BCWYWF… Part 3: Loose Ends

Three weeks had flown by. The adaptations to Voyager were almost complete, and her staff was nearing exhaustion from the pace necessary to make their deadline. Now, only four days remained before the next datastream. ‘We might actually be ready,’ Kathryn thought to herself as she reviewed the engineering reports. It had helped that she had her entire staff pulling double shifts. In the end–despite her concerns about losing half of her crew to New Phoenix–only a handful had even seriously discussed it. And those lost interest when they found out their friends wouldn’t be joining them.

United now in their goal–and with potential success so close at hand–they found these weeks energizing, despite the grueling workloads. Sitting in her ready room, the captain granted herself the luxury of stopping her work for a moment to gaze out her windows at the stars of the Delta Quadrant. Soon, she thought, this place will be just a memory. What surprised her were her mixed feelings at that prospect.

Not that she had ever seriously considered staying behind in this desolate region of space. But she had to admit to herself that Voyager’s time so far from home had been, in most respects, the most exciting and meaningful of her life. She had been given an extraordinary opportunity to explore, a huge thrill for any scientist, and her passion for the process of discovery had never waned. She had also found something else: a kind of kinship with her crew that she never thought possible.

The captain reflected for a moment on something she had said to her old friend Tuvok while sitting on this very couch almost seven years ago. ‘I never seem to have the chance to get to know any of them. I have to take more time to do that.’ Things had changed. She and her crew had nothing but time as they made their way home, and this journey had not only allowed her to connect with them in ways she never had before, it had brought friendship–deep, meaningful connections–particularly with her eight closest advisors. The thought of splitting up this family, which would be inevitable should they reach their goal, was bittersweet for her.

But she had said something else to Tuvok that day. Remembering her conversation with T’Pel, his wife, just before their mission to the Badlands, she knew how painful it had been, Vulcan or not, for this woman and her children to be separated from her mate during Tuvok’s undercover mission with the Maquis. That day in her ready room, now even further away from their homes, she made the first of many commitments to her crew. Like Tuvok, nearly everyone had left family or friends behind. Herself included.

“I’ll get you back to them. That’s a promise, Tuvok.” And, if everything went according to plans, in a little less than a week, she’d finally deliver on her word.

Her door beeped and brought her back into the moment. “Come in,” she called out, and Neelix stepped gingerly into the room. He had only been in her ready room on a few occasions during their trip, and he found the surroundings intimidating, still.

“You sent for me, Captain?” She ushered him to the seat across from her desk and moved to sit opposite him.

“I have a top-priority mission, Mr. Neelix,” she said to him with mock seriousness, “that only you can carry out.”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris was in pain. Not the physical sting of an injury or illness, but the psychic pain brought on by seeing someone you love hurt. The fact that the damage was inflicted by his own hands only made the situation worse. Yet he knew it had to be done.

He put down the hyperspanner and yanked on the panel with all of his strength. The Delta Flyer’s shield generator was torn from its housing and handed off to Seven of Nine, who was cataloging the salvaged parts.

“Sorry,” he said under his breath, a look of grief washing over his face. The Flyer was not only Voyager’s most advanced shuttle, she was Tom Paris’s first-born, a ship he had conceived and fought for, helped build and rebuild with his own hands, and had piloted skillfully more times than he could remember. He had proposed to B’Elanna here; it was the sight of their unconventional honeymoon. And, even though he knew it was for a good cause, it was hard to see her torn apart.

Seven could sense Paris’s somber mood–unusual, she noted for someone normally so jovial. “You seem disconcerted, Lieutenant,” she inquired. “Is something wrong?”

Tom passed her the shield power coupling as he answered, “It’s just tough to see a good friend used as an organ donor before she’s even dead.”

Seven noted his macabre sense of humor, one of the things she most appreciated as she got to know Tom. “Perhaps a memorial service is in order,” she wondered out loud.

Tom realized how morose he must have sounded, and laughed softly. “Requiem for a Shuttlecraft. Perhaps the Doc could compose an opera for the occasion.”

Something he said seemed to change Seven’s mood. Tom noticed she closed down a bit, and seemed a little distracted, herself. Curious, he probed to find out why. “Have you given any thought to what you’ll do if we get back to Earth?”

Tom suspected Seven had to be a little apprehensive about the reaction she’d receive if they were successful. “I am uncertain how to prepare,” she admitted. “However, I am confident that I will adapt.”

No doubt, Tom agreed. Seven’s most difficult transition–from Borg to human–was almost complete. He was sure someone with her intelligence and adaptability could survive just about anything now. Clearly, that wasn’t why she was suddenly preoccupied.

He turned his attention to the power grid and began to dismantle the relays. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he assured her before continuing his fishing expedition. “You know, it will probably be the rest of us who have trouble fitting in. We’re a pretty strange group, you know. An ex-convict, a few dozen Maquis rebels, two reformed Borg, and a sentient hologram. I’m not sure what Starfleet will make of us all.” She tensed again. He was narrowing it down.

“You know,” he tested, “I think Icheb is going to enjoy the Academy. He might even make captain before Harry!” Tom handed her the starboard coupling, and snuck a look at Seven’s expression as she responded.

“I believe Captain Janeway may sleep better when Icheb can choose from all of Starfleet for his first command,” she offered. Okay, so it wasn’t that…

He knew the Maquis held no particular interest for the former drone, and his parole status was clearly not the source of her concern. The process of elimination left only one stone unturned. “And I don’t know what they’re gonna make of the Doc,” Tom mused, watching her face. Bingo.

Paris may have been the only one on the crew who knew about the Doctor’s infatuation with Seven. He remembered, with some embarrassment, the bet he had made with his medical mentor about the former drone’s ability to survive a real date, and his regrets when he stupidly blurted out their wager in front of her. Only then did Tom realize the budding romance he had interrupted. But it was too late; Seven was hurt and angry. Mostly at the doctor, it seemed. She seemed to close herself off after that. And Tom had never seen her on another ‘date.’

Over time, though, as Voyager’s chief medic, Tom had the opportunity to watch the Doctor and Seven on many occasions. Whether either of them acknowledged it, the EMH was clearly still smitten with her. And they had developed a deep friendship, Tom knew. But was it possible Seven was starting to return the doctor’s deeper feelings?

“I’m sure his medical advances will be of great interest to the Federation,” Seven said a little less than confidently.

“Sure,” Tom answered, though he was less than sure the Doctor would be afforded the kind of respect and freedom he had found on Voyager. The rights of sentient holograms were, ironically, more clearly established in the Delta Quadrant, Tom knew. He had to admit, like Seven, he was also a little worried about the Doc’s future.

Seven changed the subject. Sort of. “Lieutenant, you think of the Delta Flyer as an entity,” she stated as much as asked.

“In a way,” Tom acknowledged. “She’s been a good friend. She does what I need her to do, always comes through in a pinch, and she’s saved my butt on several occasions.” Seven was going somewhere with this, but Tom wasn’t sure where.

“Yet she is only a ship,” she replied. “Cables and conduits and deck plating. She has no consciousness.”

Tom nodded. “I guess I just enjoy thinking of her as having a personality. It’s comforting, in some strange way, to think she’s looking out for me.”

Seven continued, “Do you think it is healthy for you to invest so much emotion in a relationship with a machine?”

Somehow, Tom suspected she wasn’t talking about him and the Flyer any more. “I know she isn’t alive, if that’s what you mean. And I would never let my feelings for her get in the way of my real relationships.” His one experience with a pseudo-sentient ship had guaranteed that.

Seven pressed on, “But you think a relationship with a machine can be an acceptable form of self-expression?” He had to be careful how he answered.

“With a ship like the Flyer, maybe not,” he had to be honest. “But like I said, she’s not sentient. Now, if you’re asking if I think relationships have to be human-to-human in order to be real, I guess I’d say no.” He hoped this was the right advice. “Take the relationship B’Elanna and I have with the Doctor. He’s mechanical of sorts, yet he’s as real as any of our friends. You know, we’ve asked him to be our daughter’s godfather.”

Seven had heard this term used between Neelix and Naomi Wildman, and she knew it to be a symbolic role reserved for the one chosen to raise a child in a parent’s absence. “You trust the Doctor to care for your child?” she asked, confirming his meaning.

“Why not?” he replied. “Who better to look out for her than the best doctor in the galaxy?”

