Disclaimer: All characters have been dry-cleaned and returned to Paramount in their original condition (well, almost).
Author's note: Happy birthday, Rocky! This is based on the Glory Days universe, and for some of the background details, it will be necessary to have read the other stories.
The sand of the Great Betazed Desert swept out as far as the horizon, endless and brown-yellow ripples, marred only by the occasional cluster of boulders. From her perch on the cliff, Kathryn Janeway could see the camp below, including the main white canvas tent that served as the prime meeting place as well as the mess for the archaeology crew. Just to the west of the camp, a 300 x 300 meter grid was sectioned out by rope, and within the grid, there were smaller squares marked off. Settling down on her mat, Kathryn leaned slightly forward. She could barely make out the figures working the grids below; it was almost like watching an ant colony. She smiled at the cliché. Since she had arrived at the dig site two months previously, she'd been watching the work from this vantage point, and marveling just how slow and painstaking it was to excavate a site. She had been amazed when Chakotay had told he had been working the same 10 by 10 plot for nearly a year now.
"Patience and diligence have always been among your finest qualities," Kathryn had said. "I'm not sure digging in the dirt is for me though."
"You should try it," Chakotay had answered. He'd handed her a small brush and she'd looked at it with some curiosity before handing it back.
Maybe digging in the dirt wasn't her forte, but *sitting* in the dirt certainly was, Kathryn thought now. She settled herself more comfortably on the spot and pulled out the PADDs she'd brought with her. The latest data from the micro-singularity she was researching had just downloaded this morning and she was eager to get started with the analysis. She was no closer now to finding a way to successfully and consistently set up communication channels through this particular space phenomena than when she'd started the experiment shortly after arriving on Betazed, but she was determined to come up with a solution. Micro-singularities were prevalent throughout the Alpha Quadrant and they'd certainly run into a fair share in the Delta Quadrant; a reliable communication protocol using them would be a godsend for Starfleet. So intent was she on scrolling through the most recent data download, she didn't notice Chakotay's presence until he rested his hand gently on her shoulder.
"Hi," he said.
"You scared me," Kathryn said. She twisted around to look up at him. "What are you doing up here? I thought you said you'd be busy on the latest--" she hesitated, hoping she had the terminology right "--find?" For the last two days, the camp had been buzzing with news that the cal'ipha, a fabled stone tablet that allegedly held the key to deciphering early Betazed language, had been located.
"It has been busy, but I decided I needed a break." Chakotay looked towards the cream-colored canvas tents dotting the camp below. "I can see why you like it up here. It's peaceful and the view is gorgeous, but it's a hell of a hike."
Kathryn smiled in amusement. "Well, I did notice the excitement in camp this morning. I didn't want to get underfoot." Kathryn had spent the morning skirting the enthusiastic archaeologists and other field workers, most of them chattering so excitedly at each other in terms she was only starting to understand. Watching one exchange between Chakotay and one of the junior workers -- a young Betazed named Ochel -- Kathryn couldn't help but be reminded of her own such dialogues with B'Elanna over engineering schematics. "So--" she glanced at Chakotay expectantly "-- are you bringing me good news? Did you indeed find the cal'ipha?"
Chakotay shook his head and crouched down next to her. "Not yet, but we're closer than we've ever been."
"What does that mean? Two more centimeters?"
Chakotay laughed. "Something like that." He held out a package. "Saray brought the mail today."
Kathryn took the brown bag from him. "Anything important?"
"Only if you characterize anything with a Starfleet logo on it as 'important.'" Chakotay stood back up and put his hands on his hips. His gaze was distant. "I should get back down there. I just wanted to make sure you got these in time. Saray is making another run into town tomorrow afternoon, so if you did have to send a response, you'd have time to do so."
Kathryn ran her fingers over the PADDs and then carefully, traced the outline of the Starfleet logo. The emblem seemed so foreign to her. Here in the middle of the Great Betazed Desert, she felt so far removed from her previous life in Starfleet. Because of the strong electromotive wave patterns in the region, it was next to impossible to have a dedicated communications array in the area and for that reason, it was necessary for someone to shuttle to the closet town to download all communications; it was a roundtrip that nearly a day and few of the on-site archaeologists liked being away from the dig site for more than a few hours.
