BCWYWF… Part 4: By Any Means Necessary

Harry was holding onto the ops console for dear life. “Twenty-thousand light years and closing.”

B’Elanna’s voice was shouting over the open comlink. “We’re starting to show fluctuations in the core pressure.”

Now it was Seven’s voice they heard, “Attempting to compensate.”

Tom’s fingers worked furiously trying to translate his thoughts into action as quickly as possible to keep up with the ever-changing shape of the conduit before them. “I’m reading gravimetric shear directly ahead. Attempting to maneuver around the wake.”

Tuvok: “Power fluctuations are increasing. The deflector wedge is destabilizing.”

Kim was shouting now, “Hull breach on Deck 11! It’s decompressed the entire deck!”

There was the sudden sound of metal tearing and violent crashing over the com before it went silent. Tom could only shake off the horrible thoughts running through his mind. He had to stay in the moment. The bridge began to undulate violently. Seconds later it was over.

~*~*~*~*~

This was their sixth simulation of the day (the seventeenth in thirty-six hours), and the third time they’d risen from the dead since breakfast. Each time, it seemed, a different key system failed not long into their trip. Sometimes they’d lose helm control and fly into the ‘wall’ of the singularity. Once, the ship developed a harmonic vibration, which shook the starboard nacelle right off. And now, their most common foe had risen to defeat them–the collapse of their structural integrity field. This morning they were well below the 62% success rate predicted by their initial projections. Things seemed to get worse the more they practiced.

“Janeway to Holodeck 1.”

“Torres here, Captain.” Tom was relieved to hear her voice, even if her recent death had been only theoretical.

“What now, B’Elanna?” their captain asked.

“Looks like we developed another pin-hole coolant leak. Not enough to set off the alarms, but enough to destabilize the pressure. I’ve asked Carey to run some more scans, but the leaks seem to develop randomly inside the plasma conduits. We might not be able to do anything except be aware of the potential problem and monitor it as we go.”

“That’s not good enough, B’Elanna,” Janeway shot back. They were all getting tired.

It was Seven who replied. “It will have to be, Captain. Lieutenant Torres cannot repair a malfunction that has not yet occurred, and there’s no way to anticipate where a rupture will form until it’s opened.” Everyone expected the chief engineer to respond in some way that indicated she could fight her own battles, but–whether out of exhaustion or gratitude–she let Seven’s comments stand.

“Captain,” Chakotay interrupted, “I’m more concerned about the gravimetric disturbance Tom reported just before we broke up.”

The pilot agreed, “Me, too. That’s the first time we’ve seen one that size. It was hard to avoid.”

Janeway took a deep breath and sighed. “Computer,” she called out. “Reset simulations in Holodecks 1 and 2 and synchronize.” She spoke to her exhausted crew. “Let’s try this one more time….”

~*~*~*~*~

The mess hall was unusually quiet for 1900 hours as the bridge crew–minus their captain–practically crawled through the doors. Collectively, they had been burned, frozen, dismembered, imploded and exploded several times in the course of this workday, and the ‘projected damage,’ was causing real physical side effects. The good news: the last three simulations had them reach the Alpha Quadrant a bit bruised and battered but alive. Janeway had decided to call it a night while they were on a roll.

Neelix was turning down the flame on the leftovers from dinner when they arrived. Since the captain had restored their rations, fewer of the crew were eating his cooking. He supposed that was understandable, but it did make him more aware of how little he had to do these days. Everyone else on board (besides Naomi Wildman) had a specific role to play in readying the ship for their mission. Neelix was feeling a little unnecessary. He was glad to see his friends–his first customers in over an hour–come in and sit down.

Harry draped himself over an empty chair and Chakotay stretched out the tired muscles in his neck and shoulders. Tom walked to the counter and poured himself a cup of coffee; his first officer indicated he’d like one as well. Tuvok, Mister ‘I can go a week without sleep,’ was dragging his feet less than the rest of the men, but even he would have admitted to being less than his best.

As Tom turned to head for their table, Neelix couldn’t help but notice he hadn’t asked for anything to eat. “I’m just heating up the leftover pleeka rind casserole! Let me get you some.”

Tom was too tired to hold back the nauseous impulse he felt at the thought of this particular dish, but he didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings. “Gee, thanks, Neelix, but B’Elanna’s expecting me for dinner in about an hour.” He forced himself to sniff the air deeply. He was instantly sorry. “Smells great, though.” Neelix’s face fell, but he understood. Another customer lost to the replicators. Tom could sense the chef’s disappointment, and decided to turn Neelix’s attentions to a more willing victim.

“Harry,” he called over to the table, “didn’t you just tell me you had a craving for some pleeka rind casserole?”

Amazingly enough, the ensign perked up at the thought. “Hey, great–I’d love some.” Even Chakotay rolled his eyes at Harry’s enthusiasm for this very…pungent dish. Yet the much-maligned leola roots and pleeka rinds had kept this crew fed and healthy for most of their journey. He had to admit, though, he was looking forward to eliminating them from his diet permanently. But if Tom could pawn some off on Harry…

“Neelix, bring Mr. Tuvok a tray, too,” the commander said with an evil look in his eye. Vulcan mental powers were known across the galaxy, but Chakotay was now glad they didn’t extend to telekinesis. If they had, he would certainly be receiving a mental neck pinch from across the table.

“Don’t bother yourself, Mr. Neelix,” Tuvok tried to decline.

“Oh, it’s no bother at all,” the cook was glad to oblige. Chakotay had to pull his coffee cup to his mouth to hide his smile. He was coming to appreciate what Harry and Tom had always seen in tormenting the Vulcan. He was such an easy target.

