked to both sides of him, behind him, and into his tent. "Where is it?"

He laughed. "I can't give it to you quite yet."

She frowned. "When can you give it to me?"

He glanced up at the sky. "About an hour. Maybe a little more."

She followed his gaze. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"I can't tell you."

"But, Chakotay-"

"Here." He ducked into his tent again and emerged with his sleeping bag, an extra blanket and two pillows. He unzipped the sleeping bag, spread it on the sand, and threw the blanket over it. Then he handed her a pillow. "Take a nap here with me. I'll wake you up when it's time."

It was a presumption and he knew it. He held his breath, watching the emotions play over her face: Surprise, curiosity, wariness, longing. "I shouldn't," she said in a low voice, half-turned back to the fire and the people, their former crew, gathered around it.

"No one can see, Kathryn," he said softly. "And even if they could, they wouldn't care anymore. I'm not sure they ever did." He sat down on top of the sleeping bag, dropped his pillow behind him and raised a corner of the blanket for her. "Come on. You can rest until it's time."

"What if we both fall asleep and miss this…whatever you have planned?"

He smiled. "I won't fall asleep."

"You'll get sand in your sleeping bag."

"It'll be worth it," he said, and held his hand out to her. "Just lie down with me. It'll be all right. I promise."

She hesitated for an instant longer, then set her knapsack and sandals aside, dropped her pillow next to his and lowered herself onto the open sleeping bag beside him. With singular concentration, she negotiated the space between them, moving her pillow just so until it was a respectable distance from his. When she was satisfied enough to finally settle in next to him, he pulled the blanket over them both.

He listened to her breathe for a time, straining to hear her over the sound of the waves. When he thought she had fallen asleep, he closed his eyes and stretched his hand across the gap between them until the backs of his fingers brushed her hip.

"Chakotay?" she whispered.

He tensed and started to remove his hand, but she wrapped her fingers, fine and strong, around his wrist. "Why did you get me a gift? It's not my birthday, and it's not Prixin."

He smiled even though he knew she couldn't see it. "I just wanted to."

"What is it?"

"Actually, there are two. You already got one."

Her grip on his wrist tightened. "I did?"

He nodded. "Yes."

She made a soft sound of exasperation. "Did I like it?"

He chuckled. "I think you did."

She turned her head to stare at him. "What was it?"

He hesitated, unsure of how she would receive his words. Harry had suggested the place and Tom had made most of the arrangements, but the idea – the dark, the river, the quiet - had been his alone. He'd never told his friends of the impetus behind his choice, but she would know. She had to know.

He slid his hand into her grasp. "It was the river," he sighed. "I wanted to finally give you the chance to explore the river."

She was so still he was afraid she hadn't heard him – or worse, she had heard him but couldn't accept his gift. But when he turned his head to look at her, he found the shimmer of tears in her eyes. "Did you like it?" he asked.

She nodded and wriggled over far enough to press her cheek against his shoulder.

One by one, the stars came out above them until the bright band of the Milky Way was visible over the vast, dark lake. He was so lost in the beauty of the night sky that he almost didn't notice Kathryn's arm creeping around his waist. When she raised herself up far enough to rest her head on his chest, he gasped in his surprise, but soon wrapped an arm around her and pulled her to his body. They held each other close, lost in the memory of other quiet moments, other skies, other stars.

"Chakotay?" she asked after a time, her voice hesitant, barely more than a whisper in the darkness.

"Hmmmm?"

She drew an unsteady breath. "What's happening here?"

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Wait until your second gift. Then you'll know."

"How long?"

"About an hour. Go to sleep, Kathryn. I'll wake you when it's time."

She finally relaxed and snuggled into his embrace. In an instant, he felt her fall asleep, and closed his eyes.

=/\=

The murmur of appreciation from down the beach woke him up.

He raised his head enough to see that they'd doused the fire and all his old friends, even the little ones, were lying in the sand staring up at the night sky in anticipation. He followed their gaze and waited, watching, until a bright streak caught his eye. It sped a few degrees across the sky and winked out.

Chakotay gave the woman sprawled across his chest a small shake. "It's time," he said softly. "Wake up now, Kathryn."

She murmured something unintelligible and snuggled closer to his warmth. He smiled and ran his fingers down her braid to the middle of her back. "Come on now, Admiral. Time to wake up."

