The Ring

Chapter 11 - Revelations

The Doctor induced a medical coma that allowed Chakotay to sleep for the better part of two days. Harry was released for Sick Bay with strict instructions to rest, which was easy as a passenger on the Dauntless, with no duty shifts. At night, Janeway snuck into Sick Bay and curled up on the empty biobed beside Chakotay, safe from the crew's eyes. During the day, as she played cards with Harry, B'Elanna, and Jack in the forward lounge, Janeway mused about taking Chakotay to an idyllic beach somewhere, maybe on Risa, or one of a hundred obvious honeymoon spots for the carefree days in the sun they'd never had. It was easier than talking about the terrible condition he was still in. And even to her best friends, she could never speak the truth about Owen Paris's death.

Harry laughed and encouraged her, naming every tropical island he could remember. He and B'Elanna reminded her of Neelix's luau program and told her they should seek out the real thing. Jack was withdrawn. After a particularly long reminiscence by Harry about a costume Janeway had worn in one of Tom Paris's holodeck programs, ending with the look on Chakotay's face when he saw her, Jack rose abruptly.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I need to take care of some paperwork I've been neglecting or I may not have any position in Starfleet at all when we get back." His participation in their games tailed off greatly after that. Harry, feeling a new sense of obligation to the man who'd saved his life, along with a growing awareness of how surly Janeway's friends had been to him, sought out Jack in his quarters.

"We were worried you'd succumbed to the paperwork beast," he said when the doors opened to reveal Jack at his desk. "Can I lure you out with a little Kal-toh?"

Jack gave a perfunctory smile. "It's polite of you to come looking for me, but I know you'd all rather not have me around. I have plenty to keep me busy, don't worry."

Harry stepped inside and let the door shut. "There's something else I wanted to say. I owe you an apology. B'Elanna does too, but it'll take her longer to force herself to do it. We were very hard on you, and you've proven yourself a friend at every turn. We owe you our gratitude."

Jack leaned back in his chair. "It was the right thing to do. Once I knew what Nechayev was up to, I couldn't do anything else. You don't owe me anything for doing my duty."

Harry nodded. "That's what Captain Janeway saw in you that we didn't. She saw your sense of duty."

At the mention of Janeway, Lowry swung out of his chair in the direction of the viewport. The streaking stars framed his back as he told Harry, "It was an honor, getting to know her." His swallow was audible.

"I'm sure she'll always be your friend," Harry answered. "She's nothing if not loyal."

Jack stiffened. "I'm not sure that I can bear being her friend."

"I beg your pardon?" Harry asked, perplexed as ever in matters of the heart.

Jack turned toward Harry and softened a little, around the edges of his mouth. "Have you ever felt so strongly about a woman that you couldn't be near her if you couldn't be with her? That's how it is. I can't watch her nurse him back to health. I can't listen to the honeymoon plans. I can't bear it."

Harry hesitated before answering. He had little experience with this intensity of emotion. His relationships had been more like thunderstorms – something powerful that passed and yielded to sunlight and a fresh new day. "I see," he said, although he wasn't sure that he did. "Well, I'll let the others know that you're busy, but you're fine."

"Thank you," Jack said from the darkness near the viewport. "And Harry, thank you for what you said. I appreciate it."

"I meant every word, Commander," Harry answered, and took his leave.

#

The Dauntless was within a day's travel of Earth when Captain La Forge called Captain Janeway to his ready room. She was in Sickbay when he called, joining Chakotay for his first meal of solid food since his rescue. He was unable to keep it down. When she arrived in the ready room, she had wiped her worry from her face and offered La Forge only radiant gratitude.

"What can I do for you, Captain?" she asked, and clasped her hands together in a prayerful gesture. "Anything in my power."

La Forge couldn't help but return the smile. "I'll hang onto that favor, if you don't mind. I called you up here because someone wants to speak to you. I'll give you your privacy for the call." He patted her shoulder and departed for the bridge.