This was getting too serious for Tom’s tastes. A change of mood was definitely in order. “Now if he starts teaching her how to sing opera,” Paris warned as he ducked into the access bay, “Maybe we’ll have to reconsider.”

~*~*~*~*~

Harry and B’Elanna had been working in engineering all afternoon, reinforcing the warp core and scanning to make sure they had found and fixed all of the microfissures. It was mind-numbing work, and not particularly physical, but the very-pregnant chief engineer was exhausted. “Verify these figures with Nicoletti, then….” She was mid-sentence when she stopped suddenly and leaned against the console.

Harry grabbed her arm, “That’s it, Maquis, you’re sitting down.” He pulled a rolling stool over from the next station, and forced his friend to sit.

“Giving me orders, Starfleet?” she grimaced, taking the seat anyway, but continuing to work. “I outrank you, Ensign.”

Harry pulled himself up straight and swaggered as much as Harry Kim could swagger. “Not for long, if I have my way.”

B’Elanna chuckled, “I forgot; as soon as we get back you’re going to be knocking on doors, demanding that long-overdue promotion.”

They both smiled. “Yep, and I’ll expect you to remember that when I’m your senior officer!” This comment made his friend a little pensive, and Harry wondered for a moment what he had said to upset her. B’Elanna knew all too well that, should they make it back, she wasn’t likely to appear anywhere on a Starfleet chain of command. She wondered how she would face that if it came.

“Hey, Mommy, are you okay?” That seemed to snap her out of it.

“Mommy?!” the Klingon half of her inquired forcefully. “What happened to ‘Maquis’?!”

Just hearing her say the word made Harry realize what might have bothered her about his joke about outranking her. “Well,” he answered with a sweet mischief, “you’re not really a Maquis anymore, are you? And you’re certainly about to become a mommy.”

She glared back at him, “And you’re about to be an uncle, and if you don’t stop calling me ‘Mommy’ I’m going to make you practice screaming your new title!” No need to explain that reference. Their vocabularies had been equally polluted by 20th Century Parisisms.

“I don’t know why it bugs you so much,” Harry kept at it. “Tom loves it when I call him ‘Daddy.'”

B’Elanna smiled a little at that thought. Her formerly irresponsible, still irrepressible husband was looking forward to being a father. He was going to be great at it, too, she knew. “Well, take your abuse out on him, if you don’t mind.”

“I would if I ever saw him,” Harry complained. Their duty shifts the past few weeks had been on separate critical projects, Tom overseeing the salvaging of Voyager’s shuttles, Harry and B’Elanna putting those scavenged parts to use in modifying the ship. And there were very few sit-down meals in the mess hall these days.

“He misses you, you know,” Torres offered.

“Me, too,” Harry replied glumly. “We had a kind of big fight before all this happened,” he said solemnly.

“Yes, I know,” she replied. Of course she knew. Tom told her everything. “He thinks you’re still upset with him for wanting to settle down on New Phoenix.”

Harry chuckled. “That’s funny. I though he was still mad at me for wanting to keep going.”

They smiled sadly at each other. “You’re the little brother Tom never had, Harry,” she said softly. “He could never stay mad at you. In fact,” she almost stopped herself, but decided it was too late, “he’s doing all this for you.”

Harry looked at his friend quizzically. “Doing what for me?” She was committed.

“Ripping apart the shuttles, his precious DeltaFlyer, making his hundredth flight simulation of the trip through the wormhole. You’re the reason we didn’t stay on New Phoenix, Harry.” She looked him in the eye. “He didn’t want to stay there without you. And…frankly, neither did I.”

Harry’s eyes were misting over. B’Elanna had to do something to get her friend focused back on their work before he made an emotional display and embarrassed them both. “Besides, Starfleet, who do you think is going to be a role model of fine upstanding behavior for our child? It certainly won’t be either of us!” It worked. Harry grinned.

“Tell you what,” B’Elanna offered. “Our quarters, 1900 hours. Dinner’s on us. I think you and a certain pilot are long overdue for a double date.”

Harry’s eyes opened widely at that one. “And who do you recommend I bring for my ‘date’?”

She smiled snidely at him, “After six and a half years, Harry, you don’t know any of the sixty-two women on this ship well enough to ask one of them on a date?”

Tom really was a bad influence on her, Harry decided. “Never mind,” he backed off. “I’ll think of someone….”

Their rest break over, the two engineers turned back to their consoles and got back to work.

~*~*~*~*~

As it turned out, Harry didn’t need to proposition a woman to join him for dinner. Word came at 1400 hours that the captain was requesting her senior staff meet in her quarters at 1900. Their instructions: no uniforms, get dressed for dinner. Rumor was that Neelix was seen coming and going from their commanding officer’s cabin all afternoon, and those passing by as the door opened noticed blending aromas they could only describe as ‘mouthwatering.’

Janeway had disappeared from the bridge at the end of the Alpha shift, and hadn’t said a word on her way out. Not that this was unusual these days. The bridge was currently staffed by junior officers, while her key personnel were knee-deep in the critical modifications of their vessel.

It was almost time. Kathryn looked around her home, satisfied. She wanted this night to be perfect, and Neelix had done a wonderful job making it so. In these times of rationing and shortages, there were limits to how much she could do. But leave it to her morale officer to make a little go a long way. Her two ‘orders’ for the evening: no leola root and no Talaxian spices. She did agree to let her friend replicate the ingredients and cook them himself, but with strict orders to follow the recipes to the letter. He had grudgingly agreed.

With characteristic Borg precision, Seven arrived at exactly 1900 hours, on the arm–the captain noted–of her chief medical officer. The lanky blonde was dressed–uncharacteristically–in a wrap-around mid-thigh magenta dress, and her hair was down, swept up only behind one ear. It almost took Janeway’s breath away to see her friend looking so…comfortably human. “Seven,” she said as she welcomed them, “you look gorgeous. Where did you get this dress?”

She would have sworn she saw Seven’s cheeks redden slightly. “I have had it for some time, Captain. It was a gift…” she looked over at the doctor, “from a friend.”

Janeway caught the look and smiled at the Doctor. He had altered his program parameters to change from his uniform to a rather dashing tuxedo. “You’re looking quite handsome yourself, tonight, Doctor,” she offered.

“Thank you, Captain,” he said. “A new subroutine, also a gift.” Now Janeway was sure a hologram couldn’t blush, but still…

The door chimed again. “Make yourselves at home,” she said, motioning them into her living area. She answered the door to find Chakotay, holding a single red rose from the airponics bay. “You shouldn’t have,” she said as she met his gaze.

“Technically, it’s not edible,” her first officer noted as he handed it to her, “so it wasn’t subject to rationing.” He stared into her eyes intently, throwing her off balance as he always seemed to in social settings. Soon his gaze moved to what she was wearing, appreciating the simple cream silk pantsuit he had seen several times before. She was sure she was blushing now. She immediately diverted his attention.

“Say hello to Seven and the Doctor,” she said softly, meaning only to get his eyes off of her for the moment. They walked over to the seating area where the first two to arrive were, strangely, standing.

“Good evening,” Chakotay offered.

“Commander,” Seven acknowledged.

“I think, in this setting, if would be best if you called me Chakotay,” he suggested. Suddenly the ex-Borg’s date looked a little put out by the familiarity. Their hostess, however, was surprised to see that Chakotay hadn’t seemed to take much notice of the change in Seven’s appearance. She wasn’t sure if she liked the oversight or not. Luckily, the door signaled a timely distraction for them all.

She moved to press the release (shouting ‘come in’ seemed impolite when one was expecting guests, she felt), and was happy to see her old friend. “Tuvok, welcome,” she said warmly.

The door was just about to close as Neelix came rushing up, pushing a serving cart full of dishes. “Wait for me,” he called out, pushing into the room, the smells of his cooking wafting in after him. “Dinner is served,” he called.

“Thank you, Mr. Neelix, but we’ll have to wait a few minutes. Some of our guests haven’t arrived.” On cue, the door sounded, and the captain moved to admit Ensign Kim. “Harry, welcome,” she said, “any clue when we might see the Paris/Torres family?”

Harry grinned, sheepishly, on his friends’ behalf. “They’re on their way, Captain,” he said. “B’Elanna was having a little trouble…,” god, she’d kill him if she knew he was saying this, “…finding an appropriate dress that…fits.” Kathryn and Chakotay smiled at the thought.