Neelix filled two trays and, before walking to sit them before Kim and Tuvok, picked up a bottle and five cups. He sat the trays before the diners, and put a cup at every chair. “Gentlemen, while the Ensign and Commander enjoy their dinners, I was wondering if you would join me for a little Irenic Brandy. I’ve been saving four bottles for a special occasion, but–I guess I’m feeling like I need a little cheering up tonight.”

“What’s wrong, Neelix?” Chakotay wondered sincerely.

The Talaxian sat down and began to pour as he answered. “Everyone just seemed to be in such a melancholy mood today. You know, the captain reminded the crew this morning to get their letters ready for the datastream. I think it reminded everyone of how little time we have left. On Voyager, I mean. Before we get to Earth.” His attempted recovery was unnecessary and too late, but no one pressed the issue. He tried to change the subject anyway. “You know, a lot of people seem to find this a good place to think or write.”

“Particularly those with inside cabins, I’d bet,” Harry interjected. This was more than a little pointed at the three senior officers surrounding him. As the second and third in command, Chakotay and Tuvok had very spacious quarters, each with several windows. And, while Tom and B’Elanna’s original rooms had been interior cabins, their new ‘home’, while small, had a view of space as well.

“Yes I’m sure that might have something to do with it,” Neelix thought. “I’ve seen more than a few members of the crew wander in late at night just to stare out those windows.”

While they were talking, Tom took a gulp of the deep red liquid his friend had just poured and almost spit it back into his cup. He had been an experienced drinker in his day–more than a few years ago–but he wasn’t prepared for the kick this spirit carried. “What did you call this?” he asked.

“Irenic Brandy. I had a few bottles stowed away on my ship before I came aboard. It’s made by a cooperative of tall, slender women on an artists colony on Calvert 7. They’re very talented, apparently–and absolutely insane. Some say their brandy has psychotropic properties, but that’s just a rumor.”

This time, Tom sipped the drink, which made it easier to appreciate. It also made his vision almost instantly blurry. The room, he noticed, also seemed to begin a barely-perceptible counterclockwise spin. The others were joining him in sampling the beverage, and each in turn noticed how quickly their bad day was beginning to feel like a good evening. After one swallow, each of the men was feeling in a bit of an altered state of mind, including Tuvok whose Vulcan physiology normally protected him from the effects of alcohol.

“I’d like to make a toast,” the security chief suddenly said out of nowhere. Even though they were all feeling a little strange, his friends realized this was way out of character. His speech was perfectly coherent and not at all slurred, but everyone knew the Vulcan would be the last person to offer a toast to this group in this setting.

Neelix asked, “A toast? To…”

“…to Captain Kathryn Janeway.” The men looked at each other as Tuvok continued. “My old friend. If it weren’t for her…”

“I’d be in jail right now.” Clearly Tom was just as disoriented, from the twisted construction of his next sentence, though his speech wasn’t slurred, either. “Or I would have used to have still been in jail. Before. Or I’d be drunk somewhere.”

“You sound like you’re drunk right now,” Chakotay chimed in, “Neelix, I feel like I’ve been drugged. Are you sure this stuff is safe?”

Neelix looked the commander in the eye and guaranteed, “Perfectly safe. I’ve been assured it is…probably safe, and I…I have no idea how safe it is. But here’s to Captain Janeway.” The men raised their cups, then took another sip.

“Let’s vote,” Tom interjected. “Favorite hairstyle.” They all looked askance, but that didn’t stop them from playing the game. Her ‘personal reclamation project’ continued, “I always liked it straight, curled under a little at the bottom, just touching her shoulders, you know?” Harry now wasn’t sure whose hair they were discussing, since he could think of two women in Tom’s life who had worn that style, both of whom held Tom’s affections. Tuvok seemed to solve the mystery, however, and disagreed with Mr. Paris’s preference.

“Up. Definitely up.” This was a startling admission.

The two men were now alone on this limb, so Tom decided to drag Kim out with them. “Harry?”

“Short, right after she cut it. Curled behind her ears. That was my favorite.”

Neelix was now calling up a memory. “I have to admit that I always liked it long and pulled behind her neck with that little…I don’t know what it’s called.”

“A barrette.” Tom, Harry and Tuvok said in unison. That style seemed like a second runner-up for all of them. Only one of the group had failed to cast a ballot. He wasn’t impaired enough to walk into this conversation. He decided to change the subject instead.

“I’d like to offer my own toast,” the commander interjected. “To B’Elanna Torres… Paris… Torres.”

This brought Tom to attention pretty quickly. “Hey!”

But Chakotay continued. “A great engineer, great friend…”

“Great gams.” Tom looked lost in thought. A happy thought.

“Gams?” Tuvok asked.

“Legs,” Harry translated.

Tom continued, “And she has this spot at the base of her…”–eyes were raising–“…neck. Drives me crazy.” The men were all looking a little wistful at this point. Tom shook his head to try and clear it. He never spoke this way about his wife to anyone, not even Harry. “Neelix, I think we should have the Doc check this stuff out. I feel…I don’t think I can’t feel my feet!”

Neelix, who was definitely a little…relaxed, was less affected than the others and made the call. “Neelix to sickbay.” The doctor was on his way in less than a minute.

When he walked in, the tribute to the noble women of Voyager was continuing.

“To Sue Nicoletti,” Harry said, raising his near-empty glass.

“Nicoletti?” Chakotay asked.

Harry continued. “Great with a hyperspanner. Talented musician. And I think she has a crush on me.” The look that passed between Chakotay and Tom said they thought Harry might be engaging in some wishful thinking.

“What is going on here?” The Doctor asked, pulling out a medical tricorder and scanning each man in turn.

“I think we’re drunk, Doc,” Tom offered, standing and putting his hand across his medical mentor’s shoulders.

“Actually, Mr. Paris, you have no traces of alcohol in your system. However, your seratonin levels are all unnaturally high. And it looks as if the centers of your brain that inhibit behavior have been chemically suppressed.” He noticed Neelix’s elixir on the table and scanned the bottle.

