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Apotheosis

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"Ready to wake up?"

The low query pulls her from her half-sleep. She was not quite dreaming, though she might as well have been; she'd seen him, and the monkey, and the mess he'd been so angry about until she laughed and laughed. Small disasters cannot distress her any longer, nor him either really, though the monkey can drive him to fits of disbelief. She half opens her eyes, squinting at the brightness.

"Are you ready for me?" she asks now, tracing a lazy arc on his belly which rises directly in her line of vision, keeping the sun from striking her face. He twitches as her fingers tease the sensitive flesh near his ribcage.

"Always. Come here." His voice vibrates with humor and love. She tries to remember if it was always so as he draws her into his embrace. It's a tight hug, not seeking passion but comfort: beneath the affection she can feel fear.

"What is it?" she asks.

"I had a nightmare." His reply is nonchalant, but there is something in his voice...she shields her eyes from the glare and looks up at him. He rests on one elbow looking down at her, the long grass tickling his naked arm. A small cloud drifts over the sun, and he comes into focus. "I dreamed they came back to get us."

"What did they want?"

"The usual. Us."

It is an old fear, but an unfounded one: she gave an order, which she has no doubt they will obey. Her own dreams are not much different from her waking hours. Occasionally they take her far, far away, into her past across great distances, but always they return her to this sphere with him.

"They can't have us," she says lightly. "They can't take this away from me."

He begins to hum, a very old Earth song, and the clouds are gone again. They never come for long. She nestles in the shade of his body, thinking, it is impossible to imagine a life without this. Even though she knows it cannot last forever--one day, one of them will die, and leave the other--she thinks the link will remain unbroken. He pulls her to her feet, trying to get her to dance with him, until they trip together down to the water.

He steps in first, turns and pulls her into his arms. "What do you think would have happened if they came back for us?" he asks her.

"We'd have gone with them." She smiles at him. "Back to work. Things would have been different."

"Between us?"

"No, on the ship." She imagines glancing over his shoulder to find Tuvok watching them--his senior officers naked in the river. "It would have taken a little adjusting, for the rest of them. But, you know, I think it might have been good for morale, in the long run."

"Me too." His smile is buoyant. It bothers her momentarily that he believes it possible this relationship might not have been inevitable, immutable. He sees her frown.

"You've changed," he reminds her.

That bothers her too, in some less definable way. She wants to believe that she was always becoming the person she is now--and that she is not diminished now that she is no longer the captain of a starship, that the work they do matters even if no one else sees it, that they are connected to the universe.

She is getting closer to a cure, but they are in no hurry to board their shuttle and leave. Life is good here, though it would also be good traveling among the stars together. Different, without the rhythms of day and night and the moderate changes in season. Easier than life on a Starfleet vessel, though--the hours regimented, the air always recycled, with almost no chance of setting down anywhere. She had not realized how much gray she accepted before she arrived on this planet and saw the colors blooming.

And him--she can no longer picture him outside this setting, in a uniform he discarded once before, like a trapped wolf prowling the corners of a cage, staring out at the stars. "You've changed too," she points out.

He lifts her chin, studies her expression for a moment, and says, "I love you."

"I love you," she replies automatically. She knows he likes to hear it, even when her mind isn't fully on the words. Now she brings him back into focus. "I do," she adds deliberately, both to emphasize her previous words and to echo the ceremonious use of the phrase. A smile softens his features, and his fingers stroke her face, just barely.

"Let's swim and then go eat," she suggests, and pulls him with her into a channel of sun, splashing him in the new light.

Chapter Text

The evening was warmer than usual for the season, with a fragrant breeze wafting through the window. The climate changes were subtle even in this non-tropical zone, but as long-term residents of New Earth, they were accustomed to the gentle patters of the year's cycles. Chakotay was feeling well enough to sit at the table and watch Kathryn as she tidied the dinner dishes. She had been gone most of the afternoon, off on some project of her own, and he had missed her though he did not inquire as to what she had been doing. She would tell him when she was ready. Respect for one another's privacy during the day was an arrangement which had worked for them for decades, though in recent years they made regular communicator contact, just in case.