Yes, Voyager’s latest wager wasn’t the traditional ‘guess the sex, weight and delivery date’ baby pool. At least two of these three questions could be easily answered with a standard medical tricorder. No, Voyager’s version was a little less kind. ‘Guess the date B’Elanna’s uniform gives way.’ The chief engineer spent a lot of time grousing over the fact that the end of her pregnancy was coming just as their replicator rations were cut off. And, since she was only the second pregnant woman to live on Voyager, Sam Wildman having long ago recycled her maternity clothes, B’Elanna gamely squeezed herself into the tight ‘six months gestation’ size uniforms every day. It was a matter of time, everyone knew, before the laws of tension and fibers won out. Harry hoped his friend never found out about his own wager in the pool.

“Can I get anyone a beverage while we’re waiting?” Neelix offered, playing host in his customary fashion. “Wine, coffee, Sarealen tea?”

The group was impressed. “And how did you come to be in possession of these delicacies?” Commander Tuvok asked.

The captain spoke up, “I have opened up the replicators this evening,” she said smiling. “Each crew member, at the completion of his shift, will find sufficient rations for a nice, replicated meal waiting in their quarters. Tonight, we celebrate.” With that the last of her guests arrived.

The doors opened to reveal the couple, showing almost none of the tension the others knew they had just experienced. Everyone was anxious now to see what B’Elanna would be wearing, and her garment was a testament to her husband’s creativity. Having helped her rip apart her closet, finding nothing she could squeeze herself into, Tom had finally handed her a long sapphire tunic he had worn on those days when he was feeling less than fit, himself. The oversized shirt on his wife’s small frame made for a lovely maternity mini-dress, actually showing off the engineer’s shapely legs rather nicely. Crisis averted. Her friends, of course, were careful not to mention that they recognized her dress as Tom’s ‘fat’ shirt. They all valued their lives as well as B’Elanna’s feelings.

“I was getting ready to send out a search team for you two,” the captain kidded them. “Glad you could make it.”

Without even glancing at his wife, Tom answered, “I’m sorry, Captain, I was late coming off duty then I couldn’t find one of my shoes.” Kathryn smiled that he was covering for his wife. This was one of the only ways she could think of that B’Elanna needed her husband’s protection: wherever possible, he always tried to spare her embarrassment.

“We’re just glad you could make it. Come in and make yourselves comfortable.” They walked in and took seats on the couch across from Chakotay and Harry, as Neelix took their beverage order (a draft beer for Tom and berry juice for B’Elanna).

The captain took a moment to look around before she moved to join them. Here were her friends, the eight people closest to her in the world. After seeing them under such extreme strain the last few months, it was so nice to watch them relaxing, happy, dressed and acting like civilians without a care in the world. This is the way it should be, she felt. She considered each one carefully: enjoying the easy banter between Tom and Harry, the way her pilot’s hand never left B’Elanna’s knee as she joined in their conversation, the respectful verbal jousting of Tuvok and Neelix–even the now obvious affection in the eyes of the Doctor as he spoke softly with Seven. How could she have missed that before, she wondered. It was only when her eyes made it around to Chakotay that she realized she was being examined, herself.

“So, Kathryn,” he offered, “Somehow I think you gathered us all here for more than just dinner.” She walked to place a hand on his shoulder and the other conversations stopped.

She smiled warmly at her guests. “According to my estimations, the modifications to Voyager in preparation for our journey are complete. And, while we still have simulations and systems checks to complete, I feel that this crew–after service above and beyond the call of duty in the Delta Quadrant–deserves to enjoy some of our last few days in exile.” She took a few steps closer to them. “Therefore, I am restoring replicator rations to their pre-crisis levels and reopening Holodeck 2.” As she expected, Tom and Harry looked the most excited at that news.

“Captain,” Tuvok interjected, “do you think it’s wise to deplete our energy reserves? If we are unable to complete our mission….”

She finished his sentence her own way, “…then it is unlikely that we will be needing our energy reserves.” They were quiet for a moment. They all knew there were only three real options in their future: fail to open the conduit (meaning a likely retreat to colonize New Phoenix), open the conduit and make it home safely (in which case Starfleet would meet them with all the supplies they needed), or open the conduit and die inside it. Despite the Vulcan’s concerns, Janeway’s logic was sound. “Besides,” Kathryn continued, trying to restore the mood, “we’ve earned this. A few days to remind us of what we have had here together, I think, isn’t too much to ask. And, with that in mind, Mr. Neelix has been slaving over a hot stove all afternoon. Shall we eat?”

The dinner conversation had been full of stories, reminiscing about the ‘best and worst of times’ as the Doctor often called them. After Janeway laid down the ground rule that no one was to be referred to by rank, herself included, the atmosphere had been one of a grand family dinner typical of a holiday celebration, though everyone enjoyed watching Harry’s discomfort at calling the captain “Kathryn.”

Neelix had kept his word, and the meal was perfectly prepared and seasoned. They lingered at the table long after dessert, just savoring the company and the time away from their duties. It was well after 2330 when the Doctor mentioned the time.

“Lieutenant Torres, if I’m not mistaken, you are thirty-minutes late for bed.”

Always ‘thrilled’ to be hovered over, B’Elanna started to argue the point only to have Tom give her a gracious way out. “Well, you might not be tired, but I am. Let’s go.” B’Elanna begrudgingly agreed.

“Kathryn,” she said a little uncomfortably, “thank you so much for this night.”

Her captain hugged her friend gently. “Pleasant dreams, B’Elanna.” The two smiled warmly as Janeway moved on to Tom. “Thank you,” she said softly as she leaned in to hug him goodnight.

“For what?” he asked sincerely.

“For staying,” she replied. Tom returned her hug before putting his arm around B’Elanna’s shoulders and walking to the door.

“Wait for me,” Harry called to them. His social safety net was about to walk out the door, and he decided to take that as his cue to leave. “I’ll walk with you.” He turned to Janeway and almost extended his hand. “Goodnight, Cap-Kathryn,” he caught himself awkwardly.

Sparing the ensign the embarrassment of either hugging or shaking hands with his captain, Kathryn put her arm on Harry’s shoulder and walked with him to the door. “Good night, Harry. And–don’t worry–it’ll be ‘Captain’ again tomorrow.” He smiled in relief and followed Tom and B’Elanna out into the corridor.

She walked back to the table in time to see the Doctor rise and hold Seven’s chair. This was a switch, Janeway thought to herself. Usually one had to kick the physician out of any party he attended, often after a long-winded commentary or ponderous speech. Maybe because a hologram couldn’t eat, he had extra time to sit around thinking of things to say. Tonight, however, he seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to go.

“Well, if you will excuse us, Kathryn, I think we’ll call it a night.”

Seven looked at him quizzically. “‘Call it a night?'” she asked?

“An expression, Seven, meaning excuse oneself, head for home, you know….”

Seven inquired, “‘Hit the road’?”

The Doctor looked slightly exasperated. “Yes, exactly.”

She nodded. “One might simply have said so.” If Janeway didn’t know better, she would think Seven had been flirting with him, in a Borg kind of way. Again she wondered what she had missed about this relationship?

“In any case, thank you for a lovely evening,” the Doctor said as he took his hostess’s hand and kissed it.

“Yes…Kathryn,” Seven said almost as haltingly as had Harry. “Thank you for your hospitality.” Janeway smiled at what she now realized was a budding romance–though, from the look in the Doctor’s eyes, she felt perhaps he had been infatuated for quite a while.

“Thank you both for coming,” she said. “See you tomorrow.” The Holodoc stepped aside to ‘hold open’ the door for his date then followed her into the corridor.

Chakotay and Tuvok had moved to the sitting area, while Neelix loaded the dirty dishes into the recycler. The captain joined her friends, taking the open seat on the couch next to her first officer. “This was a lovely evening, Kathryn,” Chakotay offered. “I think we all needed it.”

Tuvok agreed, “It does seem a logical way to boost staff morale before a difficult assignment. I was reviewing the staff productivity logs, and have found a 47% decrease in efficiency ratings, especially for those crew in the…”

Neelix had finished his cleanup and stood watching the scene before him. Voyager’s tactical officer had begun rambling on about crew efficiency and duty shifts, totally oblivious to his two senior officers seated before him. They, in turn, seemed to be unaware of the Vulcan prattling on about mundane ship’s business in front of them. From the look in their eyes, all of Commander Chakotay’s attention was being focused on the captain. All of her energies seemed to be going into avoiding the commander’s gaze. One of the many side effects of Neelix’s years as morale officer was a keen understanding of when to jump into a one-sided conversation.  If ever he saw two people in need of a rescue, now was the time. He cut off Tuvok in mid-sentence.

