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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.

Rating: G

Pairing: J/C

 

The crying had finally stopped. At last.

Kathryn Janeway lifted her head, and caught her own reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. She lifted one corner of her mouth and thought to herself, You smashed through a Borg transwarp hub and you can barely handle a one-month old half-Klingon?

Returning her gaze to the now-sleeping angel in her arms, Kathryn chose to ignore the detritus that had accumulated around her. She knew she should take the opportunity to tidy while the baby napped, but didn't want to miss a moment of this private, precious, snugly time. Miral had the most perfect little nose. Her tiny eyelids looked fragile and delicate below her small Klingon ridges. Their graceful curves were relaxed in sleep, and her peaceful countenance belied the strength and power they signified. The half-circles of her tiny fingernails were whitish-pink, almost indistinguishable from the fingers themselves. Her soft hair, her almost translucent ears... Kathryn was enchanted with the precious bundle in her arms. There was something special about holding a sleeping baby...

Kathryn got the impression that Tom and B'Elanna had exhausted their other options before calling on their former captain to babysit for the evening. After arriving she'd overheard them quietly respond to several comm calls, and was embarrassed to think that she was a ‘last resort'.  It had come as an uncomfortable realisation that maybe it wasn't her babysitting skills that had engendered their hesitation. She was closer to her senior staff than to just about anyone else, including her family, yet sadly, she felt that Tom and B'Elanna, like the rest of the people she'd spent the last seven years with, didn't really count her as a close friend. Certainly not the kind of friend they could call up without feeling it was an imposition. Too bad, she thought, and sighed. She was more than happy to help them.

Developing a closer relationship with her former crew was part of The New Alpha Quadrant Kathryn Janeway. There was no doubt in her mind that the Starfleet counsellors were having a field day trying to decide how best to deal with the many issues that had come up in their initial sessions with her. The counsellors had touched on her guilt and isolation, and asked her many difficult questions. They were amazed at her inner strength but cautioned that she needed to loosen her control, and let them, and others, help her. It had initially been extremely difficult for Kathryn to even consider forgiving herself.   

Kathryn knew she was a piece of work but she was so relieved to finally let down her guard, that she was ready to go along with almost anything. Her healing had begun after she spent an entire morning raging and ranting, followed by several hours of tears and silence. The counselling team was pleased that they'd found a crack in her armour. The reclamation project had begun.

Kathryn's thoughts wandered as she gazed at Miral, thinking of the opportunities ahead for this little girl. She thought of Tom and B'Elanna, how their relationship had evolved and flourished over the years.

Miral began to fuss and Kathryn's attention immediately returned to the child. Patting her back and making quiet shushing noises, the captain was rewarded once again with a contented, sleeping child.

Kathryn mused at her own response. One little squawk and Miral had made her needs known. Kathryn had reacted without conscious thought... to soothe, to comfort, to care, to love.  If only all emotional interactions were that straightforward, and that easily accommodated, she thought.

To comfort. Her thoughts turned inward, and she shook her head slightly. Who was she kidding? Rarely had she permitted anyone to get close enough to offer anything, let alone comfort; in her life, who had she allowed to soothe her? Eventually, most people accepted the distance and stopped trying to get any closer. Professional, efficient, task-oriented and driven were the words people associated with her, along with distant, cool, and controlled. A necessity of command, she thought wryly.

Or was it? As a young girl, she'd focused solely on her studies, not friendships or partying, or even dating. For as long as she could remember, not much else had mattered except science, math, and quantum mechanics. A bright student, she'd realised very early on that her father lavished a great deal of attention on her successes. She'd made a conscious decision, even at that very young age, to excel to get her father's attention... and love? Kathryn's breath caught at the thought, and jerked slightly. Laying Miral in her bed, she covered her with a light blanket and moved out into the living area.

Could it be that simple?  Kathryn wondered as she moved around the room, mindlessly tidying. Had her strive for excellence been her way of gaining the approval and acceptance of those around her? Surely not more than any other child. All young ones enjoy praise, and try to be the focus of attention. It is all part of their normal development.

