The portal to the Zunabri shrine of peace and inner-harmony loomed large before them. Kathryn Janeway straightened her replicated robes and turned to farewell her first officer who appeared strangely reluctant to see her go.
“So Kathryn, you really are going to go through with this?”
Kathryn Janeway flashed a bemused smile at her doubting first officer. She wondered, not for the first time, how she was going to convince him that she was sincere in her desire to spend her shore leave at a religious retreat. Sincere and in her right mind.
“I know how this quest must seem to you, Chakotay.” She paused to take in a deep breath and placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “ Here I stand, Captain Janeway the sceptic…” She waved a hand to forestall Chakotay’s automatic protest. “I have always prided myself in being able to find a scientific solution to all of life’s mysteries. Always thought that mysticism was for the weak-minded. Present company excepted, of course. You could say that I’m a devotee of empiricism. I love a good fact.
“And yet…and yet…..many of my experiences here in the Delta Quadrant have challenged that stance. Take the alien entity who claimed to be my father and tried to lead me into his version of the afterlife. How about the time I saved Kes’s life by going with my instincts, by making that leap of faith from knowledge to belief. And even you, Chakotay, took the time to introduce me to my spirit guide.
“Again and again I find myself being nudged, guided, and occasionally flung into new realms, and into modes of thought that have challenged and stimulated me…and I’ll admit it…threatened me. I once told you that if you scratched far enough you would find a scientific basis to most religious doctrines. Well, frankly, I now find that kind a bravado rather embarrassing.”
As usual, Chakotay listened attentively and nodded where appropriate, acknowledging her concerns. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about Kathryn. Nothing.” As she looked on he chuckled and shook his head.
“What is it?”
“It’s a little crazy, that it should be me, of all people, standing here questioning your desire to pursue your spiritual growth. I should be shoving you through that doorway. ”
“So why aren’t you?”
“Because I’m worried about you. I can’t be more honest than that. And yes, this goes beyond the bounds of my role as ship’s first officer. You mentioned the Nechani before. You never told me what it was that went on whilst you were on that planet, but you didn’t really have to. I was there in sickbay with the Doctor and Tuvok, monitoring your vital signs and wondering if each breath you took was going to be your last. I don’t think I could go through that again, Kathryn. You took years off my life.”
A gentle cough alerted them to the presence of the Hekri Zubar. Dressed in flowing ochre robes, the tall and willowy holy man smiled down at his guests. He seemed harmless enough. An unobtrusive facial ridge above his eye-line marked him as yet another alien species, otherwise he could easily have been born in one of Earth’s equatorial regions. His eyes were a deep brown colour and radiated the kind of tranquillity and inner harmony that Kathryn Janeway had been craving of late.
“Hekri, it’s an honour to meet you in person,” Kathryn bowed as she had been instructed and motioned to the darkly handsome man at her side. “Allow me to introduce you to Commander Chakotay.”
“A pleasure.” Hekri returned the bow and cocked his head to one side. “ It was my understanding that you would be attending our holy retreat unaccompanied, Captain Janeway.”
“Please, call me Kathryn. Chakotay is here because…” She paused, wondering how best to convey her friend’s role as part counsellor, part protector and total busybody.
“Because,” interrupted Chakotay, “ he worries about you….too much, probably. And I’m getting a little set in my ways. I’m sorry, Kathryn. I’m sure you’re in good hands with the Zunabri and, with your permission, I’ll be returning to Voyager now. Someone’s got to keep an eye on your brood while you’re gone.” Taking a step back he bowed in a fair imitation of the Hekri’s gesture, his eyes locking one last time onto those of his commanding officer.
“No, wait.” The Zubari raised his hands.
“Is there something the matter?” Kathryn cast an anxious glance around them, on the look out for any danger.
“Pardon me, I didn’t mean to startle you…Kathryn. But I can sense that you have unfinished business together. Here on Zunabri, we look to approach all things…how do I put this? One thing at a time. In sequence. The universe is a place of order, and so there is no need to rush from one thing to another, leaving things unsaid and incomplete in the process.
“Within the ashram you will find seating and protection from the sun. I welcome you both to enter here and continue your intercourse, sheltered by our walls and our beliefs. Why do you smile? Have I said something wrong?” Hekri studied the delicate flush staining the female’s fair skin and the half-suppressed grin tickling at the corners of her companion’s mouth.
“Ah…an inadvertent reference to your species’ mating habits. My apologies. No offence was intended. Please, Commander, will you join us?”
Janeway graced him with one of her special, sunny smiles and nodded. “He’d love to. And shade and a comfy chair sound ideal to me.”