Janeway moved around his desk and tapped the console to reopen the communications channel most recently accessed. The sight of Sveta's face made her gasp.

"Surprised?" Sveta said with a low laugh. "I have friends in interesting places."

"Apparently so," Janeway said as she lowered herself into the captain's chair. The position was familiar and reassuring. "What is it, Sveta?" In light of their last interaction, the sight of Chakotay's old friend made her nervous, but her instincts told her that this woman was not her enemy.

"There's something I need to tell you, although I don't know how you'll take this news," Sveta said, shifting in her chair. She looked ill at ease even compared to their last fraught meeting. "I have new information from a contact within Starfleet Intelligence. When Admiral Nechayev was arrested, a thorough review began of all her communications, going back years. It will take some time to complete, but my contact was looking for something specific, and he found it."

"And what might that be?" Janeway asked. Even as her voice inquired, her body leaned away from the screen in a resistant, skeptical pose.

Sveta put her hands flat in front of her and seemed to steel herself before speaking. "At the time of the destruction of the Dorvan V colony," she began, then cleared her throat and continued, "Admiral Paris was responsible for communications with Cardassia about the colonists. Because of his position, we believed that the order allowing the attack had to have come from him. This new information shows that Paris was briefly reassigned just before the attack. At the time the order came down, Alynna Nechayev was in command." Sveta looked down and away. More than anything, her face conveyed – was it shame?

Janeway leaned closer. "What are you saying, Sveta?"

Without bringing her eyes back to the screen, Sveta said, "She gave the order, Kathryn. It wasn't Paris. I was given the wrong information, and I passed it on to Chakotay."

Janeway grabbed the arms of her chair as a wave of nausea overwhelmed her. Owen Paris, her father's dear friend, her mentor – she had been devastated by Sveta's accusation, seemingly well documented. It was one more hideous betrayal at a time when they seemed to come on a near-daily basis. "But his name – his name was on the order!" Janeway recalled it distinctly, that signature she knew so well.

"The timeline doesn't lie," Sveta retorted. "He was on a classified diplomatic mission to Tau Ceti when the order went out, out of contact with Starfleet. It was Nechayev. She forged his signature. I'm sorry, Kathryn. More evidence will come out as the investigation proceeds, but I wanted you to know. My own conscience wouldn't let the lie stand."

Janeway shook her head to clear it. She held both hands to her temples. "Why tell me? Why not Chakotay?" Chakotay. How could she ever tell him this? Certainly not now, not in his condition – but would later be any better? Or the alternative, to carry the knowledge herself. She wasn't sure she was capable of that. At the moment of decision, she had chosen her husband over her mentor and friend. She had chosen to side with Chakotay, no matter the cost, and now the world was upside down again. The pounding in her head was drowning out her thoughts. She almost didn't hear Sveta's next, half-swallowed sentence.

"There's more," Sveta said. At the look on her face, Janeway froze.

"I'm listening."

Sveta gulped and let her gaze fall to her restless fingers as she spoke. "I got another report, just within the last day. It seems that – well, Chakotay's actions may have been influenced by the mind-control experiments of a rogue maquis."

Janeway inhaled. Her hand flew involuntarily to her throat. "Teero."

Sveta's eyes opened wide. "You know about him? How?"

"We had an incident on board Voyager. Chakotay" – she broke off at the memory of Tuvok pointing a phaser at her and Chakotay giving the cold, bloodless order to kill. Why hadn't she seen the similarity between that total departure from his normal character and this one? Janeway let her head fall into her hand. "Oh Sveta, this will kill him. Are you sure?"

Sveta's lips made a thin line. "Teero has been captured. He made a full confession, including what he did to Chakotay. It was a unique project, he said, creating a temporary assassin. He was very proud of it, although apparently it didn't work quite the way he wanted. Chakotay's full assignment was to kill Paris and you, but Teero overplayed his hand. Chakotay was unable to kill you, and that resistance broke Teero's control."

