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Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author.  The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise.  No copyright infringement is intended.

 

Thank you to Sue for hosting this site and my stories. 

 

A huge ‘Thank You’ to Elem for her taking the time to do such wonderful betas, especially at this busy time of year. Any and all typos/missed contractions/run-on sentences/long paragraphs/etc are all mine!  Thank you to those VAMBies who helped with my research questions as well – you folks are wonderfully resourceful! Any dialogue taken from Endgame is in italics.

 

Set immediately following Endgame

 

The Admiral's Words

"I've come to bring Voyager home ..."

"I remember how stubborn and self-righteous I used to be ..."

"You chose to put the lives of strangers ahead of the lives of your crew. You can't make the same mistake again ..."

"Even if you alter Voyager's route, and limit your contact with alien species, you're going to lose people. But I'm offering you a chance to get all of them home safe and sound today. Are you really going to walk away from that?"

Admiral Owen Paris was a happy man. He'd just witnessed what would likely be the most celebrated return of any vessel in Starfleet history. In seconds, his fear and concern about an unexpected Borg attack had turned to shock at the sphere's destruction, followed by unmitigated joy with the knowledge that Voyager was home. Voyager!

"Sorry to surprise you. Next time, we'll call ahead." There she was. "It'll all be in my report, Sir." Katie Janeway, looking understandably dazed, standing on the bridge, just behind his son. Tom was alive! And in the Alpha quadrant! Owen thanked his lucky stars again, and took several deep breaths. Despite being a highly decorated, extensively trained Starfleet Admiral, he felt like just a father right now and needed to centre himself so he could think clearly.

Once they had ascertained that the Borg posed no immediate threat, either from the debris or additional ships, since the conduit seemed to have somehow been destroyed, everyone around him began to celebrate, especially Reg Barclay. He was glad for that odd duck; Reg's hard work had enabled two-way communication with Voyager over the past few years, and Reg could now finally meet his far-flung friends.

Owen moved around his office, where he had sought a moment's peace from the hubbub, and realized he needed to call home. His wife would be ecstatic! And... he needed to call Gretchen. Janeway's mother would be over the moon at her daughter's sudden reappearance. These two women were very important to him, and he was ever so grateful to be able to give them this news.

 

Kathryn Janeway slowly paced around her ready room. Impromptu celebrations had broken out all over the ship, yet she remained alone in the quiet sanctuary of her office. She felt a lightness, the burden of her guilt now lifted from her shoulders. Her decision to destroy the Caretaker's Array had stranded these fine people in the Delta Quadrant, and now the actions of her future self had brought them home. Both times, she hoped she'd done the right thing, and this time, not just for selfish reasons. She needed to savour this feeling, to garner strength from it to fight the battles that lay ahead.

She breathed deeply, trying to remain calm. She hoped she'd see her mother soon, and be able to breathe in some fresh Indiana air. She wondered where her sister Phoebe was, and when they could connect. She was exhilarated - they were home! But still, she couldn't help but worry about how her people would readjust, and who would need her assistance to settle in. And what of the Maquis and the few Equinox survivors? And the Doctor and Seven? Up until a few days ago, her contingency planning for her non-Starfleet crew members had been predicated on the fact that they had years of travel ahead of them. Clearly, she needed some new planning. She continued to pace slowly, breathing deeply. She was still their Captain, they needed her, and she had a job to do. She would celebrate later.

 

Janeway rematerialized on the pad at Starfleet Headquarters, and was pleased to see that Owen Paris was alone, manning the transporters. They stood staring at each other for a moment, and then Owen stepped forward.

"Katie, is that really you?" he asked, his voice soft.

 "Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Federation Starship Voyager, reporting as requested. Sir," she replied quietly, smiling the biggest smile she had. Owen's face split into a grin as he held out his arms to her. Kathryn rushed forward and threw herself into his warm embrace.

"I can't believe it! You made it back! And you brought Tom! You all made it back..." She held him tightly as he patted her back and repeated his words. No, she thought, we didn't all make it back. And I won't forget that. But Owen's exuberance was catchy, and she found herself lost in the moment.

They stepped apart and grinned stupidly at each other for a few moments.

"Let's go and talk for a few minutes," Owen said. "I want to chat a bit before it gets too busy and official."

They stepped out into the hallway, and eventually made their way through to the control room on their way to Owen's office. Owen paused, looked at Kathryn and nodded, and then entered, pleased to be witness to this wondrous occasion. They were greeted by stunned silence. Owen stopped forward and turned to nod at Kathryn, who stepped up beside him and smiled back.

As she scanned the room, she understood Owen's unspoken request. She beamed at Reg Barclay, finally able to thank in person the man who'd made two-way communication possible between Voyager and Starfleet. Sure, there had been some heartache and trouble - her Dear John letter, the Ferengi attempt to kidnap Seven of Nine, and Teero's message all quickly came to mind. Overall, though, their monthly communiqués had been a lifeline. Kathryn knew that Lieutenant Barclay had been instrumental in keeping crew morale high until they made it home. She looked at him fondly and said, "Hello, Lieutenant Barclay." There was a thunderous roar of applause as Reg blushed furiously, returning her smile. Kathryn nodded and smiled politely at the rest of the surprised assembly. "Thank you," she demurred, accepting the welcome on behalf of her entire crew.

They continued on towards Owen's office without stopping again. He quirked an eyebrow at the replicator and she laughed, nodding. He quickly got her a coffee, and they sat down across from each other in his seating area, and talked for a few moments. There was so much to say, so much to hear, so much...

"You're quite the sensation, Katie. I knew you'd do some great things in your career, but this is more than even I could've predicted!" he joked. Then he added, "Seriously, how are you?"

"I'm fine, Owen, thank you. I'm just ... it's a bit overwhelming, is all." She took a deep breath, and smiled rather shakily.

"I won't pretend to know everything that you've been through - you'll have more than enough time to tell us all the details during the debriefings - but ... are you really okay? What do you need? How can I help?"

Kathryn gave him a tired smile. "It's great to have some back-up, Owen! Just having the offer of your help is a tremendous boost to me. Don't worry, I'll be fine. I don't think there's anything that Starfleet can dish out that would be worse than some of the adventures we had in the Delta Quadrant! I just want to see that every one of my crew is taken care of ..."

"Oh, don't worry about that. We've started to arrange for temporary quarters, and we've already begun to round up counsellors and relocation specialists. There will be debriefings, of course, but they shouldn't be that onerous. We'll just need to look at some of the more... unusual... aspects of your mission and some of the more... colourful ... actions and decisions by various members of your crew..."

"And my Maquis and Equinox crew members? My Doctor? Seven?" Janeway's suddenly serious brook-no-arguments tone stopped Paris in his tracks.

"What about them, Captain?" he asked, matching her resolve.

"I expect that they will be treated fairly, Sir, with due consideration given to their service to me and the Federation over the past seven years. I will not stand by and see any of them made into scapegoats ..."

"I don't think you'll need to concern yourself with any covert rescue operations, Miss Janeway." Owen said, relaxing. "Unless any of them has acted inappropriately in the last few months, there should be no issues. Thanks to Reg's team, we've been able to analyse and evaluate most of what you've sent us over the past few years. We've already seen the fantastic job you've done of blending your crews. I think you'll be pleased, though there may be a few minor blips. That's what I was trying to say about the debriefings. No need to pull rank, Katie."

Hearing his words, Janeway had relaxed, and huffed a laugh. "You outrank me, Admiral."

Owen laughed. "Just checking to make sure you remember that! I almost forgot, a moment ago, under that Captain's glare. I taught you well!" They both laughed, and Kathryn reached out and put her hand on Owen's arm.

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm a bit rattled, but I'm very protective of this crew. I owe them so much. I won't let any of them suffer any more because of my decisions. If there are to be any repercussions from any of Voyager's crew's behaviour over the last seven years, I take full responsibility. I stranded us there. I put them in that impossible situation and I intend to make sure that their sacrifice is recognized and rewarded."

Owen sat, open-mouthed, listening to his protégé's diatribe. He knew now was not the time to try to unravel her seemingly troubled thoughts - thank heavens he had professional counsellors for that. For now, he could be a friend.

"There were a lot of sacrifices made in the last seven years by a lot of good people. We lost a lot of colleagues to the Dominion; probably half of your class from the Academy is gone."

Kathryn nodded. "I know, Owen. I don't mean to belittle that. I think it's that I've been on my own with these people for seven years and I've been the only one responsible for them for so long that I can't just let it go."

"I always knew you'd do well in the Big Chair, Kathryn." Owen smiled indulgently at her. "Seriously, though, I can't begin to imagine how it must have felt to be stranded out there, so alone..."

"The guilt was constant. I lost half my crew before I even got to know them. And then I destroyed the Caretaker's Array, stranding us there. How many lives were affected because of my decision? Families torn apart..."

"The cost was high. But we all agree with your decision - it was the right choice."

"You do?"

"Yes, a team from Starfleet has been going through your logs since you started sending them to us. We've been taking our time though - we thought we had years to get through it all!" he laughed. "There was some discussion about the Caretaker and his array, but in the end, we agreed with you. That was a tough decision, and it had to be made quickly. You always have been one to think on your feet, Katie. You have a knack for cutting to the heart of what's important, and knowing the costs."

Just what was the cost, Kathryn wondered to herself as she nodded at her mentor, thankful for his support.

"We had more First Contacts than I care to remember that were of the "shoot first - ask questions later" variety. We were often under attack, frequently low on supplies... People suffered. We all did without. It was tough. I can't let anyone pay anymore..."

"I told you that unless any of them has acted inappropriately in the last few months, there should be no issues. I support you on this, Katie. I'll do what I can. Okay?"

Kathryn looked at him, with an expression on her face that told him he was being scrutinized very deeply. This spitfire was nothing to be trifled with - never had been, actually, but even more so now - and he was glad he'd be on her side during the debriefings. She tilted her head to one side, and an almost reluctant small smile crossed her face.

"Is that really you, Owen?" she said, softly. His face broke into a grin, and he stepped forward again and crushed her into another fatherly hug.

 

After a moment, Kathryn pulled herself away from her old friend. "I really must be getting back. You have no idea how wonderful it is to see you and catch up. But there's so much to be done..."

"Now you just wait, young lady. I think there's a very important vid call we need to make before you go."

Kathryn rolled her eyes, exasperated at being called a ‘young lady'. "I am letting the crew make their calls first, and then... "

"I figured as much, which is why you will call your mother from this office right now, or I'll never hear the end of it! Come here." He gently took Kathryn's arm, and led her to his terminal.  

She put up a token protest, but was quietly rejoicing on the inside. She couldn't wait to talk to her mother! After specifying the farm in Indiana, Owen nodded Kathryn to the side just as Gretchen's face appeared.

"Owen! Always a pleasure. How are you this evening? Everything good with you, I hope?"

"Gretchen, I'm so glad I caught you at home. How have you been?" Kathryn growled in her throat quietly, but Owen shushed her with his hand, out of Gretchen's view. They chitchatted for another minute until Kathryn was practically jumping out of her skin with excitement. Finally, Owen took pity on her.

"Gretchen, I want you to sit down. I have something very important to discuss with you."

"Oh dear, is it bad news?" Gretchen sat down, but didn't take her eyes off of the Admiral.

"You need to know that we will no longer be sending monthly communiqués to Voyager....."

"Oh my goodness, why not? Oh, has something happened to Katie? Owen, what's wrong?" Gretchen was leaning up close to the screen as she interrupted Owen.

Kathryn could no longer stand it, and moved over beside Owen. She smiled at her mother's face, which looked back at her with a very confused countenance.

"Phoebe? What the devil are you doing in San Francisco? I thought you... oh my, Owen, what's wrong? Why do you have Phoebe..."

"Mom, it's not Phoebe. Look at my hair, my ... clothes. It's me, Kathryn. I'm home."

Silence.

"Mom?"

Silence.

"Owen, who do you have there, beside you?"

"Well, Gretchen, she claims to be Kathryn Elizabeth Janeway, says she belongs to you. She came busting into the Alpha Quadrant a little while ago after blowing a Borg sphere to smithereens. She drinks too much coffee, has one heck of a Captain's glare, and wanted to talk to her mom... She wants to stay... I think we should keep her. What do you think? Gretchen?"

Gretchen and Kathryn had not been listening to Owen, as they were totally wrapped up in each other's gaze. Gretchen had begun to smile as the news sunk in, and was now fighting the lump in her throat to talk to her long-lost eldest child.