At first, Kathryn had felt out of touch because the acute sense of isolation, but over time, she'd grown used to and even appreciate it. There were no two or three or even four star admirals to order her around *here*, nor did she find herself getting overwrought with news headlines; even better, she didn't have to worry about reading about herself (or any other Voyager crew member) in the gossip column. Without the harried life she'd been used to for so long, Kathryn now worked her own hours on her own projects and while she hadn't quite made the headway she'd been hoping to, she felt a sense of satisfaction she hadn't felt in years.
"Aren't you going to read them?" Chakotay asked lightly.
Kathryn stared down at them. "Well, I can guess at what they say and--" she smiled "-- maybe it's this place and I'm starting to get telepathic or--"
"Your sabbatical is coming to an end," Chakotay said flatly.
"Yes." Janeway looked down at the PADDs. "We knew this day would come."
"Have you decided what you're going to do?"
"It depends on what Starfleet has to say." Janeway turned to look at him. A light breeze ruffled his hair and impulsively, she reached out and smoothed the wayward strands down. "You know, I don't think they were terribly upset when I put in my request for sabbatical," she said. "In fact, I think they were probably happy I'd be out of their hair for a few months."
She held up a hand. "I know, I know, you don't believe me when I say Starfleet promoted me only because they didn't know what else to do with me--"
"You deserved your promotion, Kathryn. No one else could have handled what happened to us in the Delta Quadrant with the strength and dignity you did."
"That's *your* opinion." She smiled. "Besides, you're *supposed* to be loyal to me."
"I mean it. It's not just words, Kathryn."
Kathryn turned her attention back to the PADDs. "Regardless, you have to look at the situation from Starfleet's point of view. Here I am, a captain who'd been out from under their thumb for seven years, who incorporated Maquis into her crew, who has violated the Prime Directive and made other ethically questionable decisions during that time and--" Kathryn pressed the palms of her hands together and touched the tips of her fingers to her chin "-- it's a hard line to walk. Do they honor me for the accomplishments and discoveries made in the Delta Quadrant or do they reprimand me for the decisions I made? You can do one or the other and I think, in the aftermath of the Dominion War, Starfleet needed a hero people could look up to. Captain Sisko would have probably been the number one candidate but no one really knows what happened to him." She took a deep breath. "So I guess that left me."
"You weren't promoted by default, Kathryn."
"How else would you like to characterize it?"
Chakotay sighed in exasperation. "That it was a well-deserved and hard earned accolade." He nodded in the direction of the PADDs. "The question is, what do you want to do next?"
"You're assuming Starfleet wants me back."
Chakotay squatted next to Kathryn. "They'd be foolish to let you go."
Kathryn looked at the PADDs. She wasn't ready to read them yet. In a way, she knew Chakotay was right; Starfleet wouldn't give her her marching orders outright. If they wanted her gone, they'd try something a little more subtle, such as giving her a long-term desk assignment or sending her to the far reaches of the AQ where she would be forced to moderate a peace conference or three. If there was one thing Kathryn knew for sure, after her most recent experiences in the Neutral Zone, the last place she wanted to be was between two feuding parties. Since it was doubtful the PADDs contained anything she'd consider good news, Kathryn put them aside and then the turned her attention back to Chakotay. "Do you have any regrets?" she asked.
Kathryn gestured towards the camp below. "About leaving Starfleet, about deciding to pursue archaeology in the field rather than in the classroom, even if it meant losing Seven forever."
Chakotay considered and when he looked back at Kathryn, his expression softened. "No," he said honestly, "no regrets. I won't lie and say it's been easy and that I haven't wondered 'what if' every now and then but--" he smiled "-- these last couple of months have made it worthwhile."
Kathryn nodded in agreement. It had taken her first month to get acclimated to the long, hot days and she had, after a few weeks, finally gotten used to having sand in everything -- her shoes, her clothes, her food, her bed. It was hard enough to deal with without Borg implants, Kathryn thought, feeling a sudden sympathy towards Seven of Nine, who had packed up and left the desert a couple years previously to pursue a career at MIT -- a career, that by all measures, was going exceedingly well now. Putting aside the inconveniences of weather and the sand, Kathryn had to admit she was enjoying herself greatly. For the first time in twenty years, she was a scientist again and while the pull of the stars would always be there, she wasn't so sure she wanted to give up this particular life. Yet.
"If you could do anything, anything at all, no strings, no restrictions, would this be what you would choose?" Kathryn asked. She gestured towards the camp below. "This?"
