The full moon, hanging low over the bay, was too bright.
Maybe the champagne had gone to his head.
Maybe the stifling air inside the ballroom, heavy with the scents of too many flowers and too many warm bodies, had overwhelmed his senses.
Maybe the occasion, the joyous wedding of two old friends-turned-lovers, had hit just a little too close to home.
Maybe the quick succession of all three, like a rapid-fire jab and uppecut combination, had simply sent him reeling.
Chakotay leaned against the balcony's stonework and stared out over the water.
Maybe it was that dress.
That silky-soft, shimmering, silvery dress that bared more glowing, freckled skin than he'd seen since…
It was definitely the dress.
He was always conscious of her when she entered a room, but that dress… It sent him into a state of hyperawareness that he couldn't shake off.
He'd thought she was off-planet on Starfleet business and wouldn't make the wedding of Tal Celes and Billy Telfer. So when she'd strolled into the chapel on the arm of yet another slim, slight, fiftysomething man…wearing that dress…he'd had to hold himself very still indeed to keep from outwardly reacting.
Inside, though... Inside, he'd fought down a sudden combination of mixed surprise, panic and raw desire. The young woman at his side had looked up at him with concern. "Chakotay?" she'd whispered. "Are you all right?"
He'd forced himself to smile for her. "There's someone here I didn't expect to see," he replied. "I'll be fine in a minute." He leaned down and kissed her jet-black hair to distract himself from the emotions churning inside him. When he looked up again, he'd caught familiar blue eyes on him, stormy with some emotion he couldn't quite identify.
The wedding ceremony was a blur.
He drummed his fingers against the stone and tried to remember any of it, anything all. The vows were lost to him, but he could picture with perfect detail the way she glanced at him when Seven began to sing during the ceremony. The wrap had slipped from her shoulders. The balding man had reached back and pulled it up again, tucking it around her, his bony fingers brushing against her pale, smooth skin.
Chakotay had to avert his eyes and collect himself before he could face the front of the chapel again.
It was the first time he'd seen her in a month. It wasn't that he'd been avoiding her, exactly. They'd crossed paths now and then, but he spent most of his time holed up at the Academy or his isolated house in Big Sur. She was away from her San Francisco office almost as much as she was there, and when she was on the Starfleet grounds she was just as busy and sequestered as he. Aside from a few Voyager gatherings, he'd barely seen her in the nine months since their final post-Delta Quadrant debriefings.
He missed her. He missed their working lunches and casual dinners, missed their long, rambling conversations, missed the way she made him laugh in spite of himself. He even missed their arguments, as venomous as they could sometimes be.
Tonight, more than anything, he missed the tantalizing feel of her body, small and strong, next to his.
She seemed to harbor no such longings. She'd turned up at their crew's various social functions with a succession of similar-looking older men, differentiated only by their professions: A doctor, a well-known novelist, a politician. Chakotay didn't recognize tonight's companion, but he was sure to find out eventually – if not from her directly, from Tom and B'Elanna, who seemed to always know who she was with and how long they'd been dating.
Chakotay frowned up at the too-bright moon.
Maybe it was the dress…and the dating.
The footsteps behind him yanked him from his thoughts, which weren't bringing him any peace anyway. Chakotay straightened, patted down his civilian tie and coat and shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. A small bronze hand looped through the crook of his elbow. "So this is where you disappeared to." The young woman's voice was warm with amusement and affection.
He glanced down at her. The full moon glowed against her dark, silky hair. "Sorry. I needed some air."
"That's all right." She winked at him. "It gave me a chance to talk to Harry again."
Chakotay smiled. "He's a good man."
"Do you think so?"
He wrapped his arm around her. "Yes. He's smart and insightful and passionate about his friends."
"That's what B'Elanna said, too."
The young woman nodded. "Although she didn't use those exact words. She said Harry thinks too much and falls in love too easily."
Chakotay gave soft chuckle. "And then I imagine Tom said something about always falling for the wrong women."
She drew back and looked up at him. "How did you know?"
"You live with people for seven years, you get to know them very well."
She rested her head on his shoulder. "I like your friends, Chakotay."
They were quiet for a moment, both gazing out over the water. The muffled music and laughter from the ballroom wove around them both. "You seem distracted," she said softly.
"Yes." She paused. "It's her, isn't it?"
He said nothing.
"Have you talked to her tonight?" she asked.
"Not yet." He knew he'd have to eventually, but he wasn't sure he wanted to. He had too much to say, and this happy occasion was surely not the time or the place to say it. "Did you introduce yourself to her?"
"No. She seemed very busy with her date."
He couldn't stop the little growl that issued from the back of his throat. She pinched his arm. "Jealousy doesn't look good on you, Chakotay."
"You'll get used to it," he said, just as the French doors behind them opened again, emitting a loud burst of brassy music from the ballroom, and after it, a trio of voices Chakotay would recognize anywhere.