Owen vacated his chair and walked over the window of his office, wondering how his own reunion would be with Tom. Kathryn had mentioned that Tom was looking forward to seeing him; Owen felt she was holding something back, but couldn't be sure. It didn't matter - he was so pleased with how he'd surprised Gretchen today that he was sure that almost nothing could top it. He owed Kathryn Janeway a debt for how she'd helped Tom turn his life around, and he was determined to let her know how important it was to him. Tonight they could begin their reconciliation. He would call Tom as soon as these chatterboxes were finished. He didn't begrudge them one word.

 

Kathryn Janeway returned to Voyager, her mood buoyed by her conversation with her mother. She called a senior staff meeting, and they assembled quickly. Tuvok presented as his usual taciturn self; Harry had been revelling and walked in with a huge grin on his face. Tom had been quietly celebrating with B'Elanna, and they joined the meeting from Sickbay, along with the Doctor. Chakotay and Seven arrived last, together, though neither looked like they had been part of any of the festivities. Janeway looked around at Tuvok, Harry, Chakotay and Seven, and then looked at the Sickbay monitor. She smiled, then laid out the plans for the upcoming weeks.

"Starfleet Medical gets first dibbs on us, folks. They were incensed that I beamed down to see Admiral Paris without clearing it with them first, but I assured them that our EMH has kept me in tip-top shape." She continued as the Doctor began to speak. "However, the rest of you are not to leave this ship without medical clearance, so be prepared for visitors from Medical. I have been duly chastised, and will follow these orders as well. These examinations will take several days. I have argued for you to oversee the entire assessment, Doctor, and I believe Starfleet will concur, once Owen gets through with them." She smiled at him. "And for the record, I would like to thank you for your exemplary care of my crew -" Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chakotay look up sharply, and she smiled at him. "... our crew over the past seven years. You will never know how much we value you, Doctor. I cannot thank you enough."

"You could thank me by showing up for your future medicals without prodding, Captain." The doctor's sardonic comment was met with smiles and gentle laughter by everyone except Harry, who guffawed uproariously.

When the laughter died down, Janeway continued, "During our medical assessment, we will also be assigned a counselling regimen. Once we are cleared medically, we are to begin a month-long leave, during which we will all have our initial counselling assessment. We are not to leave Earth during that month. And they will house anyone who wishes to use HQ as their home base for that month. Then the fun begins. We debrief until we're done. Any questions?"

Tom spoke quietly from Sickbay, a sleeping newborn Miral in his arms. "Any hints on what's going to happen to us after the debrief, Captain?"

"Admiral Paris assures me that Starfleet is most impressed with everyone's service during the past seven years, so he is convinced that each of you will receive the recognition you so rightfully deserve. You have to know I will go to bat for you, and make sure each of you is treated fairly."

She looked around the room at all of them. Tom, B'Elanna, Seven, The Doctor, and Harry had all blossomed, and become reliable, competent, valued and trustworthy colleagues. She felt such pride when she considered some of the storms they'd weathered, and the amount of growth she'd seen.

Then there was Tuvok, one of her oldest and dearest friends. His steady presence had been a saving grace for her many times during the voyage. She was concerned about the state of his mental health, and was thankful they'd made it home earlier in the disease process than in the future Admiral's timeline. The likely outcome of the now-available treatment was a complete reversal of any deleterious effects of his neurological condition. He would be fine, and live a long, healthy, prosperous life with T'Pel, their children and grandchildren. For that, she would forever be grateful to her future self.

Her gaze lingered on Chakotay. She couldn't even put into words just how much he meant to her, both on a professional and personal level. Professionally, she'd tried to tell him many times just how much she valued his opinion and relied on him as First Officer. Typically it was ‘after the fact', and she hoped he would never think to question her respect for him, regardless of how nasty things got. She'd made it hard for him, she knew.

His value to her on a personal level was something else entirely. She'd been drawn to him from the moment he beamed onto her bridge those seven long years ago. After she chastised herself for feeling like a horny teenager and reminded herself that she was engaged, she reasserted her Captain's command mode and tried to minimize his importance to Kathryn, the woman. Despite her best intentions, she'd gone from lust to love. As a Starfleet trained Captain, however, she held all her emotions in check, and despite the odd flirtation that went too far or the longing look that went too deep or the occasional touch that lingered too long, she thought she was successful in hiding how she felt from him.

His emotions had been pretty clear - he had pledged to stay by her side and do whatever he could to help her get this crew home. As time went on, she knew he loved her. When they were stranded on New Earth, she so desperately wanted to throw herself into his arms... but she was the Captain and she could let nothing interfere with her primary goal, which was to find a cure and to get them back to Voyager, and then to get Voyager home.

Once her equipment had been destroyed, she'd begun to live for the day, and had been so close to showing him how she felt. It had been hard to return to Voyager, together but alone.

Ever the professionals, they immediately resumed their previous roles, though she found it difficult to not lean too much on Chakotay, as her First Officer or as her friend. She forced a distance between them in order to function. Inevitably, as time went on, their relationship changed. They had some terrible disagreements. And her bout with depression in ‘the void' almost killed her. They'd been through a lot, and she'd hoped they would be through a lot more together. But on Voyager, she'd never been able to give him any indication that she wanted anything more than a professional relationship with him.

Her future self's revelations about him had broken her heart. Chakotay and Seven! She'd heard rumours, but he'd said nothing, so she assumed they were just that. If she forced herself to think about it, she and Chakotay had been spending even less time together in the last few weeks and had grown further apart, cancelled dinner plans and lunches. She'd just thought of it as part of their normal ebb and flow, and that they would always come back to each other. She now realized now that she'd been sadly mistaken.

The Admiral had told Kathryn that Chakotay and Seven had been married. She knew he was a man who gave of himself completely, and thought that Chakotay must have loved Seven with every fibre of his being. The Admiral made Kathryn promise to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Chakotay would be loved.  She looked at him now, and hoped beyond anything that he was truly happy. She wished fervently that she would have been the one to make him smile. Her chest ached with the happiness of being home, and the sadness of losing him before she'd even had a chance. She was determined not to let his blooming romance with Seven interfere with their friendship. It was damn near impossible for her to consider her life without him in it at all, so she would have to settle for only his friendship. A small sacrifice, she thought. If only it felt small.

She pulled herself abruptly from her thoughts. "Dismissed," she announced, and turned and left the room.

Tuvok remained seated, and turned to Chakotay. "A word, if I may, Commander?"

"I will return to Astrometrics to complete my report on the destruction of the transwarp hub," Seven announced, as she stood to leave. Chakotay nodded, and turned back to Tuvok. A loud crash to his right meant that Harry had not succeeded in getting past the legs of the chairs as he attempted to leave the room. Miral awoke with a start, just as the Sickbay screen switched off. Harry giggled on the floor for a minute before remembering that he needed to be mobile to move. He half-crawled out of the room, snickering to himself as he went out to rejoin the festivities.

 "Well, that went well," Chakotay offered, smirking after Harry.

"Indeed," replied Tuvok, evenly.

"I assume Harry's out-of-character celebration is not the issue you wish to discuss, Tuvok." Chakotay was not in the mood to prevaricate. The Captain's hail had interrupted an important private discussion he'd been having with Seven, and Chakotay was feeling tense.

"It is not. I am concerned about Captain Janeway. I am aware that much will still be required of her while she is still Captain of this vessel. She appears overwhelmed, and seems agitated. I feel the prudent course of action would be for us to involve ourselves directly in overseeing her activities over the next several days, to ensure that we minimize any negative implications. The medical and counselling assessments will no doubt be thorough."

Chakotay nodded, only half listening. Yes, the sessions... would he need to draw up a schedule based on the crew rotations or would the Doctor do that? And how long would each take? And should the Command team and senior staff begin or end the assessments?

Tuvok interrupted his thoughts. "Commander, you seem distracted. Do you disagree with my assessment of the Captain?"

"No, Tuvok, I was just thinking of the best way to proceed."

"Commander, may I suggest that I will oversee the daily running of the ship, while you assist the Captain with logs, reports, and anything else that you can do to make her load lighter."

Chakotay's head snapped up, feeling oddly defensive. "Meaning what, Tuvok?"

"Meaning that I will oversee the daily running of the ship, and you can assist the Captain much as you had done in the early part of our journey. As of late, I fear she has been distancing herself from the crew and burying herself in her duties. If I am not mistaken, she no longer requests your assistance on many tasks that could and would befall the First Officer, were she willing to give up some of her control. I am concerned for her and her reaction to the impending dissolution of her crew and hope to minimize the outcome, prior to her involvement with counselling. That is all."

"That's all, Tuvok? Talk about understatement." Chakotay looked out the viewport at the once-familiar stars, and sighed deeply. Yes, Janeway had been withdrawing from him lately. They'd never regained their affinity after dealing with Ransom. He had thought at the time that she would have killed Noah Lessing ... looking back, he had second-guessed himself into not being sure. If he really thought about it, she'd begun to withdraw after their alliance with the Borg. He had contravened her orders and tried to space all the Borg that were in the Cargo Bay.

Seven had survived; so had Janeway. Their previously close relationship had not. Their working relationship had resurfaced - they were professionals, after all. On rare occasions, a glimpse of their former closeness would surface for a short-lived moment, only to be shot down by a comment or action during an alien attack or fuel shortage or crew issue. Seven had become a project which had taken a great deal of Janeway's time, and was now taking some of Chakotay's time. He wasn't sure that he was the best person to separate the good Captain from her emotional distance. He knew he'd gone too far when they'd been stranded on New Earth, and he'd tried to push the boundary on occasion since then. The bottom line was that she didn't want or need his help, pity, affection, or any other emotion from him. She needed him as a First Officer to get this crew home, nothing else. And now that they were home, did she need him at all?

At one time, he'd been childish enough to want more. He'd failed, on both counts. He didn't have her affection, as he'd wanted, and she'd delegated, minimized and reallocated such that he frequently felt that he was barely functioning as a First Officer. And that was wrong. He'd let her underutilize him and his role and take more than her share of responsibility; he'd failed her by acquiescing to her need for control. Whether she would allow it or not, she had needed him and he thought she still did. Chakotay decided that he'd begin immediately to reconcile his own emotions, and make this return home everything Kathryn had wanted it to be.

"I'll go see her now, Tuvok." Chakotay stood, nodded, and left the briefing room.

Tuvok inclined his head slightly. "I hope you are successful, Commander."

 

The crew eagerly busied themselves with the mundane chore of readying the ship for the extensive assessments that were forthcoming. They wanted everything to be in perfect shape, not only to speed up the process of finalizing their debarkation, but to give the finest possible impression of their Captain.

Seven spent all her waking hours in the Astrometrics lab, readying the vast amount of information for evaluation. The Science lab was equally busy, attempting the impossible task of cataloguing and broadly classifying all the data and samples they had obtained in the past seven years. Voyager was a hive of activity, with the crew working on ship's business or packing up their own personal belongings.

The Starfleet Medical team arrived and quickly took over Sickbay. After an initial period of adjustment, they deferred to the Doctor's superiority in his domain. Janeway had insisted that Tuvok be evaluated before any other of the crew. The medical assessment found nothing untoward, and within the first two days, Tuvok had quietly taken his leave and left for Vulcan to undergo the fal-tor-voh for his neurological condition.

The remaining medical evaluations took place over the following two weeks, with the Command Team being the last to be subjected to the poking and prodding. Other than an inordinate number of healed severe injuries, treated infections and restored altered DNA, the Starfleet team found nothing to warrant further quarantine of their long-lost patients. In fact, they praised the EMH's skill and expertise, much to his delight.

Voyager was cleared for invasion. Small reunions began to occur almost immediately. The counsellors had felt that this gradual acclimation to the Alpha Quadrant was healthier in the long run, and so family and friends arrived in small groups, for short periods of time. Everyone had some sort of visitor; several of the Maquis were pleasantly surprised when a small group of friends were beamed aboard for them.

Janeway had been working with Chakotay in her Ready Room when Gretchen and Phoebe were beamed aboard. She and Chakotay had spent a great deal of time together since their return, delicately rebuilding a solid working relationship and they'd been pleasantly surprised with the pleasure it brought them. When the Ready Room door chirped, Chakotay and Janeway looked across the desk at each other and smiled.