Chakotay thought that the idea of intercourse had merit too but decided it best not to mention it. “It seems that I’ve been volunteered, Hekri. Thank-you for asking. After you, Kathryn.”
The inside the Zunabri ashram was a world away from life aboard a starship. All was restful and harmonious. The landscaping was reminiscent of a Chinese garden where form and feature blended to soothe the mind and the emotions. All around them the gentle sounds of nature, the slow trickle of a fountain, the whispered croak of amphibians, cocooned and relaxed them. Chakotay found himself smiling as he breathed in the delicate perfumes of tree and blossom.
“You like?” asked Kathryn, who had been watching for his reaction.
“Very much so. I can see why the Zunabri people consider this place holy. I mean, I’ve seen shrines and sacred caves, temples and cathedrals, even the unforgettable Chalice of Reeks, but never have I seen anything that comes even close to the joy and reverence I feel here.” He swallowed and looked away, trying to hide the sudden moisture clouding his eyes, but Kathryn knew that he was remembering his home on Trebus.
“Come on, Chakotay. Let’s find us a seat, my feet are killing me.” He took the hand she offered and followed her beneath the overhanging branches of an ancient tree and into a small bower nestled against its sturdy trunk. An incomparable sense of intimacy enveloped the pair of them and suddenly self-conscious, Kathryn dropped Chakotay’s hand and pretended to busy herself wiping some dead leaves from the bench seat before she sat down.
“Now, where were we?” Chakotay waded into the sudden silence.
“You were blaming me for those grey hairs of yours.” Kathryn tilted her head back against the tree and closed her eyes.
“Kathryn, I don’t have any grey hair.”
Kathryn Janeway snorted so indelicately Chakotay chuckled in response.
“Yeah…funny about that. Because I could swear they were there a few years back.”
“Could be a temporal paradox?” Chakotay loved to bait his captain like this. He loved to hear the sound of her laughter and it didn’t matter a bit that the joke was generally on him. It made him feel warm inside, like watching a sunrise.
“You see…there’s a scientific explanation for everything.”
“Hmm. I thought you were here to forget about science for a while.”
“Could be. And, just for the record….I liked your hair grey. It suited you.” She risked a peak out the corner of one eye and laughed when she caught the look of disgust on his face.
“Now you tell me.”
“See, we’ve been here five minutes and I’m feeling better already.” She closed her eyes again.
“What are you here for, Kathryn?”
“Because, Chakotay, I’ve taken a good look at myself lately and I don’t like what I see.”
Chakotay began to tell her she was wrong, that she hadn’t changed that much, and then thought better of it. He’d seen the frown lines developing around her eyes, the tight way she held her mouth, and mentally compared the Janeway sitting beside him to the bright, feisty red-head who had stood between him and Tom Paris, daring him to do his worst, all those years ago.
“Go on,” he urged.
“Call it the pressures of command, if you will. You of all people should understand that…that it never gets any easier, having to deal with the consequences of split-second decisions that had to be made without back-up, without the benefit of Starfleet Command or the UFP. I could go on, but it’s all just words. And what it boils down to is that people have died; good people who will never see their homes or families again. And each time I’ve lost someone something inside me has died too.”
“Don’t…don’t try to tell me that it’s not my fault, that there are always losses, that Joe Carey and Hogan and Suder, and all those crewmembers knew what they were getting themselves into…”
“Yes.” Turning to his side, Chakotay reached over and did something he had never done before, put his arm around Kathryn’s slender shoulders and drew her head down to rest on his chest. For a moment he even allowed himself the luxury of resting his cheek against her silky, auburn hair. She sniffled and nestled closer to him and Chakotay’s heart somersaulted inside his chest.
“Kathryn, I want you to hear me out for a minute. I’ve been there and I know what you’re saying, I really do. I just want you to know that if anything were to happen to me, I wouldn’t want you to blame yourself like this. And you should know that if Joe were here, he’d have said the same thing. We all serve you because we want to. If any one of us had wanted out, we would have gone.” His voice was soft and soothing and Kathryn could feel it vibrating deep inside his chest, along with the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.
“Just like Kes did. Yes. But we didn’t. We chose to stay. Choose to stay.”
The question hung there between them in the warm afternoon air.
“Why do you think?” He was pushing her to find her own answers, ones that would make sense and reassure her.
“Could be you’re all crazy,” she replied.
“That’s not an answer. Think about it. And give me an honest answer this time….one that means something.”
“I think I liked it better when you were a ‘yes’ man.” So much for an honest answer.
“You’re the one searching for …what is it you’re searching for again?”