"The man's a tribble," B'Elanna groused. "Small and squeaky and irritating."
"Just like the rest of them were," Paris agreed.
"Come on, he's not so bad," Harry said. "And he seems to really care for the Admiral."
B'Elanna swore under her breath. "Yeah, but does she really care for him? Because there's no heat there. Not the way there used to be with-"
"B'Ela," Tom warned.
Chakotay closed his eyes briefly in a pointless effort to center himself before he faced them. "Tom, Harry," he acknowledged. "B'Elanna."
They all nodded at him. Harry shuffled his feet, eyes on the young woman wrapped in Chakotay's arm. "We wondered where you went."
"It's a little too crowded in there for me. I just came out for some fresh air," Chakotay said, forcing a smile. "Kayma followed me. Why don't you all go back in and-"
The doors opened again, followed by the same cacophony of music and laughter. Two figures emerged from the ballroom, arm-in-arm. Chakotay let out a long, slow breath and turned away, eyes closed against the moon's bright reflection on the water.
Admiral Janeway spotted them and smiled widely. "Here you all are," she called. She pulled her date toward them. "Everyone remembers Richard, I hope?"
Tom, B'Elanna and Harry all nodded greetings at the older man, who had wide-set green eyes and a trim, white goatee. His formal suit was elegant and impeccable. They made a handsome pair. Chakotay cleared his throat. "Actually, I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
Janeway glanced up at him. "No, I don't suppose you have. Chakotay, this is my friend Richard Thorpe. Richard, my former First Officer, Commander Chakotay."
The older man's hand felt small and oddly damp in his own. "Nice to meet you," Chakotay murmured with as much sincerity as he could muster. He resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his pants.
Richard quirked a snow-white eyebrow at him. "I've heard a lot about you, Commander," he said. B'Elanna was right. The man's voice was, in fact, rather reedy. "It's nice to finally put a face with the name."
Chakotay inclined his head, but said nothing more. Kathryn took the older man's arm again and eyed the woman at Chakotay's side. "You haven't introduced me to your lovely companion, Commander. Tom tells me she's been living with you for more than a month."
Chakotay paused. He wondered what Kathryn was thinking – and exactly how much Tom had told her. "You remember my cousin Tohopa?"
Kathryn's eyes widened. "Yes, of course. I met her at the welcome home party."
Chakotay nodded. "This is her daughter Kayma."
"Her daughter…" Kathryn breathed, and blinked.
Suppressing his amusement, Chakotay leaned toward Kathryn. "Kayma is my cousin, Admiral. And yes, she's been living with me while she works on her doctoral thesis."
The Admiral smiled, but Chakotay could see that it was forced. He'd surprised her. The realization brought him a strange little thrill of satisfaction.
"I see," Kathryn said, her head cocked to one side, appraising Kayma. "You've met Tom and B'Elanna and Harry, I take it?"
Kayma nodded. "And I just met Seven of Nine." She peered up at Chakotay. "You really dated her?"
He shrugged. "I really did."
Tom coughed. Harry blushed. Even Richard, who had probably also just met Seven tonight, gave a startled little gasp. But Chakotay's eyes remained on Kathryn. In the months since their return to the Alpha Quadrant, no one, not even Kathryn, had asked him that question. They'd all studiously ignored the affair, such as it was, both while it was happening and after it was over. Chakotay couldn't decide which hurt worse: That no one bothered to question him at the beginning or cared to sympathize with him at the end. The whole thing had left him feeling very confused and embarrassed. "Because she asked," he admitted. "Just because she asked."
Kathryn looked at him with such shock, he wondered if that particular reason had never occurred to her. Tom and Harry both seemed surprised, too, and B'Elanna, her eyes troubled, reached out and touched his hand. Maybe that reason had never occurred to any of them. Maybe they all just assumed he'd initiated the ill-fated relationship with Seven. It would explain a lot.
In the uncomfortable silence, Chakotay watched Kathryn gather herself, just as she'd done hundreds of times on Voyager when faced with something completely foreign to her. For an awful moment he thought she'd question him further about Seven in front of his friends and Kayma. But then she gave him a crooked smile, nodded once and simply changed the subject. She turned to Kayma. "What's your field, if I may ask?"
Chakotay exhaled slowly. Beside him, Kayma smiled. "Neurology, particularly pre- and neonatal neurology. I don't know if you're aware, but many of the males in our family have a hereditary neurological defect."
Tom, Harry, B'Elanna and Kathryn all chuckled in recognition. Chakotay leaned down to whisper in Kayma's ear. "They know, Kayma. Go on."
"Oh." She glanced up at him uncertainly and continued. "Most of them have it corrected before birth with gene therapy. Both of my younger brothers did. That's how I got interested in the field. But I'm looking for a better method of handling it, one that addresses the symptoms while keeping their hypersensitivity intact, but without altering the genome."
Kathryn nodded. "Interesting. And you're here doing research?"
"I'd like to hear your theories sometime. I'm sure our Doctor would, too."