“Well, I’m finished here, Captain, so I guess I’ll be going. Mr. Tuvok, I could use your help getting these serving utensils back to the mess hall, if you wouldn’t mind.” He walked over to Tuvok, gently grabbing his arm and pulling him up and toward the door.

The Vulcan’s eyebrows raised in typical fashion, as he extricated his arm from Neelix’s hand. “Mr. Neelix, may I point out that I was engaged in a conversation, and that you seemed to have no difficulty getting your equipment down here without my assistance?”

All too true, Neelix thought, scrambling to think of a good reason for them to leave. “Yes, but I would have to make several trips to collect everything, and I’m sure the Captain is getting tired.”

Janeway was slightly confused at her chef’s insistence, “Actually, I’m…”

She was cut off by Chakotay, who was now standing behind her. “I think it’s very kind of you to offer to help Mr. Neelix, Tuvok. I’m sure he could use your assistance.” Tuvok regarded him suspiciously–this entire situation defied logic–and it seemed his captain was looking a little confused herself.

“Very well,” the security chief replied, still smelling some kind of conspiracy, “I will assist you.”

Neelix smiled and handed Tuvok a large serving dish that would have easily fit onto the cart he was pushing. “Thank you very much, Mr. Vulcan,” he said to Tuvok, practically pushing him out the door with his cart. When the way was blocked, preventing the Vulcan’s return, Neelix turned back to the captain and said softly, “There was a half-finished bottle of Ktarian Merlot–I left it on the table with two glasses if you would like a nightcap.” He winked at her then completed his exit, along with a very annoyed Vulcan.

Now I understand, she thought. She took a deep breath before turning around.

~*~*~*~*~

Seven and the Doctor had reached the turbolift without speaking. “Deck 8,” he said when the doors closed.

“But sickbay is on Deck 5,” Seven pointed out.

“Yes, I know, but it is customary to accompany one’s date back to her home at the end of the evening.”

She considered this for a moment. Seven usually knew her own mind quite well. This experience, however, was confusing. She and the Doctor had been sparring affectionately for over four years now, and she considered him her best friend. She couldn’t deny, though, that–had he been a human male–she would probably have sought him out for a romantic relationship. He was not a human male, however. Was she a human female, though? Certainly, in almost every physiological respect, the answer was yes. But she felt uncomfortable in the presence of ‘real’ men–socially speaking, of course–and had found none of them her intellectual equal. And the Doctor was sentient; everything about him was ‘real’ in its own way. These contradictions were very unsettling to a mind that craved order.

She had begun to question her own motives. Was she using the Doctor as a way to avoid a human relationship? Were her feelings real? Could one have a serious relationship with a being who was only questionably ‘alive.’ Her conversation in the Delta Flyer kept replaying in her head. Clearly Lieutenants Paris and Torres considered the Doctor real enough to be their child’s godfather. And she knew her own friendship with him to be genuine as well. Why did a romantic relationship feel so different, so suspect? Yet she had made up her mind to use this night to test her feelings about changing the nature of their relationship, even though she knew there might be no going back.

She also knew that the ‘walk home at the end of the date’ usually resulted in a ‘goodnight kiss.’

The lift doors opened, and they began to walk slowly to Cargo Bay 2. “Seven, I was wondering…” he said haltingly. The Doctor was clearly nervous, an unusual state for him. She found it strangely endearing. “Have you considered how you will spend your holodeck time?”

An unexpected question. “I don’t plan to ‘spend’ it at all. I have never seen the value of creating an artificial reality as a means of entertainment.” She wasn’t judgmental in her tone, just honest.

“Indeed,” he suggested, “a holodeck can help one test out new social situations in an unthreatening environment. I thought, perhaps, you and I might combine our allotments and practice some…new social scenarios. In anticipation of our arrival on Earth, I mean. Certainly you’ll want to be prepared for any new…relationships you might develop once you arrive.”

Seven considered this. “Almost like a shuttle simulation?” she offered.

He frowned. “I guess you could put it that way.” Not the most romantic analogy, he feared. They were just steps away from Seven’s ‘front door.’

“As I recall, Doctor, the last time we used the holodeck to simulate a social situation, you ended up wagering with Mr. Paris on my success.”

A painful reminder, but true. “I have apologized for that, Seven,” he said sincerely. “Besides, in that situation, I was your teacher and you, my pupil.” If there were a bravery subroutine, he was about to engage it. “I thought, perhaps, in this scenario, I might be your…. That I might have some things to learn, myself. That, perhaps, we could learn them together.”

Seven considered her friend’s obvious vulnerability. “In that case, Doctor,” she said as they stopped in front of her door. “I would agree to sharing our allotted time.”

The Doctor was now smiling widely, and swept her hand into his, bringing it up to kiss her knuckles. She quickly pulled it away. Before he could look hurt, she offered. “If I am correct, this is technically our third date.” He supposed on one level that was true, but was still unsure of the significance. “I believe social protocols dictate that, on one’s third date, a kiss on the lips is the appropriate end to an evening.” Before he could say anything, she leaned over and gave him a gentle, almost schoolgirlish kiss. Before he could even react, she pulled away. “Goodnight, Doctor,” she said, and the cargo bay doors swished shut behind her.

“Goodnight, Seven,” he said to no one, and wandered slowly back to sickbay.

~*~*~*~*~

Now alone in her quarters with Chakotay, Kathryn found herself wishing for the safety of the larger group. She and her first officer had shared a private dinner once a week for over six years before the rationing began. This was a different situation, she knew. No longer were they to be trapped indefinitely in the Delta Quadrant, the only representatives of Starfleet determined to keep their protocols intact. A little more than a week from now, everything would be different. Yet neither had any idea what that would mean.

“We’ve been here alone before, Kathryn,” he broke the silence. “I don’t remember you being this nervous then.” He had taken Neelix’s suggestion and poured them both glasses of wine.

Her hand shook a little as she took hers. “What makes you think I’m nervous?” she asked, as if it weren’t written all over her.

“You forget that no one knows you better than I do,” he answered, walking back to sit on her couch. She followed him and sat beside him, though a comfortable distance apart. He decided it would serve his interests best to get her mind off of her discomfort. Torturing her was not what he had in mind.

“Have you given any thought to what you want to do when we get home?” he wondered.

“Actually, no,” she answered honestly. “I know I want a big sloppy kiss from my dog! Irish setters don’t live much past ten, unfortunately, and Mark says he thinks Molly is hanging on just to see me.”

While the thought of Kathryn kissing her dog had done nothing to make Chakotay jealous, the mention of Mark was another story. “How is he doing?” he asked. Her ex-fiancée was a sore subject for them both.

“He’s doing well, actually. He and his wife are expecting a child, not too long after Tom and B’Elanna’s baby is due.” The life she could have had, but didn’t. Now it was her who wanted to change the subject. “How about you? Have you made any plans for the future?”

“That’s a little difficult for me at this point,” he offered. “I have no idea how much control I’ll have of my own destiny. At least for the next seven to ten years.” He was grinning, though neither of them found the prospect of his imprisonment amusing.

“You know I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the charges against you are dropped.” She moved to sit closer so she could touch his arm resting on the back of the couch. “You and B’Elanna, and the rest of the former Maquis, you were fighting for a cause you believed in deeply. And, in the end, you were proven right about the Cardassian treaty. Your service on this ship has been exemplary. You’ve earned the right to your freedom, your commission….” He was unconvinced.

“My commission.” His salvation and his prison. “I think it might be a little optimistic to think I’ll be allowed to keep my rank.”

Perhaps, she thought. “But I need you here with me,” she said impulsively.

“As your first officer?” he asked pointedly. Her whole body straightened as she realized the implication of her statement and of his question. Before she could answer, they heard the call.

“Carey to Commander Chakotay.”

He paused a second before responding. “Chakotay here.” Kathryn looked away from him.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but there’s a minor coolant leak–nothing dangerous–but I have to take the mains offline to repair it. I need someone with level six security access to authorize the shutdown. Normally I would call Lieutenant Torres, but you asked me not to wake her.”

The first officer continued looking at his captain as he answered, “I’ll be right there, Lieutenant. Chakotay out.” He put his wine glass on the coffee table and headed for the door. “Saved by the bell,” he said to her over his shoulder, only a little sarcastically. He was hurt, she knew.