Chakotay considered and then nodded. "Yes. I think so. I've always enjoyed digging in the dirt--" he quirked a grin "-- but my interests always took second place to something else. First my career in Starfleet, then the Maquis, then Voyager..." his voice drifted off and he rose to his feet. "You know, there's an ancient saying: find what you like to do and you will never work a day in your life." He glanced down at Kathryn. "This doesn't feel like work."
Kathryn considered his statement. She wasn't quite sure she considered Starfleet 'work', but she also knew it had been difficult to get used to being back under Starfleet Command. In addition, she hated how distance had grown between herself and other members of her senior staff. She knew her mentor, Owen Paris, would have probably scolded her for growing so emotionally attached to those under her command, especially to Chakotay and Seven and she *had* on occasion drawn away from the crew, holding herself to a stricter standard than those ranked below her. In retrospect, Janeway thought wistfully, she preferred the warmth and camaraderie of having people she cared about -- and who cared about her -- around. It would be, she knew, impossible to get a command like Voyager again.
"I *have* enjoyed being here," Kathryn said slowly. "But I'm not sure I'm ready to walk away from Starfleet." She turned to Chakotay in surprise, shocked at what she'd just said. It was the first time she'd ever articulated her deep-down feeling that this sabbatical she'd taken might turn into something more permanent. "I've spent my whole life as a career officer," Kathryn said. "I guess I never took time to imagine the possibilities, of what else could be out there." She shook her head. "I'm torn. I don't know what I'd be missing out on by choosing to return to Starfleet or what I'd be giving up if I did walk away." She scoffed. "Though I imagine, there'd be more than a few people who would be happy to see me resign my commission. I'm not the most popular admiral around HQ these days; first Voyager and then the skirmish in the Neutral Zone with the Ponzi." A warm breeze ruffled her hair, and in the process, sent the sand around her feet swirling. "It all adds up, especially if you consider there are plenty of officers who survived the Dominion War and who haven't gotten half the attention I have." Kathryn saw Chakotay's expression tighten, his lips drawing into a thin, straight line. "What?"
He shook his head. "I was just thinking, the Kathryn Janeway I served with aboard Voyager would never consider herself a victim and she would never walk away from a situation just because things were getting a little uncomfortable." His gaze was direct and honest. "If you decide you don't want to return to Starfleet, that's fine. Just make sure you're resigning for all the right reasons, not because you don't want to put up with a little bit of jealousy."
Kathryn opened her mouth and then shut it. She bit her lip and focused her attention on the thin line of horizon, where the yellow-brown sand met the clear blue skies. The wind was warm, but picking up in intensity and she knew, even in her short time here, that a sand storm was in the offing. She glanced at Chakotay and saw he'd come to the same conclusion.
"We'd better get going," Kathryn said, grateful for an excuse to change the subject. Her mouth felt dry and she reached down and took a swig of water from her bottle. She held it out to Chakotay, but he shook his head. Kathryn gathered up her PADDs and dumped them in her pack. Without asking, Chakotay took the pack from her. Kathryn almost protested, but Chakotay had already started towards the path down to the camp. Mildly irritated, she quickened her step to catch up with him.
"It really comes down to a question of happiness," Chakotay said conversationally as they began their descent.
"What?" Kathryn asked, startled.
"Doing what you want to do, what makes you happy." He glanced back over his shoulder at her. "Are you happier now than you were then?"
"I haven't drawn the demarcation lines like that," Kathryn said tensely, keeping her attention focused squarely on the sandy path. One false step and it would be a long and rough tumble to the ground.
"Maybe you should."
Kathryn was silent for a moment and then she said, "It's been a long time since I've imagined myself living a life that has absolutely nothing to do with Starfleet. Ever since--" she paused. She'd adored her father, had always wanted to follow in Edward Janeway's footsteps. She'd never understood, however, how her sister had chosen to head the exact opposite direction. Kathryn stopped short in the path.
Chakotay turned sharply. "What is it?"
"I was just thinking, even as a girl--" Kathryn's voice shook and she hated herself for allowing emotion to seep into the moment. She paused, gathering her thoughts and composure, and then resumed speaking. "From the time I was very little, I don't think I ever gave myself a choice to do something that wasn't Starfleet. It was as if Starfleet was what I was destined for and without it--" she shook her head "-- I wasn't anyone." She looked expectantly at Chakotay and was grateful when he simply nodded and then pointed down the path. She followed him. The sand was picking up a little more now; in the distance she could see the tell-tale cloud of gray moving towards them. She hung close to the cliff wall, running her hand against the auburn-hued rocks for what she knew was a false sense of support. Chakotay waited for her to catch up with him.
