San Francisco, March 2380
Kathryn Janeway had always hated the hills of San Francisco.
She hated them even more when Chakotay took her for a morning run.
On the first morning that Chakotay had dragged her out of bed and denied her coffee, Klingons had nothing on her ire. "Chakotay, we can always run at the Academy holodeck."
Chakotay had only winked at her and opened their front door. "A different challenge is always the best exercise."
Three weeks later, as Kathryn fumbled with a flimsy lead, she couldn't snicker for fear of choking on her own hubris.
She glimpsed the halfway point of their run, a stone bench not twenty yards away, nestled under the shade of a towering oak. She could almost reach out and grasp her victory. Just as she had convinced her legs to pump faster, Chakotay appeared at her side, sweaty and panting but nowhere close to huffing and puffing like Kathryn. She could just hear his veiled gloat—You've got to pace yourself, Kathryn—and her damned spirit of competition propelled her onto the bench a mere second ahead of him. She guffawed when Chakotay landed, partially in her lap but mostly on the dewy grass beneath them.
"Was that enough of a different challenge for you, Chakotay?" Kathryn panted, reaching for the water bottle secured at her hip.
Squeezing her thigh with a trembling hand, Chakotay chuckled. "Enjoy it now. You don't have the stamina to beat me home."
Kathryn's left eyebrow almost disappeared into her hairline. "You have complaints about my stamina?" When Chakotay's labored breath left him unable to retort immediately, Kathryn offered him her water. "Here, drink something before you lose the lung capacity to tell me what's wrong with my stamina."
As Chakotay gulped the water and rested his head against her knee, Kathryn nodded to a pair of jogging cadets, hoping that they didn't recognize her out of uniform. Sometimes their favorite park's proximity to Starfleet headquarters unnerved Kathryn, who strived to keep her personal and professional lives as separate as possible. Starfleet claimed her days and the occasional working dinner, but early mornings were for her and Chakotay, which had been part of the holodeck's draw. Thankfully, they still spent mornings or evenings there, since Kathryn refused to devote her entire regime to such painful cardio as a run up and down the concrete paths of a crowded park. On the holodeck, Kathryn thought nothing of the kisses he stole between Velocity matches, or the attention he freely bestowed when she suffered the consequences of not stretching enough. Being this close to headquarters, adjusting to a new form of exercise with her partner, left her vulnerable in ways she was still trying to convince herself she was entitled to. According to her counselor, it was perfectly normal for her to be uncomfortable when her personal and professional lives converged.
You're not in the Delta Quadrant anymore, Kathryn, her counselor had reminded her so often over the past two years. You're free to feel things as they come and feel stronger for them.
Strength in vulnerability had never been something Kathryn shied away from until deep into Voyager's journey.
"Kathryn, you with me?"
Kathryn blinked rapidly, orienting her thoughts to match her surroundings. She had been working on simply being in these precious moments without wandering too far off course. "Yes, I'm sorry. Just thinking about dinner with Mom tonight."
As always, Chakotay saw right through her. He hoisted himself onto the bench and rubbed the small of her back. "I'm sorry if I've been pushing this too hard. You've been cooped up in your office so much lately, and I thought starting your day with fresh air would do you some good."
Kathryn immediately shook her head, despite the dizzying effect it had. "No, Chakotay—it's not you."
Tucking a few errant hairs behind Kathryn's ear, Chakotay smiled at her like he so often did, with patience and wonder and adoration Kathryn couldn't believe she deserved. "How foolish of me to think I could make you do anything you didn't want to."
Kathryn knew he wanted to lighten her mood, so she offered him a toothless smile. "Sometimes I just feel vulnerable, unexpectedly and inconveniently."
Kathryn bit back her frustration. Despite their growing intimacy, Chakotay could not read her thoughts, and she hadn't been articulating them honestly. "Do you remember the Void? The first one." She expected Chakotay to smile at the clarification, but apparently her feelings were too serious for banter. When he nodded, she took a deep breath. "It wasn't the first time I let my emotions get the best of me, but it was the first time I let the crew see the effect they had on me. I thought I could keep them from witnessing that, by hiding in my quarters."
Chakotay opened his mouth to object, but Kathryn held up a hand.