Thinking back to her childhood, Kathryn scrutinized some of her memories. Excelling so Daddy would be proud was a very strong theme. Daddy was the key - her mother's calm, steady presence was never in doubt.

Hmmm, so maybe it was only men for which she felt this compulsion.

Kathryn stopped suddenly, and stood still, with spit-up cloths in one hand and Miral's last dirty diaper in the other.

Chakotay.

She'd instantly felt an attraction to the dark, brooding rebel who'd beamed onto her bridge, phaser drawn but it was his kind demeanour and generous persona that quickly won her over. Hopelessly drawn to him, Kathryn took refuge in her professionalism, and revelled in the fact that she'd been able to force down her feelings, whatever they might have been, deep inside.

After all, falling in love with one's XO would be the ultimate failure, the ultimate betrayal of all of her training. That, in turn, would be a major disappointment to everyone who was so proud of her.

Shaking her head, Kathryn pursed her lips and thought. But now I'm home, and unhappy, and alone...  what does it matter?

Stooping to pick up a small stuffed toy, Kathryn came eye-to-eye with a holo-image, perched on the coffee table, of the crew disembarking Voyager. At the time, she hadn't noticed that Chakotay had been standing to her left, just slightly behind her, in his usual position. Sighing, she replaced the holo-image and smiled sadly. She'd come to miss her crew in the last month, seeing very little of them during debriefings and although she'd seen numerous newsfeeds and holo-images, she hadn't seen this particular one.

Well, Kathryn thought, since this is a journey of self-evaluation, I'll admit to myself how much I miss him. There. That wasn't too hard.

 Taking a deep breath, she added,  And I think I was in love with him...  Again, she stood still, stunned.  Yes, was...  She paused, noticing a niggling feeling in her gut. No, I'm going to be completely honest with myself - I am in love with him... Her throat tightened as she continued the thought, and I let him go. Without one word. Without a fight.

That certainly didn't sit well. Kathryn didn't think of herself as a coward, but it appeared she'd been purposefully blind to her emotions and lost this battle without even knowing a war was being fought. She'd deliberately not brought him into her thoughts since the Admiral had told her of his future with Seven. Now she had a new dynamic to consider.

Kathryn set the toy on the table and tossed the dirty clothes into the recycler. After she washed her hands, she flopped on the couch, laid her head back and took some deep, calming breaths. Not yet used to being home, she knew that the change of pace was difficult for everyone. Yet her attempt to tell herself that tonight's emotional roller coaster was a by-product of her current feelings of displacement was futile.

Undertaking an honest assessment of herself and her and Chakotay's sometimes-turbulent relationship, she found clear and irrefutable evidence of her mutinous feelings for her former XO. Yet, it was too late. The joy of having successfully gotten her crew home should have been enough to compensate for those feelings of loss.

Was it? She was suddenly very sad. From full of hope and joy, to desolation and loneliness, in a matter of minutes... Kathryn, what have you done?

Kathryn cursed her weepiness, but allowed herself a few quiet tears that merely left her feeling drained and soggy. She'd cried more in the past month than in the previous seven years. It was terrifying, but liberating as well. After sitting for a few minutes, a feeling of calmness began to ease into her heart.  Accepting her newfound emotions was going to take some work.

Spent, she took a deep breath, and decided it was time to get moving before she was discovered in such a melancholy state. She replicated herself a glass of wine when the comm. terminal blinked an incoming message. Thinking it would be Tom or B'Elanna, she flipped it on, but was instead greeted by a sombre-looking Chakotay.

"Oh, Chakotay! Um.... hi."

"Kathryn? I'm sorry. I was looking for B'Elanna."

"Right house, wrong woman." Smiling, Kathryn explained that they weren't due back for a couple hours. "Anything I can do for you?"

With a small smile on his face, Chakotay shook his head at her wording. "They sounded desperate. No doubt you came to their rescue..."

Frowning, Kathryn shook her head slightly, wondering if her entire crew felt she was totally inept in childcare.