Kathryn was wearing the blue dress he loved so much, though it now sported dark streaks where she'd had to let out the material around her waist, and the hemline was tattered. He'd never let her replicate another one: this was the dress she'd been wearing the first time he kissed her, and the afternoon of the first evening they'd made love. It was not replaceable. He watched her study him from the corner of her eye while she finished the chores he was frequently too tired to help with; she had an air of expectant energy, something important to say. He wondered what it could be. Not, "The replicator's energy is completely drained," like that awful night fifteen years or so ago when they'd thought their most critical tool was lost to them; not "I think I've spotted a ship up there," which brought simultaneous hope and terror, and surely not "I'm afraid I'm pregnant"--those words had once been cause for panic, but they'd proven erroneous, and it was long past the time when that could be a concern.

But something big was up because she'd made him strawberry cheesecake, or the closest thing they could approximate on this planet. The glint of amusement must have shown in his eyes, because Kathryn put down the pot she was drying and turned to him, leaning back against the cabinet.

"I want us to take the shuttle and go up, Chakotay."

Carefully, because for months he had been unable to control the shake in his hands, Chakotay set down his tea and stared at Kathryn across the small expanse of their shelter. It was the first time in years he could remember either of them speaking of death. As the time inevitably crept by, as they both suffered health crises and slow decline, the topic became verboten--though of course they had never discussed even whether or not to discuss it. During the past weeks, he had known that he would have to broach the subject with her, soon, but always fear and sorrow stopped his tongue. Now she was making it unnecessary for him to have to be the one to state what they both knew.

He was dying. So was she, though she might have months or even years left if his own leavetaking would not leave her completely alone. It was time to confirm aloud the decision they had made silently years before, when she'd contracted a fast-spreading infection which their antibiotics could not destroy: after days of caring for her, begging her to drink, begging her not to die, he'd finally gotten a hand phaser and curled up beside her, expecting to awaken to find her gone and intending not to spend a conscious moment alone on this world. Kathryn had awakened first, her fever broken, so that when he opened his eyes the first thing he beheld was her, turning the weapon over and over in her hands with tears running down her face. She knew what he had intended to do, though they never spoke of it, then or later, on the occasions when one or the other of them was injured or ill. No need for anything as morbid as a suicide pact. Until now.

There was no need for Kathryn to explain that she wanted to die in space, either. Leaving this planet would ensure that. He suspected that she wanted it to be quick and painless, not like the agonizing decline she'd witnessed him suffering. Chakotay supposed that he'd known this day was coming--he just hadn't expected it quite so soon.

"The shuttle may not be functioning fully," he reminded her.

"It's working fine. I tested it this afternoon. There seems to be a problem with the shield emitters, but we won't be needing those anyway. We can launch, and we can control the matter-antimatter reaction."

In other words, they could initiate a self-destruct.

"When did you have in mind for our departure?"

"Tomorrow." His surprise must have shown in his face, because Kathryn took a deep breath and came over to sit opposite him at the table. She reached over, intertwining her fingers with his. "I also finished analyzing the latest readings on your liver functions. They're not good, Chakotay. Your body is slowly poisoning itself, and when the toxins get into your bloodstream, it's not only going to be painful: it could cause dementia."

They both lived in terror of the other losing memory or becoming delusional; that would be worse than being alone. He nodded understanding at the pain in her face. In many ways, his was the easier situation to be in.

"I want to walk down to the river tonight, then. I'll need to be alone." Chakotay knew that he needed to try to contact his spirit guide one last time. He wasn't expecting her blessing, but he needed her understanding.

Kathryn nodded; she'd been anticipating this. "I'll get your cane. And I'll be in the bathtub. No need to worry about conserving energy on a night like this."