“This beverage contains a synthetic barbiturate. Gentlemen, I’d say you’ve all been drugged.” They looked at Neelix a little suspiciously. He could only shrug his shoulders.

“How could I know?” he asked. “I traded for it over seven years ago. I was looking for water, but this was all they had. All I can remember was needing…” his sentence drifted away as he remembered why water had been so important to him all those years ago. It was all he could think of to offer the Kazon in place of their Ocampan hostage.

“To Kes,” Tom offered, stepping away from the Doctor to pick up his cup.

They all nodded solemnly as they echoed his toast. “To Kes.” Even the doctor looked touched at the memory of his first pupil. They were quiet for a moment.

“And to Annika Seven of Hansen Nine,” Harry now offered. “And to smart, strong women everywhere.”

“Here-here!” they chimed in, clinking their cups. It was Harry who suggested the next vote. “Favorite jumpsuit color.” He obviously wasn’t finished saluting Seven. “I always liked the blue, shimmery…”

“Gentlemen!” The doctor interrupted. He grabbed the half-empty bottle off the table before they could stop him. His next words weren’t to them. “Doctor to transporter room. Six to beam directly to sickbay.” They shimmered into nothingness, and the party was over.

The doctor was easily able to counteract the affects of Neelix’s bad brew, and the officers had been released to their quarters with only a slight case of embarrassment as their hangover. Truth be told, however, they had come away from the experience more relaxed than they would have thought possible after such a grueling day.

~*~*~*~*~

The next morning, the captain surprised them by canceling their scheduled simulations. Instead, she called for meticulous checks of the ship’s key systems, to be followed by light-duty shifts for her key people on the bridge and in engineering. They would be sending and receiving their final Starfleet datastream at 1600 hours, after making their final preparations for the mission. Twenty-four hours from now they would make the attempt.

The schedule she issued also included a gathering to be held for the entire crew at 1830 hours in Holodeck 2. Tonight, they would celebrate together their last evening in the Delta Quadrant.

Her plans were both compassionate and practical. She knew what was on the line, and had been especially careful in allowing her crew time to spend making peace with their choice. She also knew that a well-rested and focused crew was going to have a better chance to succeed under the enormous pressures they would be facing. Plus, there was something she needed to tell them.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was still in engineering when Tom returned to their quarters at the end of his abbreviated shift. He was glad for a little time alone. He had been meaning to write his final messages for the datastream for days, yet he couldn’t seem to figure out what he wanted to say or to whom. Finally, he decided to send only one letter. He sat at the desk and opened a datafile.
“Dear B’Elanna,” he began…

At her console on the upper level of Engineering, B’Elanna was just finishing her final checks on the warp core. Everything looked fine. She knew she could keeping reviewing their findings for hours without seeing what she really needed to know: would this ship hold up to the stress? Would her knack for coming up with the last-minute inspiration get them through this most important of challenges? Would they make it home? As daunting as these questions were, in a way they offered her the reason to stop working for the night. Only time and the fates held the answers she was seeking. The PADDs didn’t have a clue. She stacked the reports neatly and left them on the console.

She took the open lift down to the first level and glanced around her engine room. Like so many of her relationships, she had a love/hate affair going on with this warp core. But she definitely loved this room. It was her proof that she was capable and competent and needed. She wondered, even if they survived the trip, how long it would continue to be hers.

With most of her crew on light duty, she was practically alone in the huge space. Remembering the one chore she hadn’t completed that day, she walked to a quiet alcove and opened a datafile. Unlike her husband, B’Elanna had always known to whom she would write in this final stream. She, too, would write only one letter.

“Dear Mother…”

Tom couldn’t help but think of the first time he had dictated a ‘final message’ to B’Elanna. Looking back, he had many reasons to be grateful that it was never delivered. He had crashed the Flyer in an ion storm while he, Tuvok, and Samantha Wildman had been on their way back from an away mission. It was a difficult time between Tom and B’Elanna–they were only just recovering from a series of relationship-testing experiences, and things were still unsettled between them. When he thought he would die, buried in that shuttle, Tom knew he wanted his last message to be for her. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to say what he really meant. That he was sorry things had gotten out of hand between them. That their time together had been the best of his life. That he loved her. Instead, in typical Paris fashion, he had made a joke about her not having to put up with his cold pizza left lying around. Only when he heard Sam’s heartfelt message to Naomi did Tom realize the opportunity he had wasted. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

He spent the next five minutes detailing the ways in which he had come to love his wife, reminding her of the things they had shared and what they had meant to him. He assured her that the worst of the last six years had been better than the best of those before. He left a message for B’Elanna to pass on to their daughter, and a reassurance that he would never, truly, leave her. And he told her that he would be waiting for her. In Sto-Vo-Kor.

Finally, he encoded the message for transmission to Admiral Owen Paris, with instructions for its delivery should he not make it back alive. His most important affairs in order, he started getting ready for the party.

B’Elanna wasn’t sure why she was sending this message to Miral, nor did she know if her mother was even alive to receive it. She did know there was unfinished business between them, and she knew that finding and speaking with her mother would be one of her first priorities if they did make it back. More importantly, if they didn’t survive the trip, there were many things she needed her mother to know. She struggled with how to begin.

She started by acknowledging the distance between them–the more than eleven years since they had last spoken. She talked about the reasons she felt she had to leave Kessick 4 to join Starfleet, and the reasons why she quit the Academy two years later. B’Elanna discussed her decision to join the Maquis, the ways in which their struggle had been noble, and her pride in her service to their cause. She wanted her mother to know about her time on Voyager, about her reintroduction to Starfleet life, and the ways in which she had grown as a woman and as an officer. The ways in which she had reclaimed her honor.