Several times in the past two weeks they'd been so engrossed with whatever they were doing that they'd forgotten to attend a meeting, a physical, a crew request or even a meal. It had become a bit of a standing joke between them. So when the door chirped, they grinned goofily at each other and shrugged, as if to say, "Oops! Caught again!"

Kathryn stood up, stretching, and began to walk towards the door, expecting to be handed a pad containing some boring detail that needed a thumbprint. She called, "Enter," catching sight of her mother and sister as the doors began to part. With a gasp she ran the rest of the way, enveloping them in a sound embrace.

Chakotay had turned at her gasp, and smiled broadly at the sight. Here was the wonderful homecoming Kathryn deserved. He watched unobtrusively as the three women hugged, exclaiming happily to each other. Finally, Kathryn took a step back, intending to offer them a seat and a coffee. She caught sight of Chakotay, and reached for him to join her. Without thinking, he took her outstretched hand, slightly unnerved by the shock he felt as he held it. It had been a long time since they'd touched one another so warmly.

Kathryn tucked her hand around his forearm, and began to introduce everyone. She laughed and let go as he awkwardly reached to shake hands with Gretchen and Phoebe, only then realizing how she had laid claim to him. He took his leave after a few minutes, wanting to give the Janeway family some time to reconnect.

Kathryn took her sister and mother on a quick tour of her Ready Room and the bridge, her quarters and the mess hall. She introduced them to the Doctor, who was as enchanted with Janeway's sister and mother as he was with his Captain. They ended their visit sitting in Sandrine's, which had been left to run continuously. It offered food, drink, and a relaxed atmosphere which helped to fill in the inevitable awkward silences from people too long apart.

After they left, Kathryn asked the computer for Chakotay's location, excited to tell him about the visit. She was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that he was with Seven in the Astrometrics lab.

His sister and niece were due to arrive tomorrow. She remembered how he'd been overwhelmed when he found out that not only was his sister alive but she was within transporter range of Earth! Kathryn she was sure it would be a joyous yet emotional reunion. She wondered if he'd seek her out to introduce her.

As it turned out, she was called to meet with several Admirals and was unavailable when Sekaya and Taya arrived. She didn't know that he'd been terribly disappointed that she hadn't been available.

 

The media had been banned from Voyager, and other than Janeway's initial appearance in Admiral Paris' office, no one from the Voyager crew had left the ship. After final clearance, almost a month after reaching the Alpha Quadrant, the crew of Voyager beamed down to Earth.

Janeway, Chakotay and the senior staff beamed down first, followed by the rest of the crew in groups of ten. The press was fascinated with a variety of aspects of their journey that had leaked out over the years - the Maquis crew, the Medical Hologram, the former Borg drone, the Equinox crew, the Hirogen, the Vidiians, Q, and other ‘interesting' aliens they'd met. Kathryn and Chakotay granted interview after interview after interview, carefully sidestepping any questions that could compromise themselves during the debriefings. They missed most of the informal gatherings that had been arranged for the crew and their families and friends.

They were exhausted when they returned to the ship many hours later.

A large number of the crew had left with their family or friends, and Voyager was eerily quiet. Kathryn and Chakotay sat in her Ready Room, drinking wine, discussing some of the insipid questions asked by the annoying press, toasting their crew, and basking in the wonderful and almost unbelievable feeling of having been on Earth. It was very late. Chakotay reached both arms over his head, arching his back as he stretched. "I need to be going," he yawned.

"Is my company that boring?" Kathryn teased, suppressing her own tired yawn.

"Definitely not!" Chakotay countered, smiling. "I can hardly keep my eyes open and I need to be fresh tomorrow to finish my last crew evaluation."

"Aren't you through with me yet?" Kathryn said, then grimaced at her choice of words.

"No. Seven years worth of scuttlebutt makes for a lot of work for me." He winked as he started to rise from her couch. "I'm just glad we have access to all the databases in the Starfleet computers - I was running out of synonyms for ‘goal-directed' and ‘adherence to protocol" in Standard," he added, chuckling lightly.

Kathryn's face fell. Chakotay jumped off the couch and crossed to her quickly, regretting his quip.

Her heart had snapped in two at his words. Did he really only think of her now as his stubborn superior officer, obsessed with rules and regulations?

"I meant that as a compliment, Kathryn." He took her by the upper arms and gently sat her down. He looked at her stricken face, and knew he'd unintentionally hit a nerve. "I'm sorry. Are you alright?"

She thought of Chakotay dating Seven, and the impact it had on her future self. If he saw her as a single-minded bureaucrat, how could their friendship survive here in the Alpha Quadrant without the common goal of getting home?

When she and Chakotay had been wandering around 1996 Los Angeles looking for Braxton, she had briefly perused a book from a vendor on the beach. It was a book of love and human relationships, and the importance of touch, especially hugs. Leo Buscaglia had written "A single rose can be my garden ... a single friend, my world." Chakotay's peace rose, carefully preserved and kept with her most private valuable possessions, given to her the night she'd died, had symbolized to her their precious relationship. It appeared to her now that she had indeed been mistaken. He had been her world, her best friend for the past seven years, but she now saw clearly that she hadn't meant the same to him. No, she definitely was not alright.

After some fumbling and apologies, Chakotay headed back to his quarters. He knew he'd upset her, but couldn't for the life of him figure out why it had been such a big deal. Surely she wasn't worried about Starfleet? They'd had enough contact and questions and initial feedback to know that things were looking pretty good for all of them. He was exhausted and fell into his bed, glad that he'd already finished her evaluation. He'd have to figure her out in the morning.

After Chakotay left, Kathryn sat for a long time, staring at a holo-image she'd dug out of a bedroom drawer. The Doctor had surprised them one time as they'd walked through the door of Sandrine's. She was holding Chakotay's arm, and her head was turned slightly, smiling at him. Chakotay was smiling broadly, looking at her. It was her favourite image of the two of them, though it made her sad to look at it now. She sighed, and placed it back in the drawer. That ship had sailed.

 

The next day, Chakotay arrived promptly at 0800. She declined his offers of breakfast and assistance with any last minute reports. She knew that this was the day he was planning to leave with Seven.

Seven had been having additional examinations at Head Quarters, and so Kathryn had told him he was free to go, to enjoy his leave, and she would see him in a month. Minding Tuvok's advice, Chakotay insisted on staying to help, but she practically ordered him to leave. He handed her his evaluation of her, nodded and turned to go. He turned once he reached the door, but the look on her face did not encourage him to speak. Instead, he nodded again and said, "Goodbye Captain," and left, feeling oddly unsettled.

Kathryn heaved a huge sigh. She would have loved for him to stay, but felt there was no benefit in torturing herself. Besides, she thought wryly, no time like the present to start her future self's solitary existence. She set about the business of her final duties before leaving Voyager for the last time as her Captain.

 

Teams from Starfleet security, engineering and medical beamed aboard during the day, relieving the last of the Voyager crews. Just as Janeway was about to begin packing up her own quarters, she received a communication from Phoebe, asking if she could come aboard and stay for the night. Kathryn was thrilled - she and Phoebe had been in contact several times since their initial meeting, and they were happily rekindling their sisterhood. She knew Phoebe had a very busy life into which she would be lovingly enfolded, but there was enough distance and unfamiliarity still for Kathryn to want her sister all to herself for a while longer. It was also an added bonus to have another night aboard her ship.

Phoebe arrived with a bottle of Romulan Ale, much to Kathryn's open-mouthed shock and delight. Phoebe had known it would be a hard day for Kathryn, and hoped the ale would help. They agreed that this was a night they would not divulge to their mother and cracked open the bottle with uncharacteristic abandon.

Kathryn took Phoebe on an extended tour of the ship, and was caught off guard by her emotional response to seeing people other than B'Elanna in Engineering or Harry at Ops. Phoebe and Kathryn finally ended up in the holodeck, perusing the database and randomly picking programs. Phoebe wasn't a stranger to the technology, but was amazed at the detail in some of the programs. Kathryn explained that there wasn't much else to do at times, so the crew spent a great deal of time perfecting their favourite scenarios, running simulations, and studying unique Delta Quadrant phenomena. Phoebe was especially enchanted with one Kathryn had made, with a little help from Tom, of Lake George.

Half of the bottle of ale had been consumed by then, and Kathryn became reflective and quiet, remembering some of many hours she'd spent here. After some not-so-gentle prodding, she admitted to Phoebe that her complicated relationship with Chakotay was occupying her thoughts. Phoebe remembered how they'd been in Kathryn's Ready Room and thought their relationship was blatantly clear. She could see the affection flowed both ways, but her comments were refuted by Kathryn.

Wallowing under the influence, she showed Phoebe her re-creation of New Earth. Phoebe never was one to hold back and, once she'd learned some more about their exile, wanted to know why the hell she hadn't jumped Chakotay's bones the second they landed on the planet. After what Kathryn saw as a bit of discussion and reflection, which Phoebe saw as yelling and ‘the silent treatment', Kathryn admitted that she wished she had.

"The ultimate self-sacrifice." Phoebe waved her arms dramatically as she summarized her perception of their entire relationship. "It was all about the ship, wasn't it? Where were you in all that? Seven years, Kathryn!"

They drank more ale and argued, laughed and cried as they moved through some other programs. It was cathartic for Kathryn, and she repeatedly told Phoebe how grateful she was that she'd come to give her exactly what she needed - a review of her time in the Delta Quadrant, and a private chance to say a final ‘goodbye' to that long, tumultuous chapter of her life. Until a few days ago, it was how she thought she would be living, at least for the next several decades if not the rest of her life. Little wonder she was having a bit of difficulty letting go.

As they neared the bottom of the rather large bottle, Kathryn stumbled across a program she hadn't seen before. She gasped as a semi-clad holo-Chakotay and holo-Seven kissed sensuously the moment they materialized in front of them. The shocked silence was broken by a low moan from the holo-Chakotay as his hands moved to caress Seven's hips.

"Computer, freeze program!" Phoebe yelled. "What the hell is this?"

Kathryn swore, and sat down heavily. "End program." After collecting herself, Kathryn called for the arch, then moved to it and worked the consoled for a bit.

"This is one of Seven's programs. She must have been... uh... practicing, I guess."

"Bitch!" cried a drunk and righteously indignant Phoebe.

Kathryn shook her head, grimacing at the sloshing feeling. "No, Phoebe, I care very much for Seven. She's becoming a wonderful young woman in her own right." She laughed, without humour. "I encouraged her to explore all aspects of her humanity. I guess I forgot to tell her about the restrictions on holo-images of fellow crewmates." She looked again at the console. "I wonder if Chakotay saw this? If that's when... Or maybe it was his idea!" She sighed, and began rambling. She eventually got around to telling Phoebe about her future self's revelations about the marriage between Chakotay and Seven.

Phoebe now understood Kathryn's conflict, and was angry and sad at what she saw as her sister's loss. And so they sat, weeping on the floor together, both railing against the unfairness of love and the loss of what might have been.

In her inebriated state, Kathryn made Phoebe pinky-swear that she would tell no one of her feelings for Chakotay, explaining how it she would never interfere with his happiness with Seven, how it might be seen as a contravention of protocol and could undermine the outcomes of their debriefings. Phoebe nodded sagely and agreed not to offer any information to the Admiralty. As for Chakotay - she hoped Kathryn didn't notice, or maybe wouldn't remember, that she made no such commitment.

 

The sisters had dreadful hangovers when they awoke and were stiff and sore from having slept all night in awkward positions in the holodeck.

The Doctor tutted and scowled at both of them, making sarcastic comments about the Janeway proclivity for finding ways to keep him busy. "At least this isn't life threatening," he muttered, as Kathryn tried to roll her eyes at Phoebe. She gave up fairly quickly and lay still, then thanked the doctor profusely as he finished his ministrations, hoping he'd keep this juicy bit of gossip to himself.

Feeling better physically, the sisters left to pack up Kathryn's quarters. Phoebe watched Kathryn sadly pack away the remnants of her incredible, fantastic journey. Although Kathryn easily carried the small container filled with holo-images, hand-made cards and drawings, pebbles, a necklace, a preserved rose, miscellanea she explained were the beginnings of something called a ‘medicine bundle', and one carefully preserved sand painting, Phoebe knew that it exerted a far greater weight on her sister.