She meant the weather, not because it was their last night. He smiled fleetingly. "Maybe I'll join you," he teased, though it had been many months since the two of them had been able to share a bath comfortably, let alone to indulge in the sort of activities her grin recalled. They rose together to walk out into the night, hand in hand, though she had to move very slowly to remain at his side.

The river was swollen with the season's rains, which had caused such stiffness in his joints. It took him several tries to enter a trance, since it was hard for him to keep his palsied hand still on the akunah. When he finally reached the warm spot where his guide waited, she spoke only one word to him:

"Go."

He did not have to ask whether he and Kathryn would be together in whatever afterland of the spirit where his father and his ancestors dwelled. Sixty years of peace on this planet had strengthened his faith, so that he now embarrassed himself occasionally by sounding like his father: Kathryn would go on at length about the trajectory of the comet or the patterns of precipitation, and he'd find himself speaking of harvest festivals and rain ceremonies. For decades she'd indulged his traditions, so that to this day he couldn't have said for sure whether she believed in them or she merely believed in him. Either way, it brought him great joy.

Chakotay found her in the bathtub, staring at the stars overhead with a near-blissful expression. "I've so wanted to get back into space," Kathryn whispered when he came close enough to hear. "There were times I thought about asking you whether you'd risk leaving even without a certain cure, just to get back out there." Then she focused on him, and the verdant night surrounding them. "Oh, but I will miss this place," she admitted.

"I'll miss being with you in this place." He slid a hand into the warm water to caress her skin. Her eyes drifted shut in pleasure. The next morning the pain would be gone, but so would joys like this...maybe forever. Kathryn opened her eyes to meet his, blinking back tears.

"Come to bed, my love." The whispered words did not convey the same meaning they once did, but the magical frisson still danced between them in the warm evening air. It took effort from both of them to raise her from the tub without dragging him face-first into the water, but once they'd gotten her out and wrapped the old robe around her, they stumbled back to the shelter with their arms around each other, tripping over one another's feet like in the old days.

Chakotay had not expected to sleep this last night in her arms, but when he opened his eyes after taking a rest from kissing her over and over, the sky was already beginning to brighten. Kathryn was awake, tracing her fingers over the pattern of his tattoo as she had hundreds of times before. "I want to make sure I could draw it in my sleep," she whispered. They went out together to watch the sun rise, though he moved stiffly in the morning chill, with sharp pain in his belly and his hips. They skipped breakfast; without discussing it, they seemed to have agreed that the dessert of the night before would constitute their last meal.

Kathryn had done an impressive job clearing off and cleaning up the shuttle; for many years now it had lain unattended, approached only when they required recharged phasers or emergency power. They'd stripped out most of the nonessential equipment, the rear seats, everything they'd been able to use for the shelter and their life on New Earth. When Kathryn initialized the primary systems and turned on the computers, making the ship spring to life around them, Chakotay felt for a moment as if he'd fallen into a time machine.

For Kathryn, too, the experience seemed to be uncanny. "I'm going out to have one last look around," she told him, and slipped from the rear bay. Chakotay could hear her talking to one of the monkeys. Years earlier, he had fantasized about what their rescue might be like: he suspected that if it came to that, it might be easier for him to leave than Kathryn, who had grown very attached to the flora and fauna of this place. Chakotay had only grown more and more attached to her. Silently he thanked the spirits of this world which they had named after their own, then turned away from the lushness outside to reacquaint himself with the panels and readouts of his previous life.

The ascent was uneventful, though they were beginning to burn with fever even before they lost sight of their home beneath the clouds. Chakotay could no longer operate even the simplest controls by the time they left the ionosphere, so Kathryn left most of the flying to the computer, holding his shaking hand in her more steady one, though even hers was slick with sweat. Their first view of unclouded stars made them both weep. Colors they'd forgotten, effects of light which could not be articulated planetside. So much lost, so much gained.