"I was hiding, and you know it." Her tone sharpened, so she took another cleansing breath of that fresh air that Chakotay so desperately wanted for her, and laced her fingers with his. "At some point during all that wallowing in my guilt, I saw my vulnerability as a punishment. The humanity attached to that vulnerability is what got us stranded here in the first place. I couldn't make the feelings go away, so I could only do what I was trained to do—make a decision based on tactical advantage, minimize the damage." The next words were harder to say, and in the end, Chakotay offered his support when she needed it most.
"You changed." His tone was not accusatory. They'd had this conversation too many times for it to contain anything but hurt.
"I changed." Kathryn nodded once as she conquered the words and the pain they inflicted on those she loved. "I didn't feel things in the same way after that. Especially after Kashyk…" Chakotay's hand tightened around hers as she took another breath, banishing her confliction into the past where they belonged. "My feelings were dangerous, and they no longer gave me the strength I needed. So I closed them off. Now, we're home, we've been together for a year, and here I am pouring my heart out with cadets jogging all around us, reminding me of all my mistakes, and I don't feel—I don't feel safe. I don't feel strong."
She cursed the tears streaming down her cheeks, yet another betrayal of her emotions. When Chakotay reached up to brush them away, she realized how that confession must have sounded to her partner. "And that's what's so confusing about this. You—" Her hand found his chest, and she felt the thudding of the heart he'd given her. "You make me inexplicably happy, and I trust you with my life. I should never feel this way when I'm with you."
"Your safety and security does not always depend on the people you love and trust," Chakotay insisted. "Life has not always been kind to you, Kathryn." He didn't utter the names of those life had taken—Justin, her father, Kes, every crew member lost in the Delta Quadrant—but Kathryn felt every loss in her gut.
"You're right. I'm sorry. These fits come in waves. I thought they'd be through by now," Kathryn sighed.
Rubbing her back, Chakotay murmured, "You can't put a time-table on this."
Kathryn offered him a wry smile. "You sound like my shrink." Again, her joke did not have the desired effect. "I want to get back to the time when I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would be a more resilient person by accepting my vulnerability instead of a frailer one for letting it control me. I want the two loves of my life to be able to coexist without this chafing. Then I will feel safe." Sensing Chakotay's increasing concern, she lifted her gaze to his face, which had only grown more precious to her with every worry and laugh line added. "This is helping." Chakotay's relief almost pained her. "You are helping." Desperate to prove it to him, Kathryn grabbed a fistful of his Starfleet-issue tank and kissed him hungrily. When they parted, Janeway bumped her nose with his. "See?"
For the first time since this conversation began, Chakotay's dimples appeared. "I'm impressed." His joviality did not last, however, and he cupped her cheek in his hand. "As much as I wish you'd brought this up sooner, I'm glad you told me. We'll get you where you want to be."
Ignoring their sweaty foreheads, Kathryn leaned hers against Chakotay's, reveling in the rumblings of bravery within her. "Right now, this is it." The sun's reappearance from behind the cloud both warmed her and reminded her that the day's progress hadn't been halted for their conversation. "As much as I'd like to stay right here, we need to head home."
Chakotay ran his hand up Kathryn's legging-clad thigh. "I've got a proposition for you."
Kathryn's low giggle prompted Chakotay's grip to tighten. "I bet you do."
"If you beat me home, I'll show you a more proficient use of my stamina."
In Kathryn's defense, Chakotay was already grinning ear to ear by the time laughter bubbled out of her. For the benefit of a passing dog walker, Kathryn concealed her amusement into Chakotay's shoulder. Once the coast was clear, Kathryn pulled away with pink-tipped ears.
"You're embarrassed?" Chakotay teased. "I'm the one who should be insulted."
Kathryn bit her lip to control her residual giggles. "I'm sorry—I don't know what came over me."
Chakotay cupped her cheek, his eyes suddenly devoid of amusement and full of the deep adoration that sometimes still shocked Kathryn. "It still hits me sometimes too." In response to Kathryn's questioning hum, Chakotay smiled. "That we're happy, and it's not the disaster we always feared."
Kathryn sighed his name as she leaned in for another kiss, but this time, she wasn't trying to prove anything.
On cue, nearby laughter interrupted their moment, but it didn't bother Kathryn as much as it would have earlier. The end of one moment with him denoted the beginning of another.
"You ready?" Chakotay asked, rising from the bench.
Kathryn licked her lips before dragging her gaze down his body, finally settling on his hips. "Are you?"