"Are you going to tell him?" Janeway asked.

Onscreen, Sveta looked off to the side and sighed. "From what I hear, he's lucky to be alive. I'm not laying anything else on him right now." She leveled clear eyes at Janeway. "You can handle it. You decide when he's ready to know."

Janeway stared at her for a moment, then lowered her hands and nodded. "Okay. Thank you, Sveta. For the truth. If you hadn't come to me earlier – if I'd had to find out some other way about what happened – I don't know how I would have handled it. And now I know it wasn't really my husband, which means everything. So thank you for the truth."

Sveta lifted her chin. "Like I said, I promised. Give my love to Chakotay." She ended the transmission. Janeway slumped in the chair and shut her eyes.

"Owen," she breathed, a plaintive, heartbroken sound against the walls of the ready room. "Oh Owen, I'm so sorry I ever believed it. And Chakotay." She brought both hands to her face and breathed in and out the horror of her new knowledge, like a toxic gas that had filled up the room. "How will you ever live with this?"

#

News from Earth came in inundating waves as Janeway's team prepared to depart Utopia Planitia for home, in their small shuttle. A full court martial of Nechayev and Berger was anticipated. Both had confessed to their role in coercing a confession from Chakotay and he had been cleared of all charges. When Janeway told him, he began to object.

"The only thing they coerced me into saying was that I had used you. They said you'd be assassinated next if I didn't." They were seated side by side on one of the shuttle's back benches. He turned to face her and take her hands.

"It doesn't matter now," she said. "Sveta reached me with more news. She says that you were acting under Teero's influence again. He managed to activate another code word he'd implanted in your mind. You aren't responsible for what happened."

Chakotay's face went blank. He was quiet for so long that Janeway began to tense and search his face for a sign of recognition – any indication that he was still Chakotay, not the person who had assassinated Owen Paris.

"Chakotay?" she whispered.

He blinked and looked at her. "But – this was different. Before, Tuvok was there to break Teero's control with a mind meld. I was able to look back and realize that it wasn't me. In the moment, I thought they were my own decisions, but later I knew that I'd been controlled. I don't remember it that way this time. Do you think" – he broke off and looked away from her again.

"Do I think he's still controlling you?" She shook her head. "No. He's in custody. Sveta explained that when you couldn't kill me, that broke Teero's control over you. His project failed because…."

He pulled her hand to his lips. "Because I love you too much."

She showed him a tiny smile. "This was the second time he failed to force you to kill me."

"But not Admiral Paris." Chakotay dropped his head to his chest. "I have to turn myself in."

Janeway squeezed his hands. "I'll stand by you no matter what you do. But in my mind, you are an innocent man who has already paid a great price. I hope you'll come home with me." They sat that way for several minutes as comm traffic chattered distantly in the shuttle. Finally Chakotay sighed.

"You are my judge and jury, Kathryn," he said. "If you don't condemn me, then I won't condemn myself."

The next day, abandoning the idea of exotic beaches for the sure healing of her mother's house, Janeway took Chakotay home to Indiana. With an arm around her shoulders, leaning heavily on a cane, he climbed the two steps onto the front porch.

"Mother," Janeway said, "this is my husband, Chakotay." Gretchen came forward hesitantly. With his bowed frame and silver hair, he looked like a more likely match for her than for her daughter, she observed silently. His eyes were kind, but still carried so much suffering that it hurt to look at him. She came right up to her son-in-law and raised her hands to place them on either side of his face.

"Dear boy," she said with a smile, eyes full of tears, "we are so happy to have you home at last." And she took Chakotay into her enveloping, maternal embrace as if he were her own prodigal son come home. Over his shoulder, Gretchen looked at Janeway with a smile that said 'I told you so.'

Inside, Chakotay made it to the couch, while Gretchen rushed off for a snack. He sat down heavily, breathing hard after the steps. "I guess it'll be a while before I can carry you over the threshold," he said with a small, sad laugh, rubbing his palms on his thighs and looking around with curiosity at his wife's childhood home, still adorned with her trophies, prizes, and medals. His eyes settled inevitably on her, the only prize in all his life that had ever really mattered. "I want to be the man you married again."