"No."

"But your second gift is ready."

That got her attention. She raised her head and stared at him. "I'm awake. Where is it?"

He chuckled and drew her back down beside him. "Look up," he said. "It's there."

Puzzled, she rolled over onto her back – but kept her body pressed to his under the blanket. "Where?"

"Just watch. You'll see it."

"But what am I watching for?"

"So impatient, Admiral," he chided, softening the criticism with a caress of her wrist. "You'll know. I promise. Trust me."

She frowned at him, then turned her face to the stars. They lay side-by-side in silence for a minute, then two. Kathryn had just begun to speak when another streak, longer and brighter than the first, arced across the sky.

"There," he said. "Did you see it?" When she didn't answer, he faced her again. "Kathryn?"

"It's the Perseids, isn't it?" she breathed.

He nodded happily, heart full. "You told me once your father used to wake you up to see them every summer. I assumed you haven't had the chance since we got back, so…" He waved at the glittering sky. "When Tom and Harry suggested a getaway to celebrate the Ad Astra success, I asked them for a place where you could see the night sky."

Kathryn swallowed hard. "So the Perseid Meteor Shower is my second gift."

"Partially," he corrected, and lay back beside her just as a third and fourth meteor sped across the sky.

"Why only partially?"

It was his turn to swallow his emotions. "Just watch for a few minutes. Then I'll tell you the rest."

Even in the near-total darkness, he knew she had rolled her eyes at him. "Chakotay…"

He laced his fingers with hers under the blanket. "Enjoy this for now. Be present, Kathryn. Be with me in this moment."

She gave him a dubious look and forced herself to relax. The meteors appeared with more frequency as the minutes passed, until Chakotay could count one every minute or so and she squeezed his hand. "No one has ever given me anything like this," she murmured. "I don't even know what to say. It's incredible. You're incredible."

The pleasant, hopeful warmth he'd felt all day bloomed into a flame of eager expectation. "I can tell you the rest now, Kathryn," he said. "I think you're ready to hear it."

She turned to face him, her brows knit together in concern. "Why would I need to be ready?"

He took a slow, shaky breath. "I assume you know about the Maria Mitchell?"

She blinked. Maria Mitchell was to be the flagship of the Ad Astra fleet. She was three months from launch and so far without a Captain or crew – at least as far as Kathryn knew. "I know you're on the short list for the center seat," she said. "That's why I made my case for you and then recused myself from the selection committee."

Chakotay nodded. "I assumed as much." He squeezed her hand again. "Hayes and Nechayev made the informal offer about a month ago."

"And?"

"And I informally accepted. The formal announcement will be made on September first."

Her smile was brighter than any meteor, brighter than the sun on the lake at high noon. He was sure the whole beach must be illuminated in its brilliance. "That's wonderful, Chakotay. I'm thrilled for you. You've deserved this for a long time."

He gave his head a small shake. "My acceptance was…very conditional."

"Oh?"

"I asked for a lot of leeway in choosing my crew. More than they were probably comfortable with, but with a little persuasion from Owen Paris, among others, Nechayev and Hayes relented. I started making the offers two weeks ago."

"Offers to whom?"

"Well, Maria has four VIP suites. One is being refitted into family quarters for my First Officer and Chief Engineer."

Kathryn rested her head on his chest again. "Tom and B'Elanna?"

"Hmmm-mmm. And when those two are up to something, Harry's never far behind."

"Ops or Security?

"Ops. Mike's my Chief of Security."

She nodded in approval. "What about his boys?"

"Maria will be the perfect place for them to gain some hands-on training before they sit their Academy entrance exams. So a second VIP suite has been reallocated for Mike and two teenage boys."

"I hope the soundproofing is better than Voyager's." They watched half a dozen more meteors flash across the sky. "Who's heading up Navigation?"

"No takers yet, but Pablo Baytart and Renly Sharr are both considering it. Seven's overseeing the installation of an Astrometrics lab, and her friend Maro Alesco is my CMO, since the Doc's got a new biology lab to play in."

She raised her head to look down at him. "But Alesco's a civilian."

"And there's where the rest of the 'leeway' part comes in."

"What do you mean?"

The Milky Way glowed behind her. He brushed his fingertips across her cheek. "I asked for permission to bring non-Starfleet specialists along at my discretion. Any position that isn't associated with the day-to-day functioning of the ship itself can be filled by a civilian with the proper training and background."