The next part was both easier and harder. For the first time, she told her mother about Tom, a human man who had become her mate. About them falling in love and their long fight to build a relationship. She knew her mother might be disappointed–though not surprised–to hear her daughter had married a human. Afraid she had repeated Miral’s mistake. But B’Elanna explained something she had only recently come to believe herself: that Tom was not like B’Elanna’s father, a man who knew in his heart he wasn’t strong enough to make a life with a Klingon. In some ways, B’Elanna truly felt, Tom was more Klingon than she was. And he was an honorable man, a good husband, and would be a wonderful father to their child. Miral’s granddaughter.

B’Elanna spent a moment trying to imagine her mother as a grandparent. The thought made her sad. She had defended her mother against her father’s criticism before he had left, then spent the rest of her life blaming her mother, herself, and their Klingon heritage for forcing him away. Maybe her own baby might be the key to reconnecting her to her family. Let’s hope we get to find out, she thought sadly.

Lastly, B’Elanna struggled to say what she had struggled to face: that, while she had a long way to go, she was trying to learn to appreciate her Klingon heritage. With Tom’s help and encouragement, she was slowly embracing the side of herself she had rejected her entire life. And that, perhaps, when they saw each other again, they might talk about B’Elanna’s near-death experience on the Barge of the Dead, her less-than-successful celebration of the Day of Honor, Voyager’s encounter with the Klingon generational ship, and the road B’Elanna was taking to make peace with that part of her background. “I’ve missed you, Mother,” she closed the letter. “I’ll see you soon.”

She sat quietly for a moment before she spoke again. “Computer, encode file for delivery to Miral Torres, in care of the Federation science station on Kessick 4.” Just hope, she said to herself, that there’s someone there to receive it.

Similar scenes were repeating all over the ship, as members of the crew decided how to write what were probably the most important letters of their lives. Some found it easier than others. Harry, still supremely confident they would be home safely in just a few days, had written four letters, finishing them hours ago. He was spending his afternoon practicing a saxophone piece he had written a few months earlier.

Tuvok, on the other hand, was carefully considering the words he chose to send home to his wife and children. The Doctor was putting the finishing touches on a paper he had written on the medical advances he had made in the Delta Quadrant for delivery to his ‘father,’ Dr. Louis Zimmerman. And Neelix, ever the caring soul, was writing short messages to the families of those crewmembers who had died during their journey. He didn’t want their loved-ones to go unremembered in this emotional time.

Even Icheb had a message for their final transmission, though his contained only an official request to transfer to Starfleet Academy in San Francisco should their mission be successful.

Only Seven of Nine had no plans to correspond with Earth. If she had any family there, she was unaware of them. Not that they would have held any significance for her. Her ‘real family,’ her mother and father, had been the only humans she remembered before being rescued by Voyager. Her new family was with her now, on this ship she had come to know as her home. Instead, Seven accessed her personal log. What messages she would write would stay imbedded in the computer core until they reached their destination.

Kathryn Janeway had recorded only one letter, probably the most important of her life.

In it, she recapped the events of the past seven years though her own personal perspective. Tales of bravery and heroics bordering on the mythical. Of the people she had come to know and love, and of how they came together under the most difficult circumstances not only in the name of peaceful exploration, but in the best Starfleet and Federation traditions.

She put her soul into that letter–she needed to if it were to accomplish its task. In her time in the Delta Quadrant, she had honed her powers of persuasion to the point that she was now confident in her ability to talk almost anyone into almost anything. The evidence backed her up: she had talked Chakotay into merging their crews, Maquis and Starfleet, into one. She had forged an unheard of alliance with the Borg. She had talked Species 8472 out of invading Earth. She had even convinced Seven of Nine to explore her humanity. Surely, she had one more win left in her.

In some ways, all of her other victories would be meaningless without this last one. She ended the datafile and marked it to upload. Attention: Starfleet Headquarters. Now she could only wait.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay’s one datafile was a formal letter of inquiry to the Goodall Center for Anthropology; he had completed it several days ago, soon after his evening on the beach. He was reviewing their final preparations for the mission when his door chime sounded. “Come in.”

Kathryn Janeway walked though the door wearing a deep burgundy velvet dress with a geometric plunge at the neckline. He had seen it only once before, but it had been memorable. “Care to escort a lady to a party?” she asked provocatively.

He didn’t realize it was that late. “I’d love to,” he said, picking up his jacket from the chair next to him. They walked together into the corridor.

“Just where are you holding this little get-together of yours?” he asked as they walked.

“Holodeck 2, of course,” she answered knowing that wasn’t what he met. He knew better than to ask again. Her secret was revealed soon enough, however, as the massive doors to the deck slid open to reveal her choice of settings for this final celebration.

He didn’t recognize the room, but the view was unmistakable. The San Francisco skyline looked beautiful at night, with the fog rolling in off the bay.

“I considered Sandrine’s briefly,” Janeway smiled, “But it’s a little too small to hold most of the crew.” She was referring to a holographic replica of Tom Paris’s favorite Marseilles hide out–their first public holoprogram. It had become a favorite ‘neighborhood bar’ for the entire crew for much of their trip. She had other reasons, however, for avoiding that setting, though she didn’t share them with Chakotay.

Recently, she noticed, its author had seemed to move on, away from his need for the bar and what it had symbolized for him. She couldn’t help but notice that Tom’s loss of interest in his sanctuary seemed to coincide with the serious turn in his relationship with B’Elanna. Somehow, Janeway supposed, he was making some kind of choice to leave behind that part of himself and the memories it represented. Or maybe he no longer needed somewhere to hide. In any case, she didn’t want to share their final family gathering in a setting with such ambiguous meaning.

“Besides,” she said, “I thought this might help everyone remember why we’ve been working so hard. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be having our next party in the real San Francisco, when they welcome us home.” Her eyes were far away, and–while he didn’t doubt her sincerity–Chakotay also knew that her personal motivations went even deeper. She wanted, he realized, to ensure herself of one evening–at home on Earth–with a crew she could imagine she’d led safely there. She had earned this bit of wishful thinking.

