Hi, everyone. This is my first Voyager fic, set after the events of "Hunters."
Huge thanks to escapeswithstories for her expertise and encouragement!
Moving on from the past. As the words left her lips, Kathryn's throat dried so suddenly that she thought she might gag. Moving on from me. Hours later, even after Neelix's party and the pleasure of her crew's company, the nausea lingered. Now, in her quarters, well and truly alone for the first time all day, she had no one to hide from as she regurgitated years of buried feelings.
The hope when she saw Mark next to her in the turbolift, and the anguish that came with the realization that an alien had taken over her mind.
The helplessness as she packed on New Earth, preparing to leave behind so much more than what she came with.
The regret as she watched her crew mourn at her own funeral, and being unable to reciprocate her feelings for them.
The exhaustion of holding out hope for a triumphant return day after day after day, without knowing exactly what she hoped to find back home.
Kathryn hovered over her toilet, preparing for another wave of nausea to morph into acidic coffee and whatever half-digested concoction she forced herself to eat in the mess hall. Was this punishment? Punishment for kissing a hologram? For deviating from the prime directive? For cutting her goddamn hair? No, if Kathryn was being punished, she knew her transgression. She knew when it happened, as she laced her fingers through Chakotay's, shedding tears over what she would not allow but desperately wanted. She knew it, but she couldn't—wouldn't—think of Mark then.
But Mark had still been thinking of her.
After that thought emptied what little remained in her stomach, Kathryn slumped against the nearest wall and held her head in her hands. She knew that Mark would never blame her for anything that happened in the Delta Quadrant, just as she knew that when she managed to regain control of her emotions, she wouldn't blame herself either. This pain was born of guilt, not heartbreak.
Now, though, as the remnants of the hair Mark loved to thread his fingers through brushed against her cheek, all she could focus on were the now-faded memories that got her through the first few months of their voyage. Years ago, Kathryn would wake up thinking about the morning before she left to prepare for Voyager's launch, when Mark convinced her to climb back into bed, to let him bother her the way she loved to be bothered. During those depressing first months, she would close her eyes at night remembering the first time she fell ill after they started dating, when Mark brought her soup and administered her prescription hypospray when she slept through her reminder alarm. Back then, on any given day, Kathryn could swear she heard him call her name as she walked down a corridor, and the ache of reality was so acute that she had to catch the wall.
Somehow, between near-death experiences and Neelix's luaus, life without Mark had become bearable, but just as unexpectedly, the pain returned in an entirely different form. The agony of missing and loving Mark morphed into grief over what they lost, until she hardly felt anything when her thoughts wandered to him.
Of course Mark moved on—how could she expect him to pine over her every day for the rest of his life, when she couldn't do the same? Their love, immense as it felt before they parted, was not enough. Or did the blame fall on her crowded heart? Had she not made enough room for Mark, with the crew and Starfleet demanding so much from her? And for what? As captain, who led her beloved crew members into the perilous unknown day after day, she couldn't even afford to express just how much these 150 souls meant to her. Mark, on the other hand, was free to accept her affection every day for the rest of their lives.
So why had it not been enough?
Even after she dragged herself off the bathroom floor and into her bed, these questions prevented sleep. As she had for so many nights lately, Kathryn decided that she would rather spend the night working than battling insomnia. Yanking on her uniform, she decided the mess hall was as good a place as any to not sleep. She scooped up a pile of PADDs that she'd abandoned an hour ago, and hoped that making the conscious decision to be useful instead of wallowing in self-pity would sharpen her focus. If the universe had any mercy left to give, Neelix would not be in the mess hall to deny her coffee or pester her with his concern.
As her door slid open, Kathryn realized that the universe had a more sinister plan up her sleeve.
Chakotay, despite having approached her door in the middle of the night, appeared more surprised than Kathryn. He held up a couple of PADDs by way of explanation, but Kathryn saw through his pretense. "I was just going to drop these off, but I wasn't sure you'd be awake."
He'd always been a lousy liar.
"I can't sleep. I'm heading to the mess hall for a night cap and overdue engineering reports." Kathryn avoided Chakotay's gaze but held out a hand for the PADDs. "I'll add these to my to-do list."
"I don't suppose you'll let me join you?"
Kathryn swallowed her heavy sigh. In her ready room, when she uttered Mark's decision out loud, Chakotay felt closer than she'd permitted in months. Chakotay was her friend, but unlike any other friend she'd had. He cared for her inordinately, and he trusted her implicitly, but some days Kathryn couldn't identify his motives. His loyalty as her first officer had always been clear, but the fluctuating boundaries of their friendship baffled her. Perhaps it was that specific ignorance that allowed her to categorize their relationship as platonic.
"It's kind of you to offer, but I don't think this ship can handle more than one exhausted senior officer on the bridge." Teasing each other had always been easy, but tonight her banter sounded forced.
Chakotay, to his credit, smiled even as she delivered the blow. "Perhaps you're right. I just thought…" He hesitated, eyes darting away from her face to her comm badge. "I can't help but notice that you've been distracted, and I want to help."
