by Suz

Disclaimer - Paramount own 'em.

An A/U where they didn't get 20 years closer to home in 'Dark Frontier'.


On the eve of her seventieth Birthday, Kathryn Janeway was very much feeling her mortality. In the low light of her quarters she was looking at her hand; studying the blue veins that had become more apparent as the years passed, the loose pale skin that clung to her bones.

The door beeped.

Sitting on the side of her empty bed, she called for her visitor to enter.

"Good evening," he began a little too dramatically. "I know it's a day early but I really couldn't wait..."

Of course. Chakotay. So full of childlike wonder and vibrancy. She didn't know how he did it. She didn't know how he *could* do it. Someday...perhaps someday she would ask him.

At her silent urging he scurried in and quickly sat next to her on the edge of the bed.

Smirking at his behaviour, she asked what was in the bag.

"A gift...for a woman who dearly needs to be cheered up."

Kathryn's eyes went wide for a moment, but after the first instant the surprise melted into amusement. There were many things that shouldn't have surprised her by now. He was one of them.

As her incessant curiousity began to get the better of her, he handed her the bag just as she would have snatched it away from him.

Hesitating as she opened the bag, Kathryn frowned as she pulled out a single piece of paper. It wasn't folded, and had something written on it.

"Read it," he advised gently, before she would have asked what it was.

Shrugging - and concluding once again that he knew her a little too well - she began to read.

When she finished moments later and her eyes hovered over the last word, her mouth opened. Closing her eyes she quickly opened them up again as they filled with moisture.

"Happy Birthday," he told her quietly.

A sob emerged then, and Kathryn clutched the paper to her chest. "Thank you," she managed to whisper. "You have no idea how much I need...I wish..." She paused before shaking her head and closing her eyes again. "Thank you," she continued, eyes still closed. "But I..."

"I understand." He understood. He'd understood for the last twenty-five years.

"You really should..." She told him although she wanted him to stay, God more than anything she wanted to *feel* something for him.

The Chakotay of twenty...even ten years ago would have done anything, absolutely anything that she asked of him. This Chakotay knew better.

He stayed.

For that one night, she didn't argue with him.

Arms wrapped around each other, unknown and familiar at the same time, they lay down slowly on the bed in the darkness of her quarters.

They would never make love. They simply held each other.

Reaching up, he brushed away a tear with his thumb. With her own hands, Kathryn traced the lines on his face. Softly, she spoke. "I can see every year of our journey on here."

He chuckled good-naturedly. "You're comparing me to a tree-trunk?"

Kathryn smiled. He always managed to do that for her. One of many gifts. "I don't see what's wrong with the comparison..."

"Depends on the tree," he answered, mock-seriously. "If it's a mighty oak then yes, I have many lines. Yet I'm also strong, proud and protective."

"But then again," she purred, loving the way his smile grew because he knew she was going to respond. "You could be a weeping willow. Easily swayed, always draping yourself over someone, and not afraid to expose certain sides of yourself."

He shifted. "I'm not sure I like that analogy."

She touched his face again. His hand rested on her side.

"But I know what you are." He told her.

"Oh?" She was looking forward to this one.

"A cactus." He stated boldly.

Kathryn couldn't decide if she should be insulted. "A *cactus*?! Is a cactus even a tree?"

It didn't seem to matter, because he pushed on, apparently betting that his little note from earlier would grant him special dispensation against any use of the dreaded 'look'. "Uh huh. Prickly as hell but once you get through the exterior there's some pretty nice stuff in there."

"Pretty nice?" He was deliberately provoking her, she *knew* that. Even so... "Pretty *nice*?"

"So," he said, stopping the tirade before it started. "What are two old trees going to do to pass the time?"

Releasing the paper, it floated to the floor as she hugged him closer. "Simply exist," she mumbled against his chest.

"I can live with that," he whispered.


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