"Is Miral asleep?" he asked quickly, noting her expression.

"Out like a light." The pride of her words didn't quite reach her eyes. 

Chakotay smiled sadly. He knew she was putting on a brave face about something and really wished she wouldn't bother to try to hide.

There was a short, awkward silence.

"So..." Kathryn started, just as Chakotay said, "What...?"

They smiled again, this time they were genuine.

"You first," said Chakotay, ever the gentleman.

"I just wondered how you've been enjoying the Starfleet ‘welcome home party'?" she grimaced.

Chakotay snorted. "No wonder I left Starfleet if this is their idea of a party!" He shook his head, and then continued. "It hasn't been too bad, really. Just long, and boring. You?"

Kathryn quirked an eyebrow at him. "Boring? We've obviously had different ... interrogators." Scowling slightly, she caught herself and slipped back into Captain mode. "It's been fine. Fine."

Annoyed again at her unwillingness to admit to her discomfort, he regarded her cool expression. "Glad to hear it. Well, I guess I'll let you get back to ..."

He stopped, noticing her red eyes and overall countenance. She looked tired, and sad.

Before he could speak again, she smiled weakly, and nodded. "I'll let them know you called. Goodnight." Kathryn ended the call before her voice wavered.

Sighing, she stood up. Her reaction to seeing him had been unsettling. It was still there - the feeling. It was a good feeling, but it wasn't one she could enjoy.

To distract herself, Kathryn tidied up a bit more of the baby paraphernalia and then returned to her glass of wine. Looking around at the various gaudy, colourful and intense decorations of the room, Kathryn marvelled at how the very essence of Tom and B'Elanna was captured. This room was ‘them'.

Kathryn made a mental note to look into having someone help her do some decorating when she figured out where she was going. Other than a few holo-images and her sister's gentle watercolours, everything in her possession was plain and nondescript. Bland. Flat. Unemotional.

Kathryn desperately wanted to be more than beige.

The debriefings would soon be over, and she had the rest of her life ahead of her. What fabulous opportunities or grandiose adventures were forthcoming? Would they give her another ship? Did she want to work with another crew? Could she? Owen Paris had told her that he'd heard rumblings of them offering her an admiralcy. Was that what she wanted?

There was a knock at the door just after her second glass of wine and her breath caught slightly when she saw Chakotay in the security camera.

Kathryn helped him shrug out of his jacket. "What the devil are you doing here?" she asked, hoping she sounded calmer than she felt.

"I figured you wouldn't mind some company, with Miral so expertly put to sleep." He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. He was on a mission.

Without answering, she offered him a drink. It might be rather nice to have some company to keep her thoughts at bay. The trouble was, he was the source of those thoughts.

After handing him his drink, Kathryn sat across from him. They discussed what little they'd heard from various crewmembers about their individual debriefings and, as expected, he had more first-hand information than she did. There had been some minor run-ins involving both the Maquis, and a few of the Starfleet crew, but mostly things were going well. Kathryn told Chakotay that she was pleased, overall, and hoped their final few days would reveal no surprises for either of them. Their discussion then turned to the senior staff.

Chakotay took a sip of his wine and watched Kathryn carefully as he spoke. "I ran into Seven earlier tonight. Her plan is to leave for Vulcan in a few days, but she promised to keep in touch regularly."

Kathryn nodded.  I'm sure she is, she thought, uncharitably and sighed as another bitter thought entered her head. Ironic that I tried so hard to help Seven learn how to embrace her humanity and ended up losing mine along the way.

"She's a remarkable young woman, thanks to you," Chakotay continued. "You should be very proud of her."

Kathryn grimaced. "I am. It's just hard to watch them go. They'll be leaving soon. One by one..."

"Aren't we the Mother Hen," he said, smirking slightly. "She needs time to be alone, though, to process everything that's happened to her."

"You're not going with her?" The words were out before Kathryn had time to rein them in.

"No. If anything, I'll go home to make my peace."