She sat beside him and took his hand. "You will be. The Doctor says it's only a matter of rebuilding strength now. And I don't need to be carried over the threshold," she said as she stretched to kiss him. "All these months, what I've wanted most is just to sit with you in the front porch swing and watch the sunset. Now we can do that." She laid her head on his shoulder and he kissed her hair. "Everything else will come in time."

#

They had been in Indiana a few weeks when Janeway answered the door to find Jack. Chakotay was resting in the living room again, an easier spot for him to get to midday than their bedroom upstairs. She greeted Jack with a warm hug and stepped outside to talk with him on the porch in the brilliant afternoon sunshine.

"He's fine," she said, as a reflex, before Jack had a chance to ask. "Stronger every day." Everyone asked about Chakotay these days, and she refused to acknowledge to anyone but her mother how frustrating his slow recuperation was, to both of them.

The neural damage was healing, the flashbacks and devastating nightmares diminishing, but the badly healed bones, rebroken and regenerated by Starfleet's most modern methods, were still causing him pain. His muscles had atrophied from abuse, malnutrition, and lack of use during the months of confinement. He walked with a cane and told her every day how much better he was feeling. Late at night, after the bedtime analgesic hypospray allowed him to make love to her, then gradually wore off, she heard him groan with pain in his sleep.

The overdue accolades from Starfleet meant less than nothing. She wanted to throw them back in the faces of every well-meaning officer who visited to sing her praises and promise everything her crew had deserved from the beginning. She felt as if she was watching it all from the other side of a thick glass wall, where only sound, but no smell, taste, touch, or real emotion could penetrate. It was kabuki theater, overplayed and grotesque. The only news she truly welcomed was of Alynna Nechayev and Philip Bergen's full confessions and transfer to Rura Penthe, along with several co-conspirators.

At Janeway's too-quick words of reassurance, Jack simply nodded. He had heard stories from the friends he'd made among her crew and had a fairly good idea of how Chakotay's recovery was going. "I'm sure he will be fine," he answered. "But it must be hard right now. How are you doing?"

Janeway moved along the porch a few steps to stand at the rail. "I'm fine too. It's good to be home."

Jack came to stand beside her. "You'd say that if you'd just been assimilated by the Borg. 'Nothing really, just a few misplaced nanoprobes.'" He smiled. "I heard you gave Admiral Reinhold a graphic description of some sort of barnyard mating you'd like him to engage in."

Janeway looked up with a little smirk. "That got around, did it?" she said with a chuckle. "I thought he might rather keep that to himself."

"Oh, I'm sure he would have, if Tom Paris hadn't broadcast it. He's still on the publicity counter-offensive," Jack said and barked a laugh at the memory of the vid and Janeway's exuberant, graphic defense of her crew at a hastily arranged celebratory event.

Janeway nodded. "Tom's been our greatest asset as we try to undo the damage. He knows his way around a newsvid. And I haven't had any chance since the Dauntless to thank you for everything you did. You got so busy, I didn't get a chance to say a proper goodbye. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude," she told him, reaching out to grasp his hand. "We wouldn't have put an end to all this and gotten them all back without you. And I was thrilled to hear that your commission was restored."

"I did what anybody would have done," he answered and put his other hand over their two hands. "What you would have done. You're the most extraordinary woman I've ever met, Kathryn."

Janeway tipped her head in his direction with the crooked smile he'd longed for the last two weeks, the wind ruffling her light dress, then looked away. "You're very kind. All the same," she said as she took in the bright length of Gretchen's lavender bed, "if there's ever anything I can do to show my gratitude" – she began to say, and Jack broke in before she could finish.

