After twenty minutes of retention-deficient staring, Chakotay had only read a page of B'Elanna's report. He thought the early escape from the Void would sharpen his focus, but their unexpected triumph left him inept at focusing on the mundane. Unfortunately, his thoughts erred on the side of negativity, rather than gratitude. Despite Neelix's best efforts, the post-escape euphoria proved ephemeral, since they still had to get home. Hope used to sweeten their victories, but after almost five years, hope only slowed them down.
He shook his head. That line of thought drove Kathryn Janeway into her depression. Sure, she wanted everyone to believe that the Void had been the sole instigator and that after their miraculous escape, everything would return to normal. But he knew better.
Two days before Voyager entered the Void, Kathryn kicked him out.
They weren't living together by any stretch of the imagination (of that, Kathryn had always been clear), but whenever the duty roster allowed, they spent their nights together. Replicated dinners, holodeck privileges, quiet nights on the couch with good books, decidedly less quiet nights in bed—such bliss held some of the only hope either of them had left lately. The smiles that Kathryn used to cast freely on the bridge had become a rarity there, but whenever she was alone with him, her smiles or laughter surprised her too much to suppress. For the first few weeks of their nights together, she remained in her uniform pants and turtleneck, her pips stark and invasive in the artificial light. A month in, the pips disappeared in favor of her Starfleet-issue gray tank or, on his favorite evenings, one of his shirts. The sigh he thought restricted only to the massage on New Earth graced her lips every time he wrapped his arms around her. He thought he made her happy.
But the Void had him questioning the validity of his assumption.
Kathryn had tried to push him away before, but after what they confessed to each other so many months ago, Chakotay hoped that she would be willing to fight her demons with him.
Instead, she locked herself in her quarters.
Instead, she ordered him to leave her behind in the Void.
For the first time, Chakotay understood the fear that prevented their relationship for so long. While he had never dismissed Kathryn's reasons, he never considered that he would be the one ordered to condemn her to death. Now, he realized that while he had the luxury of defying orders, Captain Kathryn Janeway did not.
When his door chimed, Chakotay sighed, tossing the PADD on his desk and rubbing his hands over his face. Until Kathryn returned to normal, or at least returned to him, he had to keep up the farce for the crew. Everything is fine. She's fine. I'm fine.
On instinct, he stood when Kathryn entered his quarters. She used to tease him constantly about his need to indulge the chain of command, even in the most private settings.
It's sexy, she'd giggled, before the Void. Her complement had carried little weight in the face of her fit. No, really, I'm sorry. You're just so cute when you're flustered.
God, he missed her.
Kathryn looked only marginally better than she had the last time she let him in her quarters, to discuss ship functions and morale. She no longer avoided the light like a spatial anomaly, but as she neared him,he swore he saw the Void reflected in her eyes.
The words tumbled out of her mouth before Chakotay could think about what to say to her. "What exactly are you sorry for?" He rounded his desk to eliminate as many barriers as he could.
Kathryn folded her hands in front of her, chin high and pride renewed. "I'm not sorry for ordering you to leave me behind, if that's what you mean." The edge in her voice confirmed Chakotay's fear that his question sounded confrontational.
"It's not," Chakotay assured her. He leaned back against his desk, hands gripping the edge so he could better resist the urge to hold her.
In vain, he fought the gravitational pull Kathryn had on him. Kathryn heaved a sigh and strode the three steps it took to invade his personal space. Her hands had never felt so frozen on his cheeks. "I'm sorry that I shut you out, that I put you in an uncomfortable position with the crew, that I can't even have this conversation without starting a fight."
"It's okay. You're not supposed to have the right answer to everything, Kathryn." Chakotay squeezed her hips and rested his forehead against hers. "I've missed you so much." Tentatively, he leaned in and kissed her bottom lip. When she did not tense or pull away, he devoured her like he'd wanted to for two months. They had so much to discuss, so much healing to do, but this could be a start. Where his words could fail to convey the depth of his love, his body would not.
"Let me take you to bed," he panted against her neck.
Kathryn's first chuckle not drenched in mirth vibrated against Chakotay's lips, and while it delighted him to hear, he more readily welcomed the breathy gasps that replaced it when he slid his hands down her back, over her ass, and under her thighs. When he lifted, her legs locked around his hips, and she refused to let go until only her pants remained for Chakotay to peel from her body. Kathryn took over then, stripping him bare and whispering her love into his skin.