Kathryn eyed him. "Your peace? But I thought you and Seven..."

He blew out a small sound of annoyance. "You, and a few of our crew, have overactive imaginations. It was a brief liaison, there wasn't much to it, it's over, and we're both happy with the decision."

"Oh." Kathryn was pleased to hear this particular revelation, but tried to act as if the news was only interesting in a ‘Standard Crew Report to the Captain' kind of way. "Well, good then." With Seven gone...

Chakotay noticed her distraction, so he asked what her plans were, both for her leave and for afterwards. Hesitating, she looked away and said, "I'm not really sure. I'm required to undergo extensive counselling as part of my assessment for future responsibilities." She knew he'd be surprised by her candour, and looked up at him, challenging him to reply.

He nodded, his face neutral. "Me too."

Her eyes grew wide at that. "Really? I thought it was standard procedure only for captains and above..." Her brow furrowed as she looked up suddenly. "Are you telling me they're making you a captain?"

A self-deprecating smile crossed his face, and he nodded. "If I ‘pass'. If I want it. If, if, if... I don't know. They need people, I need... something."

"Congratulations, Chakotay!" Kathryn smiled warmly at him, and placed her hand on his forearm. "That's wonderful! I guess I've lost you for good, then, haven't I?" Her face froze. Damn, that wasn't what she'd meant to say.

He raised his eyebrows and looked her, his smile slowing leaving his face. "What...?"

"I meant as my First Officer, of course." Her face grew warm with embarrassment. "I mean, I didn't think Starfleet would let us serve together again, but... I guess I, well, we've been together so long and through so much and, well, we're a team that obviously has good chemistry, and I just hoped that..." Kathryn knew she was rambling, and stopped, shaking her head. She took a fortifying breath and forced a smile back onto her face. "I mean it, Chakotay. That's wonderful news. But I'll miss you." At least that's honest, she thought, if woefully inadequate.

Chakotay smiled again. "I'll miss you too. Who knows what's going to happen to all of us? Who'd have thought when we brought our crews together that we'd end up being so close..." Now it was his turn to pause.

Kathryn took a deep breath, and spoke to ease their tension. "I've been doing a lot of thinking about where we've been, where we're going. It's a bit daunting to realize we'll all be going our separate ways soon. Seven and Tuvok to Vulcan, Celes and Tabor back to Bajor..."

"Yeah," Chakotay agreed. "People inevitably forge close ties on shorter, more routine missions. I expect we're all going to have trouble dealing with being apart after so long together."

Looking up at him with too-bright eyes, Kathryn met his gaze briefly and then looked away, chin held high.

"That's what's bothering you, isn't it?" Chakotay asked. "I knew there was something..."

"I'm fine," she replied automatically. Standing, she began to walk toward the replicator, but Chakotay snaked his hand out to grab a hold of hers.

"Kathryn, you're not fine. Come and talk to me." This was his reason for being here.

Finding it difficult to talk over the lump in her throat, Kathryn looked at him for a few seconds before responding. "We'll all be just fine, Chakotay, with time. We have to be. We'll debrief and we'll let go and we'll move on to our next assignment. It wouldn't be healthy to hang on to any of this." It seems I might need a bit more time to work towards honestly discussing my feelings...

Chakotay tugged at her arm, and she was forced to turn and look at him. "I was there with you, Kathryn. I understand how difficult this is going to be for everyone. Let's see if we can make it easier, for all of us, you and me included." He looked at her pointedly. "Let's come up with suggestions for dealing with the sense of loss. Starfleet hasn't dealt with this kind of crew before, and I don't think the usual rules apply. They don't know how we've melded to become a family, how much we care about each other. I'm sure they'd be willing to consider our ideas, and to help us all acclimate so we can function within Starfleet again. Let's put our heads together and see what we can come up with. What do you think?"

After looking at him carefully, she nodded and sat back down. Unbelievably, she felt better already. It was amazing that he was so much attuned to her needs. Of course, being Chakotay, he was also willing and able to help her meet those needs.