Kayma grinned. "I'd love to get your feedback. Chakotay tells me you trained first as a Science Officer before you switched to Command."
"That's right. My degrees are all in the physical sciences, but," she gave Chakotay a sidelong glance, "I have a particular connection to your field of interest. Call my office and have my aide set something up for us."
"I'll do that, Admiral."
Janeway touched her arm. "Call me Kathryn, please."
They all stood and talked for a time. Chakotay let Kathryn's familiar and intoxicating voice roll over him, paying very little attention to the words. He tried not to notice the way the moonlight danced on her shoulders and gleamed in her hair, or the way Richard kept a possessive hand on her at all times.
A chilly September breeze blew up off the bay, billowing the women's dresses, fluttering the men's ties. Richard ducked inside to fetch Kathryn's wrap and Chakotay's former shipmates, as if by prearranged signal, leapt into sudden action. Harry invited Kayma to dance and offered her his arm. Tom and B'Elanna followed them back to the ballroom, leaving Kathryn and Chakotay alone. When Tom turned around and winked at him, Chakotay nearly groaned out loud.
"I think we've been maneuvered," he muttered.
"I'm sure of it." Kathryn leaned against the stonework beside him. "It was a lovely wedding. I'm happy for Celes and Billy."
Unable to recall a single detail of the ceremony beyond Richard's hand on Kathryn's skin, Chakotay hummed a noncommittal response. "I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you were still on Vulcan."
"I got back early yesterday." She looked up at him with clear blue eyes that took his breath away. "It's good to see you, Chakotay. How long has it been?"
He was tempted to rattle off the weeks, days and hours, Tuvok-style. "A month," he said. "You look well."
"I am, thank you. How have you been?"
"Fine. Busy." He took a deep breath. "When did you meet Richard?"
"Reg Barclay introduced us in July. He's one of the private contractors who worked on the Pathfinder project."
Chakotay raised an appreciative eyebrow. "I bet those patents made him a credit or two."
She gave him a wary look, but let the remark pass. "Your cousin is delightful. She's living with you?"
"For at least this semester. She might stay into the spring." He smiled fondly. "It's nice to have someone to come home to."
"I'm sure it is."
The bay breeze lifted her hair and blew a hint of her perfume to him. He closed his eyes and bent to catch it all before it wafted away. She wrapped her arms around herself and gave a little chuckle. "I almost made a fool of myself a minute ago."
He glanced down at her, eyes fastened on the thin, strong line of her collarbone, alabaster white in the bright moonlight. "How so?"
"I was going to make a comment about your dates getting younger every time I see you."
The remark stung. He shoved his hands back in his pockets. "That's fitting, Kathryn, since yours keep getting older."
She cringed. "Touché."
"You know," he said slowly, "I've dated only two women since we got back: Seven and a woman my sister pointed at me." He heard the slight defensiveness in his own voice and decided not to temper it. "Neither relationship lasted more than six weeks. Yes, they were both under thirty-five. They were also both enormous mistakes."
Her hand on his arm was warm, even through his suit coat. "I'm sorry, Chakotay. That was unfair and uncalled for. And who you date is none of my business."
He nodded, but who he dated had been her business for years, whether she wanted to acknowledge it or not. "I'm sorry, too," he said.
Chakotay squinted again at the too-bright moon. He couldn't believe seven years of intense and complicated friendship had culminated in this stiff conversation.
"How are you, Chakotay? Really?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. "I never see you around HQ or the campus. You spend all your off-hours down in Big Sur."
He finally turned to face her fully. "It's taking me a little longer to find my feet," he said.
"But I thought you loved teaching."
"I do. I'm very fulfilled, professionally."
She placed her hand on his chest, right over his heart. He almost gasped at the sudden heat. "But personally?"
He gave her a tight smile. "I'll get there," he said. "I just need more time."
She grasped the lapel of his coat, her fingertips leaving hot little sparks everywhere they touched. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
He took a chance and covered her hand with his own. Her skin was soft against his rougher palm. "Kathryn, I-"
"Kathryn?" Richard darted out of the ballroom, Kathryn's wrap in hand. Deflated, Chakotay moved away from her. The older man draped the wrap over Kathryn's thin, bare shoulders and steered her back into the ballroom. When Richard reached for the door, she turned back and raised her hand in a small, subtle wave. Chakotay smiled for her and watched her go, her arm tucked into the crook of Richard's elbow.
Funny. He could remember with absolute clarity the feel of her hand on his arm in exactly the same way, the press of her fingers against his flesh as they walked through diplomatic functions, down alien streets, through Holodeck parties.
Just before they disappeared from Chakotay's sight, Richard leaned down and kissed her cheek, then looked back with a self-satisfied smirk that made Chakotay want to drive every trace of the mousy man's presence from every corner of her mind and every centimeter of her body.
Chakotay ground his teeth and turned back to the water and the moon.
The too-bright moon.
It had to be the dress.