“Where are we?” he asked, indicating the large airy room with vaulted ceilings and an uninterrupted view of the Golden Gate Bridge. They were standing on the upper level, just inside the door, on an elevated landing. Before them were several steps down to a large area that resembled a ski lodge, full of couches and chairs, all carefully clustered to allow for intimate conversations among small groups. Further beyond them and slightly elevated from the seating area was a full bar next to an expanse he could only describe as a dance floor. The back wall was all glass–the source of the incredible view–interrupted only by the occasional pair of French doors leading out to a stone terrace. One wall held a massive fireplace, which was already glowing with flames. The setting looked as much like a grand hotel as it did a residence, though he could tell from the architecture that it was, in fact, a home.

“Admiral Stewart’s ‘Palace.'” She said jokingly. “Well, that’s what I used to call it–when the Admiral was out of earshot.” She looked around and said slyly, “I suppose rank does have its privileges…. I had the ‘honor’ of attending several formal Starfleet receptions here, and–though the company occasionally left something to be desired–I always loved this room.”

She grabbed his hand and led him into the heart of the space. “What do you think?”

He was smiling at her eagerness to show off her handiwork. “I think you’re very pleased with yourself,” he kidded. “And you deserve to be–it’s a great idea.”

With that, the crew began to arrive. “Computer,” she said softly, “initiate subroutine Janeway Reception Omega 1.” With her command, holographic waiters began to appear, carrying trays of replicated hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and the room was filled with festive party music. No doubt about it, Chakotay thought to himself, she wants this night to be perfect. He started to move away to allow her to greet her guests, but she took his arm and pulled him along. They took their place at the entrance, where they could welcome their crew. Their guests.

Surprisingly, the engineering staff was among the first to arrive. They had put in a tough week, Janeway knew, and they would be critical to the success of tomorrow’s flight. She was surprised B’Elanna had let them off duty so early. “Mr. Carey, welcome,” she greeted him warmly.

“Thank you, Captain,” Joe answered, a little flattered by the personal reception.

“I’m looking forward to finally meeting your boys when we get home,” she said sincerely.

It was the kind of welcome she would repeat over a hundred times this evening, greeting each guest as they arrived, sharing a few words about their lives, making a personal connection to this crew she had cared for so deeply. Not once did she stumble over a name. This was a different Kathryn Janeway than the woman who had first taken command of this vessel so long ago. Then, it had been about her career in Starfleet; now, it was about her bond with her people. She was a better officer for it–and a better person.

Some of the greetings were more personal than others, of course. She had made good friends aboard this ship. She lit up each time one arrived. The first was Harry, with one–which one?–of the Delaney sisters on his arm. The captain shot her first officer a look of panic that silently said, ‘Megan or Jenny?’

He understood her confusion. ‘Make her smile,’ Chakotay thought. Luckily, as she took a step toward the captain, the young woman grinned widely. Ah-ha! “Megan, nice to see you,” Chakotay greeted her. “Is the stellar cartography lab all ready for tomorrow?” Kathryn was marveling at his coming to her rescue, the Delaney sisters being the only members of the crew their captain regularly confused.

“All set, sir,” Megan offered.

“Don’t let Harry keep you out too late,” the first officer kidded. A little embarrassed, Harry grinned and led his date into the room.

“One day you’re going to have to tell me how you know which is which,” Kathryn whispered to him as the couple left.

“It’s in the dimples,” Chakotay laughed, remembering an argument he had once overheard between Harry and Tom. Kathryn raised her eyebrows in a rather Vulcan fashion, as she turned to greet Harry’s companions on this obvious double-date.

“B’Elanna, you look wonderful,” Janeway gushed as she took in her friend, also in velvet, but of midnight blue–and perfectly sized for her very pregnant body. “I’m guessing that’s a new dress?”

Embarrassed, but grateful, B’Elanna smiled back at her. “Thank you for the extra replicator rations–and don’t try to tell me you weren’t behind them!”

Kathryn pleaded ignorance, truthfully. She suspected, however, that the guilty party was standing right behind her. “You do look lovely,” Chakotay agreed, trying to look innocent.

“Admiral Stewart’s Palace!” Tom said as he looked around the room.

“How do you know about that?” his captain asked with some shock.

“My father dragged me to a stuffy party here once when I was in high school. I overheard one of his ensigns call it that when she thought nobody was listening.” Janeway’s eyes widened, as she wondered just how often she and Tom had been in the same room without knowing it, and what other secrets of hers he didn’t know he knew. “I hated that party, but I always loved this view!” He took B’Elanna’s arm and led her down the steps, anxious to show her around.

Ensign Tabor and Crewman Jor were the next to arrive. They had come to Voyager as part of Chakotay’s crew, comrades in battle, but not close friends. Tabor, a Bajoran, had lost his entire family under brutal circumstances in the Cardassian War. His outrage had driven him to join the Maquis, and he wore his pain like a badge. Jor had always been reserved, Chakotay remembered, and he never quite knew her story. Each had made friends on Voyager, and they were both well-liked, but they seemed to prefer each other’s company. Over the years, the commander had seen the two sharing dinner, private jokes, and deep conversations in the mess hall. They were very reserved people, however, and Chakotay never pried into their relationship. He hoped they had found some peace in each othert. There was a good chance they and the other former-Maquis might need it when they got home. The couple greeted the captain and first officer warmly before heading to a quiet corner of the room.

Janeway was a little surprised when Seven arrived with Icheb as her escort, then she noticed the Doctor enter only a few steps behind. She smiled, suspecting this new relationship might resemble the first dates of a single parent and her new beau–one always had to be careful with the child’s feelings. Not that Icheb was truly a child any longer; but he had a kind of innocence about him that Kathryn wouldn’t have expected in most seventeen year-olds. Ironic that growing up Borg had been, in its own way, a sheltered existence.

