Belated
by Michele Masterson

~*~

What a surprise
Who could foresee
I'd come to feel about you
What you'd felt about me?
Why only now when it seems
That you've drifted away
What a surprise
What a cliché

The pier stretched far out before her, empty. It was one of the few things that hadn't changed in this city by the bay. She spent a lot of time here as a student, and as an officer on leave. It had been one of the first places she'd visit whenever she returned from a long space tour, because it was always a madhouse, always a show of humanity, of non-humanity, all colors and light and sound.

Today it was empty. A storm was approaching.

Voyager had returned after six years lost, in a rather anti-climactic fashion. A wormhole, stable, had deposited them so close to Starfleet command that for a little while they suspected it was another ruse, courtesy of Species 8472. It hadn't been. They were home.

She had been prepared for high drama upon their return, for fights about the futures of the Maquis, fights about keeping Voyager in service, fights about promotions for her entire crew - Harry Kim should be a lieutenant at least, Paris a commander.

But there had been no drama. No fighting. There was a war, and Starfleet was so amenable to any and all of her requests that she knew, without a complete briefing, exactly how badly the war was going.

Nothing had turned out as she'd expected.

Seven had left. Never looked up her family. Never contacted Janeway. Just up and gone, hitching a ride on a deep space commercial freighter. B'Elanna and Paris had stayed together, but declined a Starfleet commission as soon as they had been pardoned. She'd heard they were heading up a colony somewhere near Seldir 7, about as far away as they could get without leaving the Alpha Quadrant. Harry took his commission and was promptly sent to the battlefront. Starfleet had not heard from him in three months. Three more and he and his crew would be listed as missing-in-action. Again.

The Doctor had also been reassigned to another vessel, his entire program and all his added subroutines downloaded. He would occasionally contact her when he could, but it was war and he was activated nearly 24 hours a day. It could have been her imagination, her own projection, but he seemed to be despondent, the constant influx of wounded and dead seeming to affect him profoundly.

Neelix… Neelix had died. Just a week ago. She'd attended his funeral yesterday. Such a meaningless death. A human virus, easily curable under most circumstances - terminal for the Talaxian. She'd cried silently through the entire service, tears streaming down her face, her throat feeling like someone was choking her, causing her breath to catch audibly. He had become a dear friend. They'd talked nearly daily since their return, seen each other often - he'd even stayed with her at her mother's house during the first few weeks until he'd settled. And though she knew it was ridiculous, knew it was nearly egotistical on her part, she blamed herself. As she always did when any of her former crew died. And as she always would, apparently.

She was still crying when the service had concluded, remaining still as the mourners dispersed around her, until she was confident that she could see through the tears enough to get back to the transporter site. It was then that she felt the hand on her shoulder. She knew who it was instantly.

"Chakotay," she whispered, and turned around suddenly, immediately putting her arms around his chest, burying her face in his coat.

"I'm late," he said, stroking her hair, putting his arms around her to shield her from staring eyes. "I'm sorry - there was an accident…"

Janeway drew back in alarm. "Are you hurt?"

"No," he said, pulling her back in his embrace. "It just delayed everything. I'm so sorry, Kathryn."

She nodded against his chest, the fibers of his coat rasping against her cheek, and it felt so, so good to be in his arms now, protected from the world for a while. He always did that for her. They'd spoken only sporadically since their return six months ago, at first because of their intense debriefing, and then because he'd been gone for a while. Chakotay had accepted a non-combat position with Starfleet, contingent upon them allowing him to track down any straggling Maquis survivors, those presumed to be dead but not confirmed. If they were hiding out anywhere, he'd know where they'd be. She'd worried terribly about him, but he called her when he could, just to reassure her that he was still alive.

"Are you back," she sniffled, pulling her arms up between her chest and his, leaning on him. He kept his arms around her shoulders. "Are you back for good?"

"Yes," he said, though he didn't seem particularly happy about it. "It seems I am."

"And did you find them?"

He closed his eyes and shook his head. "Not one. They're all gone. I can't think of anywhere else they would be."

"I'm sorry."

"I know."

They left then, returning to her living quarters at Starfleet - she insisted he come for dinner, since he was still living out of a bag in a hotel. And it was as if they had never been apart, like the old days - the real old days, in the very beginning of their journey, before the disagreements, before they had made the unspoken decision to spend less time together so they'd spend less time hurting each other. But this was like before - as she replicated some food, broke out some wine, she could see him watching her when he thought she wasn't looking, and could nearly forget that she'd gotten a little older, wasn't quite the whippet-thin, quicksilver captain she'd once been.