She watched the door close behind him, still wondering how she would have answered his question.

~*~*~*~*~

This was a big day for Tom Paris. Despite their late night at Captain Janeway’s party, he had gotten up early, practically sneaking out of bed so as not to wake his sleeping wife. However, as a half-Klingon (and as a pregnant woman, for that matter), her sense of smell was particularly acute, and she was now calling out to the living area from their bed. “Tell me you’re not having that for breakfast!” she groaned.

“What?” he asked, his mouth still full. There was soon a very pregnant woman, hands on her hips, standing alongside him.

“Tom, pizza for breakfast?!” She was shaking her head.

“Hey, we didn’t need to use our replicator rations for dinner last night, so I thought…. It’s been so long, B’Elanna. Besides, cold pizza for breakfast is an old Earth delicacy.”

She smirked at him and sat down, pulling off a slice for herself. “I thought I was the one who was supposed to have cravings,” she joked, taking a bite. Not bad cold, she thought, but said instead, “You’ll make yourself sick.”

He shook his head, his mouth still half full. “I see you’re not worried about getting sick yourself,” he observed.

“Redundant stomach,” she reminded him.

“Lucky girl,” he joked leaning over to lick some stray sauce off of her lip. They kissed for a while until B’Elanna flinched and pulled away.

“Ouch!” Her hand had gone to her belly.

“Are you okay?” Tom asked, a little worried at how close she was getting to her due date. Well, what they thought would be her due date: no one knew what impact her combined genetic structure would have on the length of her pregnancy.

“I’m fine,” she said, still grimacing a little. “I just got a swift kick in the gut,” she explained. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your daughter doesn’t like pizza for breakfast,” she kidded.

“How come she’s ‘my daughter’ every time she kicks you?” Tom put his lips close to her belly and spoke in a fake-fatherly growl. “Don’t make me come in there, young lady!” For the double and triple entendre, B’Elanna smacked him hard on the head.

“Hey!” he whined. “I’m not the one who kicked you, remember.”

She couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re going to be a bad influence on this child, you know,” she scolded him.

“I hope so,” he said softly, now kneeling in front of her, eye to eye. When he spoke, his eyes squinted just slightly, in what she found the sexiest of his many expressions. “I’ve been a bad influence on her mother, and that’s worked out pretty well.” He kissed her deeply, practically pulling her off the chair. He held her so tightly, that this time he was the one who cried out. “Hey! She got me that time!”

B’Elanna laughed, “Actually, she got us both. You know, maybe it isn’t the pizza. Maybe she doesn’t like to see her parents kissing.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed at that thought. “She’d better close her eyes, then,” he said, moving back into their clinch, “because she ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” He stood up quickly, swept B’Elanna into his arms and carried her back to the bed. It was less a grand romantic gesture than a hostage-taking. The pizza would be even colder before they got back to it.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay had published the duty roster for the next four days to the personal database of each member of the crew. With it, he had sent out a blank holodeck schedule for each person to request his or her ninety minutes. Requests started pouring in immediately. Not surprisingly, he could see a pattern of crewmembers he suspected were pooling their time, trying to make the most of their last chance for a real break before heading home.

A macabre thought entered his mind: that in some ways, this might be a metaphorical ‘last meal and cigarette’ for the crew–a last glimpse of pleasure before being sent to their deaths. He shook off the thought and kept working.

This is a surprise, he thought. Harry had booked his time for that same evening, in between the segments reserved by Jenny and Megan Delaney. He would have thought Harry and Tom would join forces, maybe play one of their holodeck role-playing games. Ten minutes later, however, he saw Paris reserve his time and B’Elanna’s for the last night available. Recognizing that they probably were looking forward to some private time alone, Chakotay realized that this might be the last chance any of them may have to get their relationships in order before their dangerous trip home.

He found himself booking the last three hours–his time and the captian’s–for the final available timeslot, just after Paris and Torres. He then touched the screen and pulled up the ship’s status reports. He needed to get his mind back on his work.

~*~*~*~*~

The mess hall was now reopened for the duration of their trip, and–even though they had enjoyed a non-traditional breakfast in their quarters, Tom and B’Elanna came in to look for Harry. While Tom stopped to pour a cup of Neelix’s coffee, B’Elanna–ruining the running wager by wearing a newly-replicated, properly-sized uniform–searched the crowded room for their friend.

She found him huddled over a PADD with–of all people–the Delaney sisters. As she got close to their table, Jenny elbowed her sister firmly in the side and said, “I think we should get to work.”

Megan saw the engineer approaching and agreed. “See you tonight, Harry,” she said as they stood and walked to the door.

“Megan, Jenny,” B’Elanna said as they passed her. She squeezed herself into the chair Megan had vacated and glared across the table at her friend. “What was that about, Harry?” she asked.

He smiled guiltily. “I need your help,” he said with a touch of mischief. He explained his secret plan to her quickly, before Tom arrived. She was happy to play along.

“You’re looking wickedly into my wife’s eyes,” Tom said as he took the seat next to B’Elanna. “I’m not the jealous type, but you could at least have the decency to flirt with her behind my back,” he said grinning at them both.

“He’s on to us, Harry,” she said in mock seriousness. “The marriage, the baby…looks like our little diversions didn’t work.” She kissed Tom deeply on the lips. “I have to get to engineering,” she whispered softly before she stood up. “Defend my honor,” she demanded gently before she walked away.

“Wow, that was pretty…passionate for the mess hall,” Harry said, surprised. B’Elanna was always a little shy about public displays of affection, even after she and Tom were married.

“Let’s just say we had a good morning,” Tom grinned.

Harry’s reaction wasn’t so pleasant. “That’s more information than I need, thank you,” he said, then changed the subject. “So, what time are you off duty tonight?”

Tom knew Harry had booked holodeck time that evening, and he also knew the Delaney sisters’ time bookended his friend’s. “Why, what are you up to?”

Harry was a lousy liar, but that didn’t mean he had to answer Tom’s question. “Just be in your quarters at 1800 hours. That’s an order.” Harry stood up and winked at his friend before walking away.

“Yes, sir,” Tom called out to him, being careful to sound sincere. Of course, he wasn’t about to walk into Harry’s trap blindly. He downed the last of his coffee and headed for the bridge.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom knew B’Elanna was in on it when she made a flimsy excuse to work late. Never one to disobey a direct order–okay, almost never–he returned to his quarters promptly at 1800. He found his Captain Proton outfit laid out carefully across his bed. He smiled and quickly changed out of his uniform. “Harry, I can read you like a cheap novel,” he said as he pulled on the jacket, probably for the last time. He grabbed his goggles and headed for Holodeck 2.

The program was running when he arrived. Megan and Jenny were deep into their roles as the Twin Mistresses of Evil, Demonica and Malicia, and Harry was in typical Buster Kincaid trouble as our hero entered the story. “Die you twin demonesses of darkness,” Captain Proton cried out as he drew his comatizer. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, came the mad Doctor Chaotica, his henchmen locking the Captain in the dreaded Dememorizing Chamber. “It’s…up…to…you now, Buster,” Proton called to his trusty sidekick. ” When they activate the Chamber, I’ll barely remember my name. Only you can save the President of Earth. I only hope you….”

With that, Chaotica pulled the switch, and the lights of the chamber flashed brightly. I don’t remember writing this part, Harry thought, as he watched Tom writhe in mock agony. With that, however, he swung into action, knocking the weapons from the hands of the evil Twins and comatizing the henchmen with Proton’s discarded gun.

For the next four hours, Buster Kincaid helped his bravery-impaired Captain out of one dire straight after another, cornering and losing Chaotica and his evil henchwomen time after time. There was also, Harry noted, a protracted plotline where Buster was subjected to the horrors of ‘torture’ at the hands of the dimpled Demonica–with not a single interruption from our still memory-deprived hero. Finally, having accomplished their goal of rescuing Earth’s ‘President,’ Proton’s memories seemed to return to him.

Three minutes before their time was up, the story ended and our heroes were victorious. “Computer, remove characters,” Harry called out as Megan and Jenny walked toward them.

“Great game, Harry!” Megan said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks for talking us into it,” Jenny said, rubbing her hand on his arm. The twins gathered their props and called for the exit.

“Yeah, great story, Harry,” Tom said in mock innocence.