By the time Tom and B'Elanna arrived home, they had split the crew in half and made a list of concerns that needed tending. They'd tentatively organized a reunion date, location and several activities, and had compiled contact lists for everyone.

Chakotay spoke briefly with B'Elanna while Kathryn filled Tom in about Miral's activities. Tom joked that Kathryn must have drugged the baby, because she normally wouldn't sleep this long. On cue, a baby's cry kicked up in the next room.

After doting on the hungry infant for a minute, Kathryn and Chakotay said their goodbyes. It was a lovely, quiet night, and they walked the short distance to their assigned quarters in silence.

Before they reached her door, Chakotay spoke up. "Kathryn, can we talk for a little longer? I know you're tired, but I'd like to finish this."

Kathryn nodded calmly. She was pleased with herself for having had a great night, after all. Not only had she survived babysitting Miral but she had faced some of her fears regarding the disintegration of her crew. The bonus had been the time spent with Chakotay, who'd validated her concerns. She knew he'd be pleased that they'd taken care of their crew. Hmm, why did it matter if he would be pleased?

They worked for an hour or so on their plans before they decided to call it quits for the night. Chakotay was still in the mood to talk, and after settling down with some more drinks, he sat, looking at Kathryn, trying to gauge her mood. She smiled back, but grew uncomfortable under his unwavering, warm gaze. Raising her eyebrows in question got no results; he just continued to smile enigmatically at her until she couldn't stand it anymore.

"What?" she laughed.

He did look away briefly, before he answered. "I meant what I said earlier, about missing you. While I have the chance, I just wanted to thank you for... allowing me and my crew the opportunity to really be a part of your crew. You took a huge risk with me." He tilted his head to the side and continued, "I don't know how we'd have fared as a mixed crew had it been any other captain sent to capture us. I always did appreciate the precarious balance you had to maintain. I know there were times when my behaviour was ... wanting... or we disagreed, and I know that made it harder on you. I'm sorry about that."

Kathryn nodded, too moved to speak. She wasn't blameless either, but she'd chastised herself often enough for both of them. No need to bring her transgressions up at this moment.

"I also wanted to say that it has been a privilege for me to serve with you. Really, I won't ever forget it; and not just the fact that we were in the Delta Quadrant!" he laughed lightly, as he continued. "You are a true captain, in every sense of the word. Dedicated ... fair ..." He paused for a moment. "I've talked to many of our crew over the years, you know. Even in desperate times, the crew respected you and the decisions you made. Now we're alive and we're home because of you. I'm sure it was hard to maintain a balance between being the perfect Starfleet captain and an approachable person, but you did it."

Kathryn shook her head. "Chakotay, anything we accomplished out there, we did as a team. I still have nightmares about those first few days out there. We're just ... we were ... a good match." Stopping only briefly to berate herself again for her wording, she ploughed ahead. "I really don't think I did anything that any other Starfleet captain would have done in that situation. You made it possible, with your ability to deal with the members of both crews, your Starfleet experience, your experience as a captain... You made the crew a cohesive unit, and kept them working together."

Kathryn paused for a minute, scrutinizing his face. "And that helped me keep my distance, so I could still be a captain." Shaking her head again, she pinched between her eyebrows. "You're wrong, Chakotay. I never tried to be approachable. I had to keep my distance," she paused, looking intently at him, "from everyone or I could not have kept an impartial attitude. I'm not Tuvok. If I'd allowed myself to become too emotionally connected to anyone, it would have done me in. It would have done us all in!"

Her anger flared as she got up and walked to the other side of the room. Kathryn was now beginning to fully appreciate how much she'd missed. Maybe the counsellors could help her gain a new perspective on that. Maybe she would fully appreciate her sacrifice someday, see it as payment for her guilt, and somehow help her move past it. There had been fun in the early days, but later...

Kathryn spoke rather stiffly, looking out the window. "To be honest, now that we're home, I'd hoped to develop some of the relationships started so many years ago onboard. The debriefings have kept us all apart, and now that everyone's families and friends are around, well, I guess that's not going to happen here on earth either." Flumping down onto the sofa, she gave Chakotay a sad smile. "My timing is off again."