“Welcome to San Francisco, Icheb,” the captain offered.

“Thank you, Captain. I’m looking forward to seeing the real thing.” Janeway smiled. If everything went as planned, the young man would be spending a long time in this city.

She stood with Chakotay at the top of the stairs another thirty minutes, until the last of their guests had arrived. Only then did she grab a glass of champagne and something to eat. She started thinking about the timing of her announcement. It was too early. ‘Let them have some fun,’ she thought. ‘They’ve earned it.’

An hour later, and the party was in full swing. Literally. Tom had taken control of the mood music, and they had been dancing for twenty minutes to something he called the ‘Big Band Sound’. Kathryn had to admit it set a nice atmosphere for the party, alternating between up-tempo dance tunes and romantic ballads. It was the kind of music that lured out the good dancers, and their captain was surprised to find some hidden talents in many of her crew.

Perhaps the biggest surprises were the Doctor and Seven, who looked like they had been practicing ballroom dancing for quite a while. They ‘turned a few heads,’ as Tom said. Because of his wife’s condition, Voyager’s pilot was limited to dancing to the slower numbers, though Kathryn did see B’Elanna twirled gently a few times with a grace that looked practiced. Harry was another story. He and Megan were practically flinging one another through the air during something called a ‘jitterbug’. Kathryn knew Harry and the twins had spent a lot of time with Tom in the holodeck. They had clearly done more than just battle monochromatic villains from the Fifth Dimension.

The captain was so enthralled at the scenes playing out in front of her that she barely noticed him come up behind her. “Care to dance?” he asked.

She smiled. “I don’t know,” she kidded, “the competition is pretty good. Think we can keep up?”

Chakotay grinned slyly, “If your Fox Trot is as good as your ‘dying swan’ ballet, they won’t stand a chance.” That was an invitation she couldn’t refuse.

He walked her to the dance floor and took her in his arms, just as the song changed. The soft strains of ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ filled the room, and he looked with great affection at the woman standing before him. “It does, you know,” Chakotay said mischievously.

“Excuse me?” she asked softly.

“Moonlight,” he whispered, remembering their evening on the beach.

“You know our agreement,” she reminded, scolding him gently.

“How could I forget? I’m counting the days,” he replied, his tone equal parts anticipation and affection. “You’re not going to back out on me, are you Kathryn?”

She tightened her grip on his shoulder and leaned in so only her dance partner could hear. “Chakotay, if we make it home safely, I’ll kiss you in the middle of Admiral Stewart’s real living room in front of every admiral in Starfleet.”

He couldn’t help but laugh out loud, drawing more attention than she would have preferred. Chakotay couldn’t care less. He was holding his future in his arms, and he was happier than he had ever been. In a few days–a few weeks at most–this fantasy would be real. It was all he needed to know.

Tom and B’Elanna were sitting this one out while she got something to eat. Her appetite had been ravenous the last few weeks, and Tom suspected this was a sign of some kind of turning point in her pregnancy. They found a table just off the dance floor and were watching their friends enjoy the music Tom had programmed.

B’Elanna smiled as she saw Samantha Wildman spin Naomi around the room. There was a kind of irony, she realized, at how easily the human Sam took in stride her daughter’s Ktarian features. The child’s mixed heritage was clearly unimportant to them. If anything, her daughter’s forehead spikes were a happy reminder of the husband Sam loved and missed so much. And Torres knew how much everyone on Voyager loved Naomi. If there were a better-adjusted child in the galaxy, B’Elanna had never met her. She thought about how soon–maybe as early as their real homecoming party–she might be enjoying a similar celebration, holding her own child in her arms. She couldn’t wait.

Tom was more interested in the couple off to one side. Something had changed between the captain and her first officer, he was sure of it. None of their friends ever pried into the relationship, but Tom knew things had been tense only a few weeks ago. The two seemed to have resolved their problems; he couldn’t remember having seen Chakotay so happy. Tom was smiling in their general direction when B’Elanna noticed him staring at the couple.

“Hey,” she kicked him under the table.

“Ow…what was that for?” He usually knew when he was breaking one of their rules.

B’Elanna smiled, but scolded him anyway. “Stop looking at them! They deserve some privacy. Or don’t you remember how much we hated people staring at us when we were–” she stopped herself.

Tom eyed her suspiciously, “You know something, don’t you?!”

B’Elanna was mentally kicking herself now. She promised Chakotay she wouldn’t say anything, but she did know the basic details of her friends’ ‘agreement,’ and she was sworn to secrecy. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she tried to cover. She was a terrible liar, and Tom knew her too well.

“You were going to say, ‘when we first started dating,’ weren’t you?”

B’Elanna was having trouble keeping a straight face. She decided a threat might be more effective than a lie. “Thomas Eugene Paris, if you breathe a word of this…”

Her husband just laughed and put his arm around her. “I’m happy for them, B’Elanna. It’s about time! And I promise I won’t say a word.” Of course, that was the moment Harry decided to join them.

“Say a word about what?” he asked.

Tom didn’t miss a beat. “About the captain and Chakotay dating.” B’Elanna kicked him again. “Hey!” he tried to look indignant, though he knew very well why his leg hurt this time. “You didn’t say not to tell Harry. You know the rule, B’Elanna: if ‘don’t tell anybody’ means ‘don’t tell Harry’ you have to say so.”

She could only shake her head, since that was, in fact, their rule. “Harry Kim,” she moved to aim at a new target, “if you tell anyone…”

Her friend laughed. “I know, I know.” The only difference was that Harry really was a little afraid of what B’Elanna would do to him. He had to admit, though, he was happy for the captain and Chakotay, too. Why was it, he wondered, that everyone seemed to be pairing off in the final days of their trip–except him?