“Sure,” Harry answered, “except that it isn’t the one I wrote.” He looked at his best friend as it all dawned on him. “You changed the narrative parameters file so Buster would be the hero of the story.”

Tom smiled at Harry and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder as they walked toward the exit. “Computer, delete program,” was all Tom would say in reply. “I think we’re done with Captain Proton, Harry. Next time, it’s the Excelsior and a different famous captain…who looked a little bit like you, if I remember my history texts….” The friends went back to Tom’s quarters to have a beer and fill B’Elanna in on their adventure before calling it a night.

~*~*~*~*~

The next day had been an uneventful one for Seven of Nine. She had spent the bulk of it assisting Lieutenant Torres in a complete warp core diagnostic–her standards of perfection being more important than ever as they completed their preparations. No anomalies were found, however, so there was little to divert her mind from the evening ahead of her.

At 1800 hours, she met Icheb in Astrometrics to help him review the materials for an examination Commander Tuvok would administer the next day. The lesson in stellar geometry was rudimentary, even for her pupil, but she tried to immerse herself in the exercise to keep her thoughts from straying. It hadn’t worked.

1930 hours came eventually, and Icheb excused himself to meet Naomi and Samantha Wildman. He was tutoring his own student, it seemed. Seven was glad Icheb and Naomi had each other for company. They were Voyager’s only children and she knew from personal experience that being different could be isolating. Her pupil had taught her a valuable lesson recently about the trap of self-reliance. Tonight, if all went well, she might take her first steps in exploring mutual dependency. She left Astrometrics for Cargo Bay 2, glad that her ‘roommate’ was otherwise occupied.

Tonight’s attire was the first piece of clothing she owned that had not been designed by her ‘date.’ She knew the element of surprise was important when dressing for an evening out, and wanted her outfit to represent her own developing tastes. The dress was longer than the one she had worn a few nights ago–mid-calf–and was less restrictive at the waist and bust, with what the computer described as an ’empress’ collar that wrapped gently around her neck. It was simple, but lovely. She had designed it in the shades of blue and purple her ‘tailor’ seemed to like on her so much. Her hair she would wear down, but with strands on either side pulled back and clipped behind her head. She finished dressing and, for the first time in her adult life–except for a few fleeting hours in Unimatrix Zero–she felt more like Annika Hansen than Seven of Nine. It was disquieting and exciting all at once.

Unlike their last date, Seven would meet her escort in the holodeck. He asked to have a few moments alone in the scenario before she arrived. It was now 2004. She left for the quick turbolift ride to Deck 6.

To say that the Doctor was nervous was a bit of an understatement. Everyone knew he could reach an intensity that was almost manic, but he had never experienced such extreme ‘butterflies.’ He wanted this evening to be perfect, knowing the value his date placed on perfection. A tough standard to hold oneself to in a social context, he feared. Still, he would need his renowned precision tonight.

Right on time, the doors opened to reveal a vision in lavender and sapphire. He had never seen this dress before and the effort he knew had gone into it was deeply touching. It practically took his holographic breath away.

“Hello,” he said in a voice unusually subdued for his program. “You look stunning.” He hoped Mr. Paris’s lessons on extending a compliment to a beautiful woman were as effective on Seven as they had apparently been on B’Elanna.

“Thank you, Doctor,” his date replied. “You look…lovely, yourself.” Had this been an actual social lesson, he might have corrected Seven’s choice of compliments to something along the lines of ‘handsome,’ or ‘dashing.’ As it was, he was happy just to think she thought him ‘lovely.’ He, too, was wearing something new, a subroutine Lieutenant Torres has created for him of a classic navy blue suit with a bright white shirt and thin tie. Something she had seen on a 20th century actor known as ‘Cary Grant,’ she said. He assumed he had to thank Mr. Paris for that as well.

Seven looked around the holodeck, trying to place the setting. “Where are we?” she inquired.

The Doctor moved to stand next to her, then turned with a sweeping gesture to indicate their location, “Earth. European continent, an ancient city known as Venice. A city of canals, esteemed artists, and romance.” He wanted to impress her without scaring her off. So far, it seemed to be working. The piazza he had chosen was deserted except for a table for two, perfectly set, and a sky full of stars. What illumination there was came from a full moon and several discretely placed lanterns. Somewhere, unseen musicians provided romantic underscoring for their evening.

The two stood awkwardly for a moment, as each tried to think of a way to break the tension without destroying the mood. “Are you hungry?” he asked, hoping that was the right choice.

“I am,” she said, remembering not to blurt out that she had forgotten her nutritional supplement in her distraction that afternoon.

He showed her to the table, and held her chair as she sat. “Champagne?” he asked. She nodded and he proceeded to fill both their flutes.’Holographic champagne she surmised, not really minding, since synthehol made her very lightheaded. It was, of course, the only kind the Doctor could drink. “The Chateau St. Michele is holographic, but your meal is quite real,” he offered, seeming to answer her unasked question. “I wouldn’t recommend tasting my entree, however,” he said, “empty calories,” a touch of his sly humor surfacing. This was the Doctor she knew, and it helped to put her at ease.

They spent the rest of their dinner making pleasant conversation about the things they both enjoyed: music, speculating on the IQ’s of various crewmembers, spinning theories on the nature of intelligence. They were long past the ‘so, where do you come from,’ stage of their relationship, yet they were each novices in the delicate dance of courtship. Still, they relaxed enough to let their equally wicked senses of humor out, and the evening was going well. A brief lull in their conversation provided the Doctor an opening he had been waiting for.

“Would you care to dance?” he asked.

Seven hesitated only a moment before answering. “I’d love to,” she said trying not to sound like her stiff self. The Doctor stood and took her hand, but paused before helping her up. “Computer, play musical selection Paris 2341,” he instructed. The tune was familiar to Seven as soon as she heard it, and she looked quickly into his eyes.

“This song always reminds me of you,” he said softly as he moved her to an open area away from their table. The vocalist began as he twirled her slowly into his arms.

‘There’s a saying, oh, says that love is blind.
Still we’re often told, ‘seek and ye shall find.’
I’m gonna seek a certain man I’ve have in mind.
Searching everywhere. Haven’t found him yet.
He’s the big affair I cannot forget.
Only man I ever think of with regret…’

To the lovely strains of Ella Fitzgerald, the holographic Doctor and the former drone swayed slowly in each other’s arms, each holding the other tight. As the song wound down, the Doctor sang its final refrain softly into Seven’s ear, “Won’t you tell her please to put on some speed, follow my lead, oh, how I need….” Before he could finish the phrase, the beautiful woman in his arms turned her head slowly to face him, and began what history would record as the first ex-Borg/sentient-hologram passionate kiss.

They danced some more before the evening was over, and–with The Kiss out of the way–each relaxed a bit and enjoyed their time. It was over too soon, and the Doctor repeated his gesture of walking his date to her door. They didn’t talk much as they moved through the corridors, but every time they were sure they were alone, he would subtly reach over and take her hand. He was surprised at how easily she let him. Too soon, however, they were at the familiar door to Cargo Bay 2. They stood there for a moment, gazing at each other. Seven broke the quiet.

“I had a wonderful time this evening,” she said, remembering her lessons in the social graces.

“So did I,” her date offered, equally polite. “I hope we can do it again sometime.” He started to take her hand to kiss it, then stopped to check the corridor in either direction. Seeing no one, he gently moved his hand to the nape of Seven’s neck and pulled her into another long kiss, which she willingly returned.

Pulling back after several moments, she gestured to the closed door and said softly, “I’m sure Icheb is already regenerating.” Right. She didn’t ‘live alone.’

The doctor smiled ironically, thinking of his own housing situation, then took a small step back from her before saying, “Then I guess this is goodnight.” This time he did kiss her hand, and slowly walked away as he heard the large bay doors open and close. ‘If this relationship is going to go anywhere,’ he pondered. ‘One of us is going to need to request living quarters.’

~*~*~*~*~

Rumor was that Tuvok had declined his holodeck rations, preferring instead to save the ship’s energy. Neelix had considered joining Naomi for a chapter of ‘Flotter,’ but he remembered their daunting mission, and elected instead for a visit to his family on Rynax.