Speaking quietly, Kathryn ‘confessed'. "Tom and B'Elanna only called me tonight because they were desperate for a sitter. I was a known entity but it wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of my ‘people skills'. I am The Captain; I am not a friend."

"You're wrong there!" Chakotay protested. "You were seen as approachable, at least, when it was possible. I know many of the crew do consider you to be a friend, and they care very much for you, Kathryn. Everyone on the ship understood what a difficult position you were in. Why do you think Neelix always had so many volunteers for his morale-boosting parties? Most of the time, those parties were for you."

She raised her eyebrows and gave him a sour look.

"We all worried about you..." Chakotay continued.

"Are you saying the crew thought I was a mess?" Some role model I was...

"Hardly," he soothed, as he reached across and took her hand. "They just knew something about discipline and regulations and camaraderie. They understood how hard it must have been for you to keep all your emotions under such tight control for so long. They just wanted to help."

Kathryn glared at him, and dropped his hand. "They must have been having a field day during the void," she snarled. "Why the hell didn't you tell me I was gossip fodder?"

Chakotay sighed. "It wasn't like that at all." He wondered how his compliment had turned into this nasty conversation, but he persevered. "They respected you as a person, as well as respecting your position. You were a good, solid leader, who made good, solid decisions. Even the tough ones. Once in awhile they disagreed, but hell, I did too sometimes. Mostly, though, you inspired confidence and respect. They were all willing to lie down and die for you. They're proud to say they've served with the one and only Kathryn Janeway."

Kathryn thought about his words for a moment before she replied. "Having respect for someone isn't the same as having feelings for them, Chakotay. I worked damn hard to earn their respect and trust, but that in itself meant that I didn't have the luxury of anything more."

Chakotay took a fortifying breath. "You could have."

She looked at him sadly, but didn't reply. Was he angry? Was she?

"I did understand your position, despite the fact that I didn't agree with it or like it. It is possible to respect something and not like it, too. You weren't the only one out there who wanted more."

Kathryn raised her eyebrows at him, but still said nothing.

He looked at her for a moment, and then looked down, sighing. "I respected your damn self-imposed parameters, but I sure as hell didn't like them."

Her eyes grew large as his meaning became clear, and she swallowed.

Chakotay huffed out a breath, and then continued.

"What I'm trying to say, Kathryn, is that every single one of your crew loves you, despite your attempts to keep us at arm's length, even now." He stopped, and looked into her eyes. "Every one."

She was still angry, but also struck dumb with his declaration. After a moment with no response from her, Chakotay inhaled deeply and rose to go, feeling like he had played his last card. "Well, goodnight, Captain."

"Wait," her voice rasped as she desperately reached out her hand to stop him. "Please."

He pursed his lips, thinking, and returned to the couch. Kathryn took a calming breath, and reminded herself that her captain's training should enable her to discuss anything with anyone. Even her emotions, and even with Chakotay. This had been a night for dealing with her feelings, and despite her determination to be strong, she faltered for a moment as she tried to collect herself. Finally, she looked directly into his eyes, and spoke.

"Thank you. I guess I didn't realize... I... That means a lot to me. I... I love every one of them too. Every... one."

The air hung heavy between them for a moment before Kathryn withdrew and turned away. That wasn't as hard as she'd thought, but now what?

Chakotay smiled, and reached over to her to turning her to face him. "I think you've felt alone for a long time, Kathryn. It's time you accept that you're not alone, you're stuck with all of us, and we don't want to distance ourselves from you...none of us, ever. That's why Tom and B'Elanna had you come tonight."

She looked at him incredulously. "You mean that this was all a set up?"

Chakotay quirked an eyebrow and smiled. "We're not letting you go. We'll fight for you."