“Where’s Megan?” Tom inquired, as if reading his mind. Harry’s hangdog expression was answer enough. Tom scanned the dance floor, catching a glimpse of his friend’s date looking longingly at Mike Ayala as the tall, muscular security guard swayed gently back and forth with her in his arms. “Geeze, Harry, what happened?”

Good question, Harry thought. “I went to get us something to drink, and when I came back they were dancing. Like that. For six songs–even the fast ones.”

Tom forced himself not to laugh. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why Harry had such terrible luck with women. Maybe his old girlfriend Libby had put some kind of curse on him before he left Earth.

B’Elanna took pity on their friend, stood up, and extended her hand. “Come on, Harry,” she said, inviting him to dance. “Let’s make my husband jealous.”

Tom smiled and watched them go, his two best friends in the world. The three had been inseparable for much of their seven years on Voyager, long before he and B’Elanna were a couple. Tom had even wondered at one point early on if Harry wasn’t secretly interested in B’Elanna romantically. Lucky for them all the answer was no. Harry was just a nice person–the ‘normal’ guy who liked to seek out the misfits and make them friends. And Tom and B’Elanna were certainly misfits when they came aboard. Looking back, Tom wondered how different his and B’Elanna’s lives might have been if Harry hadn’t taken a chance on getting to know them.

He also knew things couldn’t stay this way forever. When Voyager got back to Earth, even if he and B’Elanna were able to stay in Starfleet, the chances of the three of them serving together were slim. Harry had been very clear about his ambitions, and moving up in the ranks meant taking dangerous, high-profile assignments, never staying too long on one ship, and being ready to impress the right people. Even if Tom weren’t starting a family, he had no interest in the politics of that kind of life. In fact, he’d been rebelling against it since his childhood. And, while he knew he and Harry would always be friends, their days as constant companions were coming to an end.

As he watched his pregnant wife and his best friend laughing and dancing, Tom forced himself to take a mental picture of the scene in front of him. He wanted to remember this night for the rest of his life.

Kathryn took another moment to enjoy the view. Not of the San Francisco Bay, but of her crew, happy, laughing, and home. Chakotay was dancing with B’Elanna now, and it seemed to be Neelix’s turn to twirl Naomi. Janeway especially enjoyed watching Icheb, awkwardly dancing with Samantha Wildman. Particle physics was a breeze for the young man; a simple slow dance seemed to elude him. Harry and Tom, perhaps inspired by the view, were swapping Academy stories, and the Doctor was regaling everyone within earshot of his experiences during two previous trips to the Alpha Quadrant. Their captain just stood there for a moment, soaking it in.

Out of necessity, the party would be over soon. She wanted everyone well-rested for the most important mission of their lives. But she couldn’t bring herself to end it. Still, she needed to make her announcement before anyone drifted away. She moved to the top of the landing, champagne glass and spoon in her hand. “Computer, end music.” The song was replaced by the distinctive ping of metal tapping glass, and the conversations around her slowly stopped.

“What’s with the speech?” B’Elanna leaned over to ask Chakotay.

“I have no idea,” he answered honestly.

Kathryn took a deep breath before beginning. “I want to thank everyone for coming, tonight. I hope Admiral Stewart doesn’t mind us borrowing his home for our celebration.” She smiled as her crew chuckled. “I want to thank Commander Chakotay for co-hosting this little party with me, and Lieutenant Paris for deciding that my taste in music could use some work.” This drew some unsolicited applause, and Tom faked a little bow. “And my apologies to Mr. Neelix for not letting him cater this event.” Thankfully, no one was cruel enough to applaud at that, though there were a few chuckles, including from Neelix. The captain’s expression turned more serious.

“I wanted you all to know that your letters were successfully transmitted in the datastream this afternoon. With any luck, the next communication you have with your loved ones will be face-to-face.” She couldn’t help but notice the wistful looks surrounding her. “Now, the nature of our individual communication with the Alpha Quadrant has always been private, but I wanted to share with you the contents of the letters I sent and received today.”

“Many months ago, when we first came into regular contact with Starfleet, I submitted my complete logs, along with all of the data we collected over the last seven years. I also submitted several petitions to the Federation Council and to Starfleet Command. Included in those petitions was a request that all charges against the former-Maquis crewmembers be formally dropped. Another asked that the provisional and field commissions issued during our journey be permanently instated. I received a response to those requests this afternoon.”

The buzz of a hundred separate whispers filled the room. She clinked her glass a second time to bring everyone back to attention. “I was informed today that a hearing on my petitions has been granted, and scheduled for exactly three weeks from today. While the Advocate General’s office couldn’t guarantee the outcome of the hearing, they indicated their belief that the Council would be favorably inclined to grant immunity to all of the former-Maquis.”

There was spontaneous applause from the floor below her. Tom was on his feet in seconds, and was holding his wife in his arms a moment later, one of several long embraces she could see around the room. The captain let this release go on for a moment before she brought them back to order.

“Now, Starfleet has postponed any decision on making the provisional commissions permanent until the Council has finished its deliberations. But I made a rather impassioned plea today to have this issue resolved as quickly as possible. I want you all to know that I will make it my personal mission to keep fighting until each of you who wants to stay in Starfleet is given the opportunity. You’re a remarkable crew, and, while I know most of you have dreamed of the day you could leave this ship for the last time, I hope that–after an extended and well-deserved personal leave–many of you will consider returning to Voyager. You’ve proven you’re the finest crew in the Delta Quadrant. I’d love to see what adventures we could have together–a little closer to home.” She raised her glass into the air. “Cheers!” Janeway saluted her crew, her voice cracking with emotion. Her crew returned the toast.

“Tom, where’s that music?!” she shouted across the room.

“Computer, resume musical selection Paris Big Band Beta 3,” he called out. The tune was lively to fit the collective mood.