"There is." He inched closer, drawing her close to him with her captive hand. The scent of lavender carried on the breeze and enveloped them. "I have to admit an ulterior motive. Not when I first came to see you, but it soon became all I could think about," he told her, watching the way her hair lifted off her neck in the fragrant wind.

"What would that be?" she asked, lifting her open, happy face to his while taking a tactical sidestep to create more distance between them. "You were after a lifetime supply of my mother's cinnamon rolls?" He had never seen her quite so unburdened. She looked years younger. He could only hope that it was the effect of seeing him again.

Jack laughed. "Not quite. But I was after a lifetime of something." He reached out for her other hand and pulled both to his chest. "Kathryn, I realize that this is probably completely inappropriate, but I couldn't just disappear from your life without saying it. Those few weeks working with you were the best days of my life. I understand that you need to stay with him while he's convalescing and" - he put up a hand to quell her protest – "and I understand perfectly well that he's your husband, but sometimes things happen in the intensity of a shipboard experience that you look back on later and realize shouldn't be permanent. I understand that too. After everything that's happened, once he's fully himself again, I don't think he'd hold you to a vow you made when you were both different people."

Janeway had faced him and attempted to interrupt. "Jack, the time we spent together was" – she began, but he hushed her with fingers on her lips.

"Just hear me out," he said, "and then if you want to tell me to walk down those steps and never come back, that's what I'll do. I'm in love with you, Kathryn. I think I was from the night I met you, and you attacked me. I need to know if there's any hope that one day you might be able to return those feelings. That's what I came here to say."

Janeway pulled her hand from the one that held hers and patted it thoughtfully. "I enjoyed the time we spent together, Jack," she told him. She looked down, settled a firm look on her face, and met his eyes. "You are a wonderful person, and I'm sure you'll make some lucky woman very happy."

He nodded slowly. "Just not you."

She pressed his hands, then gently released them and stepped back. "Not me, Jack. My husband is inside, and he needs me, and I need him, very much."

"I see," Jack said, stepping away from her. "I'll go, then. I won't bother you anymore."

She followed him across the porch as he began to walk away. "You'll always be welcome in our home, Jack," she said as he descended the steps. "I hope one day you'll come with your wife and we can laugh about all this."

Her words fell on dead air as Jack took the front walk in a few short steps and leapt into his hovercar, to make the quickest getaway possible. The hum of the car had barely dissipated when Chakotay stepped out onto the porch. Janeway spun to face him. "Chakotay! Did you" – she broke off. The look on his face answered her unspoken question.

"Yes, I heard." He stood staring at the mirage-like sight of the hovercar disappearing from view. "I thought it might be something like that. The way he looked at you on the Dauntless. He was disappointed to see me alive."

Janeway stepped forward to reach out her hands to him. "But he helped us to exonerate the crew and rescue you and prosecute Nechayev and Bergen. He's been a true friend, Chakotay, and he proved it again by leaving just now." His hands stayed at his sides, rather than accepting her gesture. Slowly, hers fell too.

"He was right, you know," Chakotay told her in a steady voice, still staring over her shoulder at the place in the sky where the hovercar had been.

"Right about what?"

"I wouldn't hold you to a vow that you now regret," he said in clear tones, as if he'd practiced. He hadn't yet cut his black-tipped silver hair. It fell on his forehead now as the breeze touched them. "Everything is different now. I'm not the man you married. I might need you, for now, but I'm getting stronger, and I can't see how you could need me. Not anymore. We've always been honest with each other. We should be honest about this. I pushed you into this marriage, and you've held up your end in every imaginable way. I would never blame you if now you wanted out." He had not intended to look at her until she answered, but she was quiet for so long that finally he lowered his eyes to see her face. She was staring up at him with trails of tears on both her cheeks.

Her voice was hollow and shaky. "Do you regret … do you regret asking me?" she whispered, glancing down at the blue ring she had never removed through the agonized months without him. He saw where her eyes had gone and he reached out to grip her left hand in spite of himself. He'd stepped onto the porch intending to set her free from his weak, wasted self, a man who had murdered someone she loved, and let her have a younger, stronger, better man like Jack, if that was what she wanted. Now that she was staring up at him in tears, he found it impossible to follow through.