Kathryn's mood lightened after they'd beamed to Indiana. Gretchen smiled and quietly wiped tears from her eyes as they materialized in Edward's study. Kathryn melted into her mother's warm embrace, happy beyond words to truly be home at last. Gretchen had prepared many of Kathryn's favourites and they tucked in with a large pot of coffee, hoping her healing could now begin.

 

Over the next couple weeks, Kathryn spent a great deal of time alone, quietly grieving both the loss of the closeness of her Voyager family and the lost dream of any potential relationship with Chakotay. She alternated between late nights star-gazing and early morning sunrises. These long, solitary activities were interspersed with long afternoon naps. At first, Gretchen told herself that Kathryn was just "catching up" on her rest and relieving the stress of being in command virtually non-stop during the past seven years. After two weeks, however, Gretchen was concerned. She was quite happy when Deanna Troi arrived.

Deanna had personally agreed to assess Kathryn as a favour to Jean-Luc Picard, who had put his request through Admiral Paris. Deanna had counselled him after his Borg assimilation, and he felt her unique approach would be most helpful for Kathryn. Luckily, Owen agreed.

Kathryn and Deanna spent several hours talking as they walked through the fields of sprouting corn, and talked again the next day, sitting on the front porch swing. Deanna had immediately sensed Kathryn's immense inner conflict. She sensed the extreme happiness of being home, which was battling a great unrest at being without a purpose. Her crew's happiness brought her great joy, yet her own personal unhappiness weighed heavily. Kathryn held back a great many mixed emotions regarding their trip home, not sure what information Troi was privy to, and wondering how Starfleet would handle the temporal violations.

Kathryn's inner strength had not been diminished during her time away; if anything, she had become more self-reliant, more determined, more stubborn. Deanna worried that the ‘Kathryn' that was buried under the ‘Captain' would need a lot of convincing to show herself.

Having met Kathryn, Deanna was immensely intrigued, and decided she would continue to see this fascinating woman through to the end of her counselling, despite the lengthy commitment involved. They made the best of the last two weeks before the debriefings started, and as predicted, Deanna's experiences with Jean-Luc proved extremely beneficial to Kathryn. Progress was slow, as expected, but Deanna was hopeful and confident that Kathryn would be seen by Starfleet as fit to fly again soon.

 

In the heat of the San Francisco summer, the crew of Voyager returned to Starfleet headquarters to begin their debriefings. Kathryn had arrived early to be available in case any member of her crew needed assistance with some aspect of their resettlement. Chakotay had also arrived early, since he had only partially fulfilled his counselling requirements. Kathryn hadn't sought him out; she was determined to keep her distance and hoped her feelings had waned in their time apart.

Chakotay was on his way to lunch when he met Seven in the hallway.

"Seven! How are you? How was your leave?" Chakotay asked, as he hugged her lightly.

"I, Annika, am well, Com- Chakotay. I hope the remainder of your leave went well?"

He smiled warmly at her correction of his use of her Borg designation. "I had a great time, thank you. My cousin's wedding was last week, and Voyager's arrival meant that they needed an extra plate at dinner! I was able to see most of my living family and several friends. My cousin insisted on staying to visit with me, and even delayed their honeymoon! It was the best possible homecoming." He paused, smiling. "I'm rambling, I'm sorry. It was incredible."

"I understand. My relatives were ... exuberant... as well. Our time together was pleasurable, but occasionally it was also overwhelming." They made their way towards their meal, laughing and talking animatedly.

Kathryn was sitting in the commissary with Gerron and Celes, who had just returned from Bajor.

"Damn," she muttered quietly, unsettled as her breath caught when she saw him walk into the room. He looked fabulous -- relaxed, tanned and positively glowing with happiness, with Seven by his side. She was also glowing, and seemed more relaxed and carefree than Kathryn had ever seen her. She quashed the jealous feeling that began to burn in her belly, and steeled her resolve to be strong. They stopped a few tables away and began talking to Harry. Janeway tried to focus on Gerron's excited tale of finding several cousins that he'd thought had been killed, but snippets of Chakotay's conversation drifted back to her. "... gone to Sweden with Seven..." "Annika!" she corrected him, again. He laughed and gently patted her shoulder. "... Sweden with Annika ...  joined by Admiral Paris .... great time ... honeymoon..." Kathryn felt her mouth go dry. Tal reached over and put her hand on her arm.

"Are you alright, Captain?"  Kathryn sat, stunned, until she realized that she needed to take a breath. Unfortunately, it sounded more like a sob, which alarmed Tal even more. Kathryn assured her she was fine, then excused herself and quickly made her way back to her room. Once inside, she simply slid down to the floor and sat unmoving. Chakotay and Seven - married already! She wasn't one to give in to tears often, and despite the emptiness that grew with each beat of her heart, the tears did not fall now.

She felt bereft. She had expected that Chakotay and Seven would marry, but figured she'd have some time to prepare herself. The only consolation she could find about this wedding was that she hadn't performed the ceremony - the Admiral had been wrong about that part. It did little to soothe her shattered feelings.

She barely heard the door chime the first two times. After the third time, she heard a knock and a familiar voice call her name. She stood, and walked stiffly to the door. It opened, just as Chakotay was about to knock with his fist.

"Captain! Are you alright?" He took in her pale complexion and slightly dishevelled appearance.

"I'm fine." She knew he didn't buy it. Her voice was tremulous and the hand that reached up to smooth her hair shook, but she hoped he wouldn't notice that.

"What happened, Kathryn? I saw you leave the lounge. What's wrong? Have you heard something?"

She almost laughed out loud at his misguided concern. "Really, everything is fine. I've heard nothing of importance," she lied. If only he knew...

He scrutinized her for a moment, but she didn't look like she was willing to talk. He scrunched up his mouth. "Okay, if you say so.... Been back long? How was your leave?"

"It was great, very relaxing... you?" She wasn't sure she wanted to hear his response, but braced herself.

"Fantastic! Come for lunch with me and we'll compare stories." He held out his hand to her; she didn't move, looking at his hand, fingers slightly bent as he encouraged her to join him. No ring... But she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the details of his nuptials in public, just in case.

"How about lunch here? I'm sure this replicator has something you would like..."

Chakotay kept an eye on her as she requested their lunch, and he began to eat. Something was off, but no details were forthcoming. She barely picked at her food as they exchanged tales of their leave. Kathryn slowly came to the realization that Chakotay had visited his relatives alone. That seemed odd for a newlywed... she wondered if she'd misheard.

"Have you seen any of our crew since you've been back?" Kathryn hoped her indirect approach would yield the desired information without giving herself away.

"Yes, I just ran into Seven, and we talked to Harry for a bit. I saw you with Gerron and Tal. Anyone else?"

"A few... how is Seven handling everything?" She hoped her voice sounded calmer than she felt.

"Pretty well now, I think. There was a bit of a media circus when she first went to her Aunt's, but it all stopped after Owen set up some security for her. She hasn't said otherwise, anyway. I was only there long enough to help her settle in."

Kathryn looked up at him, smiling. She had to have misheard. "What else did she do on her leave?" she asked, innocently.

"She met a lot of family... and I think she and Reg Barclay saw quite a bit of each other." His lilting tone made it plain that he was thrilled with this development. Kathryn's heart leapt. She was thrilled, but worried too. She hadn't lost him to Seven... yet.

 

Chakotay had taken Seven to Sweden, to be with her when she met her remaining extended family. Her on-board reunion with her Aunt Irene had been awkward, but she was eager to proceed. Seven had assimilated a great deal of information regarding human interaction in the short time they were home, thoroughly enjoying the new people with whom she had contact, especially Reg Barclay. So, buoyed by her expanded knowledge of interpersonal interactions, Seven willingly sought out her relations and soon was more comfortable meeting distant relatives. She soon decided that she would use her human name, and Annika Hansen shyly bloomed. With support from her aunt and Chakotay, Annika showed a quiet confidence that made them proud. The only smudge marring the pretty scene was the overzealous paparazzi.

Her unique Borg status made her a target for the media, and she had difficulty coping with the intrusion of the press into her life. Although Chakotay's Maquis training helped to a degree, the reporters were tenacious and followed her everywhere the first few days she was in Sweden. Unless she was inside her Aunt's house, Annika was being photographed or asked questions. Although her patience for irrelevant and inconvenient disruptions had increased, and her social skills had improved, she naturally found the harassment and breaches of privacy hard to handle. She also worried about the negative effects on her Aunt and cousins.

Annika wanted only to be left alone to enjoy her remaining leave. After a couple days with no sign of it letting up, Chakotay had called Owen Paris, who was overseeing Starfleet's response to Voyager's return. Owen and Reg Barclay, Starfleet's honourary crew member, had arrived early the next day with a small Security detachment, and the scuffle of holo-recorders virtually disappeared into thin air once they caught on that Starfleet was around.

Aunt Irene was grateful for the support and had insisted that they stay for lunch. Owen was a great conversationalist, and he and Chakotay had many common interests, not the least of which was telling embarrassing stories about Kathryn Janeway. It was during a quiet moment that Chakotay noticed the way that Annika and Reg were looking at each other. He overheard some of their quiet conversation, and he realized that she was flirting with Reg! And doing a convincing job of it! He returned his attention to Owen, his mind running through the possibilities of his next conversation with Annika.

After dessert, Owen and Reg went with Irene to inspect the security arrangements around the perimeter of the property. Annika seemed distracted as she and Chakotay cleared away the dishes from the table.

"Can you tell me what is wrong, Annika?" he asked, knowing that the direct approach worked best with her.

"I do not know, exactly. I am ... confused."

"About your feelings for Mr. Barclay?"

She nodded, still lost in thought.

"What are those feelings?" Chakotay asked, gently. She looked at him, her brow slightly furrowed.

"I am not altogether certain. He possesses a keen intellect. I had enjoyed working with him during our monthly communications from Starfleet, and now... I find him to be ... an intriguing individual. I ... like him."

"Do you like him as a friend, or is this something more? Do you perhaps feel a physical attraction to him?" Chakotay's voice was non-judgmental. 

"I think I do." She smiled suddenly. "I feel like I did with Axum. I have not felt that way since Unimatrix Zero. I had forgotten..." Her smile faltered as she tilted her head at Chakotay. "I apologize, Chakotay. I do not mean to imply that I do not feel a physical attraction to you. But it is ... different, somehow."

Chakotay could only smile; he wondered why he wasn't feeling jealous or conflicted. "There are many kinds of attractions, Annika. Some are intense, purely physical, sudden; others are intellectual attractions; some start out pleasantly and slowly and gradually increasing in time. Some wax and wane.... The question is, what do you want to do about it?"

They discussed the fact that their circumstances had changed dramatically since leaving the Delta Quadrant and Voyager, and Annika felt that these changes had impacted their relationship. Annika was eager to explore possibilities that she had not even considered while still on board, and hesitantly admitted this to Chakotay.

She wondered what he would say, given his response to the last time she had tried to put some distance between them. To the pleasant surprise of both of them, not only did Chakotay not begrudge her the opportunity to take advantage of her new social skills, emotional readiness, and varied surroundings, but he genuinely wanted her to take advantage of her new opportunities.

"You will always be special to me, Chakotay. Thank you for your ... kindness... and patience." She approached him and shyly kissed his cheek. He smiled at her, and found it odd that his feelings had changed so much. He was proud of the woman she had become, and he felt an affection and protectiveness for her that was almost paternal in nature.

"Annika, you will always be special to me as well. I have enjoyed our time together, very much."

"I have heard that it is sometimes difficult to remain friends after having been romantically involved."

Chakotay smiled again. "We have a shared history, Annika. We were friends before we went out. Our friendship will be just fine."

"I am glad, Chakotay."

With a feeling of relief, their discussion returned to their immediate situation. Chakotay had put his concern for Annika's safety and well-being ahead of his own celebrating, and had put off making definitive plans for himself. He was suddenly quite excited to get away. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have some plans to make!" He hugged Annika lightly, and then went to throw his few belongings into a duffle.

As he took his leave of everyone a few hours later, with a wink and quiet "Take care of her!" to a confused, but pleased Reg Barclay, and promptly left to finalize his arrangements for attending his cousin's wedding and visiting his sister and some friends for the remaining three weeks of his leave.

 

Starfleet debriefing protocol had been created to respect the underlying strength of its officers. The crew of Voyager presented a situation not previously seen - no other crew had melded Starfleet with Maquis, travelled the distance they had, encountered the alien cultures and engaged in the number of First Contacts, or endured their hardships. The original three-week mission had not necessitated a counsellor on board, and so they had depended on each other. The deep closeness of the crew, necessary for its very survival in the hostile alien environment, combined with the uncertainty of ever seeing home again, and often their very survival, made for a unique emotional climate. As such, the Starfleet-assigned counsellors were asked to be available as needed. Deanna Troi was on 24-hour stand-by.