“Aha!! That’s another question altogether. And I’m not sure I know the answer to that one either. Let’s say that I was drawn to this place…that I feel like my life has become a desert and this is an oasis. I’m thirsty for some of that harmony and peace they’re talking about. I’m tired of strutting around Voyager like a cranky old harridan, shouting out orders, begging for supplies, demanding prisoners be released….saving the universe or timeline or whatever the hell the current crisis demands. And it’s not job I resent, I’ve made my bed and I’ll damn well lie in it too…it’s who I’ve become. That’s the trouble. I don’t like me any more. And if I don’t like me, how can I expect anyone else to?”
“And you think coming here will fix all that?”
“When you put it like that, it does seem rather a tall order.”
“If you don’t mind me putting my counselling hat on for a moment?” He waited until he felt her nod, “the answers that you are seeking are all staring you right in the face, Kathryn.”
Lifting her head, Kathryn blinked and found that she was alarming close to her XO…that she was, in fact, staring him in the face. Her heart skipped a beat and then began to pound alarmingly against her ribs.
His skin had flushed dark and his eyes had a dangerous twinkle to them that she was sure she’d never seen before. It struck her for the thousandth time how insanely handsome he was. God, he was deadly.
He cleared his throat. “Actually…I wasn’t referring to myself.”
“Pity.” She grinned as his eyebrows shot up in surprise. She loved to get a rise out of him. He sucked nervously at his bottom lip, obviously very aware of Kathryn’s proximity and the dangerous turn the conversation was taking.
“So…what did you mean?” She stayed close, deliberately, enjoying his reaction. And hoping he might suck at his lips again. He had beautiful lips and she just knew that they’d taste like heaven.
“Nothing. Well, not nothing.” He dropped his arm from her shoulder, suddenly afraid to be taking advantage of his friend when she was so obviously lost and vulnerable. “Something.”
“Uh –huh? Something, you say. Chakotay, you’re making about as much sense as I am. And that’s saying something. Pardon the pun.”
He scratched his ear, gathering his words carefully. “It’s always easier to see the solutions to other people’s problems. Do you recall me asking you to consider why it is that your crew has stood by you through all our adventures? Give me an answer, anything at all. Just pick the first thought you have and tell me.”
“They’re scared. We’re alone out here.”
“They’ve come to rely on each other, they need one another.”
“Voyager is the only home they’ve known in the Delta Quadrant, apart from Quarra, that is. And that was a fantasy world. It’s always easier to stick with what you know.”
“And?” She shot him a murderous look, which was comfortingly familiar.
“Half of them are Starfleet and this is their job. The Maquis are pretty much Starfleet now too. They’re following orders because that is what they are trained to do.”
“Don’t say it! You want more? What more is there? We’re lost and alone and we cling to what is normal and therefor safe. Or gives the illusion of safety.”
“Kathryn…you’re missing something.”
“I am, am I? Why don’t you tell me then, since you seem to have all the answers.” Tilting her chin up, she looked ready to take on the world, again.
“You heard me. Love, Kathryn. We’re a family now. For some of us, this is the only family we’ve got. We love each other, and we love Voyager, and we love you, Kathryn. And, as right as your answers are, the truth is that we stay because that’s what feels right.”
Kathryn’s eyes misted over as she considered his words and realised how negative all her own responses had been. What were duty and fear and loneliness when stacked up against what Chakotay was offering?
“My cup’s been half empty for quite a while now, hasn’t it?” She sighed, sadly.
“When did I let this happen? How did I not see it?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You were protecting yourself. As you said, each and every time someone who trusted you was injured or killed, it hurt you. Building barriers is one of the ways we cope with that kind of pain. It gives the illusion of strength. It makes us feel as though we are in control.”
He grinned for her, flashing dimples that should be registered as deadly weapons. “ And those barriers isolate us from each other. They make it impossible to acknowledge the love of those closest to us. And we all need love, Kathryn. Even starship captains.”
“And first officers?”
“Especially first officers. Especially those first officers who are in love with their captain.”
“I don’t remember that one being in the handbook.”
“How about captains who are in love with their first officers? Should that one be in there too?”
“Looks like we have some extensive revisions to write up once we get back to Headquarters.” He took her face in both hands and leaned in a little closer, smiling at the fluttering pulse he felt through his fingertips.
“But first, you have some barriers I’d like to help you tear down.”
“And you said something about being lost in a desert and having one hell of a thirst?”
“Yes, Chakotay.” They were so close their lips brushed as they spoke.
“Then I think it’s time for that drink. Let me fill you up, Kathryn. Let me make you whole again.” With this he pulled her into the circle of his arms and slid his warm lips against hers, his heart bursting with joy. Kathryn felt herself melting into him.
Beyond the bower that enclosed them sat the Zunabri holy man, a smile of contentment on his face.
“Amen.” Harmony had returned to Voyager.
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