It had been painful for him to recall the tragic deaths of his parents and siblings, so he had never recreated his family before now. This was a new program he wrote–with Ensign Kim’s assistance–just for the occasion. He was willing to face his guilt and sorrow now, if it meant one more time with those he loved. No matter what, he would never see another Talaxian in all likelihood, nor would he ever set foot on his home planet or its moon. He wasn’t all that sorry. His life on Voyager had been better than any he could have dreamed of before his friends had come along. He’d rescued Kes, spent three years with her, gotten to be a godfather twice over, and had done his part, he hoped, in easing the burdens of those he had come to think of as his new family.

He sincerely hoped to see Earth in a few days. ‘If that wasn’t to be,’ he thought, ‘I’m ready for whatever comes.’ Still, this last glimpse of his home and his family brought him more peace than pain. He was glad he had chosen to visit one last time.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna had asked Tom to let her program their final time together in the holodeck. After having played ‘Captain Proton’ with Harry for four and a half hours a few nights before, he didn’t really think he could say no. Plus, he was curious to know how she would choose to spend their final ‘vacation’ before this long ride ended. She was waiting for him now, at 2002, and he would finally know what she had planned.

Just like she had for his game with Harry, B’Elanna carefully selected Tom’s wardrobe for their ‘date.’ He wasn’t surprised to see the loud Hawaiian-print shirt and a pair of cut-off shorts lying across their bed next to an oversized beach towel and his favorite pair of ‘too-cool’ sunglasses. He was changed in a matter of seconds. He picked up the towel, and put the sunglasses over his hair like a headband. He could have guessed there’d be a beach involved. He practically whistled his way down to Holodeck 2. ‘If those holoemiters could talk,’ he thought as he went.

When the doors opened, however, he had to admit he was surprised. This wasn’t the tropical oasis he had come to expect from his heat-seeking missile of a wife. It was a beach, he saw immediately, but it was only moderately warm–definitely not the baking sun of the equatorial region. The sand before him abutted a long row of shops, low-rise motels, and beach homes, all pressed tightly up against a wooden boardwalk. Boys in long shorts and knee socks rode bicycles up and down the walkway. There was the sound of carnival music, and the beach was full of small canvas huts. He could smell roasting peanuts and a sickly-sweet aroma he recognized from his childhood as caramel popcorn.

About twenty feet down the boardwalk, he saw B’Elanna in a rather demure sundress. Oh, she had exposed her arms and legs to the warm rays of the sun, but it was hardly the skimpy bathing suit he had come to expect when sand and water were nearby. She was standing with her back to him, looking out over the ocean, an oversized basket on a bench next to her. He took it all in as he moved to join his wife.

“Hi,” he said, a little at a loss for words. “This is amazing.” She smiled back at him, pulling his sunglasses down to cover his squinting eyes. “Coney Island?” he asked.

“Atlantic City, New Jersey,” she said, “circa-1948. I thought you might enjoy it.”

He was confused. “Wasn’t Atlantic City a gambling resort?” He was pretty sure of his history.

“Much later in the 20th Century,” B’Elanna answered, proud that she had stumped him. “In this era, it was a summer family resort, known for its long boardwalk, clean beaches, and something known as ‘amusements.'” She still hadn’t quite figured that one out, though she assumed the computer had thrown some in for authenticity.

“So, what’s in the basket?” he asked. Is it our ‘lunch’?” Sure, it was odd to be eating lunch at 8:15 in the evening, but the program was clearly indicating a mid-afternoon setting.

“No,” she said rather cryptically. “This isn’t a basket,” she laughed, catching him in his second historical error of the trip. “It’s called a bassinette.” This was a word he hadn’t heard before. She saw his blank expression. “A ‘baby basket’.” He was still confused. They wouldn’t need any sort of ‘baby basket’ for at least another few weeks, as his wife was still obviously very pregnant. B’Elanna pulled very close to him before she explained. “I asked the Doctor to extrapolate and age enhance the prenatal scan he took during my last exam.” She removed the sunglasses she had just placed on her husband, and stepped aside to reveal her handiwork. Lying in the basket was a small infant, a girl, with medium brown hair, dozing eyes of a dark bluish-brown, and the softest of cranial ridges. Tom held his breath as he took his first real look at his daughter.

Of course, he and B’Elanna had seen a rudimentary holographic projection of what their child might look like–based on her DNA–when they had first learned of the pregnancy. In fact, it was that projection, clearly showing their daughter’s cranial ridges, which had triggered his wife’s fears about having a part-Klingon child. That was a different kind of experience, however. Like looking at a crude animation. Now, wriggling under a soft blue blanket, was a three-dimensional, thoroughly life-like photonic version of their little girl. One that could be touched and held. Tom was stunned.

“Of course, she’s only a hologram,” B’Elanna said softly, filling in the long pause while her husband looked down in wonder.

“She’s so beautiful…” Tom said, reaching down to lift the now sleeping form up to his arms. When he looked up at B’Elanna’s face, his eyes were wet. She choked back her own tears as she reached up to wipe his. After all of her agony over her child’s mixed heritage, B’Elanna now saw only perfection in the small bundle Tom held close to his chest. “I can’t believe…she’s so small,” he marveled.

“She is now, but I’ve programmed her to grow at an accelerated rate. We only have three hours, and I thought maybe–”

He interrupted, “Maybe this is our one chance to see her grow up?” The fact that this might never come to pass in reality wasn’t lost on either of them.

B’Elanna didn’t want to think of it that way, though. “I thought you might enjoy her more at an older age, where you could chase after her. She’ll grow at a rate of a little less than one year per hour. She should be walking before we have to go.”

In practice for what he hoped he would soon learn out of necessity, he held his sleeping child to one side and leaned over to kiss her mother, sweetly and with all the emotion this moment held for them both. When she pulled away, it was only to get on with their ‘day’.

“Now, if you want to lay her back down, I see a hot dog vendor with our lunch.”

She saw Tom move toward the bassinette before stopping and looking back to her. “Don’t they make things–harness things–so you don’t have to put them down?” he asked.

“It wouldn’t be historically accurate for the time period,” she warned.

“I don’t care,” he said and meant it.

She reached into the basket and pulled out a sort of knapsack already sized to fit Tom, and strapped him into it, with the opening tight to his chest. “It was called a ‘snugglie,’ of all things,” she whispered to him as she fastened it and sat their ‘daughter’ inside. “I thought you might refuse to put her down, so I researched my options. I didn’t want to have to hand feed you, too.”

He now had at least ten more reasons to love his wife forever, he thought, the smallest of which was now sleeping soundly against his heart. As they started to walk, he put his arm around B’Elanna’s waist far enough that he could feel their real child press against his hand. This beat Tahiti, he thought. Any day.

The next three hours were filled with cooing and laughter, and tiny fingers holding large ones as she first suckled, then chewed, then held on for support during tentative first steps. They played on a blanket in the sand, later moving inside one of the beach tents for a break from the sun and some privacy. They didn’t dare take a nap, a normal beach activity for the couple, for fear of missing out on this time with their ‘child.’ When the toddler drifted off to sleep during one of her pre-programmed ‘growth spurts,’ however, Tom took advantage of the opportunity and began another of their favorite beach pastimes.

This wasn’t one of their wild Klingon escapades, however. Today, in deference both to B’Elanna’s condition and their heightened emotions, their activity amounted to tender touches and deep kisses, with some long, silent moments of just listening to each other breathe.

For the last thirty minutes of their all-too-precious time, Tom suggested they remove the holographic child to spend some time alone with their real one. They each hugged and kissed the toddler before asking the computer to take her and the other holographic characters from the program. They then sat for a long while, together on the beach, Tom supporting B’Elanna from behind and rubbing his hands over her belly, her arms draped softly around his propped-up knees. The time-accelerated sun was setting behind them as they watched the first of the stars appear on the horizon. Finally, out of time, they stood and walked arm-in-arm to the door.

Thin air parted to reveal the exit to the corridor and B’Elanna began to step through. “Aren’t you going to turn off the program?” Tom asked as they were leaving.

“No, I’ve been asked to leave it running,” she said softly as they began the trip back to their quarters.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay deliberately waited five extra minutes before making his way to the holodeck. B’Elanna told him of her plans, and he knew the couple would probably want their privacy after such an emotional evening. Besides, he didn’t want to have to pretend to be anything other than preoccupied with his own future for the next few hours. He was relieved, when he reached the doors, to find the program still running, but the room empty. He stepped inside and took a look around.

