As Christmas parties went, it wasn't all that bad. Neelix had enlisted Tom and Naomi's help in decorating the mess hall. Green and red were the prevalent colors, a yellowish colored punch was the drink of the night (and smelled suspiciously of leola root), and Christmas tree shaped cookies were surprising delicious. A sprig of greenery with red berries hung over and the door and Janeway looked at Tom skeptically when he assured her it was not mistletoe.
It was nice to see the crew laughing and joking and trying their best to forget they were light years away from home, friends and family. Even Seven had put in an appearance, though Kathryn thought she'd heard the former Borg refer to the whole notion of a holiday as "irrelevant." She took a tentative sip of her punch, smiled and nodded at a passing crewman.
"Penny for your thoughts?" a familiar voice whispered in her ear.
She twirled, finding Chakotay standing behind her.
Kathryn smiled. "I'm not even sure they're worth a hay penny," she joked.
"Come on," he said, taking her by the elbow and steering her toward the door.
"Where are we going?"
"You're going to your quarters while I go to get your present."
"Chakotay," she protested, "you know we agreed to not exchange gifts this year."
"I changed my mind." He smiled. "It's not just a woman's prerogative anymore, you know."
She laughed, shaking her head at his silliness. "I'll go and wait, but don't keep me long -- I haven't even had any cookies!"
~ * ~
"Chakotay, it's gorgeous..." Kathryn stared down at the most beautiful latinum ring she'd ever seen.
"I hear a 'but' in there," he said with a half smile.
She looked up at him, eyes sad and filled with tears. "I can't accept it."
"Because I'm not ready to date anyone, let alone get married."
"I don't see myself down on one knee, professing my undying love to you." Chakotay grinned and his dimples popped into view. "Consider it a promise ring."
"Chakotay," she held the ring out to him, "I can't promise you anything."
He refused to reach for it. "Keep it. Consider it your Christmas present since that's what it was in the first place." Chakotay turned to go. "But you should know by now, Kathryn, I don't give up easily."
~ * ~
The ring stayed on the table in her quarters. She probably could have snuck into his quarters while he was on duty and left it there, or had it transported there, but she didn't want to be sneaky about it. So it stayed as a reminder of just how much her first officer -- and best friend -- cared about her. And it was driving her crazy.
After lunch the next day, there was a surprise waiting in her ready room -- a padd sitting on her chair. She turned it on, studied it for a minute, then tapped her combadge. "Chakotay, could you come to my ready room?"
Since he had the bridge, it was less than fifteen seconds later her door swooshed open and he stepped in. "You wanted to see me?"
"What is this?" Kathryn held up the padd.
Chakotay squinted at the display. "Looks like a schematic."
"For a bathtub."
"Yes," he replied in a matter-of-fact manner. "I'm going to build you a bathtub in the corner of your bathroom so you can take nice relaxing bubble baths."
She was puzzled. "Why?"
"Since you didn't like the latinum ring -- and I want to add that I made it out of latinum that I've had hidden away for over four years -- I decided to give you a different kind of ring. A ring around your bathtub."
Kathryn put a hand up to her mouth to try to hide her grin. She had to give him marks for cleverness. "Chakotay, this has to stop --"
"Because I'm not going to change my mind."
"And I'm not going to give up."
"We'll see," Kathryn said, thrusting the padd at him.
This time he took his gift. "Thanks, I'll need this to complete the tub."
When he'd left, she sank down behind her desk and put her head in her hands.
~ * ~
He gave her the third and fourth rings over the next two days. Ring number three was made out of horsehair -- a former addition to his medicine bundle he'd said -- and was presented to her while they were in the turbolift together. Again, he refused to take it back.
Ring number four was made of a piece of the ship's deck plating. He'd saved a small bit of it from the tub he was making for her, and fashioned it into the ring. He gave it to her while they were having dinner in his quarters and going over crew evaluations. She tried giving it back to him, like the others, but he was just as pigheaded about taking it back as before.
So it sat on the table in her quarters with the other two, taunting reminders of her insecurities and fortress of Starfleet regulations. And when she couldn't face them any more, she had the skeleton of the tub he was building (he must have snuck into her quarters to work on it when she was on duty) to serve as yet another reminder. Janeway honestly didn't know what she was going to do if he didn't stop, and soon.
~ * ~
It was breakfast in Neelix's mess hall with other Alpha shift crew members. Kathryn nursed her coffee and across from her, Chakotay dug into his pocket and produced a dull, battered gold ring. He placed it on the table in between them. "There. No frills, no fuss, no hearts and flowers and pretty words. Just a plain, gold ring. Your ring."
Kathryn was shaking her head before he'd finished. "Chakotay, we've been over and over this already..."
"And we'll keep going over it until you finally get it through that thick skull of yours that I'm not giving up. I believe that we're meant to be together, Kathryn."
"We're meant to be together, you and I?"
"Then what about Seska?"
Chakotay almost visibly shuddered at the mention of her name. "Seska? What does this have to do with Seska?"
"You were involved, yet you said we were meant to be together."
"Seska was a Cardassian who used me to get what she wanted. She tricked me."
"Okay, then Riley."
"I was drawn in by the unique experience of being part of a collective mind."
"You're bringing up someone who I have no memories of?"
"Archer?" Chakotay took a moment to remember the name. "Species 8472. I knew that." He leaned forward in his chair. "How about you, Miss Not-So-Perfect. How about Mark?"
"Me? You are the one who is convinced we're soulmates."
She sighed in frustration and leaned back in her chair, arms crossed in agitation. "Mark dumped me. Puppy love."
"I was brainwashed."
"I was seduced by the fact I could mold him into whatever I wanted."
"You know," she shot back, leaning forward until they were almost nose-to-nose, "I'm tired of this. How about Seven?"
"Yes, you and Seven."
"There's nothing between me and Seven."
"Oh please, I've seen the way she looks at you."
"Then it's one way, because," his voice got steadily louder and louder, "if you haven't noticed, and I guess you haven't if you still insist on this asinine game, I only have eyes for you!"
Janeway hissed, "Then why haven't you shown it before now?"
"What? Was I the only one on New Earth? Or was it some other woman I built a tub for and gave shoulder massages?"
"The timing isn't right, Chakotay."
"The timing will never be right, not as long as we're stuck out here in the Delta Quadrant, having to serve on the same ship. But we won't be out here forever. I have faith in you, in this crew, and I want to spend more time with you, as more than just Captain and Commander, so by the time we do get home I'll have made you realized that you're the only woman for me and we can make a relationship work."
Kathryn didn't know what to say. Everyone in the mess hall was staring at them. The silence was thick enough to cut with a spanner.
In the wake of Kathryn's silence, Chakotay picked up the ring from the table and studied it. "This was my grandmother's ring. My grandfather made it, then carried it around for almost a year before he got the nerve to give it to her." He placed it back on the table and sat down with a heavy sigh. "I have nothing else to offer you Kathryn. Five rings. And not a one has worked."
Kathryn could feel tears welling in her eyes. For this proud and private man to stand up in the middle of the mess hall and say those things...
He wasn't asking her to marry him, or to say she loved him, or to commit to anything else permanent. All he wanted was a chance to see if it would work between them. A promise to try. Just try.
She reached out and took the ring and tried it on the fingers of her right hand until she found one it fit. She looked up at him through misty eyes. "Chakotay, would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
He stared at her for a long minute. "A date?"
Kathryn nodded. "A date."
Chakotay's smile could have powered the ship for a year. He took her hand, running his fingers over the ring that had seen so many joys, fears, trials and triumphs. "I think I'd like that. A lot."