Kathryn was still surprised at being ‘had', but found her voice. "I don't want you to let me go. I wanted so much more out there, too. It went against every bit of training I'd ever had to be more than a commanding presence... every time I felt I was getting close to anyone, it felt like I was failing somehow and I had to back off. Starfleet wouldn't approve... and even though they might never have known, it did matter. To me."

Chakotay nodded sympathetically. "It was almost a no-win situation on many fronts.... Our position was unique and unprecedented.... and seven years might as well have been a lifetime. For all we knew, it could've been."

"Watching Miral gave me lots of time to think about some things the counsellors told me. I've been thinking tonight that I felt... stuck... somehow. I can't seem to get past the feeling that some parts of our voyage were so wrong, and yet we're being hailed as returning heroes. For now, anyway. I'm a bit nervous about the fallout from some of our encounters... Some things just don't make sense." She trailed off, looking pained.

After a minute, she looked up and cocked her head to the side. "What do you think, Chakotay? What's more important for determining our lives - the rules and expectations forced on us by our parents and teachers and mentors, or the regulations and protocols we come to understand and swear to as adults. Do they grow with us, morphing, or do we just exchange one for the other? What does it mean if they aren't compatible all the time? When do we get to freely choose our own rules and are we ever going to be completely comfortable with them? When do we truly know what's right and what's wrong for us, and not just for the greater good?"

He knew her questions were rhetorical, and remained quiet. Continuing, she quietly asked, "How can we make decisions that seem right at the time, but are so horribly wrong when we look back at them?" Kathryn bit her lip and blinked several times. "I'm sorry for those, Chakotay."

"I know. We all are when we do it."

Her heart lightened, and a reluctant smile slowly crept across her face. "Do you think we ever really grow up, Chakotay? When do we learn how to forgive ourselves for our mistakes? How can we grow past our ... past? When do we understand happiness? Do we get to determine the meaning of success? Can I ever truly know what's right for me, when so many people are telling me what's good and what's not?"

Chakotay returned her smile. "So many questions...I think you'll find that you are no different than any other mature, responsible, caring person - your standards are higher and expectations for yourself are harder to achieve than anyone else would reasonably expect." He paused to let that mouthful sink in, and then brought the conversation back on track.

"We had Starfleet rules to keep the ship running, and that was a necessary and important framework we all could understand. We saw what happened with Ransom's crew when that was lost..."

Kathryn's face clouded and she looked away.

"We eventually made our own rules, for us, for our friendships, our Voyager family." Chakotay's words brought her back. "I know we all had some trouble adjusting. The kinds of friendships we developed aren't supposed to happen onboard a ship. You were thinking of a three-week mission, remember? However, we had to become close in order to survive for seven years. There is a part of all of us, I think, that wishes we were still out there... We had each other, if nothing else. It was enough." He stood and moved over to where Kathryn sat.

She nodded up at him. "But we're here now... wherever that is, whatever that means. I'm not really sure how to just ... go on." Kathryn gestured with her hands, encompassing the vast unknown future that welcomed them. "I want... that feeling ... back. I didn't realize how much I needed that connection until it was gone. I think I was in denial that it was even there. I want ... more."

He took that as his sign. "We all do. Don't worry, it'll be okay." He grasped her hand and pulled her up from the couch, wrapping both his arms around her before she had a chance to move away.

"We'll help the crew settle back in. We'll see them often. We'll all adjust and sure, we will lose some along the way. But it'll be wonderful and we'll be happy."

"Chakotay... you're hugging me..."

"Yes, I am."

"But... why...?"

"Because I want to. And I need to.... hmmmm, maybe I wasn't clear enough." He stepped back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. He looked directly into her eyes, and said, "I love you, so very much. I can finally tell you, now that we're home. We'll work out the rest later, okay?" With that, he stepped forward, kissed her on the nose, and hugged her again, rocking slightly from side to side.

Kathryn stood in his arms, smiling. He loved her. Her arms went around him and she laid her head on his chest, and sighed. She needed a hug. His hug. And he knew. So simple. So basic. So right.

"I love you too."

She felt very grown-up right now.

The rest could wait until later.

 

The end.



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