Time to make a few changes, he knew. “Computer, run subroutine Chakotay Alpha 3 Gamma.” Instantly, the distant sounds of boardwalk crowds were replaced by the lonely roar of the surf as it crashed to the shore. On the beach in front of him appeared a large veranda, attached to no other structure, but offering an uninterrupted view of the ocean. On its marble surface was a long, deep-blue velvet couch facing out to the sea, with a replicated bottle of Moet 2285 and two delicately-cut crystal glasses in an ice bucket alongside. The moon was now out and full, casting a blue glow over the entire beach.

‘Nice work, B’Elanna,’ he thought. The beach wasn’t his idea of the most romantic setting, but he wasn’t doing this for himself. He had asked his friend to come up with something Kathryn would enjoy. They had agreed upon this almost immediately.

He still had ten minutes before she was to arrive. He took a moment to prepare himself for what he was going to say. Also to prepare himself in case she decided not to come at all. This was risky for both of them, he knew, but he hoped he was about to make it less so.

Only a minute late, his heart stopped and restarted as he heard the doors open. He turned around to see her in an emerald version of that same silk pantsuit he knew so well. She kicked off her sandals and carried them as she started to walk toward him, tentatively, across the sand.

“This is nice,” she said, hoping to sound casual. “The mid-Atlantic coast of North America, if I know my oceans correctly.”

He smiled, “Always the scientist.” She was stepping up onto the firm decking, but chose not to put her shoes back on. Instead, she walked slowly toward the ocean side, and took a deep breath of holographic salt air. He followed a few paces behind. “Do you have a theory as to why I asked you here?” he teased.

“I’m not sure I’d have to apply the scientific method to determine that,” she answered. “Chakotay…”

He wasn’t ready to let her take control of the conversation. “You might be surprised,” he said a little slyly. “I wanted you to know about a decision I’ve made.”

Wow. ‘Decision’ sounded so finite. And indicated something that might be out of her control. She hated having someone else make decisions for her–too long in the center seat, she surmised, though she knew this had been true as much in her youth as in her career. “Really,” she said softly. “A decision to…”

“Quit.” His answer was firm and short, yet still ambiguous.

Quit what? Quit waiting for her to come to her senses? Quit looking at her in ways that made her knees weak? Quit going home alone to an empty bed after a long talk with her over an intimate dinner in her quarters. She found no way to voice these questions, instead repeating his word back to him. “Quit?” she asked. Deep breath, Kathryn.

“Starfleet.”

And exhale. “What?” was all she could come up with in reply.

“I’ve decided to resign before I can be dismissed,” he answered. “As soon as we get home. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while, but I knew–as long as we were stuck in the Delta Quadrant–that it was important for my old crew to have me continue to serve as first officer. And I felt my training and experience could help us all get home. These years on Voyager have been extraordinary. They reminded me of why I went to the Academy in the first place. Working with honorable people, a chance for peaceful exploration, getting to learn about different cultures and to share some of our values with those we meet.” He was sincere. “I’m not a bit sorry to have had this experience.” He took a few steps toward her before continuing.

“But I’ve also been reminded of the ways all these rules and protocols can enslave a person. We’ve come across countless peoples we could have helped were it not for the almighty Prime Directive.’ Starfleet stood by and let diplomatic process give my father’s killers a strategic advantage, yet how often have we been forced into a similar situation ourselves? It will only be worse when we get home.”

Janeway suddenly noticed that he seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as her. Was he playing ‘Maquis’ to give her a reason to reject him? Was he steeling himself for the possibility that the choice to stay or leave the service might be out of his hands? She couldn’t tell, but something about his arguments seemed a little forced.

“What will you do?” she asked, hoping his answer would reveal the truth.

“If I’m allowed to choose my next career, I’ve decided to request an anthropology fellowship at the Goodall Center in South America,” he answered. So, this wasn’t an idle impulse; he had thought this out, she was now sure. “I thought maybe I would settle down on Earth for a while. Get back to the kind of work I enjoy the most. Maybe write a paper on unveiling the Mars Explorer mystery in my spare time.” This was it, then. He was going to leave her. This setting was all about breaking the news.

“I also thought I might look up someone I got to know a few years ago.” It took her a moment to follow this turn in the conversation. “A woman I had settled down with briefly a while back.” Was he just trying to hurt her, now? “She reminds me of you, a bit,” he went on. “Her hair was red, but longer, and she was devoted to science, too. We set up a small homestead and started to make a life together, but circumstances separated us before we could make any kind of long-term commitment to each other.” He began taking slow, measured steps toward her. “She liked to take long, hot baths, and she had the most adventurous spirit of any woman I have ever known. I haven’t seen her in about five years.”

The math added up before his story did. ‘New Earth.’ He was talking about their time on ‘New Earth.’ “Chakotay…”

He was now standing in front of her with his finger across her lips. “I’ve spent almost every day since that time trying to figure out how to win her back, if we should ever see each other again. I’m not sure she’ll have me, but I could never live with myself if I didn’t at least try.” He started to lean in to kiss her, but she pulled away and took his hand, walking him over to sit on the couch. They faced each other, and this time it was her turn to speak.

“My people have an ancient legend,” she began softly, co-opting a technique he had used so long ago, “about a great female warrior, a woman so strong, she needed nothing but her sword and her shield for protection. She set out on a great quest, to hunt down and capture another warrior, a man who knew only anger and rage. She was prepared to battle her opponent to the death. But a great storm came, and swept their armies far from home. These two warriors realized that–to save their men and return to their village–they would have to work together to lead their people to safety. Soon they realized that the reasons for their battle were unimportant. They had come to know and understand the other’s true nature, and they made a solemn oath–never to forget that what united them was of more importance than their divisions. And each devoted his life to the other’s happiness.” She reached down and took his hand before she continued. “But the brave warrior was now her soldier, and the weight of their journey was hers. Her duty and her honor would keep her from him, until at last they reached their homes.” She looked into his eyes through the mist in her own. She remembered. He was touched.

“‘Is that really an ancient legend?'” he quoted her.

“‘No, but it made it a lot easier to say.'” With that, they smiled at the irony of their lives, and she, finally, leaned over to kiss the brave warrior who had fought so gallantly by her side for so long.

“I’ve been in love with you for six years,” he said softly as their lips parted, deciding that someone in this relationship had to get the courage to speak in something other than metaphor.

“I know,” she said. “You understand why I couldn’t…”

“I understand why you felt you couldn’t return my feelings.”

She laughed a bit at that. “Return your attentions,” she corrected. “The feelings I have definitely returned.” This was a huge admission and she was glad it was finally out there. “At first, there was Mark, or the memory of him. I think it took me a while to realize that there wouldn’t be any shortcut home. I was engaged to a man I loved, and I would be faithful to my heart. Little did I know that, by the time I was able to let him go and move on, he had already beaten me to it.” She looked only slightly wistful at the memory. “And there was my duty to this crew. How could they trust my objectivity, my authority…”

“If they knew you were romantically involved with a subordinate. I do understand, Kathryn. You live and breathe Starfleet regulations. I’ve come to accept that as part of who you are. But we’re almost home. A week from now, I hope to be on my way to becoming another Federation civilian, going about the business of making a life for myself. Tell me that life can include a stubborn, rule-following, Starfleet captain.”

She smiled, searching her mind for any reasonable objection to his plea. She supposed she had so many years of practice keeping him at an emotional arm’s-length, it would take a while for her to get out of the habit. “I’ll have my command, and my assignments,” she warned him.

“And I’ll have my expeditions and research,” he hoped. “Just avoid any coherent tetrion beams, and come home to me once in a while. I’ve gotten used to waiting for you, Kathryn. Just don’t make me wait my whole life.” This time, he initiated the kiss, and she was glad to return it.

“I have no plans to live in the top of a tree in the Amazon Rain Forest,” she said turning to lean her back against the couch and gaze out over the water.

“Can you see me in farm country?” he asked honestly, taking her right hand in his left and intertwining their fingers.

“I’d like to,” she said playfully. He pulled their interlocked hands up and kissed hers.

“We could alternate,” he offered as they began to talk about a future. A time when, maybe, a Starfleet captain and a learned anthropologist might have nothing more to worry about than where to make their home.

They sat there on that couch, looking up at the stars, talking about choices of hometowns, the places they could go to dinner, planning his introduction to her sister, their mutual love of dogs (thank god–that would have been a deal-breaker). Then they opened the champagne and toasted to the future. A future they could only talk about, because–for now–he was still her first officer, and she his captain. They had waited almost seven years. They could wait another seven days.

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