The debriefings went on longer than originally anticipated, and were occasionally boring but uneventful for the most part.

Most of Voyagers' logs had been sent to Starfleet prior to their return, and at least a cursory examination had occurred for all but the most recent events, but there were still numerous questions. Chakotay and Janeway spent day after day beside each other before the panel, eating meals together, and walking to and from their assigned quarters. There were occasional late nights going over summaries and preparing for potentially tense sessions.

Starfleet was being very thorough, but also trying to be fair. Counselling breaks were built into the schedule, dictated by the team of counsellors provided. Janeway was frustrated by the counselling delays, but came to regard them as necessary evils on their journey home. After recognizing that her frustration only slowed the process, Kathryn and Chakotay started to use the counselling delays for relaxation, together if they were both free. Overall, things were going well. They were optimistic about the outcome of the debriefings; it helped to have Owen Paris on their side.

Chakotay found himself experiencing a reawakening of old feelings for his Captain. The attraction he had felt early in their seven-year journey had changed over time, yet he came to realize that despite every argument and difference of opinion they'd had, she was something special to him. At first, he figured his good mood had more to do with being on Earth and not in a penal colony than being with Kathryn. He then assumed that the positive outlook of the debriefings was behind his sense of contentment. It hit him after a lop-sided half-smile from her in the middle of a debriefing room created a warm feeling within him that he hadn't felt in a long time.

Kathryn herself was conflicted about the renewed closeness that was developing between the former Captain and First Officer of the Starship Voyager. Despite Annika's flourishing relationship with Reg Barclay, the Admiral's words were imprinted in Kathryn's brain, and she was still convinced that Chakotay was meant to be with Annika. The Admiral had staked everything on Janeway doing the right thing, and she was not going to screw that up. Kathryn knew that she would always want more, but would have to settle for remaining his friend, in whatever capacity.

 

One night several weeks in, Kathryn and Chakotay found themselves lingering over their dinner. Their day had ended early, but they'd decided to return to the Officers' Quarters rather than socialize with the rest of the crew. Dinner had been followed by dessert and a second bottle of wine, and the third bottle had just been opened when Chakotay caught Kathryn staring at him. He smiled a disarmingly genuine smile, which she openly returned. His breath caught.

"This is nice, isn't it?" he asked, waving his hand to indicate their shared meal and quiet evening.

"Mmhmm, very nice." She looked awkwardly around, but Chakotay wasn't fazed.

"I've missed you, Kathryn. It's been a long time since we could... since we ... took the time to do this."

"It has," she answered slowly. "I guess I've missed you too." He smiled at her response, and then let the wine take over.

"Did you now?" He stared into her eyes until she looked away. "Kathryn." She swallowed, but looked up to meet his eyes again. "Kathryn, over the years, did you ever think about ... us?"

"Us?" Kathryn quashed the rising panic she felt. She was a Starfleet captain. She could handle this.

"Yes, us. Did you ever wonder how a relationship between us might ..."

"Chakotay, please." Her tone of voice stopped him. He waited for her to continue, then took the initiative in the face of her silence.

"You know I had strong feelings for you, Kathryn," he said, seriously.  "When we first met, I was ... surprised ... at my reaction. I think I fell for you that first day, despite the fact that you were sent to capture me." He laughed lightly, a little self-consciously. "I didn't put up much of a fight."

"No," Kathryn whispered, into her hands, "you didn't." She nodded her fuzzy head slightly. "I knew. And ... I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I felt the same way."

Chakotay couldn't believe his ears. He was unbelievably happy. "You did?" Kathryn tilted her head to the side and nodded. Chakotay looked at her, dumbfounded. "And now ..." he began.

"Now nothing!" she replied abruptly, as reality overrode the influence of the wine. She got up and walked to the window overlooking the city. "Chakotay, you know the rules. I was the Captain. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could say. I learned to live with it. It doesn't matter."

"Well it matters to me! I wish you'd have talked to me about it," Chakotay had crossed to stand beside her. He took several slow breaths to calm and centre himself, and then placed his hands lightly on her shoulders.

She spoke first. "I needed you as my First Officer. I couldn't let anything interfere with that role."

"I can understand that, Kathryn, but I think you got to know me pretty well over the years. Did you really think I would let my personal feelings interfere with my duties?"

"I couldn't take that risk, Chakotay. I was alone out there."

"We were out there together, dammit! Why didn't you trust me enough to let me share this?"

"Simple. In case it went wrong. I couldn't afford to lose you. I had to think of what the ship needed, and that was a First Officer. There were many times when we disagreed, Chakotay, times when we barely spoke. How could we have left that in the Ready Room?"

Chakotay sighed deeply. She had a point, but he still felt slighted. "I guess I understand though I still disagree. We can't change the past but we're home now and ..."

"And nothing, Chakotay. I said it doesn't matter." She turned away from him, facing towards the window. Dammit, she needed to explain herself better. "I'm sorry, Chakotay, this isn't coming out the way it should."

Chakotay didn't think he was going to like where this conversation was headed, but was compelled to keep her talking. "Just tell me what you need to say, Kathryn."

She turned and stood before him, back straight and chin up. She took a deep breath, and then quietly said, "Your friendship means everything to me. I don't want to lose that."

Chakotay shook his head. "Help me understand this, Kathryn. You aren't willing to be in a relationship with me because you don't want to lose our friendship?"

Kathryn bit her lip, and nodded. There was so much more that she wanted to say, but she simply stood there, looking at him.

"What else is going on?" he asked, suddenly.

"Nothing," Kathryn lied.

"Have you met someone else?"

Kathryn laughed. "When, Chakotay? I've had as much spare time as you have since we're home..."

"Yes or no?" Chakotay wasn't laughing.

"No, I haven't, not that it's any of your business." Kathryn knew her snide comment was hurtful, but she couldn't help it.

"Is it the debriefings?" Chakotay was determined to keep her talking. "Or do you still not trust me enough ... " A horrible thought entered his mind. "Or do you not have any feelings for me anymore?"

Quickly, she analyzed her options. She could lie to him, and tell him she had no feelings for him. Or she could admit that she did have feelings for him, and still hope to convince him that a relationship wouldn't work. Either way, his trust in her, and possibly their valued friendship, was in peril.

She met his eyes, sadly. "Isn't it obvious?"

"No, it isn't. Just, for once in your life, tell me how you feel!"

Janeway walked over to the sofa, and sat down, rubbing her forehead. Chakotay calmed himself as he followed her, and sat on the other side of the coffee table. He waited, then reached out and put a hand on her knee. She jumped slightly, and then looked at him. "I can't do this right now. I'm sorry."

He took a deep breath, stood up, and left. It was a long time before either of them got to sleep that night.

 

The debriefings continued the following day. Neither Chakotay nor Janeway called the other for breakfast, and they showed up separately at the debriefing room. After some initial awkwardness, they were polite and professional towards each other, and no one but the empathic counsellor could tell of their discord. The days passed, with continued counselling sessions mixed in with the debriefings. By necessity, they resumed having working lunches together, but neither made an effort to suggest additional meals or other social activities together. Whenever she caught herself looking forward a little too much to seeing Chakotay, Kathryn would force herself to retreat again.

Chakotay noticed that she had withdrawn from him almost completely. He didn't understand her actions, and he didn't like it. He put it down to the only thing he could think of, which was stress regarding the debriefings, and decided to bide his time. It was true that she constantly worried about the fate of the Maquis crew, to the point of almost threatening the Admiralty, but all indications were for a positive outcome, and the pattern didn't fit. Finding her seemingly erratic emotional response to him troubling, he was irritated by her current behaviour regarding the assessment of the Maquis crew and worried that she was overstepping her bounds, taking responsibility where none lay, and making the situation worse for both of them. It was his opinion that she was undermining his position by her overzealous defence. His actions and record could defend himself, if needed, but he was increasingly angry for not being given the chance. He was secretly glad, for Kathryn's sake, that the counselling team was so involved and integral to the debriefing process.

The last few months of Voyager's journey finally came under the microscope. Kathryn was particularly upset when the focus of Chakotay's questioning turned to culpability for Teero. Janeway felt the Admirals showed a lack of understanding, and attempted to clarify a number of medical and psychological elements involved. Janeway had interrupted yet again and explained the inability of Tuvok and her Maquis crewmen to resist, but was herself interrupted by Admiral Hawkins.

"Yes, Captain, we have read the report from your EMH. Our main concern is regarding the possibility of residual effects, or the ability for Teero, or someone like Teero, to further enlist Tuvok or the former Maquis for other acts of violence. We feel there is insufficient proof that all probability of a security threat has been eliminated. Lieutenant Commander Tuvok or Commander Chakotay would be the most logical persons for someone like Teero to employ. We simply need to investigate that possibility."

Janeway was fuming mad. Chakotay stole a glance, and wondered why there wasn't steam coming out of her ears. He was sure that he felt almost as angry as she did, but his approach was going to be more productive. She was determined that she would minimize any impact on Chakotay, and began another tirade.

"Captain Janeway! Please! We will tolerate no further interruptions. Counsellors have requested a recess; we will reconvene at 0800 tomorrow. Dismissed!"

Kathryn stormed out of the council chamber and went directly to her quarters.

Her chime sounded a few moments later and Deanna entered when Kathryn didn't respond. They had discussed the Maquis, and Chakotay in particular, nearly every time they spoke. Deanna sensed a deep affection for Chakotay, but also a deep sense of loss. She'd never spoken of this to Kathryn, waiting for Kathryn to begin that discussion. It was now time for Deanna to raise the subject. She was brutally honest and she told Kathryn she was undermining Chakotay's position, and needed to let him handle it himself. He needed to prove himself to Starfleet in this instance, just as his actions had over the seven year voyage, and Kathryn's behaviour indicated that she did not have faith in him. Deanna told Kathryn that she sensed deep affection for her from Chakotay, but also increasing anger and resentment. Deanna warned that if she wanted to salvage their friendship, Kathryn needed to consider her advice very seriously.

Kathryn was angry and stunned at Deanna's words. She was only trying to do the best for her crew, and sitting back doing nothing was not a strategy she often employed. She was especially concerned with making sure Chakotay was treated fairly. Deanna stayed for a lengthy time, knowing she needed to help soothe Kathryn's unsettled nerves.

"You're not seeing what's important here, Kathryn. I'm trying to help you. You're out of line." Deanna tried to be rational despite her frustration. "The Admiralty has been supportive of just about all of your actions and decisions, and have stated repeatedly that they're looking at events in the framework of the bigger picture. Teero's treachery is the issue, not Chakotay's trustworthiness or your judgement of him."

"I won't let him suffer for being unable to resist Teero's influence! Their logic is flawed. It feels more like a witch-hunt than an inquiry. They can't get past the fact that he was Maquis..."

When the door chimed, Troi rose to answer it. "I'm leaving now, Kathryn, but I need you to promise me that you'll consider all that I've said. This has been the most difficult challenge for you so far, and I think we both know it's because of your unresolved feelings for Commander Chakotay. Don't let those feelings cloud your judgement." She opened the door, and coolly greeted Chakotay. "Commander, we were just discussing today's session."

"I see," he replied evenly. Troi felt the anger oozing from him, and considered staying to mediate. Instead, she thought they needed to clear the air between them themselves.

"I know this has been difficult for both of you. I also know you both want the best from this unpleasant situation. But you've got to find some common ground or your friendship will suffer. I know just how much that means to both of you... and I think each of you does as well, if you would only admit it to one another." She paused, and looked at each of them in turn. "Think about what is most important for both of you." She left without another word.

Chakotay was still standing by the door.

"I'm sorry, Chakotay, please come in." Kathryn was flustered by Deanna's words, but hoped it wasn't obvious.

Unfortunately, Deanna's words left Chakotay even angrier. "Just how much does my friendship mean to you now, Kathryn? Or is it ‘Captain' right now? I never know from one minute to the next." He walked over to stand in front of her, stopping a bit closer than made her comfortable. She looked up and met his eyes squarely.

"You know your friendship means everything to me."

"And just how would I know that? I can't even quantify your moods lately. And you seem to have a pretty low opinion of me as far as the debriefings are concerned. I can take care of myself."