Her eyes widened. "They agreed?"

Chakotay nodded. "My xenobotanist just finished her PhD at Purdue. My geologist has been teaching at the University of Colorado for fifteen years. My linguist is a retired Starfleet officer working on the next generation of translator technology at Cambridge. She wants to test her theories in the field."

"It sounds like you have all your positions covered."

"Not quite." She raised an expectant eyebrow at him. He took another deep, shaky breath. "I have one last key position to fill before I let my department heads start choosing their personnel." He tucked a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. "I need someone to oversee all the science teams."

She cocked her head to one side. "As Captain, wouldn't that be you?"

"I'll have a hand in most of those decisions, but I need someone to lead the scientists." He took her face in both hands, imagining he held her whole, luminous spirit in his grasp. "I need someone with proven leadership experience. Someone with passion and vision, who can motivate them to reach beyond their limits and inspire them to be more than they thought they could ever be." His voice broke and he have her a nervous smile. "I only have one person in mind for the job, Kathryn."

Her face fell. "Chakotay… You can't take an Admiral with you."

"No. But I can take a civilian Science Specialist."

She pulled away from him and sat up suddenly. He felt chilled and lonely without her beside him. "Resign?" she breathed. "You want me to resign?"

Gently, slowly, he drew her back down beside him and covered them both with the blanket. "I know it would be hard but…" He hesitated, casting about for words that would both prove his sincerity and put her at ease. "Every time I think about that ship, every time I look at the schematics and close my eyes and try to imagine what it'll be like…I see you there. You're in the chem lab, surrounded by beakers and flasks. You're in the biology lab arguing with the Doc. You're on a planet, hip-deep in a swamp, taking samples and chasing insects with beautiful smile on your face – just like today when you saw those turtles. When I think what my life as Captain of the Maria Mitchell will be like,you're everywhere, and I don't want to go without you."

She gasped and he drew her close to him again. "My second gift is the stars, Kathryn. I want to give your stars back to you." He waved to the night sky, the Milky Way, the streaking Perseids. "That's why we joined Starfleet. To see the stars. To go out among them and discover their secrets. Not to sit behind a desk or stand in front of a classroom. I think there's still more for us to explore out there, and I know you do, too. That's what Ad Astra was all about. Being out there. And that's what I wanted to give you. The chance to be part of it, and to be out there again."

She seemed to consider it for a moment, but sat up with a shake of her head. "I can't just resign."

He seized on that fleeting moment of indecision and rose to sit beside her. "Then take a sabbatical from the Admiralty. Join me for six months. We still work together well, and we still have fun." He smiled. "Today was proof of that. Try it for six months and then decide what you want to do."

She nodded down the beach. "Do they all know about this?"

"They know I was going to ask you this weekend. They just don't know when."

She rubbed her forehead. "That explains why everyone was staring at us."

He smiled. "I wasn't sure you noticed. But yes, that's probably it."

They were both silent for a long moment, gazing up at the stars while the Perseids rained down around them. He stayed still, giving her the time and space to think. When she finally turned to him again, her eyes were so bright and dazzling he almost forgot to breathe. "Is this truly about the Maria Mitchell, or is it something more?" she whispered. "What are you really asking me, Chakotay?"

He faltered for an instant, hoping to keep his expression neutral, but he'd never been able to hide anything from her – especially not his feelings. Drawing in a deep, centering breath, he reached out and took her beautiful face in his hands again. "I'm asking you to run away with me," he murmured, "in the most responsible way I know how."

She shook her head once, and his heart lurched painfully against his ribs until he caught the joyous twinkle in her eyes. She reached out and brushed her fingertips against his forehead, following the sweeping lines above his eye. "It's time, isn't it?"

"Time?"

"For us. Finally."

He nodded, unable to speak.

"And we're not really running away, are we?" She nodded to the sky. "We're running home."

She closed the final distance between them and brushed away his tears, then pressed her lips to his in a soft, sweet kiss.

"I…yes," he choked when she finally drew away from him. He urged her lie down beside him again and snuggle into his body, their faces turned toward the stars. "We're running home."

=/\=

"Exploration is in our nature.

We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.

We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean.

We are ready at last to set sail for the stars."

Carl Sagan, Cosmos