In fact, she was a commodore. After all these years, Kathryn Janeway had taken a promotion and taken a desk job. Not that it was easy, and not that she wasn't working night and day to try and find a resolution to the war. But the decision was made so quickly that she barely remembered making it, barely knew why she'd done it. Yet as she sat across from Chakotay that night, a bottle of wine consumed, the glow from the fireplace dancing off of his features, she figured it out.

She was going to settle down. And she was going to settle down with him.

The realization hit her all at once, and she jumped a bit, a surge of electricity seeming to shoot through her. If Chakotay noticed, he didn't comment. But he was talking and at that point, if someone was holding a phaser to her head, she wouldn't have been able to repeat anything he'd been saying. All that was going through her head was, how do I tell him? What do I say? When do I say it?

She wanted to blurt it out right then, jump in his arms and take him to her bed. But she rethought that. Wait a day. He's not going anywhere. Wait until you're not buzzing from a half bottle of wine, buzzing from no sleep, buzzing from the thousand things that have gone wrong and the one thing that could finally, finally go right.

The next day she woke up early, embarrassed herself by spending an absurd amount of time getting ready - she'd tell him later, he'd laugh affectionately and call her crazy - and she went to the hotel.

The rest of it was a blur in her mind. She'd surprised him, he looked like he hadn't been awake for very long. And before she lost her nerve all together, she took both his hands in hers, and told him how much she had missed him, how she didn't even realize how much until last night. And how she didn't want to miss him anymore, and how she didn't know how much she cared for him until he was gone from her life. And how she finally could say that she was in love with him.

He was silent for so long that she thought she'd been unclear, though that was impossible, she'd said it all without metaphor, without hedging or being cryptic. But the tears in his eyes confirmed it - he heard her. Yet when she moved to embrace him, he stopped her, the barest of touches on her arms.

"Kathryn," he said in a whisper. "Oh, Kathryn… I… I don't know what to say."

It dawned on her fairly quickly. She looked at him, not with the eyes of a lover, but with the calculating eyes of a scientist. She was not a dense person. He was near tears, so full of remorse, regret. Thank god she didn't detect pity. She couldn't have handled pity.

She backed up immediately.

"Wait," he said. "Let me just… Oh, Kathryn." He let the tears fall, though she could barely see them through her own. When he moved toward her she tried to fight him off, but he was stronger, and finally she allowed him to hold her. They cried in silence for a long time. She was the first to pull away, wiping her face with the palm of her hand.

He watched her. He looked terrible, as if she had just told him that the world was coming to an end.

"You are my best friend, Kathryn," he said solemnly.

"I know."

"I wish…" he was tearing up again, and she found herself placing a comforting hand on his arm. "I wish it wasÉ I wish we could go back. So much has happened. I'm not the same. You're not the same." He shook his head, unable to articulate it, but she understood anyway.

"Too late?" she asked softly, trying to smile, trying to do something that would end this, and quickly.

He tried to smile in return. "I don't know," he said in a sigh. "Maybe. Maybe it was always too late."

They'd talked some more, and once she assured him that they would still be friends, would always be friends, he allowed her to leave. He had thanked her for telling him. Her cynical self, which she noticed was rapidly overtaking her real self, laughed that she told him she loved him and he said "thank you".

Afterwards she'd walked. For hours, toward the ocean. Finding herself on the pier. She'd half-planned that after she told him, they'd come here together.

But then she'd had a lot of plans. A lot of expectations. And as she'd noted ever since their return, nothing had worked out anywhere near what she'd expected. The strange thing was she hadn't even consciously known that she'd been expecting to be with Chakotay. Only now to realize that she'd probably wanted it all along, almost since the very beginning of their journey.

She smiled as she thought of the old days, the hard days, the days when she was sure, absolutely positive that she would die, and bring the whole crew with her. But there were also good days, there were days when she felt loved, and cherished, and lucky. She realized that she hadn't felt that way in some time. Bending over the edge of the pier, she caught her watery reflection staring up at her; these days she just felt tired, and old. But then. She had been beautiful then.

She all the way to the end of the pier, and watched as in the distance, the fierce, driving storm approached, the rain making sharp vertical lines streak through the horizon. She'd always loved being by the water, had missed it when she was away. She knew that she'd never come back here again.

There was nothing left to do. A sudden rumble of thunder, and then the wind kicked up, making her sway a bit in it's strength, whipping through her hair. She'd grown her hair out since she'd been back. She didn't want to admit why.

The familiar strangled feeling rose in her throat. She'd cried often enough over the past few days. She lifted her face, looking up at the ominous gray clouds.

And it rained.

~~* The End *~~


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