She didn’t need to search for him in the crowd. By the time she reached the bottom step, Chakotay was waiting for her, stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he wondered.

“And spoil the surprise?” she asked. Their ‘deal’ precluded any public displays of affection until they reached the Alpha Quadrant and he had officially resigned his post, but there was no way this could wait. He grabbed her tightly, practically lifting her off the floor. She returned the embrace, in full view of their crew. No one even seemed to notice.

~*~*~*~*~

It was 0758 and the briefing room was still empty. Somehow, despite their excitement about the prospect of starting their final day in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager’s crewmen were also mindful of the gravity of what they were going to attempt. Almost without exception, they had lingered a bit longer during their morning routines. And most chose to take their breakfast in the mess hall, seeming to need to be around their friends one last time before they began. Duty was calling, however, and it was almost time to start.

Tuvok and Seven arrived at 0800 precisely, and Chakotay was only moments behind them. Harry, B’Elanna and Tom arrived together, having shared a turbolift up from the mess hall. Surprisingly, their captain was the last to arrive. “Good morning,” she said more softly than she had intended. She wanted to project total confidence today. “What’s our status?”

Her first officer began, “All stations reporting ready for duty. All hands are at their posts.”

Tuvok was next, “The ship is secured. We are in lockdown mode Alpha One.” He didn’t say it, but his final comments acknowledged their anticipation of a bumpy ride. Lockdown required all non-essential equipment to be safely stowed, all shuttles (or what was left of them) to be moored to the bay floors, and all cargo bays to be evacuated. They would take as few risks as possible with accidental injuries.

Harry interjected, “The spacial charge is armed and standing by.”

It was B’Elanna’s turn. “All diagnostics have been completed. All three engineering duty shifts are standing by.”

Then Seven, “Deflector control has been rerouted to Main Engineering. The telemetry link with the probe has been verified.” They all knew that their trip would be over in seconds if the deflectors and the probe lost synchronization. Oddly, it was comforting to know that Borg precision would be at their disposal for this most critical part of their plan.

Tom was the only one left. “Helm diagnostics are complete, and we have verified the link with deflector control. We’re all set.” He tried to sound casual, yet he knew he and Seven would be doing a precisely choreographed tango from eleven decks apart, as she steered the deflector wedge and he followed her lead through the singularity.

Actually, it was more like a ballet: Harry would launch the explosive charge and Tuvok would detonate it. At that exact moment, B’Elanna would initiate a tachyon burst forcing the explosion’s energy to rip open the fabric of space, which Seven would wedge open into a pseudo-transwarp conduit using the deflector array. Tuvok would bring the enhanced shielding online at the precise moment Tom reached the opening of the singularity. From that time on, they would be looking at six hours of split-second calculations. Once they were inside, they would move from careful choreography to improvisation: no one could predict the steps they might need to complete this dance successfully.

There was no reason not to begin. “Then, take your posts,” Janeway said confidently. “And good luck.” Her officers stood and headed for the doors. Janeway tapped Tom on the shoulder as she passed him. “You’ve got one minute.” He nodded, gratefully, and indicated for B’Elanna to wait.

She would be working from Main Engineering along with Seven, eleven decks away from the rest of the bridge crew. Neither she nor Tom wanted to think that they might be sharing their final moments together, but it was compassionate of the captain to allow them this private time, however brief. “We have a date tonight,” Tom said softly. “I expect you to keep it.”

B’Elanna smiled sadly. “We’ll be there,” she said, placing his hand softly on her belly. “No pizza, okay?” she teased gently.

“I promise,” he answered in a tone that said he was promising more than just a different entrée. They kissed softly, then she headed for the door into the aft corridor. Tom waited to hear it close before moving onto the bridge and to his station.

Seven was waiting for her in the corridor. B’Elanna wasn’t sure why her colleague had lingered or why she was suddenly glad to have the company on the trip to their stations. They walked together to the turbolift. “Engineering,” B’Elanna said, then after a moment, “Thank you for waiting.”

They avoided looking into each other’s eyes. “I thought you might…I desired companionship,” Seven finally admitted.

“I’m glad you did,” the engineer returned. They shared another quiet moment before Seven continued.

“I am finding myself…unsettled at the prospect of achieving our goal,” she admitted in a display of vulnerability and honesty Torres would never have anticipated considering the often-icy nature of their relationship. But she knew that everyone else had someone to share the nervousness with. Seven’s self-imposed isolation had probably kept her from sharing her fears.

B’Elanna found herself glad that Seven had confided in her. “Unsettled that we won’t be successful? Or that we will?” There was only sincerity in her voice.

Seven considered the question for a moment. “Both,” she said, with the slightest hint of a smile.

B’Elanna smiled sadly. “Me too,” she admitted. “You know, I told you once that, if we did get back to Earth, we could be outcasts together. The offer still stands.”

Seven, remembering the conversation, was now equally skilled at using humor to deflect a tense situation. “Shall we form a collective?” she asked in mock-seriousness.

B’Elanna pretended to consider it. “We could, with all the misfits on this ship.” The engineer turned serious after a moment. “You have friends here, Seven. You won’t be alone.” They looked at each other briefly as the doors opened on Deck 11. “Let’s get to work,” B’Elanna said, leading the way.

Once the call came from Engineering letting them know B’Elanna and Seven were in place, Janeway opened the comlink throughout the ship. “I know some of you may have doubted that this day would ever come, but we are about to bid a fond farewell to the Delta Quadrant, our home for almost seven years. With a little luck, we will be spending this evening safely in Federation space. Before we go, I wanted each of you to know that I have been proud to see you through this adventure. And, despite everything we have faced, I will never be sorry for the time we have shared together on this ship. You are an exemplary crew, and you have served with great distinction. I cherish you all.” She took a deep breath, determined to keep her composure. “All hands go to alert condition blue. Let’s go home.”

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