Though her first thought indicated the opposite, maybe Chakotay could help. It didn't have to mean anything other than what she needed it to mean—a conversation with her best friend, maybe the only person who could help her take a breath. Of course, Chakotay had a knack for forcing her to confront her feelings, no matter how conflicted. Her moral compass strained in the opposite direction of Chakotay's warm eyes and impossible dimples.
Glaring at the replicator, Kathryn waited for her undoubtedly mediocre coffee to appear. Hard as she tried to avoid eye contact with Chakotay all the way to the mess hall, she could feel his gaze like the sun on her back. Their silent trek to the mess hall left Kathryn plenty of time to regret her decision for a number of reasons. If the rumors were true, Chakotay had far more to grieve than she did. All of his friends and comrades were dead or in prison, and he insisted on concerning himself with her mess.
What a waste of his adoration.
"Chakotay." Kathryn sat down across from him, hoping that the softness of her voice would make this easier. "You know that I appreciate your concern, but there are so many other things—people, for that matter—that need your attention." Your support, your loyalty, your comfort.
Chakotay nodded slowly, glancing stack of PADDs Kathryn had laid out as if she truly intended to work. "If you're referring to my former Maquis crewmembers, I spent the every free moment I had yesterday informing them of the news and making them promise to come to me if they needed to talk. A few have taken me up on that offer already. The rest have each other to lean on if they don't feel comfortable coming to me just yet. Hell, some officers who were never under my command have come to me. I care about everyone on this ship, and I want to make sure everyone knows they can confide in me."
For the first time since she saw him, anger overpowered her other emotions. Kathryn cocked an eyebrow and tightened her grip on the warm coffee mug. "And I suppose admitting to you that I used my fiancé as a safety net meant nothing by way of confiding?"
"Of course it did." While he did not raise his voice, Chakotay's words carried such impact that Kathryn felt ashamed for stooping so low. Of all Chakotay's faults, apathy was not among them. "I just want to make sure there's nothing else you need to say."
"Of course there's more to say, Chakotay," Kathryn sighed, leaning back in her chair. "I just don't know how to talk to you about it—or even if I should."
His serenity in the face of her simmering emotional turmoil made Kathryn want to shake him and ask where his anger was, but just as he had no right to infringe on her process, she had no right to accelerate his.
"I know you don't want to hear this, but I meant what I said." Chakotay waited until Kathryn met his gaze before continuing. "Your needs come first."
Damn him. Damn him for knowing. Damn him for respecting her parameters and bending them at the same time.
"The only thing I know that I need is to get this crew home, but beyond that—" She threw a hand in the air and leapt from her chair, consumed by a sudden desire to flee. She settled for wearing a hole in the deck, running her fingers through her hair and willing her breath to slow. "I'm a person, but I can't be that anymore. When I stepped into command, I knew that I was looking at a career in emotional isolation, but God. This is going to be the rest of my life, with no reprieve, no going home at the end of the day. Mark moved on, and of course he has every right. I'm shocked he'd shackled himself to me for four years of uncertainty and doubt and fear. It hurts, but not in the way that it should. It hurts because I've trapped myself."
She paused for breath, leaning on both hands on an adjacent table. Back bowed, head hung, she blinked away the tears blurring her vision. Being trapped without sight could only make this worse.
"I'm trapped even surrounded by tens of thousands of uncharted space. Sandwiched between my morals and my rights as a human being, between my duties and my needs. My heart isn't even broken in the right way because I want to get everyone home more than I want to be with the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. In order to send you all out on away missions from which you may never return, I've closed myself off. I used to feel things so severely, but now I spend most of my days numb." Numb to the loss of Mark, her mother, her sister, her Molly. "It usually keeps me in check, keeps me from losing my mind. But this."
Kathryn's next breath cost the tenuous control over her tears, but she fought like hell to get it back. When she choked on the lump in her throat, Chakotay's hand rested on her back.
"Pain is pain, Kathryn, and it's okay to feel it," he murmured, his breath warm behind her ear. "You know you would tell me or anyone else on this ship the same thing. It's worse for everyone if you don't let yourself go through this."
Shuddering with the effort to breathe, Kathryn shook her head. "What good is feeling anything if I'm still numb when it's over?" No lesson learned, no improvements made—just back to nothingness.
This emotional isolation too closely resembled the depression she fell into after Justin and her father died. In the Delta Quadrant, she didn't have the time to pat herself on the back for bothering to get out of bed or eating more than one meal a day. No, she couldn't go back there, because without Phoebe or her mother, who would pull her out?
"You don't have to be."
Kathryn's bitter laugh reverberated off the mess hall walls. "But I do. It's a vicious cycle, isn't it?" When Chakotay sighed, she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that squeezing the tears out faster would make them stop. Putting an end to this would be better for them both.
"Kathryn, I don't understand."
No, and that's my fault too.