"As delectable as that was," Chakotay murmured into Kathryn's hair, "we need to talk about this."
Kathryn hummed into his chest and pulled his sheets tighter around them. Chakotay's always set his environmental controls cooler than hers, but he never failed to keep her warm.
Lately, she'd been cold all the time.
"I know." Her voice, hoarse from exertion, stumbled over the syllables. "Remember when I said that I'd need time to figure this out?"
Chakotay skimmed his knuckles up and down her back. "I do. I also remember us agreeing to work through struggles like these together."
While there was no accusation in his tone, the truth still stung. "I know. It's been a long time since I've been that depressed, Chakotay. I…couldn't see past the nothingness I'd led us to."
"And that's passed now?"
Kathryn forced herself to not be offended by the doubt in Chakotay's voice. "No. I suppose it hasn't." She drew infinity symbols on Chakotay's stomach. "I don't know where to start here, Chakotay."
"How about you just tell me what you're feeling?"
Kathryn wasn't sure if she could describe all that she felt. "Guilty." Starting with the obvious never hurt anyone. "Depressed. Exhausted by the depression and guilt. Frustrated with my inability to conquer this for the good of my crew—" She felt her voice begin to shake before she noticed the tears welling in her eyes. "Lost and headed in an impossible direction."
Chakotay ran his fingers through Kathryn's hair a few times, the rhythm soothing her enough to feel the comfort over the din of everything else. "You don't have to conquer it right now," he finally said. "What you did today—walking on the bridge right when we needed you? The crew needed to see that."
"I just showed them how willing I was to give up." The words that had been driving her mad for hours, days, weeks, tumbled out. "I hid in my quarters, keeping everyone in the dark, expecting you to take up for me because I couldn't face my own decisions. Then, when I finally show my face, it's to force my crew to allow me to give up, so I don't have to shoulder the responsibility anymore."
"You really think that's why you did it?"
Chakotay's quick response didn't surprise Kathryn as much as the implication. She pushed off his chest and clutched his sheets to her breast. "Since when did you presume to know more about my motives than I do?"
"I don't—it was a genuine question."
For the first time, Kathryn felt his frustration encompass the bedroom. His eyes told her that he didn't mean to let it seep through, but the set of his jaw betrayed his true feelings. Shaking her head, to either loosen the thoughts' grip on her mind or to convey her disappointment, Kathryn tossed the covers into his face and reached for her nearest piece of clothing. She cursed when she grasped a sock.
"Kathryn, please don't run away," Chakotay begged. The apology teetered on the tip of his tongue, evident in his tone, but Kathryn refused to settle. As she yanked her tank over her head, he relented.
"Kathryn, I'm sorry that you were alone."
Kathryn's mirthless laugh returned, slicing the apology in half. "You'd think that's where I'd be the most comfortable. No one to hurt. Only myself to blame."
"No one blames you."
Kathryn turned and knelt on the bed in front of him, cupping his flushed face in her hands. Bless this man, whose irritation spurred from his partner's inability to see rather than from the gaping wound she'd inflicted. "Chakotay, unconditional love is what you feel for me. Not everyone shares that."
Chakotay wiped the fresh tears from her cheeks. "You're selling your crew short. It doesn't take unconditional love to be empathetic, Kathryn. They're not heartless."
"There has to be a limit, Chakotay," Kathryn hissed. Her sudden anger had no clear target, but it consumed her. "There has to be a limit to what these people can take. What you can take." She wrenched out of his gentle hold and paced in front of the bed. "You said that you're sorry that I was alone, but if I'd let you stay, we wouldn't be here right now, together."
Chakotay's jaw dropped. "You thought I'd leave you."
Kathryn stopped pacing, her back to him, and wound both arms around her stomach. After everything, she would push him away with her presumptions. "You have every right to leave."
"Is that what you think of me? That I'd bail on you at a time like this?"
"Obviously, I was wrong," Kathryn said, eyes fixed on the stars she'd missed. "I'm sorry that it took ordering you to leave me behind for me to realize that." When she heard the sheets rustle, she knew to expect his hands on her shoulders. "That's the thing about depression, Chakotay. You don't think clearly," she whispered.
Of course he did. How could she be thoughtless enough to disqualify him because his pain had been different from hers?
Chakotay sighed. "Next time, allow me courtesy of letting me make my own decisions about our relationship, okay?"