Kathryn reached up and tried to place her hand on his upper arm. "Chakotay - " she started.

"What the hell do you want from me, Kathryn?" he asked, anger evident in his voice. She had barely spoken to him since he'd admitted his feelings to her, and had certainly not touched him. Touching him when he was angry was the last thing he wanted from her.

Her eyes became round and her mouth dropped open in shock at his rudeness. She recovered quickly, snapping her lips closed and straightening her spine as she withdrew her hand.

"Let's just talk," she replied evenly, "about what's going here. About what's wrong." Her ability to regain control so quickly didn't surprise him, but it did anger him.

"It's not what's wrong, Kathryn, it's what isn't right."

She licked her lips and swallowed before responding. "What isn't right?"

"Nothing is right, dammit!" He got up, and walked to the window, overlooking the grounds.

She waited a few moments, then walked over to him and stood behind him, and gently placed her hand on his shoulder. "Please talk to me..."

Again, he stepped away from her hand and looked at her, his eyes blazing. "Why are you doing this? What the hell do you want from me?"

Kathryn furrowed her brow, wondering at his obvious animosity. She breathed in deeply and met his eyes. "I'm worried about how things are going for you. I want to help."

"You're worried about me?? You're the one who's not yourself in there. You..."

"Don't tell me what I am and what I'm not!" Kathryn instinctively drew back. "Chakotay, I'm sorry. As I said I'm just trying to help..."

"Captain, I don't want your help. In fact, I wish you'd stop ‘helping' me..."

Kathryn stood quietly, taken aback. She nodded once, and then faced Chakotay squarely. "All right, Commander, what would you like me to do?"

Chakotay stared at her for a moment. The Captain's mask was firmly in place, and for a moment, he hated her for it. He wanted her to admit that she felt... something. Anything, really.

"Nothing. I want you to do nothing they don't ask. Let's play it out. Give me a chance to handle this myself."

Kathryn knew he was right, as was Deanna. She just didn't want to accept it. She didn't want to risk losing him to a penal colony. Although the debriefings were several weeks old, she felt a sudden pang of deep sadness. She was on the verge of losing her Voyager family, of being unable to protect them anymore. Chakotay was the last of the ‘family' to go and he'd be taking her heart with him when he left. Maybe she needed more time with Deanna.

 

The next day saw a tired Janeway report to the debriefings session. The room was again filled with Voyager crew as their former Captain and First Officer took their places on the dais. Admiral Paris looked out into the full room, then turned and smiled at his former protégé. Kathryn relaxed slightly; surely that had to be a good sign. After some cursory introductory comments, Admiral Paris presented a summary of the commission's findings.

"Your situation was unique and unprecedented. We hope we have taken into account the many variables with which you were faced: amalgamating two disparate crews; the loss of senior medical and bridge staff amongst the third of the crew who perished initially; the prospect of a 70-year journey with no foreseeable replacement staff; nonexistence of allies; inability to find foodstuffs, fuel and other supplies; inability to communicate with Starfleet and family and friends; the inordinate amount of First Contact situations faced, many of which were hostile; the revelation that you had a Cardassian spy aboard; additional loss of crew to a murder and senseless violence; and so on. We cannot begin to fully comprehend your situation, but with your logs, our questioning, and the help of the counsellors, we hope we have been just and fair."

Paris looked directly at Janeway and Chakotay, and continued. "There were some bad decisions made. Certainly, there were breaches in protocol." Kathryn paled, but did not look away. "There were breaches of the Prime Directive. There were some unnecessary risks. There were unfortunate outcomes to some of these indescretions. Padds will be available detailing the summary findings of these problem areas. Our focus has been on justifiability. Were the command decisions based, as far as possible, on Starfleet principle? If not, were the aberrations in contravention of protocol to the extent to warrant court martial? Were they justifiable?"

He paused, choosing his words carefully. "Starfleet officers are highly trained professionals who have to be able to follow procedure and make snap life-saving decisions in the heat of the moment. They are also human, which is why Starfleet has a plethora of fail-safe policies in place to prevent catastrophic cascades. Our preliminary findings indicate that, for the most part, proper procedure and protocol were followed. In those instances where contraventions occurred, the back up control, in terms of chain of command, prevented major issues. Several highly irregular situations received the greatest scrutiny: the alliance with the Borg on Stardate 50984.3, giving holodeck technology to the Hirogen, on Stardate 51715.2, and the meeting with and subsequent destruction of the USS Equinox on Stardate 52983.4. Your return to the Alpha Quadrant its implications in regard to the Temporal Prime Directive have also been discussed." This time, Janeway involuntarily glanced at Chakotay, and the murmuring of the crowd increased. "The situations surrounding these incidents were unique. Strictly following the letter of Starfleet law, there are some problems with the decisions and actions made. However - " he raised his voice as he continued speaking - "these decisions and actions were justified, in the opinion of this committee. No formal charges will be filed for any of these incidents." The sound of Janeway's exhalation was lost in the roar of the crowd.

Owen Paris was still speaking. "There are two matters that need to be addressed at this time. The first is in regard to the mutiny on Stardate 54090.4 when the former Maquis crew was under the influence of the Bajoran outlaw vedek Teero Anaydis. No culpability is assigned in this instance, except to Teero himself, of course. However, further medical evaluation of Lieutenant Commander Tuvok, Commander Chakotay and the rest of the former Maquis is required to determine that the threat of future manipulation does not exist." Kathryn turned to look at Chakotay and their eyes met squarely. Despite the current state of their relationship his small smile still caused a slight flutter in her stomach. She nodded, agreeing to let it go.

"Finally - ..." Owen's voice broke through the mutterings "... - I am pleased to announce that all field promotions will stand." Janeway beamed proudly at her crew, who smiled broadly in return. She would willingly have taken any and all disciplinary repercussions resulting from their seven-year exile if it meant that her crew was rewarded for their loyalty and hard work. She was ecstatic.

Paris continued, "Each of you will receive a padd with your personnel information, as well as contact information for your resettlement specialist." Many people nodded and smiled; this day was even more pleasant than had been anticipated. "I also have the honour of ending the debriefings and sincerely welcoming you all home. Congratulations, crew of the USS Voyager."

After the spontaneous applause, which was allowed though it was inappropriate for a debriefing, died down, Paris spoke again. "Captain Janeway, will you please come to the podium."

Janeway rose, and proudly walked to where Owen stood. They smiled at one another, and then Owen turned her to face her former crew. "Kathryn Elizabeth Janeway, Captain of the USS Voyager, you have tirelessly tried to uphold the Starfleet tradition to the best of your ability in a hostile environment, and have succeeded in your incredible journey against many almost unbelievable odds. At the recommendation of the Federation president and this committee, by the power vested in me by Starfleet, I hereby bestow upon you the rank of Rear Admiral, with all the inherent duties and privileges assigned."

Kathryn's mouth dropped open as the room filled with cheers and clapping. Owen shook her hand, and then leaning in closely, whispered in her ear, "Congratulations, Katie! You deserve it!"

All Kathryn could think about was her crew, and how well they had worked together and how hard they'd worked to get home. She turned to the crowd and thanked them profusely, then hesitantly called over Chakotay. She looked at him apologetically, which he acknowledged with a small smile and a nod. Their peace made, she praised him at some length, until Admiral Paris broke in to ask everyone to join him in the Constellation Room for refreshments in honour of Starfleet's newest Admiral.

 

Kathryn insisted on staying with Chakotay and the former Maquis until all the assessments were completed and everyone had been medically cleared to leave. At his request, Chakotay was the last to be assessed. The entire process took several weeks, but it was not unpleasant. With the stress of the outcome of the debriefings removed, and the implication of the most recent disagreement still on their minds, he and Kathryn made a point to put their differences aside and be especially kind to one another.

During this time, additional leave had been granted for anyone else who had requested it. Many had offers for positions within Starfleet. There was enforced leave for those who required additional counselling. This included most of the senior staff as a matter of course.

The beginning of the end of her Voyager life was finally a reality for Janeway. She felt extremely sad, yet was pointedly stoical in her dealings with any crewmembers she met. At the conclusion of the Maquis assessment, a formal reception was planned to recognize the field promotions. Unaware of their complicated and mixed feelings, Owen asked Chakotay to escort his former Captain.

Chakotay commed Janeway as she was packing up her personal belongings. He asked if he could come over to talk, and once he arrived, he asked if he could escort her to the formal reception later that evening. They had a very pleasant conversation, discussing possibilities for the future for individual members of the crew and themselves.

They hadn't been alone together in quarters since their last argument. They surprised themselves with the ease of the renewal of their affection for one another, and spoke warmly to each other. It seemed neither wanted to let go of the intimacy of their shared Delta Quadrant experience. As they continued to talk, however, Janeway remembered her self-imposed restrictions and her sadness increased. Chakotay noticed, despite her brave façade.

She dreaded their separate future, but thought that this necessary discussion should occur in private, rather than in a crowded room with their crew present. She had rehearsed a ‘good-bye' speech, needing to be sure he understood his value to her, and wanting him to know of her eternal respect and gratitude for every way he'd helped her above the requirements of First Officer over the years. Chakotay listened intently, waiting for her to drop the ball. Eventually, she got around to telling him that it would be best if they kept their distance from one another after the ball. Chakotay was confused and angry; once again she was guarding her emotions, slamming up a barrier between them. This time, the tone of her message seemed to preclude even friendship. She tried to explain that it was important to her, and that he just had to trust her.

"Why should I trust you on this when you've had such difficulty trusting me?" he demanded, angrily. "Why do you keep doing this?"

Janeway was flustered. "I don't know how to say this so you'll understand. I'm sorry, Chakotay. Just ... forget it. It's not important."

Chakotay was hurt."How can you say how much I mean to you, then tell me to get on with my life without you in it? You're a big part of my life."

"I have to. It's for the best. You have to have your own life, and I have to have mine. That's all." Janeway never wanted to tell him what the Admiral said, to burden him with knowing what she had risked to get home, even though there was no longer a worry about repercussions for her career.

He knew there was something she wasn't telling him, and he'd had enough. Chakotay stormed out.

Janeway called after him. "Chakotay, please! I'll try to explain --" He disappeared around the corner, and she called him on his commbadge. "Chakotay, I'm sorry. I know this is difficult, but please, it's for the best. Would you rather not escort me? I'm sure that we can... "

"No, Captain. I'll escort you, as requested by Admiral Paris. I'm Starfleet. I know all about duty; you taught me well. I'll be there at 1830 tonight. Chakotay out."

 

Janeway dreaded what she felt would be their final encounter. How had she let it come to this? He arrived at 1830 sharp, and addressed her as "Captain" as he stood at parade rest at the door. Their dress uniforms only added to the tension around them.

All of the Senior staff sat at a table with the big brass, and Kathryn and Chakotay made the most of using other Officers for distractions. As the evening got underway, Kathryn read her prepared speech and began the presentations. Harry Kim received thunderous applause when Janeway presented him with his Lieutenant pips. Eventually, Janeway called for Chakotay to please step forward. Her heart was full to bursting with pride as she promoted  him to Captain. He was very surprised, and they both stood awkwardly, unsure of how to give or receive congratulations.

Oh, how Kathryn wished she could celebrate this moment with him the way it should have been! There were many hugs and tears among the rest of the people gathered, while Kathryn stood back, keeping what she felt was an appropriate distance from her crew. Gretchen, Phoebe and Phoebe's husband came to be with Kathryn, and she was glad for their support.

The ball began with a very tense dance for Janeway and Chakotay. Members of their crew took numerous holo-images; Kathryn hoped the doctor took at least one good one that he would be willing to share, quietly of course. She overheard several of the crew comment that it looked as if they were finally together, and hoped they were happy. If only they knew, Kathryn thought grimly as she tried to ignore her inner conflict, and simply concentrate on being in the moment. His hand held hers lightly, almost as if he was afraid to touch her. She tried, but couldn't quite meet his eyes as they danced. They didn't speak.

As their song ended, they were approached by Annika. Her usual rigid pose was only slightly relaxed as she explained that she had come to say goodbye to everyone, now that the ceremony was finished. She had agreed to take a research position on Vulcan, and was leaving with Tuvok. Kathryn congratulated her, even gave her a gentle hug, which Annika returned with much enthusiasm. Kathryn smiled at her, and asked her to please keep in touch. Annika nodded, and then glanced at Chakotay.