"No," he answered, shaking his head. "The day you took this ring was the happiest day of my life."

She sobbed, just once, and threw her arms around his neck. "How dare you do that to me?" she cried into his shoulder. "Do you have any idea what I went through when you disappeared?" She was clinging to him in a very un-Kathryn-like way. Something about it made him feel stronger than he had since the day he was arrested. He stood a little straighter and pulled her close. Her cotton dress was soft and bared the skin on her shoulders, where his fingers couldn't help but wander. She smelled like lavender and sunlight. Holding her, he knew suddenly that he would be well one day soon, entirely himself again. Before this moment, he hadn't been sure. It was as if her colossal strength had suddenly inhabited him. He felt like a man again.

"No," he told her as he stroked her back. "I asked and you wouldn't tell me anything but the bare details. Even the story of your confrontation with Nechayev I had to get from Tom. I wish you would tell me."

She was tight against him, holding on as if a strong wind were pulling him from her arms. To Chakotay, so recently reunited with her, the sensation was powerfully erotic, but she clearly wasn't experiencing it that way. She was on the verge of breaking down.

"They took you from me, and then they showed me that vid, and they were after me every day to sign the annulment. Oh, Chakotay …" Her face was buried somewhere south of his clavicle. She spoke into his chest, heaving under his hands. "I lay in bed every night and cried for you. Me! Can you imagine? And then Sveta. It was everything I feared. I thought my love for you was making me weak. Finally – maybe it was what Mother said, I don't know – I realized that it was the only thing making me strong enough to keep going. And you tell me you won't hold me to my vow!"

She pulled back and gave him her angriest glare. A few more disobedient tears spilled down her cheeks and she slapped them away. "Don't you understand how much I love you? How I fought for you?"

He swallowed hard and smoothed her tousled head with one hand. A few more strands of silver hair fell into his eyes, and for the first time, he didn't mind, didn't feel like an old man anymore. She had brought back his strength with this fierce, radiant, undeserved love that shone from the very surface of her skin. "No, my magnificent Kathryn," he said. "I don't think I understood until today. I've always – I've loved you so much, since nearly the first moment I saw you – I don't think I really believed that you could love me the same way, especially after all that's happened. It seemed like too much to hope for."

"Well," she said with a firm nod and a sniffle, "get used to it."

"I will," he said, and offered her a beaming smile. "So you're not going to leave me for handsome young Jack?"

"Oh, stop!" She rolled her eyes and slapped his arm. "He's a nice boy, but he's no angry warrior."

He kissed her then, softly but with all his heart, a long, absorbing kiss that left them both panting.

"There's one thing I was glad of, even on Herod Minor," he told her when their lips parted. He looked down the length of her, taking in the sight of his wife with the novel and miraculous idea, entertained in earnest for the first time, that she really might love him as much as he loved her.

"What's that?" she wondered, trying to read the new, dark secrets hidden in the eyes she used to know so well.

"I was so glad that you insisted on that crazy, quickie wedding on the Dauntless. As bad as things got, as much as they messed with my mind, in moments of clarity, I kept telling myself that my wife was Kathryn Janeway, and she'd come for me, somehow."

"You've got that right," Janeway choked out, pulling him close as her last insecurity evaporated. He had wanted all of it – her, the wedding, the dreams they'd spun together during those few, all-too-short nights of tender pillow talk aboard Voyager. It was all real. He was real, and here, and no matter how flawed this happy ending had been, she was going to revel in every priceless second, for as long as it lasted. "Come inside," she told him in her sultriest voice. "There's something I need to show you upstairs."

"Aye aye, Captain," he said. Before she could make a move toward the door, he shifted to put both arms under her and snatch her off the ground. She cried out in surprise, but he was already spinning around to reach for the doorknob and carry her across the threshold.

END