Kathryn could only nod and wonder at Chakotay's capacity to remain calm in the face of her potentially devastating emotional blunders.
"Kathryn, if you order me to leave you to die again, I won't do it." The certainty in his voice washed over Kathryn in what should have been disappointment. She found only resignation. "I realize now that you can't avoid that decision."
Kathryn covered his hands with hers and squeezed. "No I can't. I'm still learning to live in that reality."
"Do you regret this relationship?"
Stunned, Kathryn whirled around to face him. "Of course not."
Chakotay smiled, as if he'd expected this answer, and ran his hands down her arms. "Would that reality be easier to live in if you knew that I don't either? That I would rather die having known this love than live without it?"
Kathryn bit her trembling bottom lip. God, how she wanted that to be enough. "I guess I'll just have to live a little and find out, won't I?"
He wrapped his arms around her just in time for her to muffle her sob in his shoulder.
Weeks of self-loathing fueled her tears, and she had no idea when they would dry. For all her time spent in the dark, she'd never shed a tear for herself or her crew or her decisions. Even now, she didn't know for whom these tears flowed, only that she had to let them out to avoid the heaviness that had taken residence in her soul.
Chakotay waited until her breathing slowed before he spoke again. Tonight barely scratched the surface of all they needed to discuss, but he knew she needed to regroup before the delved any further into this conversation.
As Kathryn detangled her limbs from his embrace and wiped the tear tracks from her cheeks, Chakotay realized that Kathryn may not be able to stay. "Will you spend the night?"
Kathryn furrowed her brow and cupped his cheek in her hand. "Of course," she whispered. "I should be asking you if I can stay."
Chakotay held her hand and tugged her toward his disheveled bed. "Always." He let his assurance sink in before adding some levity to their evening. "Besides, after what transpired in that bed, do you think I'll ever let you go again?"
Kathryn's right hook nearly incapacitated his shoulder, but he laughed through the pain. "Oh, that's why you keep me around?" She shed her top and burrowed under the covers, but her eyes remained fixed on Chakotay's face. She smiled when he climbed over her, his body aligned just inches above hers.
"I keep you around because I love you."
Shaking her head, Kathryn pulled him down for a kiss. "I don't deserve you," she murmured against his lips.
Chakotay's heart ached for her to understand that she deserved more than he could give. "I'm going to make it my mission to show you just how wrong you are, Captain." Settling his weight on his elbows so that they skimmed her shoulders, he inched the sheet down her breasts and bent low to kiss the undersides. "I don't ever want you to feel that alone ever again." He hated to disturb the peace that had suddenly replaced the raw misery of before, but she had to understand. "Please, Kathryn. Please come to me next time. Don't shut me out."
With her hands on either side of his head, Kathryn dragged him up her body, and he drowned in the galaxy of her eyes. Hints of the Void remained, but the beginnings of hope shone through like the stars he thought he would never see again. "I'll work on it," she promised, raking her nails through his hair. "I'm glad you didn't give up on me."
"I'll always fight for you, even if that means fighting you," Chakotay said. He grunted when Kathryn flipped them over and straddled his hips.
"You love a good fight, don't you?"
Kathryn's tone dipped on good fight, and stripped Chakotay of his remaining restraint. He sat up abruptly, gripping her hips so she wouldn't topple off of him. "A good fight, huh?" His stomach clenched when he felt her hum. "I've got a fight for you."
Kathryn yelped as he fell forward, landing her on her back with her legs trapped underneath his solid thighs. One roll of his hips had Kathryn sighing his name. Chakotay kissed his way up her neck, to her ear. "Bet I can make you tap out first."
Kathryn mewled and stretched her arms above her head as he kissed his way down her stomach. "You're making it harder to resist."
Chakotay dipped his tongue into her navel. "Then don't." He growled when Kathryn yanked on his hair, clearly not giving up just yet. He slid back up her body, ensuring blows delivered even in his obedience. "Something I can do for you?" he teased as he kissed her nose.
The mischief in Kathryn's eyes had been replaced by boundless adoration. "Thank you for loving me no matter what."
"I promised, didn't I?" Before she could retort, Chakotay dipped his tongue into the base of her throat, pleased to taste the salt of her sweat. "I'm not going to ask that you forgive yourself right now, but at least take the first step and accept my love as yours." When Kathryn smiled down at him and nodded, he squeezed her sides. "No matter what."