"Goodbye, Chakotay. I wish you well on your first mission as Captain. I am certain you will succeed."

"Thank you, Annika. And I hope you enjoy the peace of Vulcan." He also gave her a small hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.

"Indeed," she replied calmly, and then nodded at them to take her leave. "Admiral, Captain."

"Something wrong, Admiral?" Chakotay interrupted Kathryn's thoughts. She was a bit perturbed by the lack of a more personal goodbye between Annika and Chakotay.

"I'm fine," she replied, causing a flash of anger in Chakotay. "Excuse me," she said, then made her way to the balcony to look over the grounds.

Phoebe had been watching her sister, and wasn't pleased with what she saw. She casually sauntered over to where Chakotay stood at the bar, and reintroduced herself. Then she asked him pointedly what he had done to upset her sister. Chakotay huffed a laugh.

"What I've done? I haven't got a clue. She won't tell me a damn thing and has made it clear she never wants to see me again. Let me know when you figure it out." He walked away, rudely, feeling a bit defensive. He'd tried to be understanding, given the incredible emotional roller coaster they'd all been riding. It had been tough on all of them, and particularly on Kathryn. He could only give her time and space to settle in, and hoped eventually to regain their former friendship. She'd distanced herself so far; he didn't know what was going on, and was annoyed at being blamed for it.

Phoebe was determined. She sought out her sister, and confronted her on the balcony. Kathryn's eyes were as round as saucers when Phoebe said she'd been talking to Chakotay. "Phoebe, how could you? You swore you wouldn't say a word to him!"

"No, I swore not to blab to Starfleet. What is going on? Just talk to him..."

"Phoebe, just butt out, please. Do not mention this."

"He thinks he won't see you again."

"He's probably right," Kathryn sighed. "It'll be better that way."

"For whom?"

"Phoebes, you don't understand. I can't interfere. The only thing that matters is Chakotay's happiness. I promised. It's not up to me."

"Oh, this is the Admiral talking?"

"Yes, and I've already screwed up somehow. They're not together, and haven't been for some time. And now Annika is off to Vulcan for who-knows-how-long." Kathryn rubbed her forehead with her left hand.

"Kathryn, enough already. Why do you think it had anything to do with you? Why the guilt? Chakotay is a big boy - if he wanted to be with Annika, he would be. Isn't she still with Reg Barclay? I think they've both made their choices."

"No, Phoebe, they should be together. Hopefully, they'll find their way back to each other. Besides, it hurts me to be near either of them - I just need to keep my distance."

"You're crazy, you know that? How do you know she was telling the truth? Okay, so that's not what I meant. How do you know her truth is your truth? That was a different time and place. Her going back to your time changed things. Isn't it possible that all this changed too? Maybe Chakotay and Seven aren't supposed to be together in this timeline, on Earth, now. Maybe not being on Voyager changed the nature of their relationship too much. They each seem happy enough without each other..."

"No, they're not. Annika can't handle the media's obsession with her, the people, the constant attention - it's too stressful for her. That's why she's agreed to go to Vulcan - I have to respect that. And Chakotay, well, he is unhappy too. "

"Chakotay is unhappy because he's worried about you."

Kathryn paused, to calm the slight fluttering of her heart. Then she steeled herself. "Nonsense, why would he worry about me? I'm fine. I'm only concerned with the fact that he and Annika are supposed to be together and they're not. The Admiral said he and Annika were married - did I tell you that already? They obviously loved each other very much. The Admiral said he was never the same man after she ... died. He must have blamed me for sending her on the mission that killed her. The Admiral told me she was pregnant. Chakotay has talked of wanting a family. There's no doubt in my mind that he blamed me, and rightfully so. As Captain, it would ultimately have been my fault. Besides, all we've done is argue since we got home..." Phoebe and Kathryn continued to bicker, unaware that Chakotay had seen Phoebe leave and had just come over to apologize for his previous comments.

"It really is better if Chakotay and I never see each other again, Phoebe. Surely you can understand that. After everything he's..."

Chakotay didn't wait to hear the end of the sentence. He felt cold, numb all over. He made his way to Tom and B'Elanna to say his goodbyes for the evening. He needed to get away, to be alone, to meditate.

"Kathryn, you know I disagree, but I love you too much to put this between us. Let's just enjoy the rest of the night, okay?"

"You go ahead. I'd like to stay out here for a bit." Kathryn did not turn around as Phoebe left the balcony. She stood, looking over the grounds. Her eyes caught sight of Chakotay walking out the door, away from the celebration. He didn't look back. Please let him be going to properly say goodbye to Annika, she thought. At the same time though, she was left feeling even sadder. She was also relieved that he'd left; she couldn't face him.

Chakotay had wanted to talk to her tonight, and get to the bottom of whatever was going on. He hadn't wanted to part ways on bad terms. He was glad he had saved himself the embarrassment, he thought bitterly. It should have been a wonderful night. He was happy to have been promoted to a Captain and to have command of his own ship.

As he continued walking back to his quarters, he thought abstractedly of the potential missions he might lead, wondering where they might send him. The thought unnerved him slightly - he needed to feel more settled before embarking with a different crew on another mission. He decided he wanted to return to Trebus, to see for himself the devastation and rebuilding, and make his peace there. When he reached his quarters, he drafted an official acceptance of the offered leave. He changed, checked the schedule, and headed off to the nearest transport station to begin his new life.

 

Kathryn returned to Indiana for her additional leave and counselling. She felt rudderless, and was anxious to return to work. She put off looking for her own place to live, not having enough energy to care. By the beginning of fall, Troi had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress Kathryn had made. She was holding so much back, making it virtually impossible for Troi to sense anything but negative emotions from her. Gretchen watched her daughter become quieter and more withdrawn, and feared that she was again sinking into a depression. Phoebe was also very worried - she too had seen this before. Gretchen and Phoebe spoke to Deanna about Kathryn's previous depression, and Troi reread all the logs and pertinent information about Kathryn's depression in ‘the void'. Troi was convinced to let Kathryn return to work, feeling that having a purpose again would be the best for her.

Kathryn was relieved to return to work. Her readjustment was initially slow, being accustomed to being on a ship with a small crew instead of in an office within communications range of billions. Troi was pleased that Kathryn had finally shown some signs of adjusting, and thought that a counsellor change might also prove helpful. After a few weeks, she announced that she was going to return to the Enterprise, and introduced Kathryn to her new counsellor, who Kathryn was pleased to learn was not a Betazed. They got along well, and soon thereafter, Kathryn bid a warm farewell to Deanna.

Christmas came and went, and then the New Year was celebrated. Kathryn had quietly acknowledged Prixin as well, an homage to her distant friend, Neelix. She was quite surprised when shortly thereafter Admiral Paris set up communication with Neelix as a treat for Kathryn. Under Reg Barclay, Starfleet had set up regular communications into the Delta Quadrant to gain information, but Kathryn had not previously had personal contact with Neelix. She was thrilled to see how his life was progressing with Dexa and Brax.

Christmas vacation also brought about a bittersweet reunion with Mark when he and his wife and children had returned to Indiana to celebrate the holidays. Kathryn had stayed home while Gretchen had gone to see Phoebe and her husband. Mark and Carla and their two boys came for dinner with Kathryn that night. The women were instant friends. Mark and Kathryn reminisced, and the evening was pleasant. She had long since gotten over any affection she'd had for Mark, other than as a friend. Molly seemed to remember her, but it was only right that she stayed with Mark; they were her family now. Kathryn felt the familiar pangs of regret and loss when Mark and his family left, leaving her in the quiet, empty house. She needed the distraction of work, and was glad when the break was over.

 

Voyager's former crew had settled back into the Alpha Quadrant in a multitude of ways. Some of the crew were back out on new assignments; some had resigned Starfleet and worked for private corporations or in various educational institutions. Some of the Maquis were attending the Academy with Icheb.

Janeway knew she was happiest when she was busy, and she continued to immerse herself in her work, forcing away her emotions. She was extremely conscious of the impression made on her by Admiral Janeway and did not want to emulate her isolation, however. She made a point of contacting various crewmembers on a rotating schedule, and sought out those few surviving friends she had. She also tried to spend as much time as possible with Phoebe and her mother. Her counsellor was pleased that she was seeking out social contacts. She wasn't unhappy, but she still felt lonely, especially when she thought of her former First Officer.

Chakotay was not on Kathryn's list of people to contact. She knew that he'd been on Trebus and then had been given command of the retrofitted Voyager. Kathryn's heart ached when she thought of it - many of their former crew had joined him. She kept tabs through official channels at work only. She was happy for him. She didn't look at the messages he'd sent her, even though she desperately wanted to hear his voice. It was easier to try to not have any reminders of him.

 

In early summer, Kathryn was asked to attend a retirement dinner for Academy staff, with many other Admirals, Captains, and other Starfleet brass. She was completely unnerved when Chakotay was escorted to her table, and seated beside her. Once the initial shock had worn off, they tried hard to cover their unease from the other dignitaries at their table. Chakotay took the high road, and was complimentary and pleasant, and directed the conversation. He didn't mention his unanswered messages, and she relaxed slightly as the evening wore on. He filled her in on Voyager's status, laughing at her version of how shocked she'd been when she discovered that Tom Paris was his First Officer! It rather felt like old times. Chakotay could hear the longing in her voice, and offered to give her a tour of her old ship. She froze.

"Thank you for the offer, but I don't think so."

"How are you doing, Kathryn? Seriously."

"I'm fine. I'm good, busy. I do miss space though. And everyone."

"And we miss you too. I miss you."

She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "I'm sorry. I..." She stopped, unsure of what to say.

At her silence, Chakotay spoke. "You've been avoiding me for months. I have tried not to push but I don't understand. Can you please tell me what's going on?"

"No."

"I'll be honest, Kathryn. It's been really hard. Seeing you tonight has shown me how much I missed you."

Kathryn sighed. "I can't tell you anything, Chakotay."

"Is it something I've done or something I said?"

"No, it's not you."

"Well then let me help. That's what friends do."

"No. I think it's better if we stop doing this. Let's just ... not see each other."

Chakotay quickly became angry at this same, circular conversation. "Why?"

"Simple. You're better off without me in your life."

"How can you say that? You don't know that. Why would you think that?"

"Can't you trust me on this?"

"No, it doesn't make sense. It's like you're not thinking rationally here. Just explain it to me, will you?" Chakotay began to seriously wonder if he should contact Kathryn's counsellor. Something was very wrong.

Kathryn smiled sadly at him, and reached out a hand to his cheek. "Be happy, Chakotay. That's all that matters." He sat, stunned, feeling the warmth on his cheek where her hand had caressed him. By the time he shook himself out of it, she had risen and left.

 

One week later there was a dinner commemorating the one year anniversary of the return of Voyager. Most of the crew, along with spouses, children and other family members, returned for this reunion. They mingled throughout afternoon, exchanging laughter and even a few tears. A couple of the former crew approached Janeway and asked her to officiate at upcoming weddings; one asked if Janeway and Chakotay would both perform a joining ceremony on his home planet. Kathryn was honoured and agreed, but said she couldn't speak for Chakotay. The crewman seemed surprised that they hadn't spoken yet, as both had been there several hours. Kathryn had been politely ignoring him. Steering clear of him for the entire night was not a possibility, however, as they were naturally seated beside each other at the head table for the evening meal. Kathryn resigned herself to steering the conversation to neutral topics, as she was determined to stay for the entire evening.

It had been many months since Phoebe had laid eyes on Chakotay. She was worried about Kathryn, and Phoebe was sure that he could help pull Kathryn out of her ever-present gloom. Phoebe was determined to get Chakotay involved. She strode up to him as he walked away from talking to Naomi Wildman and her father. He watched her coolly as she approached.

"Nothing's changed, Phoebe, so save your breath. She doesn't want me to interfere with whatever convoluted notion is going through her stubborn head."

"How do you know?"

He laughed. "She told me off again just last week."

"Did she tell you why?"

"No, she won't talk about it."

"Chakotay, are you happy?"

"Happy enough." He answered Phoebe's non sequitor with no more than passing interest.

"What would make you happier?"

"What? Why?" That question caught his attention.

Phoebe knew this might be her last chance, and threw caution to the wind. "Are you in love with Annika?"

"Annika? What does she have to do with anything?"

"You two aren't dating anymore, aren't you?"