Chakotay, who found out just days ago that his friends, his chosen family, were all dead or imprisoned for life, could understand the consequences of love. But he couldn't understand her predicament without knowing the past that Kathryn refused to share with him.
Straightening from her hunched position over the table, Kathryn turned to face her friend, searching his eyes for the answer to a revealing question she didn't want to ask. "I wish I were more like you," she murmured. Before she could act on her desire to hold his hand, Chakotay interlaced their fingers. "You care openly about those under your command, knowing that any day could be their last."
Hesitating only for a second, Chakotay countered, "Don't your feelings for me count as open care?"
Oh. Those feelings counted for everything, but they cost her too. "You're different." As Chakotay's thumb brushed over the thumping pulse at her wrist, Kathryn cursed her body's betrayal. This was the last thing she could handle right now. Her feelings for Chakotay had developed out of the need for companionship. As much as she sometimes truly believed that she was alone, she trusted Chakotay with her life, and for the longest time, that was as far as she allowed it to go. She couldn't control the transition, the change in her feelings for Chakotay that transformed him from her first officer and friend to the one person she couldn't imagine her life without.
Another adverse effect of being in command constantly was that Kathryn forgot that both parties in a relationship have agency.
Chakotay replicated her birthday presents. He accompanied her to every morale party, no matter how ridiculous the theme or how exhausted he was. He made her dinner when the replicator betrayed them both. He cradled her lifeless body to his chest and begged her to come back.
And now her safety net was gone.
Her safety net was gone, and God was she falling. She felt that more than ever as Chakotay cupped her cheek in his palm.
"I can't banish your unpleasant feelings, but I can promise that it's possible to love someone that you know you could lose any second. You don't have to be alone to function, Kathryn."
Kathryn felt her pulse throb faster in her neck. I can't. We can't. This won't work. But she couldn't pull away.
"Do you trust me?" His other hand tucked a few unruly tufts of hair behind her ear, and lingered on her neck.
"We've been over this, Chakotay. Trust has never been the issue."
The hint of frustration Kathryn expected from Chakotay never asserted itself. "Fine. Do you love me?"
That's one way to stop a pulse.
"Because if you love me as much as I love you, there's no avoiding the pain, no matter how hard we try. We can either deal with it on our own, or we can get through this together, the way we do everything else."
Part of her wanted to throw him down on the mess hall floor and kiss him breathless, but the other wanted to run to the nearest shuttle bay and get as far away as possible. In what her frazzled brain deemed a suitable compromise, Kathryn backed away until her calves collided with a chair to collapse in. She didn't remember love feeling so nauseating, but then again, fear drove her away from Chakotay just now, not love.
Fear, an enemy she had defeated in the flesh, dictated her every feeling—for Chakotay, for her crew. Fear had been so much easier to conquer when it had been tangible, a mere man, but regardless, she faced it every day. When she looked at Chakotay, sitting next to her on the bridge every day, the fear lessened, and while the promise of Mark remained, it allowed her to ignore the implications of her feelings.
Yes, she was falling, but perhaps her love could be stronger than her fear.
Chakotay had the sense to keep his distance while Kathryn sorted her thoughts, but the anguish on his face was unbearable. "I'm sorry. That was too much at once. That was insensitive."
Kathryn shook her head slowly, and held out her hand. "Come here." When she noticed Chakotay's hesitance, the tension in his shoulders, she smiled softly, hoping to assuage his doubts. He settled in the chair next to her, and Kathryn rose, tightening her hold on his sweaty hand, and climbed into his lap. Now his pulse thundered underneath her hands as she skimmed them up his neck and into his hair. "If you promise to love me no matter what, you can overwhelm me anytime."
Her teasing did not ease Chakotay's tension, but she knew that only one thing could.
A slender finger over his lips prevented protest or proclamation. "I love you."
Chakotay's lips stretched into a toothless grin beneath Kathryn's finger, and he kissed it, wrapping his hand around her wrist. Kathryn watched with tears pooling in her eyes as he kissed her palm and her wrist, his other arm winding around her back to pull her closer. Kathryn made him work for the second kiss to the inside of her wrist, bringing her hand close to her chin. Chakotay hummed against her skin before he nipped at her chin, but Kathryn, no longer in the mood to be patient, captured his mouth before he could delay further.
Immediately, Kathryn felt the tension deflate in Chakotay's shoulders, and for a moment, she could forget every excuse to deny herself this pleasure of being treasured by another person. Her lips parted easily under his, soft and warm and not safe at all. It shouldn't feel this good to give in to something she knew could hurt her, but from the first time he touched her like this, massaging her pain away on New Earth, he felt good. It had been easy to remember the consequences of love, rather than the joys of it.
Kathryn waited until dizziness threatened to ruin the moment before resting her forehead against Chakotay's. His panting breaths came in puffs against her lips, and Kathryn relished in the intimacy. "You're going to have to be patient with me," she husked. "I don't know how this is going to work, so please give me time to figure it out."
Chakotay's thumbs caressed the skin of her hips, just underneath her untucked gray tank, and Kathryn shivered. "We can do that together too."