She'd pre-programmed the end, but not before a brief burst at warp speed, so that they could watch the light shimmer and distort around them. "Do you think Voyager got back?" she asked as they sat together, shaking with the fever which had grounded them all those years ago.

"I'm sure they did." In spite of the pain and the fear, in spite of all the other uncertainties, Chakotay felt in his bones that the crew had made it home--and that they would be together, soon. He squeezed Kathryn's hand. In a moment, in a millisecond, in eternity, the light would fill them, fusing them to one another and to the fabric of this part of space, so that someday some miniscule part of them might return to New Earth from the skies, diffusing them across the vastness of space to all the places they had ever called home.

"Let's go back," he whispered to the woman who had once been his captain. Kathryn never released his hand, so together they pressed the controls which would take them beyond the final frontier to the undiscovered country.

Chapter Text

"Tuvok, can you sneak off the bridge for a few minutes? I need to talk to you about something."

"Lieutenant Paris, I am in the middle of recalibrating the tactical relay grid. Starfleet officers do not interrupt their duties to 'sneak off' for socializing."

"This isn't socializing. It's important."

"What is the nature of your concern?"

"If I wanted to tell you that in public, I wouldn't have asked you to leave the bridge! How lazy do you think I am? Never mind, don't answer that. Could you just meet me in Sickbay when you get a chance? I'm on medic duty this morning. Actually, I think I'll go ask the Doc about it."

"I will endeavor to find an appropriate moment to join you."

"Thanks, Commander."

...

"It's not them."

"Mr. Paris, what are you talking about?"

"It's not the real Janeway and Chakotay. I don't know where, or how, but those two people on the bridge are not the ones we started out with on this mission. Can you take a look at their DNA scans, or something, Doc?"

"I have looked at both the captain and Chakotay's DNA scans many times since we started this mission, and I assure you that other than some minor degradation caused by incidents like the one in which you evolved the captain into a salamander, there have been no significant changes. I realize you lack my expertise as a doctor, Mr. Paris, but you must have studied the way high-stress situations can affect behavior. What you are characterizing as personality changes is no more than the effects of long-term exposure to..."

"Come on, Doc. Do you know what the captain said about the omega particles? 'Maybe the final frontier has some barriers that aren't meant to be crossed.' I don't know who that woman is, but she is NOT the one who destroyed the Caretaker's array. And I haven't known who Chakotay is since he decided he likes me. Seriously. When's the last time you heard him go on about his mission, or his cause, or any of those things? You weren't there, and I wasn't either, but do you know that when the crew was stranded on Hanan IV, he couldn't even start a fire!"

"And this is supposed to represent proof that he's been replaced by a replicant."

"He's an Indian. He grew up making fires even when he didn't want to. That wasn't Chakotay."

"And just when do you think this exchange of the real captain and first officer for these body-snatchers supposedly took place?"

"Hmm. Let's see. It had to be after that whole thing where I pretended I was defecting, because Chakotay gave me so much shit about that. That was really him. And it had to be after we left the captain and Chakotay stranded with that virus, because that was totally like him to beam down looking for her and get exposed to it himself. They seemed a little different when they came back, but I figured that was just having been out of a command situation for so many weeks. But wait a minute. Hanan IV was only a couple of weeks after that."

"You think the Kazon swapped them for fake doubles, is that what you're saying? Mr. Paris, I don't need to listen to another word of this..."

"Wait. No. I don't. Because they never would have gone into a trap like that in the first place. Not the real Janeway and Chakotay. If they were going to do it, they would have planned better, waited for the right moment - and they never would have let that Kazon saboteur on the ship. I think something happened to them when they were stranded."

"Maybe they fell in love."

"Very funny, Doc. I mean, I think something happened to them. An alternate universe swap or something."

"So these doubles are here, and the real Janeway and Chakotay are...?"

"Probably back on that planet where we left them."