"No. We dated a few times just before Voyager made it home. What has that got to do with anything?"

"The Admiral thought there was more."

"Kathryn?"

"No.Well, yes. The first Admiral, the one who came to you on Voyager."

"Care to enlighten me on what you are talking about?"

Phoebe sighed. "Tell me more about you and Annika."

Chakotay eyed her speculatively. "What's to say? She had just begun exploring the concepts of dating, and she sought me out for help. We never got serious. She decided that there were many other options available to her once we hit Earth. Actually, it was a relief when we decided to stop seeing each other. I helped her settle in at her Aunt's, but as a friend, that's all. I like her, but not romantically. We're certainly not in love with each other; in fact, I'm pretty sure she's in love with someone else. We are just friends. Really." Why did he feel like he had to defend himself?

At Phoebe's stunned face, he said, "Sorry. Were you looking for something to add to the trashy newsvids? They've been hounding her again, now that Voyager is back in the news. Jerks."

Phoebe looked down, thinking. Chakotay was getting tired of this game.

"Phoebe, what is going on?"

"What do you know of what the Admiral told Kathryn?"

"Related to this? I know she tried to drive a wedge between me and Annika."

"She what?"

"Annika and I had only had about three dates by the time she came on board. She told Annika that she would hurt me, badly, so Annika decided to end our relationship right then. I was angry at first, and fought against it. It's my nature, I guess - I don't like anyone telling me what I can or can't do. Anyway, as soon as we got back to Earth, we both realized it was the right thing to do though. I don't know, maybe it would have grown to something more if we'd stayed on the ship, but we're different in too many ways on Earth. Phoebe, what is it?"

Phoebe was shaking her head. "The Admiral told Kathryn that you and Annika were married."

"We what?"

"Yes, apparently madly in love. And then three years later, Annika died and you were never the same. She was pregnant. Kathryn assumed that you blamed her for sending Annika on the away mission that caused her death, and she can't forgive herself because in the Admiral's timeline, you never forgave her."

Chakotay stood, staring at Phoebe in shock.

"She can't forgive herself for something her future self may or may not have done, and by changing the timeline, will likely never happen... that makes no sense. Although, to Kathryn, I can see how it might. She never did like temporal mechanics. "

"It might not be logical to us, but it somehow makes sense for her. She wants you to be happy. Kathryn thinks that you and Annika are meant to be together now because you were happily married in the Admiral's timeline. You were obviously compatible and in love then... That's what she wants for you. She promised the Admiral she'd be sure you were happy. She's having a hard time adjusting, Chakotay. She misses you all so much, you especially."

"I doubt she misses me. She made that pretty clear at the Voyager Ball."

"When? What did she say?"

"I overheard you two talking on the balcony."

Phoebe thought for a minute. "What did you hear?"

"I heard Kathryn say that the best thing for both of us would be to stay apart. I didn't stick around to hear more."

"Chakotay, she's got this all wrong. I told her I'd let it go, but I can't anymore. You've got to talk to her. Please!"

Chakotay thought about it for a long time, and then eventually figured that he didn't have anything to lose. He'd already put himself on the line for her, and survived the humiliation and rejection. Their friendship could hardly be more strained. He owed it to her to rid her of her unnecessary guilt. He walked over to her, took a fortifying breath and asked Kathryn to dance. She hesitated, but then agreed. He felt hopeful.

"Nice evening, isn't it?" he asked, indicating the crew and the gala. He held her lightly in his arms. She felt wonderful.

"Very nice. It's great to see everyone," she replied, noncommittally.

"It is. Listen, I need to talk to you ... I've missed you, Kathryn."

"Oh?" She stumbled slightly, then matched the rhythm and began dancing again.

"I think you've missed me too. Let's go talk, okay?"

"Chakotay." She sighed. Could she not just enjoy their dance without starting another argument? "There's no point. This was a bad idea - excuse me." She tried to leave the dance floor, but he pulled her back into his arms and held her tightly as he glared intensely into her eyes.

"No, Kathryn, we are going to talk. Now. Either on the dance floor, or at a table, or in the privacy of one of our rooms. But you are going to tell me what the hell is going on. Now."

"Let go of me!" she hissed through her teeth. Chakotay continued to dance, dragging Kathryn with him. "People will be talking tomorrow about our passionate embrace, Admiral. I suggest you pick up your feet or people with think you've swooned too."

Kathryn grudgingly adjusted her arms and matched his rhythm again, glaring daggers back at him. After a few moments, Chakotay calmly began to speak. "I've just had a most interesting conversation with your sister, Kathryn. I think I know a little more about what's been going on. Let's go sit and talk." He led her off the dance floor to a small table in a corner. They sat opposite each other. She didn't see that he hadn't taken his eyes off of her because she was looking down, desperately trying to figure out what to do. Damn Phoebe! Chakotay reached out his hand in invitation. She looked up into his dark eyes, and then looked away.

"Chakotay, you don't know how difficult this is for me."

He put his arm down on the table, close enough that she could take his hand if and when she decided to do so.

"I'm going to tell you something that you maybe didn't know. Annika and I had just started seeing each other a few weeks before Admiral Janeway showed up. In fact, we'd only had a few dates."

Kathryn looked up with a pained expression on her face. "Oh I knew, Chakotay. I'd heard rumblings before the Admiral showed up and told me."

"Why do you think she came back?"

"To get us home, obviously. Why else?"

"Did she tell you that she meant to come several weeks before she did? She needed us to be in that area of space, but she wanted to prevent Joe Carey from dying. And something else..."

Kathryn said nothing, just looked at Chakotay with wary eyes.

"She told Annika that she was going to cause me great pain, Kathryn. Annika tried to end our relationship then, but I was too stubborn to allow that at the time. Apparently, in the Admiral's timeline, Annika and I were quite happily married."

Kathryn hadn't known that the Admiral had spoken to Annika. She swallowed, and nodded slowly.

"And we were going to be parents. Apparently, Annika was pregnant, and was critically injured on an away mission. I never got over her death."

Kathryn nodded again, trying desperately to think of how to salvage their conversation.

"It didn't happen, Kathryn. That timeline doesn't exist. I think she - you - wanted to prevent Annika and me from ever being together in the first place."

In her heart, Kathryn couldn't have agreed more, however selfish she felt. Oddly enough, she was actually frightened of Chakotay's response. He'd just figured out that her future self had tried to prevent him from being in the relationship that was meant to make him eternally happy. Was he angry? She felt dreadful.

"Tell me exactly what Admiral Janeway told you on Voyager, Kathryn. I know the rest. I may as well have her side of the story from your point of view."

Kathryn pondered his words. He appeared more curious than upset. "All right.  Well, you know I disagreed with her plan to sabotage the Collective." Chakotay nodded. "I only agreed after she told me ... how many more years we would take to get home, and how many more crew we would lose. Tuvok's illness, Annika's death and your ... you were the clincher - it wasn't about my sacrifice, but yours. I thought I was stronger than that, but I was just being selfish when I agreed to her plan. Just as she boarded the shuttle, she ... she made me promise to do whatever was necessary to be sure that you would be loved and happy. And I've been trying to do what I thought she meant, which was safeguarding your relationship with Seven, but ..."

Kathryn furrowed her brow and cocked her head to one side. "In the context of all she told me, I was sure that your future happiness depended on the two of you being together. I didn't realize... I didn't say anything because I wanted to let your relationship happen without my interference. You've got to believe me when I say that I sincerely wanted it to work out between you if that was the way it was supposed to be."

Chakotay sighed, and raised his hand again, in invitation. "But it's not. Don't you see? It was just a couple dates." He took a deep breath as relief washed over him. "Who knows what happened then - or what would have happened if we'd stayed isolated out there? But we didn't. We're home, and that changes everything. We've moved on. She's met Reg, and they're quite suited to one another. She's happy, Kathryn, you know that."

Kathryn nodded, relaxing at his words.

"Most important, I haven't fallen in love with her. I don't think I ever will, either, and so she could never be the one to make me happy." Chakotay shook his head, and looked at Kathryn with a mischievous grin. "Want to know my theory? I think that the Admiral had been madly in love with me -" he flashed a handsome dimpled grin at her across the table and Kathryn blushed "-and was too principled to act on it in the Delta Quadrant. She wanted us to be together, but knew she - you - wouldn't be able to admit that to me until we were home. Unfortunately, by the time she arrived, Annika and I had started to see each other. She must have thought that she'd got there too late."

Kathryn knew that much was true - the Admiral had expressed regret at her timing. Why the devil hadn't she just told her what was going on? She looked at Chakotay's hand, and wondered if she really would be capable of doing everything the Admiral had done. She exhaled strongly. She knew how badly she'd been affected by seven years of guilt and regret. She'd seen the Admiral, and had seen the evidence that with more years of new guilt and regrets, she was certainly capable.

"It's not too late."

Kathryn looked up at Chakotay's handsome face, his eyebrows raised in question. Could he really be right? Could she risk doing this if he was mistaken? Having aired the Admiral's words negated the possibility of non-interference. Could it be that simple? Just take his hand and run with it? Her heart was screaming "YES!" but her rational side wondered how she could have been so wrong all this time.

He waited, patiently.

"You were only trying to do what you thought was right for all of us." Kathryn remembered her words to her older self. Why had it taken her so long to fully realize their significance?  With a soft sigh and a shy smile, she slowly reached out and tentatively took his hand with both of her trembling hands. Looking up, she met his warm, loving eyes.

Kathryn said the first thing that came to her. "I can't imagine how she felt performing your wedding." Then she tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a sob. Chakotay was up out of his chair and around to her in a second. He knelt down and hugged her tightly, stroking her back as she mumbled into his shoulder. "I feel like a fool. Do you have any idea what I've put myself through this past year? I tried so hard to stay out of your life and be happy for you."

"And all I wanted was for you to tell me again how you fell for me when we first met." He quirked his eyebrows at her, smiling.

"You have no idea! I've loved you for so long. It was so hard to try to stop..."

"I hope you don't ever stop." Chakotay became very serious. "I can't promise we'll always be happy together, but I think we'll both be unhappy if we don't at least try."

Kathryn gave him a lop-sided grin. "You don't know what you're asking. I hear I'm a real tyrant. Stubborn. Stickler for protocol..."

"Yeah? Well, maybe some of my habits will bother you too ... maybe you won't be able to handle my snoring," he grinned back suggestively.

"I've heard it through the bulkhead many a time. It was comforting to me to know you were right there, all those nights when I couldn't sleep... And who knows ... maybe you won't be able to deal with my snoring or my coffee intake or ..." They laughed together, and then Chakotay looked intently into her eyes.

"I do love you."

She spoke quietly, but with great conviction. "And I love you."

"I know you love me - enough to put your life, your career, everything at risk. You changed history because of me."

Kathryn nodded. She alone had carried the burden of that knowledge, and was relieved to be able to share it with the person that mattered most. It was a gift to both of them from her future self, and finally, they were able to share the gift. Kathryn was overcome with emotion, and her eyes filled with unaccustomed tears.

Chakotay moved to stand, only to have Kathryn reach out and put her arms around him.

Chakotay squeezed her gently. "I can't believe I finally have you in my arms! I am so sorry for letting you down. If Annika and I had never started dating - "

"- we might still be in the Delta Quadrant," she finished for him, her voice thick. They looked at each other for a moment, realization dawning.

"And not together," he said, nodding his head.

"Alone," she agreed.

"I guess it's a good thing, then, that Annika needed those social lessons."

"I'm sure you were a good teacher," Kathryn smiled shyly, running her thumb over his bottom lip.

"Maybe not. You do remember that she dumped me for Reg Barclay." Chakotay smiled, then kissed her finger.

"I'm glad."

"Are you, then?"

"Oh, yes," Kathryn replied, her voice quivering slightly. "Because if she hadn't dumped you, it wouldn't be right for me to kiss you..." she paused and leaned forward "... like this."

Chakotay silently thanked Annika and the Admiral as their lips met for the first time. It was time to begin rewriting the future.

Chapter End Notes:

 

Written for the following request: "I would like a JC story, post-Endgame. Janeway is an admiral, Chakotay and Seven part amicably early on in the story. Develop the story rather than having one or the other blurt out "I love you" in the middle of things, at least for this story :) Keep Gretchen and Phoebe Janeway alive. Special bonus if you include Owen Paris as well. It can include Prixin or New Years, but not particularly religious, and not a requirement that it be "seasonal"

December, 2007

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