"Put your hand on my shoulder," he said. "It's going to get a little hard to see in a few minutes." He glanced at her. "And for what's worth, Kathryn, Starfleet has always been a part of you, but it's never been *who* you are." He kept his pace moderate, seemingly nonchalant by the occasional rock which tumbled off the path and to the valley below. "Not any more than I'm a Maquis terrorist."
At this, Kathryn had to laugh. For months after they'd returned to the Delta Quadrant, most news articles referring to either Chakotay or B'Elanna Torres had ignored their diligent service aboard Voyager and had insisted on attaching the 'Maquis terrorist' tag to their names and that of other former Maquis members. Tom Paris hadn't gotten off any easier; his prison record had been constantly dredged up in those same articles. "No, 'terrorist' is the last thing you are," Kathryn said with feeling. "Though the experiences you get when you wear those labels, sometimes they became a part of you, and it becomes harder to let go. Especially when other people have certain expectations of whom you are because of the label they've bestowed on you."
Chakotay glanced at her. "Yes," he said simply, "but sometimes you have to in order to take advantage of other opportunities."
They covered the rest of the distance to the camp in silence. Thanks to the sand storm -- which was mild in comparison to some Kathryn had endured -- most of the archaeologists had evacuated to the giant mess hall tent located in the center of the camp. Most of them were either going over the morning's work or talking; the buzz of excitement in the tent was palpable. Kathryn nodded at them as she passed by, admiring their enthusiasm, but also knowing she was an outsider in this place.
She took a seat at the far end of the tent, and spread her PADDs out on the table. She stared with some trepidation at the Starfleet logo, running her fingers lightly over the smooth LCD screen and then the rounded silver edges. For a moment she took another long look around, marveling how odd it felt to be so alone in a room full of people. The wind from the sand storm was shaking the tent now, and the dust was swirling at her feet. Kathryn bit back a sigh and turned her attention back to the PADD, her finger poised over the 'on' button.
"Here," Chakotay said, placing a mug next to her. "Fresh coffee." He smiled at her. "Two things we have plenty of here: sand and coffee."
"And not necessarily in that order, thank God," Kathryn said. She cupped her hands around the mug. "Thank you."
Chakotay nodded towards the PADD. "So?"
"Oh. I haven't looked at it." Did it really matter what the PADD said? she wondered. Hadn't she already made her decision in a way?
Chakotay furrowed his brow. "No?"
She shook her head. "I don't know that I need to." She took a deep breath. "Maybe you're right," she said. "Maybe I've been sitting in my 'comfort zone' too long."
"I wouldn't exactly call the Neutral Zone 'comfortable'."
Kathryn offered a pained smile at Chakotay's attempt at humor. She reached over and covered his hand with hers.
"Starfleet has always been a part of my life," she said. "It's not going to be easy to let that go."
He stared at her. "What?"
Kathryn shrugged. "Maybe it's time to cut the ties, find out what else is out there." She gave a nervous laugh. She hadn't felt this vulnerable since the Ponzi first fired on her ship in the Neutral Zone and lying there on the floor of the bridge, wondering if this was *it*. "I don't know what's waiting for me. I've never had a chance to find out. No--" she corrected herself "-- I've never allowed myself the imagination to consider the possibilities."
"What will you tell Starfleet?"
Kathryn tipped her head towards the PADD. "For now? Just that I want to extend my sabbatical for a couple of months. This area is perfect for my research on micro-singularities and if I go back now, I probably won't get a chance to follow-up for years." She smiled. "I've always had my life planned out, Chakotay, and I admit, continuing my sabbatical is somewhat unnerving because of what I *think* it means for the future, but--" she lowered her voice "-- I do have a favor to ask you."
Chakotay nodded. "What?"
"I know now's not the best time," she said, "not with you being so close to making the discovery you've been searching for all these years but, I'd like to give it a try and be a part of your team. If that's all right with you."
"I thought you'd never ask." Was it a trick of the light or did she notice a sheen to Chakotay's dark eyes? Impulsively, Kathryn reached forward, and wiped a smudge of sand off his nose. He covered her hand with his, a gentle and warm pressure.
"That makes two of us," Kathryn said, a little shakily. She turned off the PADD, the Starfleet logo disappearing. Maybe in a few hours, she'd read the message over. For now though, she thought she'd just savor the moment -- the *experience* -- of not knowing what was coming next.
~ the end
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